Wednesday, 31 December 2008

The baby boomers move on. Now what?

One untold big story of 2008 was a political power shift, from the baby boomers to generation X.

The baby boomers are, broadly speaking, the cohort born between 1946 and 1961. Having ruled much of the world, they are now on their way out. The boomers are being replaced by “generation X”, the 28 to 45 year olds; though some would say that there’s also a transitional generation, currently in their late 40s.

Look at what’s happened in 2008.

In the United States presidential election, Barack Obama (born 1961) trounced John McCain. McCain was born in 1936 and is not a baby boomer. Earlier in the year, however, Obama saw off Hilary Clinton, born in 1947 and the queen of the boomers, to become the Democratic party’s standard-bearer. Obama’s two immediate predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, were both born in 1946.

In the race for London mayor, Conservative Boris Johnson (born 1964) ousted Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone (born 1945 and a baby boomer, if only just).

In my home country, New Zealand, National’s John Key (born 1961) defeated Labour prime minister Helen Clark (born 1950).

There could be more change to come. In the next UK general election, due in 2010, if not sooner, prime minister Gordon Brown (born 1951) will face Conservative leader David Cameron (born 1966). The Liberal Democrats are also led by a generation X-er, Nick Clegg (born 1967).

Many of the key members of Brown’s cabinet – Ed Balls, James Purnell, David Miliband and Ed Miliband -- were born in the late 1960s, though Purnell was born in 1970.

Other examples of post baby boomers in power or on the way up before 2008 are Sweden's prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, France's justice minister Rachida Dati and Helle Thorning-Schmidt, leader of Denmark’s Social Democrats.

There is a cruel irony in this generational shift. The baby boomers were the mainstay of the “sixties generation”; the self-styled driving force of a revolution that questioned established authority and the existing order, in foreign policy (most notably over Vietnam), education, gender and race. They took on many core values of the World War II generation and its predecessors.

Now these old “change agents” are the old guard and younger voters are moving them on. Barack Obama defeated Hilary Clinton by providing a more convincing narrative of “change” and “hope” and winning more support from under 35 year olds. He offered a liberation from America’s bitter political divisions of the last four decades and the Clintons are a potent symbol of one side of America’s culture wars. Boris Johnson’s core message was that, after eight years of Ken, it was time for a change in London. John Key campaigned as a “fresh” alternative to three term prime minister Helen Clark.

The boomers’ time at the top has been very brief. In the different forms of Clinton and Bush II, they have occupied the White House for just 16 years. The representatives of the GI generation were there for twice as long (1961-1993). The UK boomers’ dominance dates from Tony Blair’s 1997 victory, giving them even less time at the top than their American counterparts have enjoyed. Only in New Zealand, where they first came to power in 1984, have the boomer politicians arguably had a long tenure.

Looking at what the boomers leave behind, and what might be about to change, there’s another rich set of ironies. Baby boomer politics started out as being about war, peace, love, feminism, creativity, human relations and happiness. The driving force is self-fulfilment, self-expression and self-actualisation. At their most annoying and tiresome, the baby boomers have practised the politics of self-indulgence. They grew up in more benign economic times and didn’t have to worry too much about money. The post-war prosperity and then the revolt against the Keynesian economic settlement, happened all around them.

In terms of hard policy, however, the most significant legacies of Bill Clinton, Blair and Brown are in the area of political economy. They reconciled their parties with, adapted and then embraced, the market economics of Reagan and Thatcher (even if those were not exactly the same in the US and Britain). They, and, George W. Bush, have presided over the rise and rise, and now, the collapse, of turbo-capitalism. Brown, its erstwhile champion, now has to lead Britain through the consequences. Bush II and Blair also fought the Iraq war, with all its disastrous consequences for American and British prestige.

So with a new generation taking over, there is the prospect of new ideas and fresh approaches. These are surely needed now. As for what the new way may look like, Newsweek’s Jeremy Kahn offered a few opinions at the beginning of 2008.

"Compared with the baby boomers, they are more technocratic, more global in outlook, more comfortable with technology, more idealistic and yet less ideological and less invested in old debates . . . Instead, the new generation has been influenced by the end of the cold war, September 11 and the Iraq War."

He suggested they could take a distinctive direction of policy travel: support for "the continued spread of democracy and liberalism, particularly to Muslim nations," optimism "about the long-term prospects of reining in Islamic terrorism" and general support for "globalization." Kahn saw the new generation as being much more focused than its predecessors in climate change as well as immigration and its challenges to cultural identity.

Nearly a year on, much of that description of the post boomers still seems plausible. For instance, Barack Obama has promised Americans a transformation, through rejecting the "old" politics in favour of a “new”, post-ideological version. (“There’s not a black America and a white America . . . a liberal America and a conservative America . . . there’s a United States of America”).

But Kahn’s observations now seem incomplete. Some generation X politicians look a little more grounded in conventional ideologies than they seemed this time last year. Step forward, David Cameron.

Kahn was writing months before the world recession and the threat of deflation really hit. The full nature of Obama’s solutions won’t be known until months after he takes office. There will have to be a lot of improvisation, and the details may look rather different to his campaign promises, some of which included protectionist rhetoric (not quite what Kahn suggests). But improvisation was also the rule with previous presidents, such as FDR and Bill Clinton.

As they innovate and improvise, the post baby boomers will need help. For instance, Obama’s incoming treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, born in 1961, is a post-boomer but other key cabinet appointments are experienced, familiar faces: Robert Gates (defence), Lawrence Summers (head of the National Economic Council) and Hilary Clinton (State). The last two of these are baby boomers. So are many key world leaders, such as Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel and France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy. And the politics of the emerging powers, such as China and India, follow very different rhythms.

The post baby boomers are taking over, but they won’t be able to run the world on their own.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Political storyteller of the year 2008

This is the time of year when people look back at the year, compile lists and make awards. So I’ve got an award of my own: which politician from any party, political persuasion or country, was the best story-teller of 2008?

It’s lean pickings from the Liberal Democrats, I’m afraid.

New leader Nick Clegg worked all year to tell a story: that Labour have had their day and can’t create a fairer Britain; the Conservatives won’t but the Liberal Democrats will make it happen. It was old third party wine in twenty first century bottles, but showed promise all the same. After the banks went bang, the media meta-narrative took a new turn: the government’s response to the recession and the “Brown bounce”. Nick's story was squashed flat. Ever since, the party has struggled to tell a story about the economy, as distinct from Vince Cable’s razor-sharp commentaries.

Ros Scott told a good story and thrashed MP Lembit Opik in the contest for party president. But it was an internal election, for an ill-defined job. Most of the previous incumbents have checked into the obscurity hotel.

And let’s not even talk about the Lib Dems’ campaign for the London mayor and assembly.

The Conservatives should have had an easier time of it. Telling their story – “it’s time for a change; Labour must go” – looks straightforward enough. But David Cameron has also been overwhelmed by the economic crisis. He has not told a convincing story about the crisis and, as the year closed, Cameron was losing the economic argument to Gordon Brown.

The Conservative politician who did the best job of telling a “time for a change” story was London’s new mayor, Boris Johnson. He doesn’t get first prize because, after six months, Johnson still hasn’t fashioned a “governing narrative” that helps Londoners to understand what he is trying to do. So far, in his honeymoon phase, that hasn’t mattered too much. It will in 2009, as a deep recession really hits a city that is well used to good times. If the mayor can tell a story and leads Londoners through the crisis, he will well on the way towards re-election.

Labour at last found someone who can tell a story: Gordon Brown! This must be one of the most ironic plot twists that British politics has seen in a long time. That’s partly because Brown’s failure to provide his government with a narrative has deeply frustrated Labour supporters.

There’s an even bigger irony: Brown had a narrative, that from his decade as chancellor: thanks to him, Britain’s economy was strong and stable and the years of “boom and bust” were over. The onset of recession and the reversals of financial economic policy should have finished him, for Brown no longer embodied his narrative. Yet telling stories has saved him, so far.

The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley said it very well on Sunday:

As the banks crashed, Brown bounced. This is partly because he has been brilliant at spinning the blame for the crisis away from himself. The international institutions failed. So said the man who had chaired the reform committee of the IMF for many years. The bubble economy in America was the culprit. So said the man who recommended an honorary knighthood for Alan Greenspan, the father of that bubble. It was down to the reckless gambling of the bankers. So said the man who indulged a lightly regulated City for a decade. The Tories howled, but largely to no avail. Polling suggests that most voters were, and still are, broadly prepared to buy the prime minister's account of the origins of the recession.

So far, the public also seems ready to buy his “active government, for the people” versus the “do-nothing Tories, for the bankers” story lines that have appeared over the last few weeks. Yes, you’ve got it: ‘the enemy over the water’, ‘the rot within’, even the strong community; the old ones are always the best ones.

Brown’s achievement is weird for another reason. As he saved the world the banks and showed other countries how to stave off disaster, he seemed authoritative, confident and in command. Above all, he looked more experienced than the “novice” Cameron. The PM embodied the rest his story: “I can fix what they have done; the other guy can’t”.

But he hasn’t brought it all together. In another inversion of the usual rules of politics, Brown embodies a narrative he hasn’t quite told. He is more actions than words.

The narrative can’t be judged a total success, because Brown hasn’t won an election, or even overtaken the Conservatives in the polls. The job losses expected in early 2009 may well blow the story away. So Gordon Brown is not the story-teller of the year either.

To find the best story-teller of 2008, we have to go over the ocean.

In the United States presidential election, a first term African-American senator with a lean CV and a liberal voting record defeated his own party’s “front runner” and then saw off the formidable Republican machine. The key to understanding those victories must be the story that Barack Obama told and the way he told it.

First, Barack Obama caught the attention of the Democratic Party, and then the nation (and not the world), with his personal charisma and his compelling life-story.

Second, Obama made the case for change, in a way that connected with peoples’ emotions. His campaign slogan, “change we can believe in” and the way he kept using words like “chance,” “hope,” and “dream” built up trust in a cynical electorate and stressed the potential for progress. [For the linguistics expert Noah Bubenhofer’s new study of Obama’s rhetoric, click here]. He struck powerful chords with the party’s desire for “liberation” from past disappointments and the public’s desire for a break from the past eight years of Republican rule (“McCain – Bush”) rule in the White House. The use of inclusive rhetoric - we,” “you” (plural) and “us” - created what Bubenhofer calls “a strong feeling of community and identification between [Obama] and his audience”.

Third, Obama backed up the case for change with emotional and rational arguments. The way he discussed, in specific ways, the daily challenges facing average Americans, such as rising energy costs, mortgage worries and healthcare premiums, enabled him to connect and empathise with voters.

The emotional appeals were fortified by solid policy details (stories): promoting innovation and upward social mobility; ensuring that more people can have access to healthcare; building a better “safety net” for poorer people; cutting taxes for low income senior citizens and repeal tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans; widening access to education and launching an Apollo project for clean energy and energy independence.

Obama embodied his narrative. We have learned how a black man born in Hawaii to an immigrant father – who himself was born and raised in a small village in Kenya and “went to school in a tin- roof shack” - and a white, single mother struggled with a multiracial background and a broken home gained a world-class education and went on to become the first black man to edit the Harvard Law Review. This is a uniquely American story of identity and hope: Obama embodied the notion that exciting new things - change – can happen in America.

The newcomer represented a generational shift, away from the baby boomers, the neo-cons and culture war politics and towards a new sense of optimism about America’s future.

And whatever was thrown at him, Obama held his nerve. In the general election campaign, his level headedness and sense of composure did a great deal to reassure floating voters that Obama could lead.

In all of these ways, Obama told brilliantly a story about how America could leave behind the divisions of the past and find a new direction as one nation, united behind a common purpose. An optimistic story, about the future. “Yes, we can” and yes, he did.

That’s why Barack Obama, who will soon become the 44th president of the United States, is my political storyteller of the year.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Chris Fox's real job for the Liberal Democrats

For years, Chris Fox* has been the big kahuna of Liberal Democrat PR practitioners. In an impressive career, he’s had some big corporate comms jobs. Now Chris has gone and got himself a real one, as communications supremo for the party. And here’s his number one challenge: to get the Lib Dem narrative, the party's brand stories, back on track.

Let’s face it, 2008 has not exactly been a bumper year for the Liberal Democrats. Some of the counter-stories against the party have been self-inflicted. The worst was, surely, Nick Clegg’s gaffe in an interview with Piers Morgan about how many women he slept with before getting married. The car crash over the Lisbon Treaty is up there too – though I still think that, in all the circumstances, Nick salvaged the best outcome that anyone could have. The reported plane conversation about senior colleagues was mainly heard in the Westminster village, but didn’t help. The toughest counter-story of all has been that the Lib Dems don’t matter; invisibility, obscurity, anonymity. Nick and the party don’t have much control over that.

You’ll notice I didn’t suggest that Chris Fox should turn up at Cowley Street with a narrative for the Liberal Democrats, gift-wrapped and with a nice card. The reality is that only a party’s leader can provide its story. Just like Barack Obama, Nick has to own the story in order to tell it and be credible to voters. He has to be the story as well; unless the leader embodies the narrative, it won’t seem real to people.

A few times this year, Nick has started to use the sort of narrative that the Lib Dems need. At spring conference, for instance, he spoke of the two “establishment” parties’ failures to meet peoples’ needs. He promised to work for “a new political system, that empowers people not parties”; and argued that would be more likely to provide decentralised public services and give people opportunities to improve their lives. Vince Cable added in a call for fairer taxes.

By party conference in September, the party’s poll ratings were little better (but not far down) than they were at the time of spring conference. Nick Clegg’s conference speech and media appearances, and the Make It Happen “themes” paper, featured a new, sharper twist on the spring narrative. He promised a fairer Britain and said “the Liberal Democrats will make it happen . . . Labour can’t. The Conservatives won’t”. Unlike the establishment parties, the Liberal Democrats had real plans for a “a fairer Britain,” “a greener Britain” and to “make politicians listen to people”. OK, there was a row about tax and some us find the stuff about “fair” and “green” a bit vague and clich├ęd, but Nick had a political narrative.

More important was the story that voters were hearing (after all, that’s what the narrative really is). The Times-Populus conference poll suggested that the Lib Dems’ brand image had recovered from the doldrums of 2006-07. For instance, 63 per cent said the Lib Dems are “for ordinary people, not just the best off”. Three voters in five said the Lib Dems care about the problems faced by ordinary people; a similar number see us as honest and principled. A majority said the party understands the way people live their lives.

As for whether Nick Clegg could embody the narrative, things seemed to be looking up there too. Straight after conference, a Newsnight focus group of floating voters used words like “indecisive” and “confused” to describe Gordon Brown and “Blair Mark II” for David Cameron. When those attending the group were showed clips of Nick speaking at conference about the “messed up” tax system and Gordon Brown’s lack of vision, the scores on the people meters shot up. The voters in the group listened to Nick and believed him -- once they found out who he was. Many said they would consider voting Liberal Democrat. All very promising.

Then came the global financial turmoil, the banking drama and big bail outs, and the UK's steep slide into recession. If the media didn’t exactly make Gordon Brown their darling, they worked up a new meta-narrative: Gordon tells the Americans, the continentals and the rest how to save their economies; Gordon the economic wizard, champion of the new “Keynesianism”, Brown lauded by the Nobel Laureate, Paul Krugman; David Cameron is a lightweight; the opinion poll chasm between Labour and the Tories closes; the race is on; and, now, talk of a general election in 2009.

It may have been bad news for the Conservatives, but the Liberal Democrats have also been overwhelmed. In October and November, Nick seemed to disappear from the media, who quickly decided he didn’t fit into their meta-narrative. The party has been squeezed in most of the opinion polls. The UK Polling Report Polling Average now shows the Lib Dems on 15 per cent. According to Populus, Nick’s personal ratings have fallen in recent months.

“But what about Vince Cable?”, I hear you ask. I have long been one of Vince’s biggest fans. But his accurate predictions and informed commentaries have not translated into more credibility for the Liberal Democrats. However wise Vince’s words, people have not been hearing an economic story from the party itself. He is a brand in his own right and maybe the public wants to receive big messages on big issues from the party leader.

For some of the elements of what we need, look at Drew Westen’s description of a major speech by Barack Obama, in September, about the financial crisis:

“The speech is effective in both its narrative coherence--it tells the story of how we got to this point, who was responsible, and why McCain could not possibly be the one to lead us out of it--and in its emotional resonance. It begins with magnanimity and a sense of fairness, not attempting to blame the entire crisis on McCain but making clear his complicity in it and his ideological commitment to the causes of it. . . . It took the abstractions of a Wall Street meltdown and a credit crisis and turned them into the experience of everyday people: "You feel it in your own lives," he told his listeners . . .. You can picture the people he is describing, and they could
picture themselves, their parents, and their grandparents.”

This is where Chris Fox can assist – by helping the party to get its policies and analysis into a simple story, that will engage with voters’ feelings.

Over the last few weeks, things have got a bit better. Nick Clegg has started to tell a story about who is responsible for the crisis, blaming the government and the bankers. (See, for example, Nick’s tv reply to the Queen’s Speech) His contributions at prime minister’s questions are focussed and framed on what government has (or hasn’t) done are being framed more in terms of the impact on people and families.

Nick has started to develop another, parallel story – the need to secure the economic future, starting by investing in green infrastructure. That could become a distinctive message and it plays to the party’s strengths as the “greenest” party.

There are still some big challenges for next year, starting with the coherence, credibility and consistency of the Lib Dems’ stories. Chris Fox can’t make an anxious and weary electorate buy the stories. But he can make sure -- probably through “smoke and mirrors” -- that Nick and the rest of party’s communicators and top campaigners stick to them. The party also needs to take them to the logical conclusion in terms of policy development -- always a tough one for Lib Dems.

And our success in pushing up our poll ratings and morale is tied up with how (much) voters see Nick Clegg, and whether they perceive him as being the Lib Dems’ story. That’s where Chris Fox really comes in.

His real task is to be the strategist, not the story writer, the impresario, not the magician, who makes sure that voters hear the right story from Nick and the party.

Oh, congratulations and happy new year, Chris!

* I have known and been friendly with Chris for many years.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Oh Canada! Lessons for democrats

If you think that Westminster-style democracy basically works, or that it just needs a few good changes, like proportional voting for MPs, then maybe you should have a look at what’s happening in Canada.

Here’s a very quick recap. The conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, was recently returned to office, but as the leader of a minority government. At the end of last month, his team brought in an “economic fiscal update”. This package tried to nobble Harper’s political foes by cutting public election funding for political parties. There were also some hard line measures, such as temporarily suspending the rights of public servants to strike and making it harder to women civil servants to take legal action if they are not paid the same as their male colleagues. But the fiscal update contained no stimulus measures for Canada’s economy.

The outraged opposition parties, the Liberals (the main opposition), the (leftish) NDP and the separatist Bloc Quebecois, wrote to the governor-general, Michaelle Jean, offering to form a Liberal-NDP coalition government. Between them, they have 163 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons.

The rules of the Westminster game are well-documented. The prime minister has to enjoy the confidence of the representative house of parliament in order to remain in power. If the prime minister loses that confidence, s/he is obliged to either resign, or advise the Queen (or her representative) to dissolve parliament and call a general election. 

The Queen (or her representative) essentially has two options: dissolving Parliament and sending the people to the polls, or finding a new government that does have the confidence of the house. The last time a UK prime minister lost a vote of confidence in the Commons was in 1979, when James Callaghan’s Labour government finally hit the wall. It was clear that no alternative government was available and so a general election followed. 

Under Canada’s constitution, it is the governor-general’s prerogative to invite a party leader to form a government, with or without a general election. And given that the country has recently had an election, finding an alternative  government, even an unlikely coalition, would seem preferable.

Still, Harper did not have to resign because he had not been defeated in the Commons on a vote of confidence. A vote on the fiscal update (i.e., a vote of confidence) was due to be held on Monday, 8 December. So Harper asked the governor general, to prorogue parliament until late January, in order to stave off the vote and buy himself some time – perhaps in the hope that the putative coalition partners will fall out, or that the Liberals’ leadership problems will get out of hand.

That’s right: Harper asked the referee to stop play because the other side looked certain of winning. 

That’s not all. The Conservatives launched radio attack ads against their opponents and called upon supporters to flood Ms Jean’s office with letters and e-mails. There was even talk of a mass pro-government rally outside her official residence. Harper asked for some breathing space and time for tempers to cool. But the PM did more than anyone to make sure that things turned ugly, most notably with the way he manipulated arguments about Quebec separatism.

On Friday, the governor-general granted Harper’s request, after a meeting that lasted more than two hours. 

Let’s be clear about what this means. A precedent has been set. Any prime minister faced with a confidence vote can defy the will of parliament, at least for a while, by running off to the governor general (or the Queen). And a PM can have parliament prorogued just weeks into a new session, rather than at the end.

It looks as if the only safeguard is the character, experience and qualifications of the Queen / governor-general. According to the Globe and Mail, Ms Jean made Harper work for the prorogue when they met. 

"Ms. Jean made clear to the Prime Minister that she was not a rubber stamp for his request to shut down Parliament until late January; that it was within her constitutional discretionary power to turn him down."

What has happened in Canada shows, once again, a tough reality of politics. We saw it in Australia in 1975, when the conservative parties used their majority in the upper house, the Senate, to block the Whitlam Labor government’s budget. The governor-general took it upon himself to resolve the crisis by dismissing the prime minister. 

We saw it again in the US in 2000, when the Republican-dominated supreme court halted efforts to learn who won the presidential election. OK, maybe they were one moral step above the Republican goons who stormed a schoolhouse in Florida and physically stopped one recount. 

When the brown stuff hits the fan, conservatives make up their own rules.