Sunday, 30 November 2008

The other side of summer

Nearly thirty years ago, I watched a tv interview with Horst Mahler, a former member of West Germany’s infamous Red Army Faction (RAF), originally known as the Baader-Meinhof group. As I recall, he was still serving a prison sentence for robbery and aiding a prison escape. Mahler explained how he had rejected his life as a “bourgeois lawyer” and become an urban revolutionary and, eventually, a would-be political theoretician for the group.

Ever since, I’ve been intrigued and fascinated, albeit in a highly critical way, with the Baader Meinhof group. Most likely, it is all due to their brutal affronts to my liberal outlook. 1967 is widely remembered for the “summer of love” in the “western” democracies. The demonstrations, upheavals and protests of 1968 have made that year one of the most over-chronicled, over-analysed and over-hyped years in history. Still, the baby boomers were unleashed as a potent political force and more importantly, the ‘68ers’ general questioning of authoritarianism gradually became ingrained into many countries’ politics.  [Click here]

Yet the RAF / Baader-Meinhof group, a band of middle class, far-left radicals, living in what looked like a model liberal democracy, turned to murder, robbery, bombing and kidnapping as a way of furthering their goals. Instead of the “summer of love”, the RAF gave their country “the German autumn” and fostered the very type of authoritarian state they claimed to oppose. 

This month has seen the general release of the film The Baader Meinhof Complex, a well-produced docudrama based on the latest book by Stefan Aust. He is one of the leading authorities on the group and knew some of its leading members. I saw the film the other night and found it totally riveting.

The motives of the group’s leading lights are laid out from the beginning. Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedick) is shown as a radical journalist who is appalled by police brutality against demonstrators and disillusioned with her marriage and comfortable life. She walks out on her unfaithful husband, taking their two children and goes on to write many of the RAF’s political tracts. 

Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) despises the Vietnam War and leaves home after an argument with her father, a liberal Lutheran minister, and starts using arson as a means of protest. Andreas Baader (Mortitz Bleibtreu), her lover, is disgusted at the existence of western consumerism alongside poverty in the third world. So he starts bombing department stores. 

These three team up with like-minded radicals and their rage soon finds its outlet in acts of violence against all kinds of targets. Banks get robbed, US military bases, shops and newspaper offices bombed. People are shot, maimed and killed. The RAF see themselves as utopians even who want to change the world and end the exploitation and suffering of poor and oppressed people everywhere. But they are too impatient and too angry to trouble themselves with the complex choices, compromises and frustrations required when ideals are pursued through democratic methods. 

The film builds up some kind of understanding (but not a sympathy) of why the group went down the path of violence. And it’s not incidental that all this happened in West Germany. Many of that country’s baby boomers felt a deep burden of guilt for what their parents’ generation had unleashed on the world. One of the first studies of the Baader Meinhof group / RAF was called Hitler’s Children.

Whilst the film does not make the point as clearly as it might, the RAF and their sympathisers believed that Nazism was not really defeated in 1945 and that it still lurked not far below the surface of West Germany’s political culture. In their eyes, this accounted for the brutality of the police – the “police state” - and other authorities as well as well as the country’s apparent support for American “imperialism”. The RAF also linked what they saw as a latent form of Nazism to the suppression of Palestinians and the exploitation of poor people, both in the west and the developing world. At one stage, opinion polls showed that 25 per cent of the West German population supported them.

The film shows us the group close up, and in so doing, makes the political judgements much less straightforward. Andreas Baader is depicted as charismatic and determined - and a spoilt brat; a narcissitic, self-centred bully. Hot-tempered, arrogant and intolerant, he is incapable of engaging in the most basic political debate, let alone formulating a coherent revolutionary strategy and sticking to it. 

Andreas Baader: We are forming a group. We will change political affairs.

Ulrike Meinhof: How is that supposed to work out.

Andreas Baader: What kind of f**king bourgeois question is that? We will do that if it kills us.

Baader’s hates the “fascist pigs” and “liberal jerk-offs”. He is also misogynistic (repeatedly calling his female comrades “c**ts”) and refers to his Arab host at a Jordanian training camp as “Ali Baba”. What Baader really seeks is his own personal liberation from sexual and social mores. He thrives on the excitement and freedom of life as an urban guerrilla. In one scene, he drives along an autobahn at night in a stolen car, firing guns at road signs as The Who’s “My Generation” plays on the car radio. There is little sign of a utopian political ideology at work. Personality and psychological disorders seem more likely explanations for Baader’s destructive behaviour.

Meinhof and Ennslin are scarcely more sympathetic characters. As portrayed in this film, the former seems to have more than her share of emotional problems and her political writing seems neither profound nor illuminating. She is not the co-leader of the group - Ennslin is but, like Baader, she is more concerned with self-fulfilment and has little sense of revolutionary discipline. The group never really addresses basic questions; for instance, whether they should kill “workers”, including even those employed by conservative newspapers. During their trial, Meinhof and Ennslin are shown arguing bitterly about this and other matters. Their relationship, never exactly easy, breaks down completely.

Still, the film sometimes portrays the group as victims rather than villains. The trial, at Stammheim prison, of Baader, Ennslin, Meinhoff and Jan-Carl Raspe (Niels-Bruno Schmidt), is a farce, if not a travesty of justice. To take the film’s sense of moral ambiguity further, Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz), the chief of the Federal German police, latches on to a key insight: this kind of urban terrorism can be neutralised only by getting into the heads of the terrorists and their sympathisers, appreciating the nature of their grievances and working out how to defuse their emotions. According to the film, his gambit worked.

None of this can erase, however, what the group becomes – the murderers, the authoritarians, the fascists of the New Left. 

As Stefan Aust said in a recent interview:

“[The Baader Meinhof group] mainly lost their realistic view of reality. Suddenly, when they went underground, they thought and felt that they lived in a police state, a fascist police state. And when you are living in a fascist police state you are allowed to do anything. They had to change reality and their view on reality first in order to be able to do all these terrible things . . . 

“They forgot that they weren't putting bombs in "dead places" ... but on living human beings [and] became very cruel in their attempt to fight the cruelty of the world”.

“. . . Terrorism is terror, and people sometimes forget that.”

Footnote: Horst Mahler, whom I watched on TV all those years ago, is portrayed in the film as a radical chic (radical geek?) lawyer, and an object of ridicule for the sneering Andreas Baader. In real life, he was released from prison in 1980, having served ten years of his fourteen year sentence. Mahler’s attempt at a group manifesto was disowned by the rest of the RAF. In the 1990s, he began to align himself with Germany’s nationalist far right and eventually joined the neo-Nazi NPD. He has also been closely involved with a holocaust denial group. Last year, Mahler was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment without parole for having performed the Hitler salute when reporting to prison for a nine-month term in 2006.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Narrativewatch: Lembit Opik's karma ran over his dogma

The County Times a few days ago quoted Lembit Opik MP as saying that his public profile may have contributed to his defeat for the Liberal Democrat presidency.

"I am dead serious about my politics but I do it with a smile. Sadly some people have mixed up my political narrative with my high national profile."

But here’s the stark reality: Lembit Opik’s “high national profile”, with all its highs and lows, is his narrative. They have become one and the same thing.

Lembit Opik is another example of how you can have a political narrative, but you can’t own or control it.

It works like this. A politician wants to tell a story about his / her beliefs or policies and why we should vote for him / her. But the story can be drowned out by counter-stories, especially if the latter are simpler and more deeply rooted in the audience’s values or prejudices. That’s what happened to Lembit Opik [click here].

Most importantly, it is the political audiences (in this case, members of the Liberal Democrats) who decide their brand perception, their narrative, about any politician. The perception is set when they think a politician has(n’t) satisfied their wishes or needs. 

Voters’ perceptions are influenced by a number of factors. One of those can be media coverage. In this case, Lembit Opik’s coverage – and not just what’s been in the broadsheets, the tabloids and the glossy magazines – simply overwhelmed whatever he was trying to say.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Where is the Liberal Democrat economic narrative?

Tonight’s Evening Standard carries a report that Gordon Brown may go the country on June 4, 2009.

The issue would be, of course, which party is best placed to see the economy through troubled times. Brown has developed something close to a narrative: that he is the steady, experienced, internationally economic manager and this is no time to take a risk.

David Cameron and the Conservatives are nowhere close to having an economic narrative – even though they remain in front.

But the UK Polling Report polling average puts the Liberal Democrats on between 12 and 14 per cent. Electoral Calculus says that (assuming uniform national swings), the UKPR current polling average would leave the Conservatives with a small working majority – and the Lib Dems with just 19 seats.

So here’s the question of the day: where is the Liberal Democrat economic narrative?

[For a description of what an economic narrative should contain, and a few more details about my earlier challenge, please see here.]

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Big lesson from Obama that no one seems to heed

There’s no shortage of “what we can learn from Obama” lessons at the moment. It won’t be long till all the “the making of the president” type books come out, full of interviews with insiders and profound polls and focus group findings.

For now, if you only read one article, make it this one from Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain.

Drew Westen reminds us that Obama didn’t win by peppering voters with facts, figures, and policy positions and assuming voters would make a rational choice between bundles of plans.

He defeated Hilary Clinton and then John McCain by using his astonishing capacity to inspire people.

Westen shows how understanding Obama’s victories requires an understanding of what ultimately moves voters: the emotions that motivate virtually all human behavior.

He reminds us that voters are neither rational nor irrational (although at times they can be both). They vote with their values as well as their interests, and a good candidate and a good message appeals to both.

“Candidates and campaigns needn't choose between reason and emotion. A good message is one that draws people's attention, gives them pause to reflect on what has happened and what we need to do, and moves them to act.”

Westen gets really interesting when he shows how in the closing eight weeks of the campaign, Obama controlled the four stories that matter most in an election: the story you tell about your yourself; the story you tell about your opponent the story the other candidate is telling about himself; and the stories McCain was telling about Obama.

Now for the “lesson from Obama” that no one seems to want to take.

Obama built up a lead over solid McCain in September, after the financial crisis really blew up. His personal discipline and his steady clam played a huge part. But so did his story. Westen recalls how, in a speech in Colorado on September 16, Obama began to tell a story about the financial crisis and John McCain's place in it.

After presenting an excerpt from the speech, Westen explains:

“The speech is effective in both its narrative coherence--it tells the story of how we got to this point, who was responsible, and why McCain could not possibly be the one to lead us out of it--and in its emotional resonance. It begins with magnanimity and a sense of fairness, not attempting to blame the entire crisis on McCain but making clear his complicity in it and his ideological commitment to the causes of it. It uses language like "common-sense regulation" that appealed to a populist public that knew it had been swindled and was no longer buying Republican lines about government as the problem. It took the abstractions of a Wall Street meltdown and a credit crisis and turned them into the experience of everyday people: "You feel it in your own lives," he told his listeners, and described how the hope of a "dignified retirement for our seniors" was slipping away. You can picture the people he is describing, and they could picture themselves, their parents, and their grandparents.”

David Cameron and the Conservatives have failed to produce a similar story, UK-style. They are suffering in the media and the polls as a result.

But I am not sure the Liberal Democrats are telling such a story either. And we are the ones languishing in the low teens in the latest public opinion polls

So, can anyone tell me, where is the Liberal Democrat equivalent of Obama’s Colorado speech?

By that I mean the speeches, the articles, the video clips, containing the explanation of what has gone with the economy; the “villain” and the moral lesson; the emotional frames that everyone can access; the empathy with the people who are losing out; the telling of their stories; also, the suggestion of a way forward.

Please help me out by posting the URL link(s) under “comments” below.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

London Liberal Democrats need a story

London Liberal Democrats hold their conference today. People have been sending me the agenda and various promotional materials. (Whatever it says, I am not a speaker, by the way).

The e-mails say that one of the conference themes is our preparations for the European elections. Another theme should be the London Liberal Democrat story and how the party plans to do better in elections for the London Assembly. This is especially relevant given that it is elected using AMS, a proportional voting system. People can use their party list vote to elect more Lib Dems to the London Assembly. That applies regardless of whom they want to be London mayor.

But our campaign in May didn’t tell our supporters – or other sympathetic voters – how they could elect more Lib Dems. Nor was there a clear Lib Dem “narrative”. In marketing terms, the party’s simply didn’t tell voters what they could “receive”, in terms of policies started or stopped, in return for “buying” our “product”.

Sure enough, voters didn’t buy. Our total share of the vote dropped by nearly seven points, to 11 per cent. As a result, the Lib Dems went from five assembly members down to three. And yet constituency candidates achieved an average of 14 per cent, with none being elected.

Looking forward, I think it all boils down to a simple question: what would the party prefer people to believe they are “buying” when they vote Liberal Democrat for the London Assembly. More precisely, as I have argued many times, does the party know what people expect to receive in return for voting Lib Dem?

As I have also argued many times, the answer is highly unlikely to be a long list of policies. The “brand” may amount to a promise of greater accountability or probity. More likely, it will be associated with delivering more action – making it happen - in one or two particular areas, such as the environment (water quality) or, perhaps, a more coherent approach to transport policy. Caroline Pidgeon AM started to hint at this sort of approach in her recent Liberal Democrat News article. But the story needs to be developed and followed through, in our London policy, marketing and campaigning. I understand that some new policy work is underway, which is welcome. But let’s be clear: building a Lib Dem brand in London – and not trying to promote a candidate for mayor by running an essentially negative campaign – should be the party’s priority next time round.

That doesn’t mean neglecting the 2012 mayoral election. Far from it. The Lib Dems need someone to embody the story, to make it “real” for voters. The obvious person is the party’s candidate for mayor. S/he may not expect to be elected but I have always thought that the candidate for mayor should head up the party’s list of assembly candidates. 

Other parties can make it happen. The London Greens at least held their own in May, in a difficult political climate. And look at how New Zealand’s minor parties invite voters to use their party vote to give them, and not others, greater influence. ACT and the Greens made a form of AMS work for them, at last weekend’s general election.

So why can’t Liberal Democrats in London make it work for us?

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Good luck to Labour's new leader

Congratulations to my old friend and one-time boss, Phil Goff, on becoming the new leader of the NZ Labour Party. He takes over from the outgoing prime minister, Helen Clark, who stood down as leader after Labour’s general election defeat on Saturday.

Phil Goff (pictured here with his deputy, Annette King) is widely acknowledged as one of New Zealand’s most competent and hard working politicians. He has been the heir apparent for some years now.

But perhaps commiserations are more in order. The eminent New Zealand historian, Sir Keith Sinclair, once wrote that:

“It is difficult in New Zealand to make much of an impression on the public as Leader of the Opposition. The Prime Minister inevitably inspires a certain awe. But there is no comparable feeling about his chief opponent. Indeed, the Opposition, in general often seems to be carping; opposing for the sake of opposing; sometimes almost unpatriotic.

Helen Clark eventually overturned a government and stayed in office for nine years. But in her early years as opposition leader, Helen Clark had huge difficulties in establishing herself with the public and the media. National’s Robert Muldoon was a highly effective opposition leader who, in 1975, defeated a government that had held a huge parliamentary majority. But Muldoon later wrote of how hard it was to be taken seriously in his early months as leader. Muldoon was himself ousted in 1984 by David Lange. But Lange initially faced similar problems to Muldoon and Clark, as well as a fractious party organisation that was deeply divided over policy.

Phil Goff has other challenges. He will take on a new government at the start of its honeymoon period. That’s never easy. Some sections of the NZ media are already kicking off a narrative that, as a former minister in two previous Labour administrations, he represents “the past” and is really a transitional leader. Labour, they say, will soon be looking past him, trying to find a “fresh face”.

There are good reasons to expect Phil Goff to succeed as leader. First, he has a sound grasp of policy issues and broad ministerial experience, having held, at various times since 1999, the portfolios of foreign affairs, justice and, most recently, trade, defence and corrections.

Many years ago, I witnessed (and learned a great deal from) Goff’s ability to very quickly get on top of policy issues, without sacrificing accuracy or a command of detail. He has a first rate mind.

Second, as well as being a high effective media performer, Goff is a strong public speaker and parliamentary debater. He is well-versed in the arts of opposition. Labour’s parliamentary team is large enough to provide a springboard for the next election and includes some interesting new MPs. He and they will take the fight to the Key government.

Third, Goff has loads of political savvy. In my experience, either you have it or you don’t: Goff has and it’s been honed by years of living the highs and lows of politics. The party will not abandon the broad middle ground, where NZ elections are won and lost.

Fourth, his South Auckland upbringing and background -- along with years of representing a conservative, “middle New Zealand” constituency -- should enable Goff to connect with the sorts of voters who seem to have deserted the NZ Labour Party. I have seen this at first hand too. It will be hard for others to paint him as some kind of out-of-touch elitist.

I don’t buy the “new generation” argument. Is 55 really that old? And if Labour had gone for someone a lot younger, their opponents would say that he or she lacked experience and gravitas.

Goff will know very well the next steps: to build a strong and united team; establish a personal profile; score some early hits against the government; gather some political momentum; meet thousands of voters in the suburban and provincial centres; make contact with key interest groups and develop some interesting new policies and themes, avoiding going retro.

The real question is whether Phil Goff can light up the sky with a popular, progressive agenda and – you guessed it – tell Kiwi voters a compelling new story.

This is all very easy to write about (especially from my study in London!) and so much harder to do.

But I think that the NZ Labour Party has the right person in charge.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

On the New Zealand general election result

Polina Andrejevna: Our time is passing.

Arkadina: What can we do?


After nine years in office, Helen Clark’s Labour government has been defeated. The centre-right bloc, led by John Key of the National Party, won 65 seats in the 122 – member parliament.

I have been feeling a bit sad about the result. That is more than a little surprising, given that I have not been involved with the NZ Labour Party for many, many years now and am seldom sentimental about it. Perhaps it’s the old ties that bind. I went to my first party meeting in 1977, when still at school, and remained involved for some sixteen years. This included some time working at the NZ Parliament as a ministerial aide and head of research. My mother was a long-time activist, as were her mother and grandmother before her.

Perhaps it’s because the Clark government did a lot that liberals of my ilk can support. New Zealand had its longest run of continuous economic growth in sixty years. Those in the middle of the pile saw bigger growth in their incomes than those at the top, reversing the trends of a decade or more. People in the lower income groups were also better off and specific government policies (for instance, on health care) were designed to help them. Even her opponents acknowledge that Helen Clark is highly respected on the international stage, where she may have been New Zealand’s most capable leader ever. Helen Clark kept New Zealand out of the Iraq war. Earlier this year, her government signed a free trade agreement with China. Helen Clark made New Zealand one of the first countries committed to a carbon neutral future. This was backed up – after some delays – by some important policies, such as the emissions trading scheme.

The Clark Government succumbed to electoral wear-out on Saturday. After three terms, most people wanted a change. History was against her: only once since the Second World War have the New Zealand public granted any prime minister a fourth mandate. But some of Labour’s problems were self-inflicted, or were delivered by their allies in government. [See my earlier post, this eve-of-poll article by the respected NZ political pundit Colin James and Jafapete’s post-election comment]

There is, as yet, no evidence that Kiwis’ basic political attitudes have moved to the right. And Key and co did not win a major debate over the country’s direction. As Jafapete says:

"[John Key] sleepwalked his way to power, winning an election notable for the lack of excitement and charisma on display. The small parties provided the interest. Otherwise, it was a tawdry, uninspiring affair.

"His party’s win was not a triumph of policy. National has spent the last couple of years frantically trying to convince people it would not undo much of what has been achieved over the past nine years. The party won, but its ideology lost. (Although not completely. Labour’s third-way social democracy has been a corporatist compromise with neo-liberalism rather than a repudiation of it.)"

Still, many New Zealanders may want a break from certain types of policies, such as the anti-smacking legislation that was passed in the last parliament.

The results also provide food for thought about what proportional voting systems mean for third and minor parties. We often hear that PR lets the “ tail wag the dog” and gives minor parties too much power. But voters will punish minor parties if they misuse their power. Look at New Zealand First, a populist, personality-based party that has drawn much of its support from older voters. NZ First has played king or queen maker a few times. Before the 2005 election, their leader, Winston Peters, one of the more colourful characters in New Zealand’s political history, did not indicate a preference for coalition with either of the major parties. Peters declared that he would not seek the "baubles of office". But after the votes were counted, he helped to sustain Labour in office – and then became foreign minister. Earlier this year, Peters became mired in a series of controversies over party funding. NZ First disappeared from parliament on Saturday, after the party failed to clear the 5 per cent hurdle and Peters did not win back his old constituency.

The challenge for minor parties is about branding as much as conduct. United Future, a micro party, also backed Labour from 2005 to 2008 but promised to support National in office this time, acting as a “centrist, moderating influence” [click here]. They got away with the change, as the swing to National gathered pace. But only one United Future MP was returned, compared to two in 2005. This may have been because National was already perceived as a middle-of-the-road party.

By contrast, ACT, a market liberal party, offered supporters the chance to push the National-led government to the right. In return for voting ACT, supporters were offered a "three strikes" sentencing policy, cuts to government spending and an end to the emissions trading scheme. These will be ACT’s main demands as it sets down terms for supporting the new government. The narrative worked well enough. ACT won five seats, an increase of two.

The Greens can also claim a victory in the battle of the narratives. They went from six to eight seats (it may yet be nine). They offered supporters a chance to “save the planet”. In contrast to the red meat that ACT held out to its voters, the Greens had a vegetarian quiche, based more on emotive appeals, symbols and images than a list of policies. But the Greens already had a strong brand. It’s in their name.

Friday, 7 November 2008

This week's other big election

There’s another general election going on this week. My home country, New Zealand, goes to the polls tomorrow, Saturday, November 8.

There could well be a change of government. Labour’s Helen Clark has been prime minister for a full nine years. That’s three parliamentary terms, a very long time in Kiwi politics. On only one occasion since World War II has the New Zealand public given any government a fourth chance. The last three years have been tough, as economic confidence has waned and the public mood has soured. [see here, and here] The opposition National Party has worked at seeming more centre than right and got themselves an attractive, moderate new leader, John Key. [For more details, see here] The Nats have been streets ahead in the public opinion polls for more than two years.

Yet Helen Clark and Labour could still, just, hang on. New Zealand uses the mixed member proportional (MMP) voting system to choose its 121-member parliament. This is similar to the voting system used for the Scottish Parliament. All parties can win a number of seats in proportion to their share of the total (party) vote, so long as they win one or more constituency seats and/or more than five per cent of the total (party) vote. Current polls show that neither Labour nor National can win an outright majority, on their own. Both will need the support of minor and micro parties.

If they do well enough on Saturday, Labour could combine with the Progressives (current coalition partners), the Greens (who support the government on confidence issues) and, possibly, the Maori Party, and have enough seats to form a government. Since 2005, Labour has partly relied on NZ First, a populist, poujadist party whose support based is skewed towards older voters, but they seem unlikely to clear the 5 per cent hurdle this time. (For a more detailed guide to the system and this year’s arithmetic, click here.)

But the latest poll (and this one, just in) suggests that National and its allies ACT, a boutique party for market liberals, and the centrist United Future, should win a small but workable majority. Key may not need to deal with the Maori Party, but it will be tight. For more analysis of the polls, see here. For Jafapete’s prediction, see here.

A few thoughts from afar on how the parties have marketed themselves. Labour’s election policies (no, they are not a “manifesto”) are true to that party’s dominant social liberal philosophy. Helen Clark has described her personal political outlook, for a fairer New Zealand that leads the world on climate change (click here) . All of that would appeal to most UK Liberal Democrats.

Her campaign narrative is something different again. Labour has tried to make the election a question of “trust”. That’s partly about whose “values” line up with most New Zealanders’ and their claims that National has a secret, extremist agenda. [Click here for Labour’s “trust” tv spot] Put it’s mostly about Helen Clark’s leadership. Even after all these years, her strength and her competence are not in doubt and she is more popular than the party. Hence Labour’s campaign slogan, “strong, proven leadership”. Hence their efforts to stress her experience and consistency, and to slam John Key as a shallow flip flopper. [Here are Labour’s anti-Key spots on Iraq and climate change]. Hence their efforts to show that, with hardtimes looming, Helen Clark and not John Key the former international forex dealer, relates better to ordinary women and families. [see “Mary”, here.] These are all heuristics – mental shortcuts to help voters frame the issues. And it has partly worked – “trust” is an election issue. She has been out in front again as preferred PM.

National’s campaign narrative is easy to predict – that it’s time for a change. So they slam Labour’s record on law and order, education and health. Untainted by the last National government, coming from the post- baby boom generation, Key promises a “fresh” approach and tries to embody his narrative by running an energetic campaign. National’s slogan is “choose a brighter future”. This reflects the brand that the Nats are trying to build for themselves. Using Stephen Denning’s framework, they have tried to reinforce the case for change with promises to secure the future, for example in infrastructure, telecommunications, science and education. But they would not overturn much that Labour has put in place. The middle of the road Key embodies safety and reassurance.

“Securing the future” hasn’t worked all that well, as this article by the respected pundit Colin James says.

[Otago University’s] Phil Harris contrasts Labour's consistency in attacking Key as a new boy, not yet qualified to govern and vacillating on policy, with National's lack of consistency and purpose. "I have been surprised, given the resources National has, how amateurish it has been. There is not enough consistency and clarity of message." So, he says, the building-for-the-future line is not getting through.

Yet it seems that National’s basic “change the government” message has got through. Maybe the campaign made no real difference; with the public wanting something new, all National had to do was look safe. And Key has at least held his own against Helen Clark. Click here for the latest preferred prime minister poll.

A few words on the minor parties’ campaign narratives. During the campaign, the Greens have reached as high as 11 per cent in some polls. The latest polls suggest that they could win anything between 6 and 10 per cent, or between 8 and 12 seats. They had 6 in the last parliament and have gained support mostly at Labour’s expense. They have had the best campaign. The Greens have plenty of policies, on energy efficiency, waste control, “cleaning up politics” and more. Their campaign narrative is straightforward – elect more Green MPs and, as part of a Labur-led government, we can save the planet. This time, the Greens have concentrated on projecting the emotive dimension of their issues and values, to help broaden the brand. Check out this ad in particular for an astute of heuristics and symbols – imagining the future, making the party’s policies and narrative very personal.

Some Liberal Democrats may recognise ACT’s campaign narrative, if not their policies. With a change of government in the offing, they offer voters the chance to “be the difference”. The message is, use your party vote to elect more ACT MPs and they will be able to “ensure that the next National Government makes a difference”, as opposed to simply having new faces around the cabinet table. ACT promise to deliver very specific policy outcomes to their supporters. The red meat includes “zero tolerance for crime”, “three strikes and you’re out” “sensible sentencing” and “the emissions trading scheme will be dog tucker”. Assuming their leader holds his blue-ribbon constituency seat, they could have between 4 and 6 seats, on current polling. They had 2 before the election.

Other Liberal Democrats or, more likely, those involved in the Liberal Party during David Steel’s time, will be more familiar with United Future’s narrative. Click here to see their leader, Peter Dunne, explain “why you can trust us to keep the next government honest”. He pledges to work “in the interests of society as a whole” and to reject “ideological solutions”; to stand up for the “silent majority” of New Zealand families so that the “the loudest voices” from the ideological extremes do not dominate.

But United Future, on course to win 2 seats (the same as last time), is now committed to supporting a National-led government, having helped sustain Helen Clark for the last two terms. And National is more centrist than it has been for years. How can you make a moderate party more moderate? That’s where Dunne’s narrative really kicks in. He reminds voters that they can “decide what shape and form the new National-led government will take”, by giving one or other of National’s allies more sway. Dunne frames the choice as beween “a centre-right, rather than an extreme right, government”, saying that voters can have his party’s “brains” or ACT’s “jackboot” as the fulcrum of politics.

"A strong UnitedFuture presence . . . will provide a centrist moderating influence and draw National to a more compassionate middle course that will represent all New Zealanders.”

Oh, the joys of proportional voting systems.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Yes, he can -- if he wants to. The Obama opportunity

Like many people, I was a little bit emotional in the early hours of this morning. It wasn’t just that Barack Obama had made history, and proved what can be done in American politics. Or the sight of scores of African Americans, thrilled and excited at their new sense of opportunity. Or that the world’s eight-year long nightmare, the presidency of George W. Bush, is about to end.

There are two reasons I am especially pleased.

First, we may now see American leadership – and the promise of real progress - on addressing the climate crisis.

President-elect Obama is committed to bringing America – the single biggest source of carbon emissions – back into the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. This follows years of denial and intransigence from the Bush Administration. A post-2012 global agreement is now a possibility, at least.

Obama has also said that launching an “Apollo project”, to invest £150 billion over 10 years, to build a new alternative-energy economy, will be his “Number 1 priority” in office. His main priorities will be accelerating the commercialisation of plug-in hybrids, promoting renewable energy, encourage energy efficiency and investing in low emissions coal plants. He would “invest in America’s highly skilled manufacturing workforce and manufacturing centres”, so that they can pioneer green technologies. [For further details click here.] Obama wants this “new energy” to replace cheap credit as the turbocharger of the economy. (He opposes building more nuclear power stations and, while Obama did not oppose oil drilling, he talked about its drawbacks.) If these changes come off, they will bring massive changes to energy markets and the politics of energy.

Obama proposes climate-change legislation centred on a “cap and trade” mechanism that sets a ceiling on emissions that declines over time. Businesses and institutions that cannot hit the targets must buy permits from those that achieve bigger cuts than required. Obama’s proposals are tougher than McCain’s would have been: he proposes to cut emissions by 80 per cent of their 1990 levels by 2050, (McCain said 60 per cent) and to auction off all pollution permits from the start, forcing polluters to pay for the damage they cause. This will help to facilitate a reliable carbon price – the cornerstone of any policy framework on climate change.

Of course, there’s a big difference between a promise and action, especially when he the Senate must agree to a new climate change treaty, by a two-thirds majority, as well as approving cap and trade any scheme. Obama’s proposals have their flaws. But this is the impressive energy programme ever produced by a leading US politician.

Second, we may see a new kind of politics.

What Rick Perlstein calls Nixonland, the ruthless use of culturally-based wedge politics, has been vanquished. The Republicans tried that toxic brand of campaigning against Barack Obama and they failed, miserably. After the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and the economic turmoil of 2008, Republican tactics were no longer credible. American voters have been more focussed on their wallets, their fuel prices, their jobs, their mortgages - and embraced a political message based on “hope” and “change”.

Barack Obama can truly claim to embody and represent real political change. This is partly about his race, his inclusive rhetoric and his personal narrative. All have been well covered on this blog. It’s about his age too. Obama represents a new generation of leadership – the late baby boomers -- "Generation Jones" – who, as Jonathan Alter says combine residual '60s idealism mixed and the pragmatism and materialism of the '80s. (I am biased here, having been born in 1962) So Obama can credibly promise to “turn the page” from BushClintonBush and from the culture wars of those years.

But there’s more to it than that. Late in the campaign, Michael Gershon, a former speechwriter to George W. Bush, rejected suggestions that Obama is either a closet radical or a born-again moderate. He sees the new president as something else altogether.

"From his days at Harvard Law School, Obama has combined progressive political views with instincts of reconciliation. . . Obama does not appear to view himself as a lapsed radical. He sees himself as the reconciler of opposites, the seer of merit on both sides, the transcender of stale debates. He is the racial healer who understands racial anger. The peace candidate who prefers a more aggressive war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The outsider who surrounds himself with reassuring establishment figures.

“During the presidential debates, Obama reinforced this image as an analyst, not an ideologue -- the University of Chicago professor, not the leftist community organizer. His entire manner douses inflammatory charges of extremism.”

Gerson notes that one of Obama's favorite philosophers is Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian of conflicted humility. He believes that this might translate into an administration focused on achievable goals, run by seasoned, reasonable professionals reaching out to Republicans in the new Cabinet and avoiding culture war battles when possible.

But it’s here that my two main hopes for Obama may crash into each other. Gerson questions whether avoiding culture wars and a sense of conflicted humility will be enough to make a strong, decisive president, who can stand up to his own party. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, on the other side of politics, has made a similar observation. He asks whether Obama will deploy the skills that have got him into the White House for an even bigger, more demanding purpose: persuading people to support his energy and climate plans.

It’s a good point. There’s a big difference between uniting people and building voter coalitions in support of far-reaching and diffficult changes. “Selling” big changes to people, than mean they must change themselves, is always hard. And appealing to a party’s sense of values is different from leading it into a new brave new world, especially when money is involved. Former advisers to Bill Clinton have spoken of the dominance of real-time distractions, the inability of Congress to deal with more than one big issue at a time, and the basic limits of influence even from the White House.

The public may be ready for “change” and “green jobs” is a great slogan. But Obama’s energy plan isn’t just about green jobs. His cap and trade legislation would push up fuel prices. Who wants to cope with that, in these tough times?

Some of Obama’s energy and climate change measures are technical and detailed. The medium- and long-term benefits will be hard for anyone to explain to people. A host of surveys show that most Americans remain doubtful, disengaged, or confused about the basic science pointing to human-made climate change. They do not get that stabilising concentrations of emissions mean that emissions have be reduced [see here].

That all sounds like a tough sell to US senators and representatives. Bill Clinton has stressed that moving forward on climate policy involves overcoming obstacles in both parties. He sees it as not a Democrat / Republican issue, but a coal-state issue.

Obama is going to need a new narrative, aimed at persuading American voters to support the Apollo project for new energy and “send a message” to Washington.

It may come down to what the new president really wants to do and the extent to which he is willing to move beyond public opinion, and take the public with him. In short, will he take the risk?

But right now, there’s no-one who can tell the new energy story than Barack Obama – if he really wants to, that is.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Narrativewatch: Ros Scott, candidate for president of the Liberal Democrats

Baroness Ros Scott: reassurance vs. risk

[For more info on what this series of posts is about, please click here.]

In contrast to her two opponents, Ros Scott seems to have no big mission for the presidency of the Liberal Democrats. In her election address, she promises simply to be “high profile and bring a professional approach to party management”, “supportive [of the leader] in public, candid in private” and to not serve on the Lords team’s front bench if elected.

Ros Scott’s manifesto contains almost no big, new ideas. Where plans are presented, they are almost all unexceptional. “Commit time each month to work with local parties on recruitment” . . . “attend one conference each year in every English region as well Scotland and Wales” . . . “ensure that my strong links with local government are maintained.” Who is against any of that?

Many stances on current organisational and structural issues are written with a caution and vagueness that some of us have spent years trying to stamp out of Lib Dem policy papers. Try this, on candidates’ diversity: “consider a hypothecated allocation of the membership fee for this work”. Or this: “Breaking the circle and changing the stereotype [MP] should be a key strategic priority for all the Party's decision-making bodies." On structures: “explore ways in which regional parties can be strengthened”. Or this: “improved central co-ordination of best practice . . . which is communicated back to regional and local parties, should be given increased priority.”

So, can we say that Ros Scott’s campaign has no narrative?

Au contraire, she has the cleverest narrative of the three candidates. We are constantly reminded that, as president, Ros Scott would be a safe choice, who would be do the right thing by party members – or, more particularly, activists.

At the start of her election address, she promises to “stay true to my roots, remember the activist in the bigger picture”. She also promises to “keep in touch” with candidates and members and “represent [the membership’s] views to the leader”. The worthiness and blandness of much of her platform serve a purpose. For instance, in her manifesto, Ros Scott promises to “ensure that the new decision making structures speed up decision making and are more efficient but without losing accountability to members for the decisions they make.” Those are activist buzzwords – hey, I should know.

Ros Scott embodies her narrative. She reminds us that she has almost two decades of experience as an activist, including as a councillor, council group leader and peer. And, lest we forget, hers is a grassroots campaign that was built up from nothing.

And Ros Scott’s campaign makes the most effective use of what the academics call “heuristics” -- mental short cuts that enable people, especially low awareness voters (“armchair members”?), to use their gut feelings to decipher issues and make choices. The campaign website features an impressive list of MPs, Lords, MEPs, parliamentary candidates, councillors and others who back her candidacy. As a former New Zealand prime minister, David Lange, might have said, they come from the ranks of the left, the right and the totally bewildered.

Ross Scott’s election address carries endorsements (with photos) from Paddy Ashdown, Vince Cable and Shirley Williams. On the website, there are supporting videos from Vince Cable, Chris Huhne and others. Yes, Baroness Scott of Needham Market is everyone’s insurance policy.

The story doesn’t end there. Lord Ashdown frames the choice in this way.

“Above all, a President has to be a person of judgement, somebody who understands the party and who can fearlessly represent the needs of the party and the ordinary workers . . . to the leadership. So, ability to make good judgements . . . to have roots back to the party . . . some experience in handling power . . .." [emphasis added].

Writing in a campaign e-mail, Vince Cable says:

Whoever [the president is] will have an absolutely key role in the election campaign as a spokesman [sic] for the party - and it’s absolutely vital that we have somebody in that role who has judgement and has experience.” [emphasis added].

Just in case you haven’t worked it out, we are invited to contrast Ros’s judgement with Lembit’s; her experience with his . Dr Cable and the Scott campaign remind us that she has run a council with a budget of £650 million, has been on the Audit Commission and has board level experience in the private sector. Opik can claim none of this.

There are important ways her narrative could be improved. I still don’t really know how the story ends (i.e., what she try hardest to achieve as president), even if I can be fairly confident that she’d do nothing wild, mad or embarrassing . And it would be good to hear some “who I am” stories from all this local government, public and private sector experience. They could tell us how she approaches the use of power in organisations; what she has learned and achieved.

Still, Ros Scott and her campaign team have done the best job of recognising that a campaign narrative must enable the target audience – in this case, Lib Dem parliamentarians, members and activists – make a connection with a candidate and to see how s/he will meet their needs and expectations.

Now, I have just a few days to decide who to vote for!

Narrativewatch: Lembit Opik, candidate for president of the Liberal Democrats

Lembit Opik MP – the great communicator vs. “good value”

[For more info on what this series of posts is about, please click here.]

Lembit Opik is another man with a mission. His campaign narrative is all about improving our external communications and “building a more effective campaigning party”. In his first e-mail to members, Opik promises to be “a President with vim and verve, whom everybody knows, with true commitment to spreading Liberal Democracy to the four corners of Britain”. In his election address, Opik lists his top priority as to “ensure that the party projects its message clearly”.

In his second campaign email, Opik says he wants to “promote our policies in bright . . . primary colours . . . bold, clear, forceful . . . distinctive and unmistakeably Liberal Democrat.”

Almost straight away, however, the narrative runs into problems. Opik does not ever convey an impression of what his “primary colours” would look like. We do not know how he would change the party’s efforts at marketing itself; what he thinks could make the party both popular and distinctive; and what kind of narrative he would like the Liberal Democrats to use. No, this reply to number 13 of Linda Jack’s questions to candidates isn’t a party narrative.

Back to his strengths. Lembit Opik embodies his narrative. He is a long-time, hard-working Lib Dem activist. His campaign website and e-mails remind us that he is “a dedicated and effective campaigner” who has “visited and spoken at over 200 constituencies and driven 380,000 miles to support our activists on the ground”. . . “travelled the country over 18 years . . . helping local parties with recruitment, fundraising, campaigning, training.” Opik has been on the Federal Executive for 17 years. His is the story of a committed MP and activist. Yes, the party knows him well.

Opik also embodies his narrative by being, well, someone who does a very good job of getting publicity for himself. An MP since 1997, he appears regularly – and, it must be said, effectively - on political tv shows like Question Time. In his e-mails to members, Opik claims to have a “strong, lively, high profile and a recognised voice”’ and to be “one of three politicians from any Party who's on "first name terms" with the nation!” (Oh, really?) Consequently, he claims to be able to “connect with the millions of people who have been alienated from the political process.”

All this underlines how Opik’s narrative appeals to the emotions of excitement, passion -- and a sense of risk.

But now you can see the storm clouds. Opik’s high external and internal profiles give his candidacy its biggest strength and its biggest weakness. To put it mildly, there are a lot of “counter-stories” about what kind of president he would make. The polite version is that he could attract a lot of publicity but there is a risk that not all of it would be helpful to the party. On his campaign website, Opik has now publicly acknowledged that the counter-stories exist.

In his second e-mail, he comes back with a none-too-subtle storyline that asks us to “have the courage to vote for me, so I can work to make us ready for Government by 2010 - and by inspiring the Liberal Democrats to achieve this goal.” Opik tells us that after 25 years of political activity he has learnt that “the hardest, most painful lessons can come from mistakes - no great achievement comes without risk.” He then promises to “swallow hard, step up to the platform - to proclaim what we value as Liberal Democrats and to breathe new life into British politics. . . "

Opik’s last campaign e-mail will try to frame this contest “as a test of our collective courage . . . whether we really do value different styles and approaches, or whether conformity is a primary limitation." He also says: “it'll be a heck of a ride” (in case you didn’t know!) More than most candidates for a position, he asks us to take him on trust.

The big question is whether, having raised the stakes in this way, Opik has done enough to regain some control of his narrative. I doubt that he has. There could be another way. Unlike many politicians, he has spoken publicly and movingly of personal tragedies and difficulties that he has faced in his life. Opik has had the courage and integrity to tell us a lot about who he is and what has shaped him. So, why hasn’t he told us stories about his own political courage; about the “risks” and “mistakes” that Opik says he has made over 25 years of political activity; and how the lessons learned could enable him to be an effective president for the Liberal Democrats? What a story of political courage, what a bold narrative that would make.

Narrativewatch: Chandila Fernando, candidate for president of the Liberal Demcocrats

When replying to Linda Jack’s invitation to assess the three presidential candidates’ attempts to craft a Liberal Democrat narrative, I commented that none had really done it and added that all three had been somewhat more successful in creating narratives to support their own candidacies. Linda then asked me to provide more detailed views on the latter point.

Before going any further, please note that I still haven’t made up my mind who to vote for (!) and will not do so until the last possible moment! Second, the observations are based on the candidates' election addresses, websites and e-mails to members. So, if they have answered any of these points at hustings or the like, it would be good to know. Please tell all of us. Third, as all Liberal Democrats soon learn, being the best candidate and having the best policies aren’t necessarily the same thing as having the best narrative!

Anyway, in the interests of encouraging more discussion about what is/n’t a good narrative:

Chandila Fernando – agent of change vs. the status quo seekers

In many ways, Chandila Fernando has the most straightforward story to spin. He is the “anti-establishment” candidate, the outsider who offers the biggest change. His story is that Liberal Democrats have become too bureaucratic, backward-looking and hidebound and need to change in order to be a “twenty-first century campaigning machine”; Fernando is the one to “turn it around” and transform the party into “a serious force in British politics”.

Political narratives work when they appeal to deeply-held values and emotions. Mr Fernando’s story should appeal to many members’ and activists’ sense of frustration that the party is not doing better.

Almost immediately, however, the narrative fades away. Stephen Denning sets out three essential story-telling steps for (putative) leaders who seek to persuade people to embrace change: These are: (1) get people’s attention; (2) generate desire for something different; and (3) reinforce the reasons for change.

Chandila Fernando has won some attention because he is different from the other candidates and previous Lib Dem presidents: he is young (30), involved in business and not a parliamentarian.

But he does not tell stories that show why and how the party needs to “change the way it operates and communicates”. The nearest that Fernando’s website comes is a number of rhetorical questions about the problems that members and activists may be facing.

Crucially, we do not get what Denning calls a “springboard story”. This is more likely to be based on something that has already happened. OK, this is always the hard part. But having made such bold statements about what’s wrong with the party, Fernando should at least try to offer us the proverbial story with a happy ending.

On the campaign website, there are a few – but only a few – specific examples of how the party should “modernise,” and “decentralise” -- but not of how it should “streamline”. Interviewed by Liberator (November 2008), Fernando says that a single federal committee should act as a board of trustees and that the party should move from being a member organisation to a supporters’ organisation. But those comments leave more questions than they answer. And there are no illustrations that explain how this candidate’s vision of change would play out across the party.

Chandila Fernando tries to embody his narrative by presenting himself as experienced in business: “the troubleshooter”. Perhaps he is. But we aren’t given any of what Annette Simmonds calls “why am I here” stories, that convey a sense of authenticity and explain why we should take notice of this candidate. For instance, given that most of us have never heard of him before, it would be useful to know what Chandila Fernando has done in business. What organisations has he “turned around”? How did he do it? When he has shot trouble, what lessons have been learned that can be applied to making the Liberal Democrats a better party?

The opportunity to tell a good "change narrative" has been lost.