Wednesday, 30 July 2008

At last, the Liberal Democrats are finding some frames

Don’t faint! The Liberal Democrats are starting to frame our policies and messages in ways that will encourage people to vote for us.

What’s framing? Framing is about giving people a way to think about political issues. This is usually done by using a model or structure or question. A strong frame enables you to push your best issues to the fore and help people to see the political choices in your terms. This way, it should help you to deliver a compelling narrative. (For more details, see here.) It’s something the Liberal Democrats have been slow to latch on to.

Check out Nick Clegg’s summer message, especially the part where he talks about what the Liberal Democrats are offering.

Rather than using terms like “renewable energy” or “sustainable energy”, Nick promises to promote “clean energy”.

The frame is obvious: who is against anything that’s clean? According to, American market research has found that consumers, not to mention policy makers, are confused by all the words used to describe renewable energy; the term "clean energy” polls best with focus groups. And Nick avoids talking about “green energy”, a frame that has been hi-jacked by the nuclear industry.

Rather than promising to spend more on public transport, Nick promises to “invest”. That’s accurate if you read our transport policy. But everyone knows that you have to work hard, “save” and “invest” in order to “get results” and "get ahead".

Rather than talking about windfall taxes or social tariffs, Nick promises “help from the energy companies with your fuel bills”. When you help someone, you rescue them or give them a remedy, relief. And Nick promises to make “the energy companies” do the remedying and relieving. (But will everyone get help with their power bills?

And rather than promising “tax reform” or “tax cuts”, Nick promises “tax relief”.

The American linguist George Lakoff has explained it like this:

“First, you have the frame for "relief." For there to be relief, there has to be an affliction, an afflicted party, somebody who administers the relief, and an act in which you are relieved of the affliction. The reliever is the hero, and anybody who tries to stop them is the bad guy intent on keeping the affliction going. So, add "tax" to "relief" and you get a metaphor that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain.”
(The full interview is here)

OK, Lakoff was talking about how George W. Bush framed his tax cuts. We have not adopted Bush’s tax policies. But we need to acknowledge that the Lib Dems are in a new, unfamiliar frame now – that is, a different political space – on tax matters.

And there’s another big frame-change: Nick mentions “family” / “families” four times in just a few minutes. That will also put the Lib Dems in unfamiliar space and some new policies for families will be needed.

But the point is, more progress is being made towards building a Lib Dem political narrative - a story with frames, of our own creation.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

John McCain's double talk express

So John McCain’s campaign is trying to run some counter-stories on Barack Obama. No surprise there. The weird thing is that they’re breaking the first rule of creating counter-stories: tell one, simple, consistent story.

There have been two John McCains running this year: the maverick Republican and the true conservative -- two narratives. And whether it’s taxes or abortion or offshore drilling, he’s spent the summer flip-flopping.

Now the attacks on Obama cancel each other out! For further details, have a look at Jafapete’s weblog.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Watching the polls: Nick Clegg after six months

Nick Clegg has been Liberal Democrat leader for just over six months now. As I have argued before, that should provide enough time, and enough polling data, to start drawing one or two conclusions.

I think it’s pretty clear that the change of leader has halted the party’s slow decline in popularity; our public support has firmed up his year. For the first six months of 2008, the Lib Dems scored between 15 and 21 per cent in the Populus, Ipsos MORI and YouGov opinion polls. This compared to a range of 11 to 16 per cent across all the same surveys in the last six months of 2007 (though last year ICM gave us better results, more in line with those for 2008).

Second, Nick is becoming more popular. The Populus leader index measures Messrs Brown, Cameron and Clegg on a 10-point “how good a leader”, scale. In January, Nick had an initial score with Populus of 4.40. In March, in the wake of the Lisbon Treaty vote, it was 4.16. By May, it was up to 4.52 but dipped slightly, to 4.45, in June.

Interestingly, swing voters gave Nick a 4.60 rating last month, his highest figure yet. This compared to 5.61 for David Cameron and 4.15 for Gordon Brown. And he continues to get more popular with Lib Dem voters.

Nick may be getting himself established with the public – but the evidence here is very mixed. In January, nearly 40 per cent of voters didn’t know what they thought of him. By June, this figure had fallen to 20 per cent.

YouGov’s data tells a slightly different story. On the one hand, they suggest Nick Clegg is getting more popular. You Gov asks voters whether they think each leader is doing very well, fairly well, fairly badly or very badly. In March, Nick had a net satisfaction rating of minus 6 per cent. This month, the same figure was positive 6 per cent. This is slightly below Charles Kennedy’s worst figures but well above Ming Campbell’s ratings. But You Gov surveys still find that nearly two voters in five have no opinion about how Nick Clegg was performing.

It seems that the public are still making up their minds exactly what they think of our (relatively new) leader. PoliticsHome’s five day rolling average tracker (1 – 8 May) tested all three leaders for a range of attributes. 28 per cent thought that Nick Clegg had “none of these”, compared to 9 per cent for David Cameron and 7 per cent for Gordon Brown.

Nick's strongest attributes, so far as the public were concerned, were being “likeable”, “intelligent” and “normal”. He also did quite well for being seen as "moderate". So people are prepared to listen to what he has to say. His top negative score was for being “ineffective” – but then he leads a third party, in opposition. On average, Nick's positive and negative scores were evenly balanced. The lack of recognition was further shown by the fact that they only added up to 26 per cent.

Earlier this month, Populus asked voters which phrase from various pairs best describes each of the three main party leaders. They found that Nick was seen as “weak” rather than “strong”, “a loser” rather than a “winner” and “not likely to get things done”. Against, these may be the inevitable burdens of a third party leader in opposition.

Of more concern, Nick was not seen as being “in touch” or “good for you and your family”; only by a small margin was he seen as “for the many”. (Cameron did well on all three, but “good for you and your family” was his lowest positive score) For a few years now, Populus has found that at a basic empathy with ordinary people and “being for the many not the few” are core features of the Lib Dem brand. These results suggest that Nick needs to do more to embody this narrative if he is to make it authentic and credible. The only alternative is to develop a new and better brand . . .

Let’s temper all that with a bit of context. Looking across the results for all the phrases, between 18 and 29 per cent did not really know what they thought about Nick Clegg. By contrast, both Brown and Cameron had “don’t know” figures that were consistently in single figures. (That profile thing again . . . ) Any way you look at them, Brown had the worst results, by some way. June’s Populus poll found that his rating on its ‘leader index’ has now dropped below the previous record low, achieved five years ago by Iain Duncan Smith.

For that matter, you need to consider that most of the media has been so focused this year on the collapse of Brown and helping to build up Cameron. The Lib Dems haven't been part of that story.

Still, as with previous new Lib Dem leaders at this stage of their tenures, building his public profile remains Nick Clegg’s most immediate challenge.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Getting American politics: The Age of Reagan

Every so often, people ask me for suggestions for the best books to read about modern American politics. For what it’s worth, I usually refer them to the efforts by E.J. Dionne jr. and Godfrey Hodgson to explain the crisis of American liberalism and other big themes in US politics over the last 40 years. Then there is another suggestion, that usually takes people by surprise: to read just about anything that is well-written about Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan.

Following my own advice, I am currently reading Nixonland, a brilliant new work by Rick Perlstein. He explains the secret of Nixon’s electoral success, articulating the resentments and rages of the "silent majority", and describes his toxic political legacy. In bringing the America of the late 1960s and early 1970s to life, Perlstein provides a stark insight into the underlying divisions of modern US politics. He traces the brutal, vindictive and over-personalised nature of much of its political discourse back to Nixon’s campaigning. We should also remember that over the last forty years, forms of this cynical brand of wedge politics has oozed across to the UK, Australia and New Zealand. (Remember the 2005 Conservative campaign? The 2005 NZ National Party campaign? John Howard?) Still, Americans do not live in the age of Nixon: Watergate saw to that. And the politics of race and gender have moved on significantly.

So, on to my other suggestion: the importance of Ronald Reagan and what he achieved. In the almost-twenty years since he left the White House, most analysis of Reagan has been heavily partisan. Now a liberal historian and active Democrat, Sean Wilentz, has produced The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008. This marvellous, incisive book focuses on presidential politics and argues -- convincingly in my view – that, Reagan is the dominant, defining figure of modern American politics. The main contours of policy - tax breaks for corporations, a “unitary executive” theory of presidential power, welfare cuts, a federal judiciary heading rightward –date from the Reagan years.

Wilentz says that Reagan "cemented the alliance between social conservatives and economic libertarian conservatives" and thereby completed the enlargement of the conservative movement. Such was the basis of his two landslide victories. The same movement enabled both Bushes to win the White House. Bill Clinton won two elections but from 1994 on, he faced a conservative Republican Congress, which made for a presidency that was very different from the one he may have planned. Clinton had to duck, weave and, yes, triangulate with this new conservatism. He did not fundamentally alter Reagan’s legacy and in some ways managed and extended it. (See: Welfare Reform Act 1996). The right has also consolidated its power by politicising the process for appointing federal judges. B This year, John McCain, along with all the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, claimed to be the true heir of Reagan.

Wilentz explains in detail how and why Reagan cast aside the old wisdoms regarding nuclear warfare and the Soviet Union and began to end the cold war. Along the way, the book demolishes some conservative myths. America's renewed militarism after 1981 did not bring about the end of communism. The Soviet economy was already collapsing and could not pay the massive defence bills that the cold war demanded. Reagan had high ideals that the nuclear arms race had to end (partly fostered by films like The Day The Earth Stood Still!) and, when Gorbachev arrived on he scene, he seized the opportunity to act on them.

UK readers, who live in the Age of Thatcher, will see some familiar parallels in the way Reagan reshaped the guiding assumptions of economic policy. (So will NZ readers, living in the Age of Douglas.) For example, thanks to largely to Reagan, the idea that reducing taxes on the rich will cure all economic ills has moved to the mainstream of American political thinking; so has the theory of economic deregulation. His abilities as a communicator enabled Reagan to win elections and prevail in the battle of ideas. Yet he was not a popular president by historical standards.

Wilentz puts Reagan’s success down to his "distinctive blend of dogma, pragmatism, and, above all, mythology". His conservative followers have carried on telling and building on these stories, thereby keeping control of the political debate.

On top of that, the right have played hardball politics. Another theme in Wilentz’s book is the number of politically-charged constitutional confrontations that America has seen since Watergate. In the Iran-Contra affair (in which, he is sure, the president was always a key conspirator) Reagan’s henchmen threatened to launch "an ambitious, permanent secret military operation, which would allow the White House to pursue every variety of covert operation completely free of congressional scrutiny or any constitutional constraint" [Oliver North]. In the fight against “communism”, the ends would justify the means. But Reagan ultimately got away it, partly because of blunders by Senate Democrats.

The right’s ruthless determination to win, if not to change the political order was also seen with the Clinton impeachment and the Supreme Court’s highly dubious decision to halt the effort to learn who won the 2000 election. In neither case was Reagan present and Wilentz may be going a little far in claiming that the right’s zeal had its roots in Reagan’s triumphs. Also, the age of Reagan has not seen liberalism routed altogether; the truth is that Reagan, Clinton and both Bushes all faced big shifts in their political fortunes. So have their causes. Wiltentz shows how on the Clinton impeachment, Newt Gingrich and co over-reached and lost both the trial and the political battle. Yes, in 2000, Republican justices effectively handed the White House to George W. Bush. But Bush II has revived liberals’ political fervor.

The reasons for Reagan’s ultimate victory were about economics as much as politics. Wilentz is less strong on economic, financial and social policies than on other areas. Still, he shows how Reagan’s drive to cut taxes (for the wealthy) while massively increasing military spending came at the expense of social programs. The American economy revived under Reagan but that was mainly due to the policies of Paul Volcker, chairman of the Federal Reserve (appointed by Jimmy Carter). And the wealthiest Americans benefited most from the new prosperity. Meanwhile, most of Reagan’s deregulation policies ended in tears, especially in the banking sector. His successors had to deal with the savings and loan disaster.

Above all, Reagan left behind massive fiscal deficits. Wilentz argues that “Reagan’s fiscal policies left an enduring legacy to future lawmakers” that is, Democrats – “who might wish to build any new social programs even remotely resembling those of the New Deal or the Great Society”. Sure enough, George H.W. Bush had to raise taxes, which arguably cost him the 1992 election. Bill Clinton’s record in social policy was severely constricted by Reagan’s fiscal legacy. And Barack Obama hardly promises an FDR-style New Deal.

Wilentz discusses the domestic policies of George W. Bush only briefly and depicts them as a reheated, radicalised form of Reaganism. They may also be the last gasp of an old new order. With his own massive deficits, failures on social security reform, scandals, mishandling of Hurricane Katrina and, of course, the credit crunch, Bush has disgraced Reagan’s legacy and placed it in real danger. OK, Wilentz shows how the legacy started to unravel in the 1990s and I have seen many predictions that the age of Reagan is about to end. (I recall some from 1982!) For all the Republicans’ problems, the 2008 election is still up for grabs, the way ahead unclear. But as E.J. Dionne jr. argued on Friday, the core assumptions that have dominated economic and financial policy debates for thirty years are falling away in the wake of the Great Panic -- even if the media don’t fully realise it. The script is about to be rewritten. But who will write it and what will they say? I wonder what Barack Obama thinks about that.

The Age of Reagan A History, 1974-2008. By Sean Wilentz.
Illustrated. 564 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers.

Friday, 11 July 2008

What's interesting about Haltemprice and Howden

When I heard on the radio this morning that David Davis had easily won back his Haltemprice and Howden seat in a by-election, I yawned and went back to sleep.

I’m with Martin Kettle of The Guardian here. I doubt very much that Davis’s decision to resign his seat and trigger a by-election will make a huge difference to what happens to government proposals to allow terrorist suspects to be detained without trial for 42 days. Some of the most telling arguments against “42 days” tend to come from the likes of the Crown Prosecution Service and now, Lady Manningham-Buller, the former boss of MI5.

What was really interesting is how the campaign did not play out the way David Davis expected. This is a good case study of how the media and not the politician really writes the narrative. Even more interesting was how their narrative about the Haltemprice and Howden byelection changed and evolved over the last few weeks. Martin Kettle traces the transitions in today’s column – from a focus on personalities, motives and ambition to a heady celebration of Davis’s cause and then to the by-election's loss of credibility and a general sense of bemusement, especially after Labour declined to put up a candidate.

Sometimes, the media will create a narrative about a politician and keep at it, thereby creating a conventional wisdom. I am sure that Ming Campbell would agree with me there. Other times, they will start to build a story about a politician and then shoot it down. Gordon Brown’s transformation last year from hero to zero is a case in point. But he handed them a sword by backing off from holding a snap election. Ever since, Brown has continued to wreck his personal narrative.

When it comes to topical issues, media narratives are more likely to chop and change, especially when they are tied up with the way politicians are being defined. The best example is the way that the turnaround in the media narrative on Iraq finally undid Tony Blair. Likewise, in 2006 David Cameron became a media darling on climate change, just when the media was getting more interested in it. That arguably helped to push climate change up the public agenda.

In their different ways, those issues become essential in rewriting Blair’s and Cameron’s political brands; in other words, their narratives. (But then the Tory leader failed to embody the green narrative by cycling to work followed by his official car). “42 days” looks could become another example. The issue has not catapulted David Davis into political superstardom -- far from it. According to the polls, most of the public seems to support the government over 42 days. But that could well change; in any case, the arguments and Lords defeats and the way they are framed by the media are likely to be tied into a bigger story – Gordon Brown’s collapsing premiership.

Here’s something to ponder: the Liberal Democrats’ may be finding it hard to build and sustain a narrative because we don’t – or aren’t allowed to – ride topical issues and become, through one of our star players, a big part of the story, come what may. It happened on Iraq but that lost its political force a long time ago. And Iraq didn’t, of itself, give the Lib Dems a brand identity.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Deputy mayor quits: what's at stake for Boris Johnson

So, Boris Johnson is a deputy mayor down. Ray Lewis has quit under a cloud and this morning’s papers are full of phrases like “hammer blow” and “gift to his opponents”. Jo keeps reminding me that she predicted long ago that Johnson’s lack of managerial competence would be his undoing.

There’s another reason the mayor should be worried: just three months into his term, Johnson is not embodying his carefully crafted political narrative. In marketing speak, his brand may get contaminated, all over again.

During the mayoral campaign, Boris Johnson told people a classic “time for a change” story. He offered a new face, a new style, a new focus on London’s issues and, above all, an end to staff and administrative scandals at City Hall.

That worked because during the campaign, he struck a chord with voters. And Johnson embodied his narrative by being younger, newer and more approachable than Ken Livingstone. At the same time, he was serious, measured and upbeat about London and its future.

When a Ray Lewis happens and the mayor is forced on to the backfoot, with the sort of media he faces this morning, Johnson does not live his story.

In his 1995 book Leading Minds, Howard Gardner stressed how leaders need to embody their narratives in order to be authentic and credible and bring their stories alive.

Even the most brilliant and successful political narratives implode. Interestingly, it's because the politicians telling the stories cease to embody them. When that happens, those politicians are soon on their way out. Churchill’s “fight them on the beaches” story eventually morphed into the infamous 1945 campaign speech that compared the Labour party to the Gestapo. Margaret Thatcher promised the anxious middle classes that she would “make Britain again”. The grocer’s daughter worked all hours. The story ended with the poll tax rots and government splits over the ERM. Tony Blair was the young leader of a “new Britain”; he dressed and acted accordingly. He ended up taking it into Iraq, telling a story that was false.

Johnson’s defenders will say it’s still early days yet. So it is. But London voters gave Boris Johnson the benefit of the doubt. Whilst they are very different, the last UK politician to be given that was Gordon Brown when he became prime minister. And Brown’s popularity collapsed when he stopped embodying his narrative. The visionary prime minister, the strong leader who offered a new, spin-free style of government played politics with the timing of a general election. Then he looked at the marginal seat polls, dithered and finally ditched the idea. We still do not know what Brown is trying to achieve as PM. The conscience of New Labour scrapped the 10p income tax rate – playing politics again – and left more than 5 million low-income households worse off. Then, in an effort to quell a political firestorm, the one-time iron chancellor put his own fiscal rules at risk with a £2.7bn compensation scheme.

It’s a grim, powerful lesson. If Boris Johnson does not regain control over his story and his brand, he may end up suffering the same fate as Brown.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Australian Democrats RIP

Liberal Democrats should spare a thought this week for Lyn Allison, Natasha Stott Despoja, Andrew Bartlett and Andrew Murray.


These four were, until Monday, the last senators for the Australian Democrats.

The Senate is elected by the single transferable vote (STV), on a state by state, territory by territory basis. Allison (the party leader) and Bartlett were defeated at last year’s general election. Murray and Stott Despoja did not stand again and the Democrats failed to hold their seats. All of their terms expired on 30 June. The only remaining Democrat parliamentarian sits in the upper house of the South Australian Parliament.

The Democrats held seats in the Senate for 30 years. Their mission was to “keep the bastards honest", a pledge coined by founding leader Don Chipp in 1980.

To hold successive governments to account, they developed a positive role for the Senate, and particularly its committee system. The Democrats were especially effective when holding the balance of power, as they did during the Hawke and Keating Labor governments (1983-96) and, with sometimes with others, under the Howard conservative government till 2004.

The Democrats used their power to improve legislation. In 1996, when the Howard government introduced new workplace legislation, then-Democrat leader Cheryl Kernot negotiated 171 amendments. Similarly in 1998, when the unpopular goods and services tax was introduced with Democrat support, they achieved a number of amendments, the most notable of which was to exclude food.

And for 30 years, the Democrats championed issues that the other parties ignored: the environment renewable energy, women's issues, immigration, refugee, indigenous rights, human rights all over the world and more. (The ex-senators’ valedictory speeches set some of them out in more detail).

These are roles that the Liberal Democrats could aspire to, in a Commons and/or another chamber elected under fair votes. No, the sky wouldn’t fall in. The Rudd government’s leader in the Senate acknowledged last week that “governments of both persuasions managed to govern effectively while the Democrats held the balance of power.”

But the fate of the Australian Democrats gives us a few things to think about too. First, their decline in support is usually traced to a voter and party backlash following their decision to back Howard’s GST. This led to faction-fighting, changes of leader, divisions, the whole bit. Fair voting systems give third parties more power but they also expose them to considerable risks.

Second, despite their strong environmental credentials, the Democrats never really came to terms with the rise of the Australians Greens, who took votes from key constituencies away from the Democrats. (Note though that most of the senate seats that were lost in the 2000s went to one or other of the major parties). A fair voting system offers a party like ours no guarantees of survival, let alone success.

Will the Australian Democrats rise again? That seems highly unlikely. But there is talk that they will join with others, including the Climate Change Coalition but not the Greens, to form a new political entity in time to fight the next general election. If so, that will be worth watching.