Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Sick politics

How many times have you heard the Liberal Democrats patronised or mocked as: a bit loopy; or well-meaning-but-not-quite-serious; or “limp wrested”? Remember the cartoons of Ming Campbell with a zimmer frame? There are epithets for Nick Clegg now too; I don’t need to repeat them here. And you must have noticed how Gordon Brown constantly refers to the Liberal Democrats as “the liberals”. Somehow, I don’t think he’s helpfully trying to analyse our party philosophy.

In subtle and not so subtle ways, our opponents keep trying to ridicule and undermine us. By using language and clever framing, they try to make us seem less valid, less real and less authentic – in short, not legitimate in politics.

This technique is as old as politics itself. In my experience though, the right do it better. I used to belong to the New Zealand Labour Party. Many years ago, it was led by a decent man but he had a high voice and minimal charisma. Popularly known as "Bill" Rowling, he was mocked by his main opponent as “Wallace”. In one general election campaign, a band of tories paid for newspaper adverts with cartoons showing a mouse-like caricature of Rowling caught in a trap.

The past masters at this type of politics must be the US Republicans. In the late 1980s, Newt Gingrich (later Speaker of the House) ran a political action committee that mailed a pamphlet called Language, A Key Mechanism of Control to Republicans all over the country. The booklet offered rhetorical advice to Republican candidates who wanted to “speak like Newt.”

Republicans were told to describe their opponents as “sick”, “shallow”, “pathetic” and “corrupt”. There were some generalities for Republicans to apply to themselves and their policies. These included “change”, “choice”, “commitment”, “hard work”, “moral” and “common sense”. In 1990, the pamphlet was awarded a Doublespeak Award by the National Conference of Teachers of English. But the Republicans finally won control of both Houses of Congress in 1994 and held on until after the 2006 elections.

The same tactics were later used in what David Bromwich of The Huffington Post calls the delegitimation of President Bill Clinton. It started with Whitewater and ended with the then president’s impeachment trial. The whole thing left Bill and Hillary Clinton, understandably, very bitter.

Geoffrey Nunberg has shown how George W. Bush’s presidential victories in 2000 and 2004 were a result of the Republicans’ superior skill at political framing. Nunberg and George Lakoff have shown how Republicans high-jacked the language of politics to push liberals and their values seem outside the political mainstream.

The same tactics are now being used against Senator Barack Obama. The negative frame being used is race. David Bromwich condemns none other than Bill and Hillary Clinton for joining in with the extreme Republican right. He traces what he sees as attempts by the Clintons to delegitimate Obama and then says:

"Hillary Clinton's recent careless-careful mention of the assassination of Robert Kennedy, in answer to a question about why she would stay in the Democratic race when all the numbers are against her, raised the tactics of delegitimation to a pitch as weird as anything the Clintons can have seen in the years 1997-98.

"The most disturbing element of her remark was this: that it chose to treat assassination as just one more political possibility, one of the things that happen in our politics, like hecklers, lobbyists, and forced resignations. The slovenly morale and callousness of such a released fantasy is catching. So when, a few days later, the Fox News contributor Liz Trotta was asked her opinion of Senator Clinton's statement, Trotta said: "some are reading [it] as a suggestion that somebody knock off Osama...Obama. Well...both if we could!" Liz Trotta laughed as she said that. Later, she apologized, as Senator Clinton also has apologized."

Bromwich is horrified by this apparent acceptance of political violence and worries where it all will lead.

His final comments might be just a little alarmist. I’d like to think so. But make no mistake: Senator Obama will struggle against vicious attempts to frame him as too liberal and, yes, too black to be president. As with his rise from underdog to near-certain nominee, Senator Obama’s general election campaign – and the campaign to stop him - will provide a once-in-a-generation case study of how political frames and story-telling really work. Let’s hope there’s a happy ending this time.

As for what the Liberal Democrats should do about the on-going efforts to attack our legitimacy, the obvious answer is to make the charges less credible. More tough choices, fewer wish lists. More focus on results, less talk about process. More narrative, fewer litanies. Otherwise, I’m all for fighting fire with fire. Once again, Vince Cable offered up one of our best attack lines when he called Gordon Brown’s fall from grace “from Stalin to Mr Bean”. More recently, he slated the Tories as “a bit flaky” on key policy areas. We need some more of that.

(With thanks to Jafapete for the Bromwich reference.)

Monday, 19 May 2008

Securing the economic future: lessons from the Kiwi Cameron

Imagine this.

A developed, progressive democracy has a moderate Labour government. They have won a record three general elections in a row, after years of unhappy toil in opposition. The foundation of their success has been a strongly performing economy, with stable prices and low unemployment. The government has done a pretty good job of keeping its income and spending in balance. Consumer debt has been too high over the years but that hasn’t done the government too much political harm. There have been many mistakes and missteps but, all in all, the prime minister and cabinet have seemed pretty competent, especially when you look at their opponents. And, as they have often asked, who wants to have the Tories back; they were such a disaster in the 1990s. For years, the electoral “middle ground” stuck with Labour.

Stay with me . . .

In the last couple of years, however, that’s all changed. The good times are over, prices are going up, the housing market has stalled. People are feeling the pinch, worried about their finances. The PM isn’t so popular now and is regularly savaged by the media. After all these years, ministers are looking tired and becoming accident-prone. As for the Tories, they have at last found an attractive, moderate-looking leader; a new kid in town, untainted by their past failures. To help re-brand his party, the Tory leader regularly makes forays into unfamiliar issue territory and ditches unpopular or risky policies. And he is from a younger generation than the Labour PM. To many voters, he looks “fresh” but safe. The conservatives are streets ahead in the polls. A fourth Labour term looks like a big ask.

Sound familiar? Well, the country is New Zealand, the Labour prime minister is Helen Clark and the National (Tory) leader is John Key. But the parallels with the UK are clear.

Facing very similar challenges as they try to take their respective parties back into power, David Cameron and John Key are telling people very similar stories.

Let's look at it terms of the steps for storytelling set out by Stephen Denning. Both have captured the public’s attention. Cameron uses “liberal conservative” rhetoric and campaigns on un-Tory issues like the NHS, climate change and worsening social inequality. Key started out by attacking the Clark government over the alleged level of poverty in New Zealand. He has shifted ground on some policies – such as on defence – to inoculate himself against Labour attacks.

Both Cameron and Key make the case for change, charging their Labour opponents with being past it, out of touch and failing to use the good times to make economic improvements and provide for the bad times. Both still push traditional Tory issues, especially crime and policing but they use softer, subtler language than their predecessors. Both talk vaguely about strengthening families and society and doing more on the environment. Above all, both offer voters a fresh start but without big, threatening policy shocks.

Both Key and Cameron face the same effort at a counter-story from their main opponents. Gordon Brown keeps calling Cameron a “shallow salesman”; Clark depicts John Key as a lightweight, out of his depth. She and her colleagues regularly mock his policy missteps, of which there have been several. He is a novice in foreign affairs. UK Labour and Lib Dem politicians should watch to see if this works on Key.

The two Labour PMs could be on to something. Voters in both countries may want the government out, but they are less sure about the main alternative. Last week’s Politics Home survey found that Cameron is seen as more “fake” than Gordon Brown – a rare crumb of comfort for the PM. Since the local elections, much of the commentariat has been on to David Cameron to provide a clearer vision of where he would take the country. Cameron says he is part of the progressive tradition in UK politics. But we have yet to hear specific plans to enhance social mobility.

The next step for both Tory leaders is to back it all up with what Denning calls “rational arguments”. I think that means that they need coherent, credible, interesting policies, framed in ways that the public can relate to.

David Cameron might learn a few things from John Key, who seems a little further ahead on the policy front. But then he has just a few months to go till the New Zealand election, while David Cameron still has two years to close the deal. Just as the genesis of Tony Blair’s New Labour can be traced back to the way both Australia’s Bob Hawke and New Zealand’s David Lange combined hard heads and soft hearts in the 1980s.

John Key has weighed in to what one NZ columnist calls “the debate on how to turn the country's two-stroke powered broadband system into a V8”. (See his speech here). Later in the year, he promises a spectacular research, science & technology policy. As the respected NZ political commentator Colin James explained:

“It's all about who is the future. John Key reckons he is and that fast broadband to every living room is a powerful symbol -- and, moreover, that he knows about these things better than Helen Clark because he is younger.

“The electoral strategy behind the broadband big bang is to draw a picture of Key in window-shopping voters' minds as an action Prime Minister of the future and contrast that with older Helen Clark, a 1980s minister and [PM] for nine years.”

James acknowledged that this is not entirely fair to the Clark government, who have implemented a lot of policies for innovation and have plans for more.

But the Clark government are at a disadvantage here, not least because they are widely perceived - also unfairly - as being tired and out of ideas. The NZ Labour economic narrative is that they are a prudent and fair manager of prosperity and the Nats were not in the 1990s. But that seems old hat now and, as Jafapete suggests, Kiwi voters may now have banked fairness and prudence after enjoying years of both. Likewise, I think that prudent fiscal management is the least that British voters expect. The test is who can deliver it, who are better managers. Otherwise, the political contest over the economy seems to be about who will secure the economic future.

Cameron is dabbling with his own economic big picture, speaking loftily about “the post-bureaucratic era” at last year’s Google Zeitgeist conference and, earlier this month, unveiling plans to work with Rolls-Royce on policies to revitalise the manufacturing sector. I suspect that some “securing the future”-type rhetoric isn’t far off. But he’ll need to come up with some specifics too.

It would be great if Nick Clegg could beat Cameron to this message and own it. In so doing, he could play to some Liberal Democrat strengths. For instance, there can be no secure economic future unless the UK has an effective strategy to tackle climate change and, with the EU, to lead developed and fast-developing countries to do the same. Cameron seems to have no idea whatsoever about he would work with our European partners. Nick Clegg used to do it for a living and the Lib Dems should be more credible than the Tories on EU relations. Then there are the big opportunities offered by the new clean and energy-saving technologies to create new jobs and wealth whilst also saving the planet. The Lib Dems could make more of these, to carve out a distinctive niche and, yes, tell a story.

How about it?

[thanks to Jafapete for his helpful suggestions on this posting]

Friday, 16 May 2008

Nick Clegg - asset or liability? a quick update

Media reporting of the latest opinion polls has all but ignored what they said about Nick Clegg, so here are some quick observations and a couple of questions to ponder.

Nick’s main challenge remains lack of profile: people still don’t know him well enough to express an opinion. PoliticsHome’s five day rolling average tracker (1 – 8 May) tested all three leaders for a range of attributes. 28 per cent thought that Nick Clegg had “none of these”, compared to 9 per cent for David Cameron and 7 per cent for Gordon Brown.

Let’s get it this into perspective: Nick is still a new leader. The Populus survey for May found that one in four voters had no opinion of him. Ming Campbell had same sort of recognition at the same stage in his leadership. And Nick's “don’t know” figure in the Populus poll has been sliding down all year. Likewise, the PoliticsHome tracker's equivalent figure shows a 10 per cent improvement on last month.

Here’s the first question: maybe Nick Clegg’s media profile will not change until there is a big news story, in which he is uniquely placed to make a positive impact? Paddy Ashdown on Bosnia and Charles Kennedy on Iraq could be two templates. So, perhaps, are their respective general election campaigns in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

There is good news. The Populus survey showed that Nick Clegg’s leader rating had risen for the second month running, up from 4.27 to 4.52 among all voters and from 5.53 to 5.72 among Lib Dem supporters.

PoliticsHome found that, overall, the public rates him higher than Gordon Brown. Nick's strongest attributes, so far as the public were concerned, are “likeable”, “intelligent” and “normal”. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent any time in his company. He also did quite well for being seen as "moderate". But his top negative score was for being “ineffective”. On average, Nick's positive and negative scores were evenly balanced – but then they only added up to 26 per cent; the lack of profile again.

There’s an even more interesting issue. Perhaps a third party leader who is in opposition will always be seen as “ineffective”. And a lot of Nick’s positive attributes have often been attached to the Liberal Democrats and our previous leaders.

So here’s the second question: could nice, normal, intelligent and moderate – and ineffective - be what the Liberal Democrats’ brand image is really about?

If this is the story that people think and tell about us – the narrative that counts - then Nick Clegg and the party as a whole have some good themes to play to. And there’s a big, old dragon that still needs slaying: whether the Liberal Democrats are coherent, competent and strong enough to make a difference.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Lessons from London for the Lib Dems

Here’s a paradox from Thursday’s local election results.

Where voting was by first-past-the-post – that is, outside London – the Liberal Democrats won a respectable set of results, which have generally been recognised as such by the media.

Where other voting systems were used, however, it was different story. In the race for London Mayor, where supplementary voting was used, Brian Paddick won a 9.6 per cent share, 5 points down on 2004. He was squeezed in the titanic Boris / Ken clash. His campaign lacked a story. But none of that fully explains why Lib Dem supporters did not give him their first preference votes. According to an eve-of-poll YouGov survey, two out of three Lib Dem identifiers voted for Ken or Boris or other candidates. It seems that many just didn’t get that they could vote “with their conscience” with their first preference, while using the second preference more pragmatically.

In the London Assembly, which is elected using the Additional Member System [note to NZ readers: it’s very much like MMP], the Lib Dems went from five assembly members down to three Our total vote share dropped by nearly seven points, to 11 per cent. And yet constituency candidates achieved an average of 14 per cent, with none being elected.

Despite years of campaigning for fair votes, the Lib Dems still don’t seem to know how to campaign effectively when systems other than first-past-the-post are used. I believe that the party’s campaigns need to go back to basics when it comes to explaining how the voting systems work and how people can make their choices count. Our supporters can use the party list vote to elect more Lib Dems to the London Assembly. But that didn’t seem to feature in our campaign.

People can give us their party votes because they like what the Lib Dems say and do. There could be other reasons to back the party. For there was an especially stomach churning result on Thursday: the election of a British National Party (BNP) candidate to the London Assembly, off the party list.

What can the Lib Dems do about it? For a start, we could dust off some of the Australian Democrats’ old campaign materials and see what can be applied in London. In 1998, the Australian Democrats were campaigning to hold their Senate seats in a PR (STV) election. Their main rival in some states, apart from the Greens, was Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, which wanted to drastically cut immigration, as well as ending multicultural policies. Once you assumed that the two parties would win the first few Senate seats, it came down to who people really wanted to hold the balance of power in the Senate. So the Democrats invited their sympathisers, plus anyone else who had no truck with Pauline Hanson, to keep her out. The slogan was “Vote Democrat to stop One Nation dividing Australia.” It worked.

The voting systems are different, but the basic arithmetic is much the same.

The Lib Dems may have an opportunity – or a duty – to try a similar tactic.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Boris's victory and the power of political storytelling

If you want to see how political narratives really work, look no further than Boris Johnson’s successful bid to become Mayor of London.

It gives me no pleasure to say this –- and I was appalled at the number of Lib Dems who voted for him as their first or second choice -- the Tory candidate’s campaign came straight from the copybook of political storytelling.

In The Secret Language Of Leadership (2007), Stephen Denning argues that telling the story is the way to make a personal and emotional connection with an audience. It needs more than rational argument. Denning argues that a speaker (or leader, or politician) must: (1) get peoples’ attention, (2) stimulate the desire for change and (3) reinforce it with rational argument. You must offer solutions that are plausible and involve a happy ending.

Boris Johnson’s campaign was successful in crafting such a narrative. First, Johnson got the public’s attention because he is a very well-known tv celebrity and comedian, an established print journalist and columnist. In this age of celebrity, he was able to seem interesting, novel and above party politics, despite having been a Conservative MP since 2001. And for London politics, he was a new and interesting face.

Second, Johnson stimulated a desire for change. That was easy because after eight years in office, the Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone had made himself unpopular. Yesterday, the polling firm Ipsos-MORI published their ‘inbox’ for the new mayor. Based on 41,000 interviews for the London boroughs' and seven years of tracking data in the London survey, it shows that Londoners are satisfied with their city as a place to live. But they are concerned about the cost of living, housing, overall crime levels and in particular violent crime, traffic congestion and congestion charging. When asked which issues would decide their votes, respondents gave crime and policing, transport overall and healthcare as their top three. 

The Ipsos-MORI survey also showed that Livingstone had polarised the public over congestion charging and that people disliked his style and attitude. They thought that he had grown out of touch. 

Apart from healthcare, these became the top subjects of Johnson’s mega-message: Ken Livingstone must go.

Third, Johnson followed up his powerful “time for a change” theme with rational arguments. Nobody would ever call Boris a policy wonk but he had enough solutions on the big issues that were plausible to his target voters. Doubling the number of police on the buses, especially in outer London. Action on gang crime. Phase out bendy buses. Reform the congestion charge. Build more affordable homes. Stand up for Londoners on healthcare.  No, I wasn’t taken in and it will be fascinating to watch him try to keep all his promises.  My point is, policies do matter but it’s how you frame them that counts!

OK, Johnson sometimes floundered under questioning but the mood for change had built up. The media narrative was written – Ken out, Boris in.  The Tory campaign rammed it home by selling their man as the only change for the better. (I’ve seen that one used to great effect in Australian election campaigns. Just fancy that!)

Johnson embodied his narrative by being younger, newer and more approachable than Livingstone.  He is also a big personality but with a very different style and background to the outgoing mayor.  But he became serious and measured to the point of being dull, so it became harder to pin the “Boris the clown” tag on him.  As a tv celebrity, he could be engaging and compelling and this enabled him to discuss the issues in a way that struck a chord with disenchanted voters’ emotions.  Like most Londoners, he was upbeat about the city and its future.  Boris – for people usually refer to him by his Christian name only - seemed to offer voters a safe, unrisky change. A happy ending.

Let me be clear: I am sure that the ending won’t be happy, especially for some of those who live in the less leafy parts of London. 

I was pleased to vote for Brian Paddick for my first preference.  I appreciate that he was always going to struggle against the huge financial and media juggernauts behind the Labour and Tory candidates.  Also, it seems that Lib Dem supporters didn’t understand the voting system, but more on that later. 

We can’t let ourselves off the hook though.  The Tory story worked and we need to understand why.  Once again, our campaign had a meaty list of good policies.  But I don’t think that we told people a good story about why they should vote Lib Dem, for the Mayor or the GLA.

They responded accordingly.