Sunday, 31 August 2008

Bold new thinking needed for UK energy independence

The Liberal Democrats’ commitment to reducing UK carbon emissions to zero in the long term has been joined by a new goal: for Britain “to become energy independent within the EU by 2050”. Nick Clegg’s energy paper advocates an Apollo project for British energy independence. This would have three stages: “a credible strategy” for meeting the UK’s 2020 renewables targets; sourcing all energy requirements from within the EU by 2030, with targets for the progressive reduction of energy imports from outside the EU; and becoming a net exporter of energy by at least 2050.  

We should focus on energy security a lot more than has been the case. The oil and gas price shocks, the depletion of North Sea oil resources, the world-wide scramble for resources, Russia’s lurch away from open markets and, now, the Georgian crisis have made energy security a much bigger concern than was the case five, let alone ten years ago. [See the article by Solar Century’s Jeremy Leggett in yesterday’s Guardian.] Also, “independence” has huge political potential as a way of framing energy policies.  This could be part of the "securing our economic future" narrative that I have previously advocated.

I have previously commented on the adequacy of existing Lib Dem policies to drastically reduce emissions, putting forward some lines on which they might further develop if the long-term goal of a zero carbon Britain is to be achieved. 

Achieving such reductions at the same time as ensuring energy independence would be another huge challenge. The EU has set the UK a goal to meet 15 per cent of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2020. For electricity, that translates into a 30 to 40 per renewables target. (The Lib Dems have previously advocated a 30 per cent clean energy target, moving up to 100 per cent for 2050.) According to BERR, if the UK achieved the 15 per cent target, gas imports would be reduced by 12 – 16 per cent by 2020. 

So, even if we try to put aside the concerns of James Hansen about climate science, achieving energy independence, with fewer non-EU imports, could require a faster move to renewables and a more rapid improvement in energy efficiency than even the Liberal Democrats have envisaged. We have to be clear how that would be paid for: who would invest the massive sums needed. The government’s existing renewable energy strategy for 2020 has been costed at £100 bn. That’s a small price to pay to help save the planet. Still, as Jeremy Leggett wrote yesterday:

"The government should create investment conditions that allow City capital to flow into efficient-energy technologies that can be delivered in short order."

Whether the targets pursued are those supported by the government and the Liberal Democrats, or more radical goals, the country would still be heavily dependent, possibly for some decades, on (imported) gas, as coal-burning and nuclear plants would not have been replaced. 

Could all the UK’s remaining needs for non-renewable energy (in particular, gas) be sourced from within the EU by 2030? 

The answer is: possibly, but there are some very big market and policy hoops to jump through.

One option could be buy more gas from Norway. That could be economically risky as that country has little interest in competing with Russia’s Gazprom on price. Another would be buy from other EU countries. But then the realities of the European energy market start to bite. Just 37 per cent of the EU’s gas needs are met from European countries’ “own production”. The European market is itself heavily reliant on gas imports, particularly from Russia (which account for around 30 per cent of gas used within the EU). Consequently, a coherent EU policy approach is needed to Russian imports. But Germany, Austria, Hungary and France have all made bilateral deals with Russia’s Gazprom in order to secure future energy supplies, making such unity more difficult to achieve. The other options, independent European pipelines, such as the Nabucco project, are vulnerable to Russian diplomatic and economic military action. 

In any case, if the UK is to rely on the European energy market to help achieve its supply security and carbon emissions goals, this would require other EU policy changes. The energy commentator Dieter Helm argues that ‘resilience’ measures needed at EU level to ensure security of supply include completing the European energy grid and introducing strategic gas storage. The grids in particular require a planned, ‘top-down’ approach – that is, massive political will. 

In addition, competition has still not matured, leaving price disparities in place. The European energy market is dominated by a small number of large companies. In Britain, for instance, the three largest European energy companies—EDF, E.ON and RWE are now dominant in the market. Even as the European Commission has increased competition in national markets, the European market as a whole has suffered a reduction in competition; in other words, it has become more concentrated. If the UK were to become energy independent within the EU, the level of market concentration would need to be addressed. This would, of course, require the agreement of other European countries. 

In competition, the EU’s main policy drive has been for unbundling of ownership in networks and supplies. (This is also needed to deliver the European grids) Unbundling has, of course, been resisted by France and Germany and a “third way” compromise appears to have been reached. What has happened over unbundling illustrates the political difficulties involved.

Many of these issues are picked up in Shaping Our World Through A Strong Europe, the policy paper going to this year’s autumn conference.  This supports “an efficient EU energy market”, to be delivered through the Lisbon Treaty and / or “the development of a common EU energy policy” that aims to deliver “a open, competitive European energy market, with effective market regulation and a requirement for the supply and distribution of energy to separated”. The party has called on the EU to engage more effectively with Russia.

Still, all of this underlines the extent to which the issues around energy security are EU-based and require political will at European level. And, once again, the issues around energy security and climate change are about money, markets and investment. More big thinking for the Liberal Democrats to do.

And to think that just a couple of months ago, someone told me that we had now “done” energy and climate change policy!

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Climate change: are the Liberal Democrats getting it right?

It’s now a year since Zero Carbon Britain, the Liberal Democrats’ policy mega-paper on climate change was published. [Declaration of interest: I was the chair of the policy working group] Since then, a lot has happened in the fast-moving climate change debate – from the Bali conference to the publication of the EU climate and energy action plan to the G8 climate declaration and the UK government’s renewable energy strategy; from the biofuels backlash to the government’s climbdown over road taxes and the fiasco over selling British Energy.

Still, Zero Carbon Britain is standing the test of time. First, we said that, on the basis of available scientific evidence, chiefly the IPPC’s reports published in 2007, it could be necessary to achieve a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions approaching 100 per cent by the year 2050, in order to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at a safe level. But a reduction in emissions of the magnitude needed will only happen if developed countries such as the UK took the lead by cutting their own emissions - hence the Liberal Democrats’ policy commitment to achieving zero carbon emissions over the long term. Our Commons and Lords teams have tried to amend the Climate Change Bill, to set a target for an 80 per cent in UK CO2 emissions by 2050, in place of the government’s “at least 60 per cent” target.

There seems little doubt that the government is aiming much too low. Last September, Gordon Brown ordered a review of the UK target. Lord Stern, author of the ground-breaking Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change (2006) now says that he was too cautious in calling for all greenhouse gas emissions to be stabilised at 450 to 550 ppm by 2050 and the correct target is lower than 500 ppm (in Zero Carbon Britain, we said 450 ppm). He also called for an 80 per cent in UK CO2 emissions by 2050.

Earlier this year, NASA’s James Hansen, one of the pioneering climate change scientists, concluded that the world should aim to reduce CO2 emissions (not all greenhouse gas emissions) from around 385 ppm now to below 350 ppm, around the same level as in 1990. This goal is backed by the Tallberg Foundation, the Stockholm Environmental Institute and a global campaign, For worldwide CO2 emissions, that figure represents a 100 per cent cut, off a 1990 base: “zero carbon”.

Second, whilst there have been some significant developments, most of the key policies out in Zero Carbon Britain remain highly relevant. In many areas, we are still ahead of the debate. Examples are: feed in tariffs for renewable energy sources and small-scale micro-generation; new incentives for renewable heat technologies; reforming the EU ETS; new energy efficiency standards for new homes; and ‘green mortgages’ to fund improvements to existing homes. In others, such as speeding up the deployment carbon capture and storage technologies and reforming aviation duty and vehicle excise duty, the policy papers on the EU and transport for autumn conference bring key aspects of our programme up-to-date. In short, the basic mitigation framework set out in Zero Carbon Britain remains the correct one.

And whilst the politics may, arguably, have become more difficult, Liberal Democrats have stuck to our principles, criticising the government over its car tax flip-flop, advocating the introduction of road user charges and, now, calling for the Britain to become energy independent within the EU, with an “Apollo project” for energy independence, as part of the push for a zero-carbon Britain.

So that’s it, then? All’s well in the Liberal Democrat garden of Eden? We can all sit back, safe in the knowledge that we are still the greenest major party?

Let's not be too complacent. The UK has a legal obligation under EU law to source 15 per cent its energy (electricity, transport, heat) from renewable sources by 2020. That implies a renewable electricity target of at least 30 per cent by 2020 (already supported by the Lib Dems); however, as the changes required for transport and heat may be too challenging, the target for electricity may be closer to 40 per cent. 

Nick Clegg’s new energy paper calls for a “credible strategy to meet the UK’s 2020 renewables targets”. Feed-in tariffs would speed up the deployment of renewables and small-scale microgeneration. The new proposal for a Renewables Delivery Authority deserves support. But the party’s thinking on incentives for renewable heat needs further deepening. So do our policies for promoting low carbon innovation (see also below) and, possibly, the commercial deploment of carbon capture and storage. Following the Gallagher Review, we may need to review our policies on biofuels. The parliamentary debates on the Planning Bill may have muddied the Lib Dem message on tackling the barriers presented to renewables by the planning regime. And we need to remember that these issues cannot be separated from the need to have a credible, long term price for carbon.

There may be more reasons to have a re-think. James Hansen and his allies believe that “350” – CO2 targets of 350 ppm -- needs to be achieved “within decades”. That could require more radical policies than even the Lib Dems have advocated to date. Hansen advocates quickly phasing out coal use and a moratorium on new coal burning plants except where CO2 is captured (here, or thinking is very similar to his), rapidly adopting agricultural and forestry practices that sequester carbon and a rising tax on fuels contributing greenhouse-gas emissions, with the revenue passed back directly to citizens.

We also need to take account of new challenges to existing lines of thinking. In the spring, Professor Roger Pielke and two colleagues argued that we cannot take for granted (as the IPCC has) that most of the needed reductions in CO2 emissions will happen as a result of “spontaneous” innovations. They say that the energy intensity of the world economy is no longer levelling out or decreasing, mainly because of the way China and India are developing. 

Pielke et al. concluded that climate change policies need to do more to create the conditions in which innovations can occur, achieving big improvements in the production and use of energy, starting with most energy-intensive sectors. (See also here) Likewise, Jeffrey Sachs argues that the link between economic growth and higher global emissions needs to be broken, by using new energy technologies.

The bottom line: a much larger commitment to energy technology research and development and technology transfer, to help China and India reduce the impact of their programmes of coal burning. Whilst the case for increasing deployment of existing clean energy technologies remains strong, R&D and technology transfer are key areas where Liberal Democrat policy, for the international, EU and UK levels, needs to develop. This might be part the “Apollo project” that we really need.

Yes, the Liberal Democrats are still the leading party on climate change. As always, however, we still have work to in order to deserve that title. There is, after all, no issue that is more important to get right.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Telling the Bones story

Even after all these years, two things still puzzle and bemuse me about the Liberal Democrats.

The first is that a sure fire way of starting an argument within the party, especially amongst the activists, is to suggest any big change to internal structures, processes and organisation. Everyone seems to have a view, an objection, a cross to bear, a score to settle. Curiously, this seems to trigger as much unrest and discussion as almost any big policy argument. 

Second, whenever the party leadership or "establishment" tries to suggest or, more likely, enforce such changes, they handle the internal communications really, really badly. Here, the debates over possible coalition arrangements and party “strategy” in the late 1990s, the plan for all members to vote for party committees and the use of the peers’ list are three examples that spring to mind.

What looks like a new attempt by the party leadership (in its broadest sense) to assemble its own firing squad has come with the report of the Party Reform Commission, the “Bones commission”. 

If you accept that the party must change itself in order to reach Nick Clegg’s target of doubling the number of Lib Dem MPs over the next two general elections, many of the Bones recommendations are unexceptional. Who disagrees that volunteers should be treated better, engaged more deeply? Who doubts that the party’s communications need to be improved? We could start by better understanding the concepts of marketing and branding. Who could have a problem with major efforts to expand the pool of candidates and improve the quality of candidates in key seats? Or with taking forward the diversity agenda?

So far, most attention has focussed on the formal creation of a Chief Officers Group (COG), a management board, to set the party’s budget and strategy. I agree with that, with the proviso that the COG needs more direct input from the Federal Policy Committee, in order to ensure that the policy aspects of party strategy are considered fully. The arrangements to ensure transparency and accountability need to be made clearer, but then the current situation is a model of neither. Also, looking at the personnel proposed, the COG will, as things stand at the moment, be a woman-free zone. Still, none of this should be too hard to fix. (Maybe I just illustrated the first point, above)

The real mistake though was with the way the commission’s work was communicated. Most of us heard of the contents through a provocative article in The Times. This was followed by a flurry of comment – much of it, inevitably, misinformed and hostile -- on the Lib Dem blogosphere and, later, in Liberator. Then, Jo Christie-Smith pointed out on her blog that the executive summary of the Bones report was floating around and was to be included in our conference packs. 

I do not suggest there was any malice on the part of the party leader, the party president or the members of the commission. But the report was allowed to become the worst possible thing in the Liberal Democrats: a secret, in London. And, to my knowledge, nobody explained to people what was going on, or how the report would be taken forward.

The whole exercise is still not doomed, however. The commission needs to start selling the proposals to the party and the best way to do that is to -– yes –- tell stories. 

Stephen Denning sets out three story-telling steps for leaders who are trying to convince people to embrace change: These are: (1) get people’s attention; (2) generate desire for something different; and (3) reinforce the reasons for change.

Using Denning’s model, one way of getting the party’s attention would be to tell a simple story(ies) based on the problems that party members are facing now -- raising money, finding candidates, winning seats. 

A desire for change could be stimulated by what he calls a “springboard story” that has a plausible, happy ending. That’s the hard part, to be sure. The most useful way could to be to use a familiar example of where a particular change (the COG perhaps?) has already been successfully implemented and let the audience imagine it working in the Liberal Democrats. 

Reinforcement might consist of stories – specific, credible examples -- about how the package of changes will play out across the party, so that everyone wins. 

The Monday of conference starts with a consultation session on the commission's work and this is to  feature a presentation by its chair, Chris Bones. That would be a good time to tell representatives these kinds of stories about what the commission has come up with. They might even believe them.

How about it?

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Personal stories, truth and the art of political war

Leading Liberal Democrats heading to Denver, Colorado for the Democratic National Convention will be able to see how Barack Obama uses his personal story to present himself as the man of destiny, part of America’s unfolding history and, importantly, the man with a vision for America’s future.

The American political pundit Michael Barone notes Gallup poll data showing that nominees got a 5 percent or better opinion poll bounce from 14 of the 16 national conventions between 1976 and 2004. Bill Clinton got the biggest bounce (30 points) in 1992, but John “reporting for duty” Kerry actually lost ground in 2004.

No, personal stories aren’t just a schmaltzy American thing. Remember Margaret Thatcher, the grocer’s daughter from Grantham and then John “the boy from Brixton” Major, in the run-up to the 1992 election.

The interesting thing is how the stories will stand up under heavy fire. Barone thinks that:

"The Democrats can usually depend on the mainstream media accepting their narratives uncritically, while the Republicans can expect them to punch holes in their storylines."

He goes on to list aspects of the Obama narrative that the media may like to scrutinise.

Fair enough. But they also may like to take a more careful look at the personal story being spun by John McCain, whom the New York Times columnist Frank Rich has dubbed “the candidate we still don’t know”.

McCain’s story is that, on Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the religious right and sleazy influence peddlers, the hero who survived the Hanoi Hilton has stood up as rebelliously in Washington as he did to his Vietnamese captors.

But Rich says that with the exception of his imprisonment in North Vietnam, “every aspect of [McCain’s] profile in courage is inaccurate or defunct”. This extends from McCain’s carefully assembled image of the Republican maverick who criticises the Bush Administration to his links to the intolerant religious right and to the fact that “McCain’s top officials and fund-raisers have past financial ties to nearly every domestic and foreign flashpoint, from Fannie Mae to Blackwater to Ahmad Chalabi to the government of Georgia.”

So far, McCain is getting away with it, with very little media scrutiny.

Let's assume that Michael Barone is correct and Obama is also getting a free pass. Don’t worry, the Republican attack machine will not be so generous. In a brilliant piece in the Washington Post, Michael Kinsley shows how they do it:

"Most amazing among the principles of the Republican Way of War is: Don't waste much time and energy probing the enemy's weaknesses. Go directly to his biggest strength. "

In 1988, the Republicans turned Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, who came from humble beginnings, into an elitist and George H.W. Bush, a privileged, preppie Ivy Leaguer, into a “good old boy”. In 2004, they attacked John Kerry’s war service in Vietnam, despite the fact that George W. Bush, not only had avoided Vietnam by joining the National Guard but had avoided much of the National Guard. In both cases, the media helped, if only through negligence in some case.

Kinsley suggests that in 2008, they will turn their guns on Barack Obama’s charisma and eloquence:

". . . as if popularity itself were a disqualifying factor and whoever draws the larger crowds is by definition the lesser candidate. "

This type of counter-story telling happens in the UK too. The Liberal Democrats are often accused of being “all things to all people”, lacking in real beliefs, and worse. The Lib Dems have been unequivocal on big issues – see Iraq, ID cards and nuclear power – and opinion leaders in others, such as Europe and climate change. The “wishy washy” tag often comes from Labour, who have been all over the place on nuclear power and the Conservatives, whose behaviour on Iraq gives cynical politics a bad name. But it works.

Obama’s fate may well depend on how well he responds to the attempts to cut down the centre pole of his personal narrative. Perhaps Nick Clegg and co might pick up some tips from Obama’s advisers?

One more thing: McCain machine is better than Obama’s at telling lies. If you don’t believe me, take a look at, sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Hey, why don’t we have something like that it in the UK?

Friday, 15 August 2008

Clever frames, shame about the policies

Politics isn't just about getting the frames; it's about moving them too. If you can’t win on the issues being talked about, change the subject, and fast.

Framing Science explains this week how John McCain’s campaign has successfully framed “the economy” as being about “energy”. They quote one pollster as saying:

“The Republicans' biggest problem in this election is that they are viewed as lessable to fix the economy. When the economy is defined as job loss, mortgage foreclosures, high health care costs, that's Democratic territory. Obama wants to play on that field.

"McCain wants to define it as being about energy, because his being in favor of drilling is on the right side of the [opinion poll] numbers.”

That's an impressive bit of framing. But the policy is bad. Climate Progress and Tom Friedman (to name but two) have demolished the notion that allowing more offshore drilling will solve America’s energy problems.

In another example of the way he combines clever framing with bad policy, McCain has said:

“We’re not going to achieve energy independence by inflating our tires.”

Climate Progress points out that whilst nobody has said that, the US cannot possibly solve its energy and climate problems without efficiency measures. [The same applies in the UK] They take the Republicans to task for cynically and dishonestly mocking energy efficiency and conservation.

Worse, McCain uses other frames and symbols in a hypocritical, dishonest way. McCain says he’s all for “clean energy”. For instance, his latest tv spots feature lots of windmills. Tom Friedman set the record straight this week:

"Senator McCain did not show up for the crucial vote on July 30, and the renewable energy bill [which provides for renewable energy tax credits] was defeated for the eighth time. In fact, John McCain has a perfect record on this renewable energy legislation. He has missed all eight votes over the last year -- which effectively counts as a no vote each time. Once, he was even in the Senate and wouldn't leave his office to vote."

The article details all the economic harm McCain’s votes have done to the burgeoning global industry. And there’s more, here.

As Joseph Romm says, some of the attacks on Obama’s energy policy -- in particular, his willingness to compromise on offshore drilling -- are unfair and inaccurate. But that doesn’t excuse Obama and the Democrats for failing to get their energy narrative together. And by framing the whole debate in terms of oil prices, politicians from both parties are dodging the real issue: how to achieve energy security and climate security in the post-oil economy.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Wanted: not one political story, but four

There’s a lot more talk about the art of political story-telling at the moment. For instance, has an article by Paul Willis, who says that the US presidential election will boil down to whose story voters prefer, even more than where the candidates stand on the issues. And within the Liberal Democrats, there is more interest. A few local parties are inviting me to speak to them and run workshops on narratives and storytelling.

Two questions keep coming up. I suggest that both are really false dilemmas.

Paul Willis asks:

"Do you think you could be persuaded by a politician's story over their policies?"

I don’t agree that’s the choice you need to make. If it works, a politician’s (or party’s) own story should work with their stances on issues (or policies), to engage both the heads and the hearts of the public. The personal story will make the policies seem real and authentic; the policies (framed correctly) will provide the substance and exemplify the story.

That’s what Margaret Thatcher succeeded when telling her political story. She argued that the solution to Britain’s economic problems was based on hard work and thrift, with government limiting its own spending and borrowing; England’s middle classes would thrive when freed from the bonds imposed by state socialism and the trade unions. The grocer’s daughter from Grantham worked all hours and played the frugal housewife.

For all his strengths as a personal storyteller, this is what Barack Obama is not doing now. Drew Westen, author of the acclaimed book The Political Brain, says:

"Barack Obama has told one story: that he will bring change and hope. Many have argued, from early in the Democratic primary season, that his was a campaign of soaring rhetoric and words without substance. That charge has "stuck" in the minds of many voters, who say they don't really know who Obama is and where he stands. It's a peculiar charge for a candidate who has laid out detailed plans for every issue of our time. Try going to his website or listening to his wonkish policy addresses.

"But whereas the standard Democratic response is to throw more plans and positions against the wall and hope that they'll stick, that's missing the point: that Obama hasn't yet told a coherent, consistent narrative of who he is that weaves together the themes of his campaign with his own life history. The result is that he has left his race, his exotic history, and the smear campaigns aimed at defining him as "not one of us" to resonate with voters."

The other false choice is: whether to tell a positive story about yourself or a negative one about your opponents.

Drew Westen’s brilliant article explains why this is a blind alley. He discusses why many American voters still have an uneasy feeling about Obama and says:

"His campaign needs to understand why that happened, because it's the same thing that happened to Al Gore and John Kerry. It's about narratives.

"There is a simple fact about elections that has eluded Democrats in every presidential campaign they have lost in the last 40 years: that as a candidate, you have to focus first and foremost not on a litany of "issues" but on four stories: the story you tell about yourself, the story your opponent is telling about himself, the story your opponent is telling about you, and the story you are telling about your opponent. Candidates who offer compelling stories in all four quadrants of this "message grid" win, and those who leave any of them to chance generally lose."

Westen argues that Al Gore didn't tell any of the four; John Kerry told just one and lost when he failed to respond to the two major stories told about him: that he was a flipflopper and a fake war hero. Neither campaign told a coherent story about George W. Bush.

He goes on:

"John McCain is telling a story about himself--that he's a man of courage and conviction who loves his country. He is telling a story about Obama--that he's a man of none of those things . . . After watching Obama enthrall the rest of the world and the troops McCain claims Obama doesn't support last week, he is now in full attack mode, trying to tell a story about his opponent's greatest strength (that Obama is someone who can inspire people, and can even do so on a world stage, where McCain's master narrative had claimed a decided advantage). So now he is telling the story of Obama as an arrogant, uppity, empty celebrity."

Westen says that, like Kerry, Obama has offered American voters one story (“change and hope”) when he should have offered four. And he wants Obama’s team to be much faster and more forceful when in making a counter-response and to do more to define McCain so as to drive up his negatives (that is, tell a story about him).

Westen’s story quadrants apply in British politics. In 2005, for instance, Tony Blair told a story about himself and his government: that the economy was strong, public services were getting better and it was no time to risk a change. He had a story about the Liberal Democrats: that we were irresponsible and unrealistic in our spending promises. When we took Blair to task over Iraq, he told stories based on his personal courage (“the right thing to do”) and fears about world security. And when we called ourselves “the real alternative”, he claimed that, in voting for the Lib Dems, people could let the Tories in. All of these worked, to various degrees.

Now, two (related) questions:

Do the Liberal Democrats (nationally or in your area) have stories for all four quadrants of Drew Westen’s message grid?

And do our story about the party (and Nick Clegg) and our policy stories match with and embody one another?

More on that soon.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Barack Obama: not "one of us"

During the primary season, Barack Obama gave us an object lesson in how political narratives work, engaging both the heart and the head.

Now, after a slow start, the McCain campaign shows us how counter-stories really work; in the process, they might be proving something thoroughly unpleasant about American politics.

McCain’s latest slogan, “country first,” implies that Obama puts something else (himself? his race?) ahead of the nation. McCain charges that Obama “would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.” His “Troops” spot claims that Obama, while in Germany, “made time to go the gym, but canceled a visit with wounded troops—seems the Pentagon wouldn’t allow him to bring cameras.” Then there’s the “Celeb”spot, with its intercut images of Obama in Berlin, Paris Hilton, and Britney Spears. Framing Science has put up a McCain ad suggesting that Obama is the anti Christ!

New York magazine’s John Heileman explains it like this:

"The strategy behind all this isn’t hard to discern: Drive up Obama’s negatives and render him unacceptable to pivotal voting blocs. Thus the depiction of him as too young, too feckless, and too pampered to be president . . . the portrayal of him as precious, self-infatuated, and effete [and] the emphasis on Obama’s rock-star persona, designed to engender envy and contempt among the swath of Middle America for which hipness is no virtue but a sign of pretension."

In portraying Obama as a self-centred, elitist meritocrat, the Republican campaign has seized on lingering concerns about him. This is much more about emotions and instincts than words and policies.

Steve and Cokie Roberts say that the election will be decided over how Americans answer the question, is Obama one of us?

"As Peter Hart, a Democrat who conducts the Wall Street Journal poll with Republican Neil Newhouse, puts it: "Voters want to answer a simple question: Is Barack Obama safe?" The answer to that question draws on more evidence than years served, jobs held and positions taken. Voters want to know about a candidate's character, judgment and temperament. They want to sense his scars and his seasoning. And they learn these things through narrative, the stories leaders tell about their lives and troubles.”

They also point out that:

". . . to many Americans, Obama is still a stranger, an exotic and mysterious stranger with an odd name, a dark face, a weird pastor, a cheeky wife and a brief past."

The right-wing pundit David Brooks says that American voters cannot “place” Obama in any familiar social context. He paints Obama as a man who has always “lived apart” from American society. His advice to the McCain campaign:

"In the short term they have to try to define him [Barack Obama] as someone who thinks he's above everyone else."

So, the McCain people are saying that Obama isn’t “one of us”. That’s a powerful frame in politics: “us”. Normal. Acceptable. Part of the “mainstream”. Having the correct values. Patriotic. Like me. Not like “them” who are none of these things. And, yes, white. The notion of “us” can’t be separated from race.

David Gergen a spin doctor who has worked for Republican and Democrat presidents, from Nixon to Clinton, says:

"There has been a very intentional effort to paint him as somebody outside the mainstream, other, 'he's not one of us,'

"I think the McCain campaign has been scrupulous about not directly saying it, but it's the subtext of this campaign. Everybody knows that. There are certain kinds of signals. As a native of the south, I can tell you, when you see this ad, 'The One,' that's code for, 'he's uppity, he ought to stay in his place.'

Last week, Democratic strategists were worried that Obama didn’t have a big enough lead over McCain. Now, they are worried that the election is a dead heat. (Jafapete has more details)

Obama urgently needs to take back control of his narrative. Part of the answer lies in re-telling his personal story, just like Bill Clinton, the “boy from hope”, did in 1992. Obama would do well to emulate Clinton’s mix of economic populism and embracing change.

But Obama has undermined his own story too. In the words of Dana Milbank, he has seemed more like a presumptuous nominee than a presumptive nominee over recent weeks. Obama connects best when he promises change and a fresh start and looks and sounds like both. New narratives on the economy and energy would help to show what change would mean.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Scottish Lib Dems search for a story as well as a leader: a few suggestions

When Ross Finnie announced his candidacy for the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ leadership, a quote from the former environment minister caught my eye. 

"Our message has become blurred and lacking a distinctive Liberal Democrat edge. We lack a political narrative that brings clarity and cohesion."

That sounds like a good idea. But my concern – and let’s all hope this is misplaced -- is that our Scottish colleagues won’t be given a narrative. 

I do not know very much about Ross Finnie or the other two leadership candidates. I have nothing against any of them. Nor do I claim any knowledge of the Scottish party’s affairs, personalities or internal politics. There is no axe being ground here.

My concern is based on experience.  In 2006 and 2007, none of the candidates for the UK party leadership really provided one.

And all too often, people confuse a narrative with a statement of liberal democrat principles.

Or they use a slogan, like “free, fair and green”.

Or worse still, we hear lists of policies.

My interest in this is uncomplicated. All Liberal Democrats should care about what happens in Scotland. When they provided members of the Scottish Executive for eight years, our colleagues’ achievements were important to our credibility as a party. And a good number of our Westminster seats are in Scotland. 

Our election results in the 2007 Scottish parliamentary elections disappointed my friends and acquaintances north of the border. Many still do not seem too happy with how the party is performing. 

My advice to people voting in the Scottish leadership election is that when leadership candidates talk about having a clear narrative, it should be a good thing.  But we all need to remember that a narrative is a story that provides target voters will a quick and easy framework for understanding a party, politician or what they are offering. 

A story works when it uses mental frames and expresses core values that they can recognise and relate to. 

Above all, the story will enable target voters to connect at an emotional and a rational level with the party. It follows from all of this that the party’s story will respond to respond to their needs and aspirations. (For further details, see here or here)

The point is, a party leader who tells such a story will succeed. A party leader who doesn’t tell a story will fail. It’s that simple.

Think Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair – and Paddy Ashdown. 

Or Michael Foot, Iain Duncan Smith – and Ming Campbell.

The leader is so important because s/he is the main person telling the story. S/he needs to embody the story, to make it real and authentic. The story and the leader are part of the same thing: the party’s image or brand.

None of that, by the way, should stop anybody from putting forward bold, new policy ideas or innovative campaigning tactics.  

Candidates for party leadership have a tough job. They have to convey a sense of what kind of story they want to tell the electorate; how they plan to win the party more support.

They must also tell a story about their own party. Where is it going now? What’s gone right, what’s gone wrong and why? Most importantly, where should the party go next; how do members fit in? What’s the happy ending?

People standing for the leadership of a party that’s in trouble or not doing as well as in should tend to tell one of three types of story. The first sounds like this: “we have drifted too far away from the electorate and now we have to make some tough choices and get back in touch, in order to win”. This is the story that Tony Blair told the Labour Party in 1994. It is also what David Cameron told the Tories in 2005. In both cases, their campaign rhetoric was more inclusive, more emollient and more vague than the leadership that followed. But the moral of the story was clear. These sorts of stories offer a happy ending, electoral success. There is also a sense of risk.

David Miliband has now offered an even cleverer version of the story, urging the Labour Party to stick to an agenda of bold change, in order to inspire the public and outflank the Tories. As befits his background, and the fact that the part is in government, Miliband's embryonic story has a bit more policy weight than Blair's or Cameron's.   His now-famous Guardian article will be one of my suggestions for political narrative of the year.

Another story is that the party has “fallen” or been betrayed in some way; by returning to its core principles and remaining true to its faith, the party can be re-born and re-energised. Sympathetic voters will like what they see and come home again; otherwise, the party will try harder to convey what it stands for. An extreme version of this was told by Tony Benn and his allies in the Labour Party of the early 1980s. There were also traces in the Conservative leadership campaigns of 1997 and 2001. This story is easy to tell and re-assures the activist base that they will finally be proven right. But electoral disaster almost always follows.

There is a third option: a leadership contender – usually the experienced “front runner” – asks the party to “trust me” and offer a version of “safety first”. Such candidates are usually somewhat opaque about their future intentions and tend to use vague, crafted rhetoric to empathise with party members’ basic beliefs. They may offer a “broad church” or a period of consolidation. Think Ming Campbell in 2006 or, perhaps, Gordon Brown who had no opponent for the party leadership last year. The weakness is obvious: there is no real story because there is no obvious plan or strategy (happy ending). You have to really trust the leader to deliver – to find the story that will work with the electorate. The UK party did that with Charles Kennedy in 1999 and, lest we forget, under his leadership the Liberal Democrats won more seats than any third party since the days of Lloyd George. But then Charles publicly called for the UK party to develop a narrative, just days after the somewhat disappointing result in 2005.

I don’t pretend to know which one of the Scottish leadership candidates will tell which story (if any).  As always, people voting in this election will be more comfortable with one sort of story than the others on offer. What they might also want to think about, however, is which story their target voters would most like to hear.