Monday, 31 March 2008

Come see about me

Which matters most – personal stories or policies and issues?
It's a false choice.

Exhibit A. Matt Bai of the New York Times has tidily explained the main difference between the strategies of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. He relates it all back to their top campaign strategists.

Senator Obama is advised by David Axelrod:

". . . an advertising guy . . . who perfected the craft of encapsulating an entire life in 30 seconds, he has a gift for telling personal stories in ways that people can understand. Axelrod’s essential insight — the idea that has made him successful where others might have failed — is that the modern campaign really isn’t about the policy arcana or the candidate’s record; it’s about a more visceral, more personal narrative.

"This is probably a big reason why Mr. Obama has, from the start, focused almost exclusively on broad themes of “hope” and “change.”"

Senator Clinton is advised by Mark Penn:

". . . a pollster, and pollsters tend to look at campaigns as a series of dissectible data points that either attract voters or drive them away. Get a health care plan and an economic plan that 70 percent of people say they view favorably. Pay attention to words that move the dial in focus groups, like “real solutions for America” or “ready to lead on Day 1.” "

"Mrs. Clinton’s relentless focus on pragmatism and specificity, as well as her willingness to shift slogans, are not simply a result of her own personality but also of Mr. Penn’s strategic outlook, which values testable ideas and phrases over more sweeping imagery and themes."

Of course, Mr Obama does polls and Mrs Clinton has tried to convey a story. But their respective strengths leave no room for wonder that the campaign has been so closely fought. Matt Bai concludes:

"Mr. Axelrod’s storytelling has created a dynamic hero who sometimes seems estranged from the practicalities of governing; Mr. Penn’s data has created a credible platform put forth by a candidate whose theory of leadership can seem small. What voters love in one they crave in the other. "

Exhibit B. The New York Times reports this morning that the near-certain Republican nominee, Senator John McCain plans to use his life story and military experience to connect with voters. He is starting a Service to America tour, taking in key stops from his and his family’s careers in the forces, in an effort to introduce Senator McCain to a wider audience.

But Republican pundit William Kristol warns convincingly that “biography isn’t enough” because the American electorate doesn’t always show due gratitude to war heroes. He adds that this may reflect “a healthy hard headedness” and “a sensible pragmatism”.

He then argues that:

"Candidate McCain should be working overtime on a broad reform agenda — education reform, health insurance reform, tax reform, government reform, Wall Street reform. He could start by outlining an up-to-date, capitalism-friendly and transparency-requiring approach to regulating the credit markets. (He might also suggest taxing “carried interest” as ordinary income, if only to watch the fur fly among hedge-fund fat cats.)"

I think that a candidate needs both “personal stories” and “issues”; they need have to work in tandem.

OK, so that’s all about America and people on this side of the Atlantic tend to be more reserved. Politicians aren’t expected to spill their personal stories to the same extent. The conventional wisdom is that British elections are decided mostly on competence, party images and issues.

But UK party leaders still need to embody their parties' narratives. They need to tell personal stories, to make the narratives appear more authentic.

Remember John Major’s televised trip back to Brixton in 1992, which brought home the politics of opportunity and aspiration.

Or the youthful Tony Blair’s 1997 promise of a new Britain under New Labour. His physical appearance, a young man with a young family, sent a subliminal message. Labour's pledge card tapped into the concerns of his target voters.

Today, the leaders’ failure to tell powerful personal stories illustrate the weaknesses of their respective parties’ narratives.

Gordon Brown has not told a personal story that enables him to connect with the electorate. He thinks Labour’s narrative is about “opportunity for all” but nobody seems to have noticed.

David Cameron has told of his own family’s experiences of the NHS. But that doesn’t – yet – amount to the personal story. The vision and substance of the Conservative narrative is still a work in progress. But he’s a new face for an electorate that wants change.

Nick Clegg opened his speech to the spring conference in Liverpool by mentioning his grandmother, a Russian exile and his mother, who spent part of her childhood in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Indonesia. “They found a home in Britain because ours is a nation of tolerance, of freedom, and of compassion.” But these stories aren’t about him. And the narrative that Nick Clegg is gradually building is about creating a better politics; and this co-exists alongside another about fighting for a more equal Britain, “the people versus the powerful”.

Let’s see who gets there first.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Groupthink and the story that really matters

It isn’t just the Liberal Democrats who beat themselves up about their dearth of compelling narratives and storylines. Having plummeted in the polls, Labour are hard at it too (more on this soon).

But no politician should imagine that the stories that they tell about themselves will transform their political fortunes. The winners are always who do the best job of understanding the stories that are in the voters’ minds and then adapt their own messages.

At the same time, the public’s view of the world will be strongly influenced by the stories that the media are telling. Their stories chop and change and the media follow the herd.

Patrick Coolican of the Nevada Sun neatly sums up how this has worked so far in the U.S. Democratic primaries.

"The vogue word in journalism for groupthink is "narrative." A bunch of reporters and editors read one another's dispatches, talk at events and on planes, and come to a rough consensus about where things stand and what's important:

"Barack Obama is viable. Obama is a weak debater and not "tough enough." He has committed "missteps" on foreign policy. Latinos won't vote for a black man. Yes, they will. Jeremiah Wright has dealt the Obama campaign a game-changing crisis. Obama parried with the most significant speech on race since Martin Luther King Jr.

"Hillary Clinton
isn't electable. Clinton is unflappable and unstoppable. Clinton isn't connecting with Iowa voters. Clinton is finished. Clinton found her voice. Clinton is unstoppable. Clinton is finished. Clinton may win it."

Patrick Coolican confuses “political narrative” with “media narrative” but he makes a valid point. Whilst there is still a range of quality commentary across the UK media, I am sure that it applies to the bulk of reportage in this country. This time last year, Gordon Brown was set to be a disastrous, unpopular prime minister. For his first twelve weeks, he walked on water. After he finally said there would be no snap election in the autumn, Brown wasn’t very good. There was a brief respite over the New Year. Now he is an unmitigated disaster, in deep trouble, heading for defeat.

Last summer, David Cameron was cast as a lightweight, disliked by his own party. By the turn of the year, he was firing on all cylinders. A few weeks ago, he should have being doing better in the polls. Now he is.

Sir Menzies Campbell was too old – no, “seen as too old” – to be a party leader.

In the space of just three months, Nick Clegg has been depicted as a waffler who then mishandled the Lisbon Treaty vote and endangered his authority but may now be doing quite well.

Media bashing is an easy alibi for politicians. But I am sure that there is still too little understanding - and detailed analysis - of the power of the media and its prevailing narratives and how those stories are formed.

Back to Mr Coolican. After being self-critical for, on one occasion, helping to turn a notion into a conventional wisdom, he makes a call for change:

"When we [journalists] thought for ourselves, out in the hinterlands, we did some quality work. For instance, in the spring of 2007, when the D.C. and New York media began its inevitable pushback on Obama with a raft of stories about him being all fluff and no substance, we examined this narrative and reported on a new element: blogger pushback to the pushback. . . .

". . . Here's the important question: How do we avoid false narratives and get at more salient and fundamental issues?

"Or more plainly: What should we political reporters be doing with our time? When is our supposed "analysis" simply a rehashing of the campaign machinery's narrative?

"I'm pretty sure we do too much shorthand, guesswork "analysis," which often amounts merely to repeating groupthink we've read or heard elsewhere.

"We ought to be analyzing what the candidates propose and whether they possess the skills and character traits to get it done.

The rest should be left to voters. It's their groupthink that matters."

Anyone disagree?

Saturday, 22 March 2008

The Liberal Democrats glimpse their narrative

Since the 2005 general election, there have been bursts of debate within the Liberal Democrats about the party’s need for a “narrative”, to provide a clearer political identity.

Liberal Democrats haven’t had a narrative of their own for years because our leaders haven’t provided us with one. (Suggestion: if you belong to a political organisation and your leader can’t tell your story, then get yourself another leader).

There are signs that this is changing. Yes, really. Nick Clegg’s speech to the Liberal Democrats’ spring conference in Liverpool a couple of weeks ago told a story. No surprises who the villains were.

The great political story of our time is the story of the vast and growing army of people who look at the two main parties and say “no thanks.” People . . . want something different . . . people are tired of politics . . . of a system that swings like a pendulum between two establishment parties. . . tired of the same old politicians, the same old fake choices, the same old feeling that nothing ever changes.

“. . . . Gordon Cameron. David Brown. What's the difference any more? . . .”

Nick catalogued Labour’s failings and slammed David Cameron for having no policies. The archetype was “stopping the rot” – except “the rot” is at the top of politics, Labour and Conservative.

He explained the part that the Lib Dems play in the story.

If we want a political system that works for the future, we need to start again. From scratch. I am not just talking about electoral reform. A change in our voting system is a vital part of what we need, but it isn’t enough. . . . . let’s clean up politics . . . let’s give people the say they deserve . . . let’s design a new political system for the 21st century.

It shouldn’t be hammered out in secret, smoke-filled rooms, by the powers that be . . . only the Liberal Democrats will ever champion the sort of change we need. Only we can transform the system, because we aren’t part of it.

Nick Clegg promised to work with either of the other parties (but not to allow the Liberal Democrats to be “annexed”) in order to:

“build a new type of government . . . based on pluralism instead of one party rule . . . a new system, that empowers people not parties.”

Sure, Charles Kennedy and Paddy Ashdown said things like that. So did Jo Grimond and David Steel. One big difference: Nick Clegg’s comments were aimed at both the other parties, not just Labour.

As I have blogged previously, in promising a better sort of politics, we are not talking about what most people are really interested in. As the American pollster and strategist Frank Luntz says:

“Political messages should emphasise bottom line results, not process.”

[Words that Work (2007)]

Nick has started to address this.

“Change the system, and we can change Britain . . .

“We want a new, more liberal Britain . . . .

“. . . the great monoliths of centrally-run bureaucracies must be opened up – and run for the sake of the people, the patients, the pupils.

“. . . We want services that are human-sized, personal in nature, and designed for real people.

“We don’t want these services handed down by the faceless state . . .

“. . .. A better Britain would put education and opportunity at its very heart so no child, no parent, is ever trapped in poverty."

How Nick would enhance opportunities - the happy ending of the story – is a still bit vague. What Nick is saying is not very distinctive. But a story is starting to take shape. And the language and symbols are much more powerful.

To flesh the story out a bit, go next to Vince Cable’s keynote speech at Liverpool. His attacks on Labour and the Conservatives over the economy and taxes were even more barbed. More interesting was the way the Lib Dems came into his story as the voice of reason, of economic responsibility.

"During the Northern Rock crisis the boat was drifting listlessly. Captain Brown was hiding in his cabin. And Midshipman Osborne was jumping excitedly in and out of a lifeboat. We knew what had to be done.

“But the Government only finally listened [to us] after months of indecision. The delay caused untold damage to Britain’s reputation and cost a fortune in legal and accountancy fees.

“Now the Government has seen the benefits of listening to the Liberal Democrats perhaps they can make it a habit – to tackle the dangers of our slowing economy."

This is part of an (understandable) effort to promote Vince as a “safe pair of hands” on economic matters. As always, he had some sensible economic prescriptions:

“The Bank of England has to be freed up to use interest rates more aggressively by making sure that its inflation target reflects the fluctuations in house prices .

“We also need to think ahead to a different model of growth. It should not depend on a debt financed, unsustainable, short term splurge in consumer spending.It should instead draw on long term investment in this country’s human resources of skill and science, respecting environmental limits and repairing a fractured sense of social solidarity.”

(Nick Clegg’s comments on the economy from Thursday should be seen in the same light.)

But there was more to Vince Cable’s take on the “better Britain”:

“The Lib Dems don’t want higher overall levels of tax. We want to see fairer taxes making sure that the tax dodgers are brought to book. It means that the very well off pay a bit more in capital gains and income tax so that low and middle income families get a tax cut – 4p in the pound of national income tax.

“We also believe that tax can be used, albeit carefully, to change behaviour. That is why we argue for green taxes, particularly on polluting aircraft, raising revenue for our package of tax cuts elsewhere . . .

“. . . If I were to be self critical, I would say that we haven’t been radical enough. I would like to see a much stronger commitment to cutting the taxes of low and middle income families. And I would like to see a much tougher approach to the windfalls on property and land values enjoyed by the super rich.

“Liberal Democrats represent the millions of families ignored by this Government. Yes we believe in enterprise. Yes we believe in an open economy. But we don’t have to go down on our knees to the rich and powerful.

“We will stand up for fair taxes. We will stand up for green taxes. And we will fight for a more equal Britain."

I agree with Vince about taxation. But while there are plenty of policies, there is still not – quite – a Liberal Democrat story about taxes.

Likewise, Nick is correct about the need to change politics. “A plague on both your houses” is a third party leader’s safest story. A vital next step is to join those messages up with what Vince Cable is saying: how the new politics will deliver a better deal for millions of families; as well as the “opportunities for all” story that Nick is also building.

Nick’s reply to the Budget in the Commons was interesting in this regard:

“Labour has today completed its fiscal fusion with the Tory Party. Both parties believe in the same kind of Budget: the kind of Budget that kowtows to vested interests, but fleeces the average family; the kind of Budget that keeps tax loopholes for the super rich, but closes in mercilessly on single mothers who have been overpaid tax credits; and the kind of Budget that uses green taxes as an excuse to take more money from the kitty of low earners.”

Then there’s the question of how Nick Clegg can embody the promise of a new politics in his actions and appearance in the same way as Vince Cable projects an image of sensible thinking on the economy. In his 1995 book Leading Minds, Howard Gardner stressed how leaders need to embody their narratives in order to seem authentic and credible. Narratives and brands are as much about tone, symbols, pictures and body language as about words.

Nick gave part of the answer at Liverpool, when discussing the drive for a new politics.

“. . . I’m not shy about doing whatever it takes. If it means walking out of Parliament when the big parties collude against us, I say: fine. If it means boycotting banquets that celebrate our relationship with dodgy regimes, like Vince Cable did, or speaking up to expose corruption like Chris Davies did, I say: so be it. If it means risking court, and refusing to sign up for an Identity Card, I say: bring it on. And you can expect more - much more - of that from me. It’s a high-risk strategy. And I warn you, we can only make it work if we are united and if we are disciplined. United and disciplined in the face of attacks from the establishment parties and the establishment media. If we are not the radical force in British politics, who will be?

Yes, OK; and good on Nick for his pledge on identity cards. But this “high risk strategy” doesn’t quite sound or look like the same thing as “a safe pair of hands”.

No-one ever said the Lib Dem narrative was going to arrive, gift-wrapped, in the past. It didn’t for Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair. Or, that matter, for FDR or Ronald Reagan. Gordon Brown has no narrative and David Cameron is clearly struggling with his. The point is, Nick Clegg – the only person who had provide the Liberal Democrats with a story – is on to it.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

One way to make the weather

Another day, another stinging criticism of the Brown government’s climate change record.

It’s not just the usual suspects.

Today, the Sustainable Development Commission says that more than half of all government departments are failing to reduce their carbon emissions sufficiently to reach levels that the nation as a whole is expected to meet.

Yesterday, the National Audit Office concluded that ministers use two sets of accounts when reporting greenhouse gas emissions. One covers emissions from international flights and shipping. Using the more stringent accounting standard, the investigation finds "there have been no reductions in UK carbon dioxide emissions" from the 1990 level. A damning Guardian leader duly followed.

On Saturday, the Guardian columnist Martin Kettle argued that although “no issue has greater political potency than the challenge of climate change”, the government has been “hesitant” (such a polite word) to take the action needed. He said:

What surprises me about Brown's halting response to the climate change challenge is not that he doesn't get it or that he doesn't care or do enough about it, even though these things seem sadly true.

The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley has been uncomplimentary about the government’s environmental record. And earlier this month, former cabinet minister Charles Clarke called Gordon Brown’s policies on climate change “absolutely pathetic.”

Martin Kettle went on to an interesting, if unoriginal, conclusion:

What surprises me is that [Brown] fails to see the base political advantage that would come from capturing the issue. Because if he doesn't capture it, someone else - step forward the Liberal Democrats – will.

Lib Dem readers may see this as a no-brainer. Surely, they will say, we have the most radical, most comprehensive policies on climate change. For reasons that may be obvious, I tend to agree.

But check out the January YouGov opinion poll. This put the Lib Dems at level pegging with Labour and the Conservatives as “the party that could handle the environment and global warming best”. At 18 per cent, this was our best rating, by some way. (It must also be said that 40 per cent respondent said “none” or indicated no preference.) This is the most recent public opinion poll to ask this kind of question. Most polls since the 2005 general election have shown similar results.

Nick Clegg’s first environmental policy speech as leader was impressive -- and I blogged on it the next day.

There is much more to be done. The detailed policy programme set out in the 2007 policy paper Zero Carbon Britain needs to be kept up to date. The climate change debate moves fast, mainly in a gloomy direction, and it won’t stand still for the Lib Dems. How to promote environmentally friendly technologies is one area where more work is needed. So the policy mix needed to effect changes in consumer behaviours, especially through smart metering. With fuel prices rising, the impact of climate change policy on fuel poverty is a challenging area. So is the link between environmental policy and energy security strategies.

The Lib Dem shadow energy and environment secretary, Steve Webb, is on to this. But that's only part of what needs to happen. One of the key take out messages of Zero Carbon Britain is that climate change can no longer be simply pigeon holed as an “environmental issue”.

New agreements are needed at international level. So it’s a foreign policy issue.

Some of the most effective action on climate change will come from the EU. That makes climate change a European affairs issue.

Last year, the IPCC found that by the 2050s, more than a billion people will be at risk of increased water stress and hundreds of millions at risk of sea-level rise. The poorest of the poor in the world are going to be the worst hit. That makes it an international development issue.

Even in prosperous societies, poor people will be worst affected. So it’s a social policy issue at home too.

Action to mitigate climate change will need to come from policies on transport, on housing, on planning.

The commitment to a zero carbon Britain should run all through the party’s policies, campaigns and -- yes -- our narrative.

The Lib Dems have long called for integrated, cross-portfolio approach to climate change. We should be the only ones who can offer it. On the EU, for instance, the Lib Dems must be more credible than the Conservatives.

We can and must build such a message. The Lib Dems need to carry on where Zero Carbon Britain left off.

By communicating joined up solutions, we could, as Martin Kettle suggested, capture the issue of climate change once again.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

McCain vs. McCain

Let’s face facts: John McCain could win the White House in November. Latest polls show him at level pegging with either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

First though Senator McCain must decide which story he is going to tell people. There are at least two McCain narratives right now. One is about the maverick Republican senator who moved well outside his party’s comfort zone on taxes, campaign finance reform, climate change, environmental regulation, stem cell research and immigration. As E.J. Dionne jr. argues, this has presented some liberals with a big dilemma. They might even for vote for him.

It’s also a story that is uncomfortable to some Republican ears: one of McCain’s main challenges in the primaries has been to win over committed conservatives. One example of tough conservative bagging of Senator McCain came last month from Jed Babbin, a former office-holder in the George W. Bush administration who now writes for Human Events.

Conservative criticism of McCain has since been more muted, especially since mid February when he emerged as the near certain Republican frontrunner and was endorsed by George W. Bush. This leads into another story – McCain the conservative president who would carry on the occupation of Iraq indefinitely, has done a U-turn on Bush’s tax cuts and opposes government-sponsored universal health coverage. Says Dionne:

All this points to what is maddening about McCain. At times, he has acted with courage and honor. At other times, he behaves like a crafty politician. There is an independent side to McCain that has made him an authentic maverick. But on so many issues, he is nothing more (or less) than a thoroughly conventional conservative politician.

. . . So what's the path of integrity for one-time McCain fans in the center and on the left? It would be to base our judgments on the extent to which the rebellious McCain we admired has given way to the McCain who is as conservative as he always said he was -- even if many liberals (and, for different reasons, many conservatives) didn't want to believe him.

Anyone can tell two or more stories. But in politics you can’t let yourself be defined with stories that clash at a basic level with each other and then expect to win. Remember John Kerry, the Democratic nominee in 2004, who said that:

“I actually did vote for the $87 billion [for funding the Iraq war] before I voted against it.”

This and other changes of mind enabled opponents to tag him as a “flip flopper”. The first requirement for a story to be successful is to be simple. The second is to be consistent.

A recent article by Jonathan Chait, The New Republic, a liberal house journal, forensically exposes McCain's shift from left to right.

The prevalent view of McCain is that he is a generally conservative figure with a few maverick stances and an unwavering authenticity. . .

Actually, this assessment gets McCain almost totally backward. He has diverged wildly and repeatedly from conservative orthodoxy, but he has also reinvented himself so completely that it has become nearly impossible to figure out what he really believes . . .

As to which story voters will finally believe, we need to remember Howard Gardner’s conclusion in Leading Minds (1995), that when different stories come into competition, more often than not, the one that is less sophisticated and has stronger affective, mass appeal will become dominant. The “conservative” McCain story should eventually prevail. But it may confuse or even drive away liberal and independent voters.

So McCain’s campaign will, I think, try to fuse the two existing stories as he tries to hold the Republican base and reach out from it. He will run as a straight-talking problem solver, better qualified and stronger on national security than Senator Barack Obama (his most likely opponent); a change from the Bush years, but a change that carries fewer risks than a “left wing” first-term senator.

McCain’s stances on domestic policy issues present the Democrats with many opportunities. But I suspect the man from the New Republic is closer to the mark: maybe you just don’t know what Senator McCain thinks; an electorate that wants real change can’t be sure that he would deliver it.

At the 2004 Republican convention, delegates stood up and flapped giant flip-flops in front of the TV cameras, to mock Senator Kerry. Maybe these props are sitting in a warehouse somewhere, waiting for the Democrats to buy them up later this year. But will they get the story?

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Why voters don't go for lists of policies

Here’s a contender for my first rule of politics. If a party tries to win votes by producing a long list of policies, disappointment, if not disaster, is just around the corner.

A sad case study is the Liberal Democrats’ 2005 general election manifesto. The “ten reasons to vote Liberal Democrat” just didn’t cut the mustard.

But this is about more than just manifestos – it’s a whole approach to politics that’s going wrong for liberals and the left nearly everywhere. The leading US Democratic Party strategist James Carville said in 2006 that:

“The central Democratic problem is that we lack a narrative. You hear a Democratic speech and you hear that 'I stand for a woman's right to choose, a person's right to health care, a nationalist foreign policy, a cleaner environment.’”

Such lists just "produces a litany" of ideas that "sounds like something we're for. But it doesn't mean anything." . . .

"The damn problem is that they have far too many things spread all over the map."

Sound familiar? Now, a new article by framing guru George Lakoff and Joe Brewer, both of the Rockridge Institute, discusses “why voters aren’t motivated by a laundry list of positions on issues.”

They start by criticising:

. . . a faulty view of voting behavior – widely held by political strategists on the left – that people already know what they want. All you have to do is conduct a poll to find out where they stand on the issues, then build a platform of positions that accords with the polls, and they will vote for you. Missing from this view is the importance of cognitive policy – the ideas necessary to understand what the issues are and how they should be addressed. It is the ability to understand where a candidate is coming from that makes public support possible. Endorsement quickly follows when this understanding combines with a sense of shared values.

Brewer and Lakoff explain:

There are two kinds of policy: cognitive and material. Material policies are familiar: they outline what is to be done in the world. For example, the details of a health care plan, or a plan for getting out of Iraq. Material policies each have a cognitive dimension, often unconscious and implicit. This includes the ideas, frames, values, and modes of thought that inform the political understanding of the material policy.

They see cognitive policy as:

. . . the often-unstated ideas behind material policies . . . It is comprised of ideas, frames, and arguments. It forms the basis of what the issue is, how it is understood and what should be done about it. The material criterion is comprised of mechanisms for achieving the goals that emerge from the cognitive criteria . . .

Later on they point out that:

A major finding of the cognitive sciences is that roughly 98% of the neural activity comprising human thought is structured outside conscious awareness. It is necessary to analyze the mental structures – called frames – that bring substance to our thoughts, in order to see the critical role they play in effective policy.

So what does this mean?

. . . The [electoral] success of a policy depends on how it meets both cognitive and material criteria. Concentrating on material criteria alone can be counterproductive if a policy is either unpopular, or if it instills in the public’s mind long-term values that contradict the aims of the policy.

Brewer and Lakoff argue that US conservatives have been able to get their cognitive policies – frames - into public discourse and the public mind, so that they now seem natural to many people. But progressives haven’t been able to do cognitive policy-making and so they:

. . . try to sell policies on a case-by-case basis via “messaging,” last-minute PR for the specific policy (e.g., listing polar bears as an endangered species), rather than developing a progressive worldview that automatically makes sense of the policy and counters conservative ideas.

Their bottom line message is unsurprising, if somewhat vague:

Progressives need to learn about cognitive policy and put it to use.

I suspect that what George Lakoff calls cognitive “policies” are “perceptions”, “world-views” or even “preconceptions”. As in some of his other material, he tends to get too bogged down in the power of the conservative think tanks in American politics. Still, as with a lot of his material, there are some useful pointers for Liberal Democrats.

In my experience, when narratives and frames are talked about, Lib Dems too often revert to downloading (listing) our “values”.

What the party should do is to look much more carefully than we have done in the past at our target voters’ cognitive perceptions – their core beliefs, values, hopes and aspirations. Then think more methodically about how the party’s messages and policies can connect with them, using powerful frames and symbols.

If you think that’s too difficult or too waffly or that it’s “just not us”, you should read Nick Clegg’s speech to the spring conference in Liverpool on Sunday.

For instance, the word “liberal” has been a staple of previous leaders’ speeches. Nick used it (apart from in the name of the party) just twice and then he was talking about a “liberal Britain”. He used the word “Britain” thirty times and many of those references either showed a sense of pride in the country or called for positive change, a “better Britain” (five references).

But this was a speech that only a Liberal Democrat leader could make. It was just that Nick expressed some familiar issues in new ways. For instance:

"Our civil liberties are a hard-won inheritance from our forefathers who fought and died for our freedom."

Could the new leadership be finding a narrative and working out how to frame liberal issues, so that they strike a chord with voters? More on that soon.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Nick Clegg speaks on the environment

On Monday night, I went along to the Green Alliance annual debate and heard Nick Clegg give his first major speech on the environment as Liberal Democrat leader.

Although much of the policy content was familiar to Liberal Democrat ears, he signalled some important new directions. On funding adaptation measures in developing countries, Nick went further and into more detail than the party has done in the past. He also made a connection between the need for robust climate change strategies – where the Lib Dems scored very highly in last year’s Green Standard Report - and policies to protect the natural environment, where we didn’t.

But it was on the politics on the environment that the evening was most interesting. Nick drew attention to the fact that, despite all the debate and bad news about climate change, just 7 per cent of the British population sees the environment as a major issue.

Nick discussed how to build support for the bold measures needed to mitigate climate change.

"We need to demonstrate that we are all in this together, that Government, business and individuals can trust one another to play their part in the war against climate change [and] that Britain can respond with a green blitz spirit. So let’s do just that. Let’s apportion responsibility and let’s make clear what we expect from one another.

"Today I’m launching a consultation on a Charter for Climate Change: a covenant between government, industry and individuals; a charter that will affirm that each of us has the right to enjoy a clean and secure environment [and] that makes clear the responsibility of every agency, company and person to do their bit.

"That’s the way to bring about a movement for green action: to mainstream environmental action in our society.

"When we learn to trust one another, green ideas will bloom because it’s not the scale of the problem that’s in doubt, but our ability to tackle it."

First, let’s be clear about what a new green leviathan can and can’t deliver. The debate about what to do about climate change is, as with all big policy issues, about money. Who pays? When, why and how do they pay? When should taxes, regulations or other policies be used and how should they be set? For instance, households account for about a quarter of UK carbon emissions and new, politically difficult measures are needed to encourage more environmentally friendly behaviours, Only strong political leadership, delivering a sound policy framework that effects market and individual behaviours, can provide that.

And if a covenant on climate change is going to achieve anything, it will need to be backed up by a multi-party political agreement. A couple of years ago, previous attempts to reach such agreement have failed, in part because the Conservatives would not commit on green taxes.

Still, Nick is surely correct about the extent of public apathy and distrust. A covenant could help to make a green programme stick, by establishing at least broad agreement about how each major group of society and which sectors of the economy are expected to make sacrifices and the sorts of policies should be used. Citizens paying environmental taxes, for example, need to be assured that they will receive something in return and that it’s not just another way for the government to raise revenue. Consumers paying higher prices for higher carbon goods and services need to be assured that everyone is paying their fair share. The compact is worth trying.

What this comes down to is the need to frame climate change and the policies needed to tackle it so that the public will engage with them. There can’t be trust, responsibility or understanding if people aren’t thinking and acting, let alone talking in the same conceptual space. For understandable reasons, UK political discourse tends to frame climate change debate around fear of an impending catastrophe. All of the parties now use this frame, even if it is tempered by economic and political considerations. But a recent, well-researched piece by Andrew Revkin of the New York Times suggests that will not work.

In using the metaphor of a “green blitz spirit”, Nick used a different frame: war and the need for common endeavour. This ties in with the “enemy over the water” archetype that has underpinned successful political narratives in British history. On climate change though, people need to see a threat and agree that they can resist and win.

After looking at the latest evidence, the Framing Science weblog observed that:

The challenge is to define the "old" story of global warming in ways that make it personally relevant to segments of the public currently tuning out the issue.
On Monday, especially during the Q&A, Nick argued that green issues are still predominantly a concern of the better-off groups in society.

So there is an interesting challenge for those discussing his climate change covenant: making it seem relevant and owned by all of us.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

"Fairness" revisited

I am sceptical about the value of “fairness” as a political message for the Liberal Democrats. (See my previous blog on this)

I have long suspected that when many people tell pollsters or focus group meisters that they are concerned about a lack of “fairness”, they are not really talking about social equality or pensions or human rights .

This is underlined by some Newsnight polling that has been done as part of BBC2’s unfortunately named White Season.

A majority of white working class Britons feel nobody speaks for people like them, a BBC survey has suggested.

Some 58% said they felt unrepresented compared with 46% of white middle class respondents to a Newsnight poll.

White working classes were also negative about the past decade with 62% saying life had generally become worse in the UK.

Now for some specifics:

Of the working class people questioned 71% believe crime has got worse over the last decade, compared with 66% of middle class people.

On housing, 80% of the working class say that people like them can no longer afford to buy homes in the area they live. A smaller majority - 68% - of middle class people believed they had been priced out of the local housing market.

Overall 62% of the white working classes believe that life in Britain has generally got worse over the last decade compared with 51% of middle class white people.

For this large group, “fairness” may really about resentment.

Nobody should really need to ask what that’s about.

When asked whether they thought immigration into Britain, on the whole, was a good or bad thing for the country the survey suggests that opinion was divided between people from different social groups.

Some 52% of the white working class people questioned thought immigration was a bad thing (42% thought it was a good thing), while just 33% of white middle class people thought it bad (62% thought it a good thing).

When asked whether they thought new immigrants had put their jobs at risk the survey suggests that more than twice as many white working class people (27%) compared with middle class (13%) people thought it had.

No, I’m not suggesting that the Liberal Democrats should lift policies from the BNP. But we misread “fairness” and, like all the parties, under-estimate the feelings behind these findings at our peril.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Let's hope the conference is better than the slogan

"A new politics for Britain", the official slogan for the Liberal Democrats’ spring conference, has been bugging me for weeks.

A slogan is supposed to leave the brand’s key message in the mind of the target audience. But this one breaks nearly all the rules. It isn’t memorable. Nor is it campaignable. How many FOCUS leaflets will this appear on?!

It doesn’t impart positive feelings for the party. One reason is that it uses the dreaded word “politics”.

This slogan isn’t particularly original: I’m sure I’ve heard it somewhere before and David Cameron is saying it too, though not as a slogan. Many voters, if they every see it, will say “so what” or “oh yeah”?

Then we have to ask ourselves, what does “a new politics for Britain” really mean? It may be about the Liberal Democrats’ proposals for reforming UK governance. But we worked out years ago that while those may be right, they don’t have much political impact.

Promising a better sort of politics slams into a big wall: you are talking about how you do politics rather than the results; means not ends. We know what most people are more interested in. As the American pollster and strategist Frank Luntz says:

“Political messages should emphasise bottom line results, not process.”
[Words that Work (2007)]

I can’t see how the slogan fits into a strategy to strengthen the Lib Dem brand or tell a story about us. The party does not seem to be majoring on political reform as a big issue (see above). Maybe that will change at the conference. And yet the main policy paper to be discussed is about health.

My real concern though is about the party may still be stuck trying to sell a “product” rather than engaging with what the voters are thinking about and feeling and, in big, almost emotional terms, what they want and expect from the Liberal Democrats. If we’re serious about having a political narrative that works, we need to listen to Stephen Denning, the guru of storytelling.

If leaders are going to have any success in prompting the audience to discover [a] new story and imagine a different kind of future, they first need to understand the current story that their listeners are living.
[The Secret Language of Leadership (2007)]

By this standard, a conference slogan of years past, “putting people first”, might be a better bet. So might “free, fair and green”, which is saying something.

Or have I missed something?

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Waiting for the Obama-a-likes

The rise and rise of Senator Barack Obama is an epic event in the history of political marketing. Politicos everywhere should watch and learn.


Because a party 's appeal - its brand and narrative - sinks or swims with its leader.

And that's because it comes down to telling a story that clicks with what the people listening to it – the voters – are thinking and feeling. Engaging the emotions, especially hope and fear, are what it’s really about.

Someone has to tell the story and make the connection. That's usually the party leader. It all comes together when s/he embodies it and lends the story a sense of authenticity.

During World War II, Winston Churchill called on the British people to have courage and make sacrifices. He stayed in London during the blitz and exposed himself to the risk of physical danger. He visited bombsites in east London and elsewhere.

Margaret Thatcher spoke to England’s aspirational and provincial middle classes and preached the values of hard work and personal discipline as the path to national recovery. The grocer’s daughter from Grantham worked all hours

In the mid-1990s, Tony Blair offered middle England a fresh start, a clear break from the Conservatives and Old Labour. He looked and dressed just like the people he was speaking to.

So too with Senator Obama, the candidate of “hope” and change”. As I have said before, he offers Democratic voters the promise of renewal, a break from the past. Through his personal story, he embodies the notion that positive change can happen in America. Yesterday, E.J. Dionne jr. argued that Senator Obama is a “yes, we can” candidate who is so powerful because, just like Ronald Reagan in 1980, he gives all sorts of voters a sense of historic opportunity. They can change the political weather.

The Obama story is catching on.

Try this from New Zealand’s left-wing political pundit Chris Trotter. This week, he catalogued what he sees as the NZ public’s anxieties this election year and then said:

For months they’ve been waiting for [Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark] to acknowledge their unease, and, if possible, offer an accurate diagnosis of it.

They have waited in vain.

Miss Clark is no Bill Clinton: she cannot look her supporters in the eye and say, "I feel your pain".

At heart, the prime minister is a diligent and rather uninspiring policy wonk, who has never really understood that politics is not about the head, but the heart.

The voters are simply not in the market for "tonnes of policy". What they're in the market for are tonnes of empathy.

. . .

In their affinity for political managerialism, Helen and Hillary[Clinton] are alike. But, do [National Party leader John] Key's speeches echo our own electorate's hunger for "Hope" and "Change" in the way Barack Obama's echo America's?

Yes, in a strange way they do. Mr Key may not be as effective a speaker as Mr Obama, but his personal political narrative (poor boy raised by a solo mum, who transcends his humble origins to achieve remarkable success) is strikingly similar – and so is the way voters have loaded their deep longing for fresh explanations and new beginnings on to the young challenger's shoulders.

Chris Trotter may be a bit hard on Helen Clark, who has led her party for fourteen years and read the public mood well enough to win three general elections. The NZ electorate may want to see some policy substance from the opposition. So, I am sure, will the British. (Not as lists, though.) Both may be really after some new, younger faces at the top rather than a rendezvous with destiny.

The interesting point he makes is that a party of the centre-right may be about to take over the powerful themes of “hope” and “change”. It's easier when you have been out of power for nearly nine years, The NZ National Party also has a leader with a compelling personal story that could make their promise of an aspirational, centrist politics seem more real to floating voters.

Will it work in the UK? For “Helen Clark” in the piece above, you can easily read “Gordon Brown”. The Conservatives know that the public are deeply disgruntled after ten years of Labour and are talk about “change” at every available opportunity. (The Tory pamphlets coming through my door are even called “Change”.) But David Cameron is no Barack Obama and his origins were far from humble. Athough he is their most appealing leader in years, the Conservatives cannot quite define what David Cameron embodies and how it will click with the public mood. That's one reason they don't have a compelling narrative. Not yet.