Friday, 26 September 2008

Security issues set to dominate 2009 election

The five yearly elections for the European Parliament usually bring the Liberal Democrats a few headaches. We now have 11 MEPs and they make a real difference. (Take just one example: Chris Davies’s high-profile work on carbon capture and storage and cutting vehicle emissions.) But many Liberal Democrat supporters simply don’t turn out to vote for the party at the Euro-elections; they are even less inclined to vote than other parties’ supporters. After every European election, we hear claims that the party hierarchy didn’t take the election seriously enough. There’s also the perennial tussle over whether to fight the elections on “European issues” or to invite voters to send the government a message.

Last week’s Lib Dem conference approved a new policy paper on Europe. This tried to straddle the argument by focussing on how Europe can help improve peoples’ lives, in such areas as economic reform, agriculture, energy and security. Things like enlargement, competences and budget setting were there, but they took a back seat.

Now, Eurobarometer has produced a new survey that should give us all pause for thought.

First, it looks as if voter turnout will, once again, be low. Eurobarometer found that just 3 per cent of British voters know that the European Parliament elections will be held next year. This is the lowest figure in the EU. More than three in five say they are somewhat or very uninterested in the elections. That’s a bit higher than the EU average – 51 per cent.

Only one in five British voters say they will definitely vote. Those who don’t plan to vote give as their main reasons: a belief that their vote won’t change anything (75 per cent); a lack of interest in the European elections (71 per cent); a lack of knowledge about the role of the European Parliament (67 per cent), a feeling that the Parliament does not address the issues that concern them (65 per cent); a lack of information (65 per cent) and a lack of interest in European affairs (59 per cent). British voters simply won’t turn out to vote in large numbers next year unless those figures - amongst the highest on the Europe - come down.

Second, the likely battleground issues of the election are not favourable terrain for the Liberal Democrats. Most European voters want the campaign to focus first and foremost on economic themes that affect their everyday lives – unemployment, economic growth and inflation, in that order. Next on their lists are global and security-related themes – crime, terrorism, fighting climate change and immigration, in that order. Last of all, they look to themes directly related to the European Union, such as the single currency, agriculture and the powers and competences of European institutions.

But British voters see the issues very differently. They want the European election campaign to concentrate on immigration (picked by 72 per cent as their first or second issue), followed by terrorism (51 per cent) and then crime (46 per cent). These are followed, well behind, by economic growth (34 per cent), unemployment (33 per cent) and the fight against climate change (31 per cent). Issues that Liberal Democrat campaigners are likely to be interested in came well down. For instance, just 15 per cent nominated agriculture first or second and barely one in ten picked the Euro.

Liberal Democrats have clear policies at European level on immigration, terrorism and security issues. The question is, whether the policies are sufficiently distinctive for the party to campaign on them and, for that matter, whether we are comfortable in doing so.

There are two health warnings. One is that the survey work was undertaken in March – May when the economic mood was simply bad, as opposed to lousy at the moment. By next spring, UK voters may want to focus more on economic matters. The other is that the survey does not (and cannot) differentiate between definite / possible Liberal Democrat voters and others. The issues that float their boats may be somewhat different.

Let’s not kid ourselves though. Seven voters in ten are most concerned about immigration. That’s a sledgehammer we just can’t ignore.

If only there was an easy way to motivate Liberal Democrat supporters out to vote in elections like these . . .

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Here's a tough one: reading the British public's views on climate change

People need to change their behaviours if we are to have any chance of addressing the climate crisis – the greatest challenge facing humankind. But if the British people are confused or ambivalent about climate change, they are less likely to change.

It could be bad news for the Liberal Democrats too. Populus has found that climate change is our strongest issue with the voters. Some say that it should be a cornerstone of our European Parliament election campaign in 2009. Many of our key policy measures for climate change aim to persuade and incentivise people to change their behaviours.

Here’s a quick summary of how I see the conventional wisdom about public attitudes to climate change and the measures needed to tackle it. The British public are very aware and very concerned about climate change but this concern is not necessarily reflected in most peoples’ actions. A possible explanation: people do not know what they can do to take meaningful action. But consumers have arguably become more prepared in recent years to change their behaviours, in order to be more environmentally friendly, but don’t want to feel too much financial pain as a result. This week, The Guardian carried a report of a new poll by Opinium showing that nearly two-thirds of those surveyed thought that recent government measures to boost energy conservation needed to go much further, and half said they were doing their bit by installing insulation or turning down the thermostat.

Moreover, the public expects business and government to take a key leadership role in facilitating change and making green choices easier. This expectation needs to be weighed against a considerable amount of cynicism and mistrust in the motivations of both business and government in respect of environmental matters.

The bottom line is that most people don’t want to pay more in green taxes. According to The Guardian report, more than seven out of 10 of the those questioned said they were unwilling to pay higher taxes to combat environmental issues, and a similar number believed the green agenda had been "hijacked" to increase taxes.

Earlier this month, Eurobarometer published the results of a new survey on Europeans’ attitudes to climate change. The report shows that the British public hold some different views about climate change from those in the rest of the EU. The views uncovered by the Eurobarometer – mainly about how well-informed people are about the magnitude of the challenge – also provide further explanation for the somewhat contradictory opinions outlined above.

First, people in the UK appear somewhat less convinced than other EU citizens about the scale of the climate crisis. Three in four European citizens say that they take the problem very seriously. But three in five UK citizens think the same and this country has the highest percentage (14 per cent) saying climate change is not a serious problem. Along with respondents from Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, UK respondents are the only ones that rank “international terrorism” as a more important problem than climate change. And four in ten UK respondents think that the. A UK majority (52 per cent) disagreed that the seriousness of climate change has been exaggerated but 39 per cent, a large minority, Across the EU as a whole, the margin of disagreement was 65 per cent to 26 per cent.

Second, British people may be more pessimistic about climate change. This country has one of Europe’s largest proportions of citizens who agree that climate change is an unstoppable process and that we cannot do anything about it: 39 per cent of UK respondents agreed with this proposition and 52 per cent disagreed. Across the EU, however, the figures were 60 per cent disagreeing to 31 per cent agreeing.

Third – and this could explain a lot -- UK citizens may not be as well-informed about climate change as previously thought. When asked whether they feel well informed about climate change issues and the ways of fighting it, UK citizens come in the top five of EU countries. But this self-perception may not be well placed. British respondents are among those more likely to say that CO2 emissions have only a marginal impact on climate change (44 per cent agreed, compared to an EU average of 30 per cent).

Perhaps people in this country are becoming victims of “green-out” and that the endless stream of bad climate news has exhausted people and caused them to tune out of the issue?

But British people are amongst Europe’s top five when it comes to personally taking actions aimed at helping to fight climate change. In particular, the separation of waste for recycling appears to be well established in this country. A sense of “common endeavour” is their main reason for taking climate action – though it resonates less in this country than elsewhere in Europe. They are also less likely to admit to being motivated by financial factors.

Let’s get real: money is obviously a key driver in peoples’ decisions. 44 per cent of Europeans say that they would be ready to pay between 1 per cent and 30 per cent more for green energy. Thirty per cent would not be willing to pay more. 26 per cent have no opinion. For the UK, the figures are 36 per cent ready to pay more, 41 per cent not ready and 23 per cent do not know. As long as green energy is more expensive, or specific policy measures designed to promote renewables are picked up by consumer, that will have a big impact on the politics of climate change. Here, the conventional wisdom is confirmed.

British opinions about climate change may be more polarized than they may once have seemed. UK citizens are more likely than those in other EU countries to give a lack of concern about climate change as the reason for not taking action. They are much less likely (24 per cent compared to an average of 42 per cent) to give as the reason a belief that governments, companies and industries should do more, not to take action. They are also less likely to give a lack of knowledge about what they can do.

As for who should solve the climate crisis, most British people are unlikely to look to the EU. UK respondents were less likely than their continental partners to know about what the EU is doing on climate change: 22 per cent, compared to an EU average of 24 per cent. As a result, they were less likely to say that the EU was not doing enough: 49 per cent against an EU average of 58 per cent.

So the Liberal Democrats may want to think carefully before making climate issues per se the centerpiece of the next European election campaign. We should consider the potential opportunities too: three in five UK respondents either support or see as too modest the EU target to increase to 20 per cent the share of energy that comes from renewables by 2020.

And who do most British people think should try to solve the climate crisis? 54 per cent say their own government is not doing enough about it. (Even so, that figure is 10 per cent lower than the EU average.) A possible modification to accepted thinking: a higher number (60 per cent) say that citizens themselves are not doing enough. And 70 per cent say that corporations and industry are not doing enough on climate change. Both the latter figures are also slightly under the EU average. There are some obvious political opportunities there, but they need to be traded off against other data about what people are prepared to do (pay) themselves. [see above, and also this, and this]

The honest answer is that the EU, national governments, citizens and business all need to do more, much more. The real question remains, who pays the most and receives the most benefits, and when.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Meet Nick Clegg, heuristic

Over the past week, there have been signs of major progress in the Liberal Democrats’ efforts to communicate with the outside world.

Let’s start with Framing Science, who cite a new survey on why people are planning to vote for either Barack Obama or John McCain. Obama voters are motivated by the promise of “change” more than anything else. McCain supporters are most likely to explain their vote with references to McCain's experience and qualifications.

Where the candidates stand on policies and issues came way down both lists. For instance, just 1 per cent of voters cited the environment or global warming as the main driver of their vote.

Framing Science says:

"It's often heuristics based on personal characteristics and narrative that matter, rather than the issues."

A heuristic is like a mental short cut. A couple of years ago, Dr Claire Robinson of Massey University in New Zealand, who specialises in political marketing and communications, explained how it works, in an e-mail to me:

". . . Narratives act as heuristic cues for low awareness voters. When people lack motivation or ability to decipher an issue, they rely on peripheral cues. "

She then talked about the part played by affective narrative – a story or brand that works at an emotional, intuitive level – and the crucial role of a party leader.

"Affective narrative[s] operate as a peripheral cue when people aren’t knowledgeable about an issue or party; they enable voters to follow gut feeling. Leaders also act as heuristic cues. If is often much easier for voters to relate on a personal level to ‘real’ people than abstract policies, especially if there’s some kind of narrative attached to the person as well. "

Dr Robinson stressed the importance of reaching ‘low awareness voters’, who are more likely to decide who to vote for late in a campaign.

"They are more likely to invoke heuristics . . . that enable them to reduce the time needed to process complex political information and make their voting decisions without much effort. These heuristics are frequently found in advertising messages, news stories, newspaper headlines, and billboard slogans. "

She has also found evidence that campaign communications are more likely to have an impact if the campaign is more intensive, competitive and receives more media coverage.

As I have argued many times, the Liberal Democrats have traditionally been muc better at providing detailed policies than these kinds of narratives and shortcuts -- though Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy both, in time, became electoral assets for the party. Having a lot of words is part of the party’s communications culture. Changing it will not be easy.

If a leader is a key heuristic, can Nick Clegg be an asset for the Liberal Democrats, just as David Cameron is an asset for the Tories and Gordon Brown is liability for Labour?

Last weekend, in a bloggers’ interview session, I asked Nick how he might embody a party narrative that is becoming centred on the concepts of “fairness” and “social justice”, as well as “changing politics”. Nick replied that he didn’t try to hold himself up as a “paragon of virtue” and added that he and his wife both earn well. Then he explained that he is not a typical Westminster politician. Nick was confident that people will be able to relate to him as a “real person” (my words not his), outside the political context.

Embodying a narrative is not really about being perfect manifestation of it; you simply need to illustrate or reflect the story in some way. It could be easier than Nick may think! In Thursday night’s edition of Newsnight, the American focus group meister Frank Luntz showed how our leader might embody the Lib Dem narrative. A focus group of floating voters saw Gordon Brown as indecisive and confused and David Cameron as Blair Mark II. But when they 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. Almost everyone had a positive reaction. Many said they will consider voting Liberal Democrat.

The comments that Luntz took from some of the floating voters about the clip on tax were especially interesting:

"It’s as if he didn’t have an angle to it – what he said, I believed him.”

“A lot more credible. He seems to be talking at a level people on the ground can understand.”

“. . . About the normally people basically paying more tax than the rich people. . . I really agreed [with him].”

“We don’t have any preconceptions . . . we’re starting from neutral ground . . .”

“. . . Whether he can ever deliver it is a different matter.”

There may not be an Obama-style story attached to Nick, but he could provide people with a quick way of understanding what the Liberal Democrats offer. Compare the above comments – yes, from just one focus group – with the findings of the 2008 Times-Populus conference poll on the Liberal Democrats, released last Monday, during conference.

On five out of eight measures of the main characteristics of parties, the Lib Dems are now regarded more favourably than either Labour or the Conservatives. For instance, 63 per cent say the Lib Dems are “for ordinary people, not just the best off”. Three voters in five say the Lib Dems care about the problems faced by ordinary people; a similar number see us as honest and principled. A majority say the party understands the way people live their lives. All of these ratings have leapt up in the last year. But two in three agreed that “it doesn't make any difference what policies the Lib Dems put forward because they have no realistic chance of ever putting them into practice, so ultimately they'll always be just a protest vote party at national level.”

So a Liberal Democrat narrative is taking shape – or, perhaps being re-established. It’s about empathy, understanding ordinary people and being honest. (Note how this is not the same thing as simply using he word "fairness" a lot) And it seems that Nick Clegg can embody the narrative.

There are two cavils, apart from the obvious counter-story, that we can’t win. One is that the party has a natural tendency to list issues and policies, rather than telling a story in interesting ways. There was a bit of that when we saw Nick Clegg last Saturday. The party’s post-conference party political broadcast, on Thursday night, was really anoter litany of policies. If we have a compelling story, we should take every opportunity to tell it.

The second is Nick’s low profile and, as he told the blogger-interviewers last weekend, that may take time to solve.

But at least there’s a story and someone who can tell it, in a way that people will listen and believe. That’s no mean feat.

Friday, 19 September 2008

After the polar bear and the handcuffs . . . viva liberalism!

(Still catching up with my posts . . . )

For a few minutes on Monday, the principles of open debate and free speech at the Liberal Democrat conference were directly threatened.  Not by Tory boys or Labour thugs, but by a green protester with a pair of handcuffs.

Here’s the background. I chaired a fringe meeting at the Lib Dem conference climate clinic, organised by Greenpeace, Christian Aid and others. It was called Coal or Renewables? A Moral Choice. The backdrop to the meeting was E.On’s plan to go ahead with building a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth, in Kent. As well as Ross Finnie, former Scottish environment minister, there were speakers from Greenpeace, the IPPR, Worcester Bosch and, of course, E.On. 

For the first half hour or so, things went smoothly and predictably enough, apart from a shonky audio system and the presence of a guy dressed up as a polar bear. That was fine by me, but I was worried that he might overheat.

Then we got to question time and to no one’s surprise, it was clear that nearly all of the audience was opposed to Kingsnorth. It was a good discussion though. And then, well . . . here’s what the Independent’s Pandora column had to say on Tuesday:

"Bucking the theory that the Liberal Democrats' Conference is one long snoozeathon, comes news of a delightful altercation in Bournemouth yesterday.
"The stand-off occurred during a Christian Aid debate being chaired by the MP [sic] Neil Stockley entitled: Coal or Renewables? A Moral Choice. As the panel prepared to take questions, one shouty activist emerged from the crowd and slapped a pair of handcuffs on E.ON's director of energy policy, Sarah Vaughan.

""She said she was arresting her for crimes against humanity," I'm told. "She just stood there for about 10 minutes until Stockley threatened to call it a day. This poor woman from E.ON was quite shaken up.""

They got it mostly right but, as I recall, the whole episode lasted just a few minutes. Also, the woman with the cuffs (I think) asked the audience for its opinion of whether they should be unlocked. The dismayed and annoyed audience was clear that they should  Off they went and we carried on.
During the conference and since, I’ve had a lot of questions and a few jokes about what happened. But there was a serious question of principle involved here. I seem to remember telling the handcuff wielder that we are a liberal party and that we don’t do things that way at our conferences; we couldn’t carry on the discussion so long as a panel speaker was being intimidated in that way.

Fortunately, very few Liberal Democrats have disagreed with me. In case you do, just think about it . . . should our fringe debates come down to who can handcuff whom? Should we let discussion of the serious issues around energy policy and the climate crisis be reduced to this sort of stunt, manipulated this way? As democrats, can we afford to discourage speakers from organisations whose views we disagree with from coming to fringes at Lib Dem conferences? And what would we say if a speaker from, say, Liberty or Greenpeace was treated that way at a Tory or Labour conference?

That’s why liberals don’t do politics by taking direct against individuals (aka bullying), however strongly we feel about the climate crisis and the other people’s conceptions of morality.

So yes . . . viva liberal principles – all of them!

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Accelerating climate change: where next for the Liberal Democrats

[My speech to the 2008 Liberal Democrat Conference, summing up the Urgent Issue debate: Polar Ice Caps: Accelerating Climate Change, Sunday 14 September 2008]

Last year, we Liberal Democrats became the first political party to commit to creating a zero carbon Britain by 2050.

We understand that Britain, like all developed countries, has to take a lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making the shift to a low carbon economy. We produced a plan to make it happen – at the international, EU and national levels.

And unlike the other parties, we have made the climate crisis a priority this year. Here, we should commend Steve Webb and his team for their efforts to strengthen the Climate Change Bill, so that future governments will be obliged to bring UK greenhouse gas emissions down to truly safe levels .

So that’s it then – paper written speeches made, job done?

Well, no. Liberal Democrats have to make tackling the climate crisis one of the main drivers of our next general election manifesto The evidence is mounting that the climate crisis is getting worse, not better; the challenges harder, not easier. We’ve heard some of it today.

This year has seen the launch of a global campaign,, that calls for a new international agreement to limit atmospheric C02 to 350 ppm, as against 385 ppm currently. That’s a more demanding target than the one we have now. But James Hansen and his colleagues have concluded that we are already in the danger zone and that 350 is the level we have to keep within to avoid any risk of massive and irreversible damage to the earth and all its inhabitants for generations to come.

I believe that the Liberal Democrats should support the campaign. More than that, we need new policies to make it happen – at European level, where that’s appropriate, and in the UK.

First, new solutions to achieve much higher energy efficiency and to speed up the shift to clean, low carbon energy sources. This includes new policies to boost renewable heat.

Second, policies to make sure that the UK takes a lead in bringing forward low carbon technologies. Let’s look at how we can get capital into those sectors.

One example is carbon capture and storage technologies, which can very quickly make coal use carbon-neutral. In the next three years, this country will spend £2.8bn a year on cleaning up its nuclear legacy. But it will invest nothing in deploying carbon capture and storage—one of the world's most important technologies for ensuring climate security. That must change.

Third, empowering consumers to make low carbon choices. The obvious place to start is ensuring that people have more accurate information about the carbon content of the energy they use and the products that they buy.

None of these things are easy . But we have to pursue them. Liberal Democrats have led the way in finding solutions to the climate crisis before. And we will do so again.

Because we understand that the impact of global warming is the biggest challenge, the biggest crisis that humankind has ever had to face.

The Liberal Democrats have led the way in meeting that challenge before. And we are going to do it again.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

On show in Bournemouth: the REAL Liberal Democrat narrative

Every so often, for instance in the pub after Federal Policy Committee meetings, in restaurants, or at train stations, Liberal Democrats (some of whom I know personally) come up to me and say something like, “hey Neil, are we any closer to finding our narrative?”

I’ve made a few suggestions (click here). But there may be a better way to find out. It doesn’t involve asking me or any other member of the party.

That’s right. Like all politicians and parties, we Liberal Democrats don’t control our own brand. All parties can try to shape their brand and sometimes, they succeed. But none of the parties ever own it. The voting public, not us, decides how they see the Liberal Democrats, or Labour, or the Conservatives. Their brand perception is set when they think a party has(n’t) satisfied their wishes or needs.

In making this decision, voters are influenced by an array of stories, messages, images and symbols. Those are presented by other parties, interest groups and commentators. One story can be drowned out by other counter-stories, especially if the latter are simpler and more deeply rooted in the audience’s core values or prejudices (which are usually stories). Of course, the media’s role as filter and interpreter is pivotal. And the Liberal Democrats have even less control over (or access) to the media than the other parties.

We still don’t know enough about those guiding values and prejudices and what people expect of us. And the party on its own can’t ever know for sure what conclusions people have reached. So, unless we want to make like the town cryer, shouting “hear ye, hear ye” in the town square, listing off policies, we need other people to tell us.

With these questions in mind, two fringe meetings at the forthcoming Liberal Democrat conference look as if they’ll be especially interesting. One is being run by BBC Radio 4 and the Royal Society of Arts at 1800 on Sunday 14 September at the De Suite, Royal De Vere Bath Hotel. This will feature fresh data from Ipsos MORI on what voters really stand for. As well as Ben Page from MORI, Chris Huhne MP will be one of the speakers.

To the best of my knowledge, of all the opinion polling organisations (apart from the party’s own), Populus has done the most research on how voters perceive the Liberal Democrats. Populus research in autumn 2005 found that most voters thought that the party was more united, cared about ordinary people’s problems and “[understood] the way people live their lives in today's Britain”, more than the other parties did. On issues, we scored better than the other parties on “improving the NHS” and “improving standards in schools”.

On the evidence available, the Lib Dem brand has become somewhat weaker since then. In 2006, Populus found that the Lib Dems were seen as the best party for caring about ordinary people’s problems. We had a slight edge for being “for the many not the few”. To my knowledge, they didn’t ask those questions again last year. Populus did find, however, that "median" voters saw the Liberal Democrats as well “to the left” of themselves (yes, another frame!)

Now for the hard part. For the last three years, Populus found that clear majorities saw the Lib Dems as being “made up of decent people but their policies probably don’t really add up” and “basically a protest vote party because they have no chance of ever winning”. In 2007, seven voters in ten (a record) agreed with both of these statements. Whatever message people were getting, it wasn’t the one we wanted!

At 1300 on Monday 15th, at Restauant 1812 at the Royal Exeter Hotel, Populus (with The Times) will present their latest findings on what voters think of the Liberal Democrats. I understand that there will be new material on the party’s overall image, as well as how we are doing on the issues people care about most. Vince Cable MP will comment on the findings.

For once, I won’t be at the Populus event, having agreed to chair another fringe. I will have a good look at the findings though and urge all Liberal Democrats to do the same.

In trying to go forward and tell the voters a story, we need to start where they are.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

After all the glitz, US voters don't get the full story

So, the Republicans and Democrats have finished their conventions. Which of the candidates, John McCain or Barack Obama, is telling the strongest story?

The answer is, neither.  That may explain why they are, in effect, tied in the latest opinion polls.

Since he first ran for the Republican nomination in 2000 – and got wasted by the Bush-Rove attack machine – McCain’s narrative has been about a straight-talking, maverick Republican who took on his own party, over taxes, campaign finance reform, climate change, environmental regulation, stem cell research and immigration. The message is that he could rise above party and clean up Washington.

By the beginning of this year, however, McCain had moved back to the right, for instance on oil drilling, to immigration to tax cuts for the wealthy. Hardly surprising, that’s where the votes were in the Republican primaries. Over the summer, the new, conservative McCain took on some of Bush’s team and got nasty, trying to paint Obama as an out-of-touch, elitist, snob – not “one of us”. This sort of toxic politics oozed through the Republican convention. McCain’s gang continued to play on what they see as voters’ resentment at liberal political elites who seem to look down on them. Paul Krugman has brilliantly dissected the sheer cynicism of this Nixonian ploy.

Then, in his (mediocre) convention speech on Thursday night, Americans mainly saw the old John McCain, speaking with quiet civility about fighting corruption, acknowledging that the Republicans “had lost the trust” of the American people and deploring “the constant partisan rancour that stops us from solving” problems. Senator McCain promised to reach out to “any willing patriot [and] make this government start working for you again” to use "the best ideas from both sides" and "ask Democrats and independents to serve with me.”

As E.J. Dionne jr. points out, the Republican nominee no longer embodies this narrative:

. . . because McCain has capitulated to the very Washington he condemned [on Thursday] and is employing the very tactics that were used ruthlessly and unfairly against him when he first ran for president eight years ago.

McCain is trying to run with these two different narratives by, in the words of the New York Times, “talking loftily of bipartisanship [while] allowing his team to savage his opponent.” The latter will be Sarah Palin’s one of main jobs, with her deliberate distortions of Barack Obama’s policies, eloquence and record. (McCain also questioned his opponents’ patriotism and Obama’s position on energy.) The logic is a bit strained but this gambit worked – just - for George W. Bush. How’s that for cynicism?

There’s more: McCain and co. will also try to bridge these two narratives by using an even bolder one: “reform”, which became the watchword of the Republican convention, appearing no fewer than 11 times in McCain’s own speech. They are trying to steal Obama’s “change” narrative. 

Where the story runs aground though is that it’s not exactly clear what McCain’s “reform” means. Jonathan Weisman of the Washington Post says:

"In McCain's attempt to fire up the Republican base without losing his "maverick" image, calls for reform have come to mean a pledge to "change" Washington -- with little explanation of what that change would be or how that change would take effect. "

Is “reform” in Washington about programmes, systems, or governing style?  We haven't been told.  And:

"It does not appear to have much to do with campaign finance reform, immigration reform, reforming the selection and confirmation of judges -- all issues that McCain had something to do with and have helped define his career in the Senate."

The reason is obvious: these issues would drive wedges between McCain and the conservative voters, lobbies and dollars that he needs. And what would he do for people struggling with rising bills and worried about losing their jobs?

That leaves McCain’s story only half built. Successful narratives aren’t just about personal stories and records, which McCain’s speech emphasised. They are also about issues and policies, framed these days as “solutions”. The two need to work together, with the candidate’s (or party’s) persona making the policy narrative more authentic.

Obama should have the edge. His promise of change is more credible. He can embody that narrative. [click here] He is new to Washington, unlike McCain, and the Democrats have been out of the White House for nearly eight years. But his economic narrative has still not struck a chord with voters.

The conservative pundit Michael Barone believes that both candidates have a problem:

"The Obama convention contended that the Democratic nominees understood people's woes from personal experience and that their programs would provide economic security. But the substance of those programs -- refundable tax credits (i.e., payments to those who pay no income tax) and a national health insurance option -- are unfamiliar to voters, and their details can be hard to explain.

"The McCain convention's thesis is that higher taxes on high earners in a time of slow growth will squelch the economy (this was Herbert Hoover's policy, after all).

These assertions, too, are unfamiliar to voters. And, up to this point in the campaign, neither party has set out its programs clearly (or characterized the other side's fairly)."

On energy, the other big issue of the campaign so far, this is playing out in the much the same way.

Neither Obama nor McCain will prevail until they have got their narratives together, the policy and the personal.

Still, supporters of political parties in the UK shouldn’t be too judgemental. None of them has got the story mix right. Despite the progress that’s been made on policy stories this year, that includes the Liberal Democrats.

Monday, 1 September 2008

If you read only one thing about Barack Obama or John McCain or Sarah Palin this week, make it . . .

. . . this piece by Drew Westen, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.

Westen makes some pertinent points about the Democrats' need to create a brand for the McCain and Palin, before the Republicans put their own brand into voters' minds. And he provides some useful expalanations about how narratives and counter-stories change voters' perceptions.

Westen describes the 2008 Democratic Convention as “simply stunning, with multiple-base hits by many of the players and triples or homeruns by all its superstars.”

At the end of a highly excited summary of what happened in Denver, he says:

"In my book, The Political Brain, I argued that if you do exactly what the Democrats did last week--both inspire voters with your vision of what could be and raise legitimate anger or concern about what your opponent and his party have done or likely will do--you win elections. . .

"The convention reversed the momentum of a dreadful July and August campaign that made every standard Democratic error outlined in the book, starting with the campaign's stubborn refusal to brand McCain before he could brand himself or to respond to his successful efforts to brand Obama--as other, different, empty celebrity, uppity, narcissistic, and elitist."

But then Westen worries that Obama and the Democrats may fail to be tough enough with McCain and co. They need to fight fire with fire.

"We are supposed to be the party of science, yet we constantly practice political creationism.

(Ouch! Does that remind you of anyone you know?)

"A case in point is the way the Obama campaign appears poised to respond (or, more accurately, not to respond) to McCain's choice of a running mate, which they need to do immediately, before the start of the GOP Convention. Paul Begala has described how the narratives that sway the electorate are like constellations of stars in the sky. If your opponent picks and chooses just the right stars to place in the sky (and which ones to leave out, because they get in the way of the story he is trying to tell), he can create a constellation that shines like stars on a crystal clear night, whether that constellation is one designed to make his own stars twinkle or your candidate's stars flame out or obscured by cloud cover.

"It's a campaign's job to put the right stars up in the sky to create the constellations that tell the story it wants to tell about both its own candidate and its opponent. In the language of neuroscience, a campaign needs to connect the dots for voters to create networks of associations--an interconnected set of thoughts, images, ideas, metaphors, and feelings--toward each candidate that tell a compelling story about each, and to repeat that those stories enough times and in enough ways to make them "stick."

Westen explains:

"It is much harder to change an accepted narrative, particularly an emotionally compelling one, than to undercut it before it can take hold in the popular imagination. You don't want to let the other side blaze a neural trail in the wilderness (in this case, defining a political newcomer) that becomes the trail voters' minds naturally follow and then resist deviating from because it is the first and only story being told, without offering a counter-narrative that creates very different associations and activates very different feelings toward the candidates (in this case, toward both McCain and Palin).

"The constellation McCain would like to project this week is that this was a bold move of a maverick reformer, an effort to break the glass ceiling for women, an effort to bring executive experience to his team, and the elevation to prominence of a young, socially conservative reformer with a moving story of her commitment to the crusade against all abortions."

Westen offers three, hard-edged counter-stories to break McCain's constellation. And then comes the hard stuff.

"Palin may be a woman, but she does not share the agenda of any woman who voted for Hillary Clinton (and Democrats should speak out against the implication that she is picking up where Hillary Clinton, a woman of tremendous stature who could have assumed the role of commander-in-chief in a heartbeat, left off). Rather, the position she and others on the right have articulated [on abortion] gives every rapist the right to pick the mother of his child. That position is tantamount to a Rapist's Bill of Rights, which privileges the rights of rapists and child molesters over the rights of their victims. Those are McCain-Palin's "family values," and they are not mainstream American values. "

Later, he concludes:

"Palin's nomination is one that should put the nails in the coffin of McCain's candidacy in the wake of the extraordinary success of the Democratic Convention. It exposes both a poverty of judgment and a surfeit of hypocrisy and pandering to both the religious right and to the female center. But if the Democrats do not act before the GOP Convention, McCain's reckless move could become transformed by the media and then the public into the bold move of a straight-talking maverick with the foresight to catch a rising star.

"That's a story that should never be allowed to reach the moment of conception.”