Friday, 18 December 2009

Nick Clegg's second anniversary as Lib Dem leader

I have done a guest post for Liberal Democrat Voice on Nick Clegg's second anniversary as leader. You can read it here

Friday, 27 November 2009

"John Major the Movie": political narratives 101

I was interested to hear this week that the BFI is marking 75 years of party political broadcasts (PPBs). I don't think any of the parties has ever come up with a depth charge like the “Willie Horton” advert that helped destroy the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis or the New Zealand National Party’s infamous “dancing cossacks” in 1975.

Yet a few British PPBs are great case studies in political storytelling. One such is “John Major – the movie”, produced by the Conservatives for the 1992 general election. The Tories were the underdogs, after three hard terms in office, which had included the poll tax and a recession. The then prime minister was shown touring Brixton, where he grew up and lived as a young man, giving a low key exposition of his values and with some political homilies along the way. (“You can't cure unemployment with a short term stimulus . . . you do it by keeping inflation down.”)

Most importantly, the broadcast told voters a story – about John Major and his rise from humble beginnings, from Cold Harbour Lane to Downing Street. It was even titled The Journey! Major recalled his experience of being out of work. He talked about how the NHS had been there when his parents were aged and infirm. He had lived in multiracial Brixton and served on Lambeth Council. Major was projected as an unpretentious “man of the people”, meeting and chatting with people on the market. Many people said (and still do) that they were touched by his modesty and humility. The broadcast showed a leader who was connecting with voters and showing personal empathy with them. Major even concluded the broadcast by saying:

“. . . if you’ve done something or seen it or been it or felt it you can understand what it means and you can understand how it affects other people in their own individual lives.”
The broadcast enabled John Major to embody the Conservatives’ campaign narrative. They recognised that after years of Thatcher, British voters craved a change, to a more moderate, “caring” politics and a softer, more consensual style of leadership. The Tory story was that in dumping Thatcher and installing Major in her place, they had made already the change happen. And the low-key, ordinary, quintessentially English John Major -- “one of us – seemed a safer choice as PM than Kinnock.

The Conservatives were returned against the odds, gaining more votes than Tony Blair’s Labour Party in the landslide of 1997. Major stayed in Downing Street for five more years but his premiership was little short of a disaster, typified by the debacle of “Black Wednesday”. An “ordinary” leader wasn’t enough. And it’s unlikely that “Major the Movie”, on its own, won the 92 election for the Tories. (I’m reliably told that most of the feedback from the broadcast concerned the prime minister’s failure to wear a seatbelt.) Yet the broadcast did what all good political narratives should. It spoke directly to the emotional needs of voters in a clear and simple way; in this case, by simply allowing the leader to be himself – for better and for worse.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Climate change not our problem, say UK voters

Today’s Times leads with a new Populus poll that shows a high level of public scepticism about human-made climate change. Only 41 per cent of respondents believe that climate change is happening and that human causation is an established fact. A third of the public believes in the fact of climate change but remains unpersuaded that it is caused by humans. Nearly one in ten people believes that climate change is a purely natural phenomenon and blaming humans is propaganda put about by environmentalists. Fifteen per cent of the country simply do not accept that climate change is happening at all.

The figures underline the difficulties this government (and its successors) will have in persuading the public to accept tough policy measures – especially higher green taxes - to help in meeting Britain’s legally binding emissions targets.

OK, what’s new? Public opinion polls over the last three years have shown that a growing number of people in the UK are becoming increasingly sceptical of the impact of human activities on climate change or that they question the impacts of global warming on the climate. [Click here, here and here]. The British public’s suspicion of green taxes is also well documented [click here]. Yet today’s poll shows an increase in support compared with three years ago for new taxes on air travel intended to reduce the number of flights people take, and for raising the cost of motoring to encourage people to drive less.

Perhaps I protest too much. Politicos and ideologues of all stripes have become very tetchy over the past 25-plus years when I have tried to point out that opinion surveys show that most people don’t agree with them (or, to be more precise, that their pet issue won’t necessarily deliver scores of seats to the NZ Labour Party / Liberal Democrats). So I should tread carefully today and take the stark new evidence of public scepticism at face value. Today’s poll figures should concern all climate realists, especially after as the science has become steadily more pessimistic over recent years and received considerable media coverage.

Actually, I believe the gloomy science and media shock explain much of the public pushback. In today’s Times, Vicky Pope, head of climate change advice at the Met Office, is quoted as saying that growing awareness of the scale of the problem appeared to be resulting in people taking refuge in denial.

“Being confronted with the possibility of higher energy bills, wind farms down the road and new nuclear power stations encourages people to question everything about climate change,” she said. “There is a resistance to change and some people see the problem being used as an excuse to charge them more taxes.”

I agree with Vicky Pope but the denial syndrome goes even deeper than she suggests. This is a question of basic values and psychology as much as power bills and green taxes. The rhetoric used to discuss climate change usually revolves around threats and dangers, with “looming environmental disaster” the dominant frame. But we live in an aspirational, consumerist society and it’s hardly surprising that so many people feel defensive when they hear talk of apocalypse and demands on them to make personal sacrifices. Some of their core values, their ways of looking at themselves and their lives are being directly challenged. People are being asked to take personal responsibility for something that is not yet evident in their daily lives. Talk of climate catastrophe does not always fit with their worldview - their personal narratives - and so it’s easier to play for time, expect others to take the blame, or block it out altogether.

Either way, it surely doesn’t help that politicians, scientists (intellectuals) and green groups – hardly the most liked or trusted groups - are doing a lot of the ‘challenging’. [click here]

I take three lessons for climate realists from The Times poll. First, we should start to use more frames, storylines and rhetoric that resonate with the way most people see the world. No, not dodging the truth about the science but talking more about about green growth, green jobs and the need to preserve our national and economic security. [click here]

Second, we need a wider range of advocates –for instance, more young women and more people from community groups – explaining the issues and making the case for change.

Third, it’s time to engage more with strategies for social change, learning more about the psychology of climate change and finding out how and why people change their minds and act on issues. Some progress has been made on the research side [click here and here] but we quickly need to turn this an action plan. Time is running out.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

A step change for climate action

We need action at Copenhagen on the climate crisis and the UK needs to do its bit – both as a moral issue, and in order to have credibility. The question is, what sort of action and who will the UK government do it.

Two major reports that have come out over the past week offer some valuable suggestions.

On Monday, Lord Adair Turner’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) published Meeting Carbon Budgets – the Need for a Step Change. This reported that between 2003 and 2007 (the five years before the first carbon budget period), the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions fell by 0.6 per cent per year on average. But the CCC also said that cuts of 2.6 per cent per year on average will be needed to meet the UK carbon budgets. The budgets effectively call for greenhouse gas emissions cuts of 34 per cent by 2020.

The committee looked at current and planned government policies and concluded:

“Going forward a step change will be required to achieve deep emissions cuts required through the first three carbon budget periods and beyond.”

The committee’s suggestions included building around 8,000 more wind turbines, up to four carbon capture and storage (CCS) demonstrations and getting 1.7 million electric electric cars on the road by 2020.

Now for the really hard part. Such a “step change” would come on top of an already ambitious series of official targets and aims. For instance, the UK has a target for 15 per cent of the UK’s energy to come from renewables by 2020, compared with about 2 per cent now. The government’s existing renewable energy and energy efficiency plans will need investment in, for example: renewables generation; robust energy efficiency solutions; offshore wind power grids; electricity transmission and gas distribution grid reinforcement and interconnectors; and smart meters.

How much would the “step change” cost? Who’s going to pay? And where will companies get the incentives to invest in low carbon power plant?

That brings me to the second key report of recent days – Ofgem’s Project Discovery Energy Market Scenarios. Of the four scenarios discussed, the one that is most like the government’s policy mix is the “green transition”, based on a big expansion in investment in environmental measures (with a fast economic recovery). The scenario assumes that £200bn of investment could take place before 2020, with big progress on efficiency and renewable heat. That would mean more than double the rate of investment spending over the last 10 years. But, as Ofgem notes, the length of the current global financial crisis raises questions over the financing of that investment. There’s another snag: under “green transition”, domestic power bills would increase by 23 per cent by 2020. That’s a smaller rise than under other scenarios but a big job awaits the next energy and climate change secretary. Will s/he know what to do it and how to do it?

The main way that the government tries to secure such investment is through the carbon price, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. It also uses regulatory measures (especially on energy efficiency) and tax policies. But the Turner committee was none too optimistic about future carbon price levels. It also said:

“Our analysis suggests that in a risky, uncertain world, even with very high carbon prices, the market may not deliver necessary low-carbon [generation] investment, resulting in high emissions intensity (and high costs for consumers).”

The committee argued that without a clear policy lead, Britain risks increasing reliance on gas and given falling gas production across Europe (apart from Norway), reliance on gas means reliance on Russia. More gas consumption will make sustained cuts in carbon emissions harder to achieve.

We hear a lot of calls these days for a more active, “interventionist” approach from government. But they leave open a lot of hard questions. Ofgem also put up a scenario called “green stimulus”, in which economic recovery is slow, meaning that governments around the world spend a lot of money to boost their economies and cut emissions at the same time. That could mean that the UK government invests directly in large generation projects and infrastructure projects, such as smart grids, electric vehicle charging and CO2 transportation and storage.

Ofgem found that under this scenario emissions would fall by more with prices going up less than under the “green transition”. But there is no guarantee that the government would always make the correct decisions. The “green stimulus” scenario shows how vulnerable UK energy policy is to external economic conditions. Ofgem notes that with low fuel prices, the additional costs of the low carbon technologies would be very significant in the “stimulus” scenario. Moreover, customers (and Government) may be less able to afford these costs if the economy was not growing strongly.

The sensible thing is to keep relying on a carbon price and other policy measures, at least some of which will need government investment in future. But they may need to change. I am becoming more convinced that a carbon tax or similar measure could be needed to underpin the carbon price. This is one option put up by the Turner committee.

On another of their suggestions: I have long supported action via the planning system to ensure timely approval of large wind projects. The Infrastructure Planning Commission should not be scrapped and its remit may need be extended to cover smaller wind projects.

The Turner committee’s focus on energy efficiency was especially interesting. This has been a Cinderella policy for far too long, despite the fact that improved energy efficiency is the most effective way to cut emissions and market failures mean than consumers don’t invest quickly enough. The committee concluded that “a major shift in ambition is needed”, with at least 10 million lofts and 7.5 million wall cavities insulated by 2015 and around 12 million boilers to be upgraded by 2022.

Rather than hoping that individual households will ask for specific insulation measures, the report called for three pillar approach: “whole house” with a one stop shop covering all effective measures; “neighbourhood” – led by the UK government and delivered area by area with local authorities and energy companies playing key roles; and .“pay as you save” finance – with some grants / subsidies to encourage uptake of insulation measures. That sounds very much like the nationwide housing retrofit programme advocated by the Green Standard – and the Liberal Democrats.

There’s another important issue, not discussed by the Turner committee, where government action is needed. Because of market failures, private sector involvement alone will not generate enough investment to bring some new green technologies to market quickly enough. [click here] That strengthens the case for green bonds and a green investment bank, a cause which has now been taken up, I am pleased to say, by Green Alliance and the Aldersgate Group.

Now, let’s see some political action.

[for Blog Action Day 2009 –]

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Nick Clegg and the Lib Dem brand - how voters see the Liberal Democrats (Part 2)

It looks as if the debate over the Liberal Democrats’ need for a narrative – a story – might be kicking off again.  [click here and here]  One element we talk about too little is the leader’s need to embody the party’s narrative, in order to make it more real, more authentic to voters.


In today’s quasi-presidential politics, voters use the leaders as quick ways to assess the parties, for good or ill.  If you don’t believe me, look at the Newsnight pre-party conference focus groups. Media coverage of Newsnight's focus groups and quantitative research and the Populus and Ipsos Mori pre-conference work has been dominated by voters’ views of the party leaders.


So, here’s a quick round up of what the above research tells us about voters see Nick Clegg.  [For more on the points made below about the Lib Dem brand narrative, click here.]


In some very positive ways, Nick embodies the party’s narrative.  One of the Lib Dems’ biggest advantages is that voters see us as the most “honest and principled” party.  According to Ipsos MORI, Nick (narrowly) came first out of the three main party leaders for being “more honest than most politicians”.  Likewise, in the Populus survey, he edged out David Cameron for  “meaning what he says” as opposed to “saying what he thinks people want to hear”.   


The strongest feature of the Lib Dem brand is that we are the party seen as most “for ordinary people, not the best off”.  But Populus don’t ask exactly the same questions about the leaders as they do about the parties. When they asked whether each leader was “good” or “bad for you and your family”, Nick had a net “good” score of plus 7 per cent, very close to Cameron (plus 10 per cent) and much better than Gordon Brown (minus 25 per cent).


Another big positive for the Lib Dems has been the way voters perceive us as the most empathetic party, understanding “the problems that ordinary people face” and “the way that people live their lives”.  Populus did not ask this question about the parties, as they have before.  But Nick scored quite well for being “in touch” as opposed to “out of touch”. His net score was plus 14 per cent, versus Cameron’s plus 28 per cent and Brown’s minus 39 per cent. And in the Ipsos MORI survey he was less likely than Brown or Cameron to be seen as “most out of touch with ordinary people”.


Now for the ways in which Nick may embody weaker aspects of the Lib Dem narrative.  There were some indications in the pre-conference research that the party is still not seen as quite “serious” or “substantial” enough.  This may be due to the old “wasted vote” counter-story and the perennial problems the party faces in getting media coverage.  Many voters feel they don’t know the Lib Dems well enough.


In the Populus leaders poll, Nick came last for being “up to the job of being prime minister”, “likely to get things done” and “substantial”.   Yet he was seen as “stronger” and more “decisive” than Brown.


The “invisibility” factor was very important here.  When they were asked specific questions about each leader, voters were much more likely to say “don’t know” about Nick.  And the Newsnight poll found that while thirty six percent had a favourable view of Nick, an equal number said they had never heard of him. 


Voters in the Newsnight focus groups found it hard to get a handle on the Lib Dems.  They also showed how much the profile and image of the party are bound up with those of the leader.   In many parts of the discussion the voters seemed to treat Nick / the leader and the party as the same thing.  “I didn’t know who he was” . . . “I never see him”  . . . “he’s never on telly” . . . “they’ve had so many changes of leader you feel like its not really investing the time in them because the next leader could be around the corner.”


This may, eventually, provide the solution to the Lib Dems’ low image problem.  When people in the focus groups were shown a clip of Nick speaking, they liked him.    Some made positive comments about him.  The Populus work showed that some of his key ratings, for instance “in touch / out of touch” and “good / bad for you and your family” have improved markedly since July 2008.  A drop in numbers saying “don’t know” provides part of the explanation.  And I have argued a few times that as the public gets to know Nick, they like him more.  This augurs well for the general election campaign, when the Lib Dems can expect to gain much more media coverage.


Some of the risks are obvious.  A lot is riding on one person and the party’s ability to mount (and fund) an effective campaign.  Other risks may have not have been thought through.  For instance, Nick could follow through on the findings above by being brutally “honest” about the need for fiscal rectitude.  But recent talk of “savage cuts” and “progressive austerity” may jar with people who expect Nick and the Lib Dems to be “good for themselves and their families”.  We’ll need to start telling a story about how the party’s solutions for public debt will be better for ordinary people over the long term.


Sounds too hard? Well, OK, we could have a bit less of the hairshirt and try bundling up a few popular-looking if expensive policies as “fair” and “for people”.  But what if most voters simply didn’t believe us and took all this as further proof that the Lib Dems are decent people whose policies don’t really add up? Or worse still, they got the idea from somewhere that after all his talk about the need for economic responsibility, Nick was not really being straight with them – not “honest” or “sincere”?  To coin the jargon, Nick and the party would no longer embody their narrative.  I wonder how many seats the Lib Dems would win then.

Monday, 5 October 2009

The people's party, honest and with a shade of green - how voters see the Liberal Democrats (Part 1)

How’s the Liberal Democrat narrative going, Neil? I get asked that from time to time, for some reason.

On the basis that the Lib Dems have a narrative, but it belongs to the voters, not to the party, here’s a round up of what the pre-conference research by Populus, Ipsos-MORI and Orb Research (quantitative and focus groups for Newsnight) said about the Lib Dems.

Let’s start with the party’s strengths. According to Populus, the Lib Dems scored highest, once again, for being the party “for ordinary people, not the best off”. There was 40% net agreement that this statement applied to the Lib Dems, as opposed to 0% for Labour (equal numbers agreed and disagreed) and minus 7% for the Conservatives.

The Lib Dems’ second best rating was for being “a united party”, with a net agreement of plus 27%. For the Tories, the figure was plus 16%. For Labour, it was minus 50%.

The Lib Dems were also seen as the most “honest and principled” party. The net agreement that this statement applied to the Lib Dems was plus 24%. That figure compared to minus 11% for the Conservatives and minus 40% for Labour.

On all three measures, the Lib Dem showings were better than in 2008.

So we can see the sorts of attributes that the Lib Dems should be trying to reinforce in the issues and policies that we push; the stories we tell about the party. For instance, Nick Clegg was correct to stress in his keynote the party’s “fair taxes” plan as the “one policy to take away” from Bournemouth. And the party needs to keep embodying the “honest and principled” image.

There’s an important caveat, however. At the end of September, Ipsos MORI found that the Conservatives were the preferred party for “being best at looking after the interests of people like you”, with the Lib Dems third.(1)

Now for the areas where the Lib Dems are not so strong. There were some indications that the party is still not seen as a serious contender for government. The party did less well for having “a good team of leaders” (+3% net agreement) and “competent and capable” (+1%). On both scores, the Conservatives were again the preferred party – though the Lib Dems have made up some ground since last year.

The number agreeing that the Lib Dems “share my values” was equal to the number disagreeing. That may be food for thought for those who say we should campaign on our “values”. Note that the public didn’t really see any party as “sharing its values”, though Labour did the worst by far. And when it came to “having clear ideas for dealing with Britain’s problems”, voters didn’t rate any of the parties. (Tories - plus 3%, Lib Dems - minus 9%, Labour - minus 30%).(2)

Even if no party was seen as having “the answers”, they are all stronger on some issues than on others. Populus showed the Lib Dems top on only one – “tackling the problem of climate change” – where the Lib Dems were 6% ahead of the Tories and 7% ahead of Labour.

On all the issues that matter most to voters – the NHS, education, crime – the Lib Dems lagged well behind both the other parties. Ipsos MORI came up with very similar findings (3). Nothing new there. But many Lib Dems will be disappointed that the party scored only 11% as the best party in the Populus poll for “managing Britain’s economy in good times as well as bad”, especially in light of Vince Cable’s public standing.

Some of the party’s favourite communications themes have not taken off. The Lib Dems were 12% behind the Tories as the best party for “reforming Britain’s political system”. The two opposition parties were rated about equally for “responding to the public anger over MPs’ expenses”. As I have suggested before, “fixing up politics” may not be quite the winner for the Lib Dems that some have thought.

The Newsnight poll found that the Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems were 16% behind Cameron and the Conservatives as “the party that represents change in politics”.

There’s an obvious explanation for all this: the public does not see or hear much about the Lib Dems and see the party as a “wasted vote” in many parts of the country. The well-worn counter-stories about the Lib Dems emerged very clearly from the Newsnight focus groups that were conducted in the second week of September.(4) As one participant put it: “a vote for them is almost like a wasted vote . . . they’ve got no hope of actually taking over.” A few attributed the party’s lack of profile to the voting system and a lack of media coverage.

The American pollster who ran the groups, Cornell Belcher, concluded that the public’s dislike of Labour and lack of enthusiasm for the Tories provide the Lib Dems with a great opportunity:

“ . . . but they’re not coming up the middle because voters don’t know who they are.”

The arguments that “we need more coverage” have been well-rehearsed for years. So has the sense of optimism about the Representation of the People Act, which requires the Lib Dems to have the same amount of broadcast coverage as Labour and the Tories. during general election campaigns. Well, OK. But I think that there’s also a risk that these figures, if turned into the Lib Dems’ preferred storylines, could all too easily crash into each other.

Look at what happened at Bournemouth conference. Yes, the Lib Dems’ “fair taxes” are “for the ordinary people not the best off”. But talk of “savage cuts” – which are more likely to hit low and middle income people hardest - can surely be defended as “honest and principled”. These are hard to reconcile and I doubt that the phrase “progressive austerity” quite does it. (Where’s the story?). But retreating into fanciful and dishonest lists of unaffordable policies would not match the narrative either.

The Newsnight research underlined that the Lib Dems can get across only one or two mutually reinforcing stories about ourselves. These are much more likely to be successful if they are based on being for “ordinary people”, supported by honest and rigorous information about how all major Lib Dem policies will be paid for and sensible environmental policies.

(1) Populus did not ask whether each party “cares about the problems that ordinary people have to deal with” or “understands the way people live their lives in today's Britain” as they did in 2008.
(2) This question was not asked in 2008
(3) Ipsos MORI did not ask which party was best on the environment, presumably because it did not rank high enough as an issue for voters
(4) NB – these were carried out in Pudsey and Brighton, neither of which has any target seats for the Lib Dems.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Storytelling with impact: Peter Mandelson's speech to the 2009 Labour Party Conference

Peter Mandelson’s speech to the Labour party conference was one of the stand-out political events of the week. I think it’s one of the best pieces of political storytelling we’ve seen all year.

The reasons that the speech worked so well weren’t so much about his passion or his delivery, which was weird in parts. It was impressive because of the stories Mandelson told and the ways he told them.

Let’s start with the easy bits. Any government asking for another mandate always tries to say to the voters, “give it to us more time – we deserve another go”. The subtext is usually “you can’t risk a change to the other side”. When a government is after a fourth term, the “don’t risk it” story is almost always the dominant one.

So it was with Peter Mandelson’s speech:

"The choice between a Conservative party whose judgements on the credit crunch were wrong, or a party providing leadership in the toughest of times . . experience and change with Gordon's leadership. Or the shallowness of David Cameron."

But there was so much more it than that. In trying to galvanise the downcast conference into being “fighters not quitters” and to be “restless for change”, Mandelson followed almost all the rules of good storytelling and added a few twists of his own.

Stephen Denning says that the first step in telling a powerful story is to gain the audience’s attention.(1) One method he suggests is to admit a vulnerability, or to making mistakes. Near the beginning of his speech, Peter Mandelson said:

"I love working for this party and those who work so hard for it – even if, at times, perhaps not everyone in it has loved me. I understand that. I made enemies, sometimes needlessly. I was sometimes too careless with the feelings and views of others.

"But please accept this. It was for one reason only. I was in a hurry to return this party to where it should be – in government to help the hard-working people of our country. I know that Tony said our project would only be complete when the Labour Party learned to love Peter Mandelson. I think perhaps he set the bar a little too high. Though I am trying my best."

By telling this story, Mandelson was also reminding the conference of “who he is” – a Labour man, through and through. The neat bit of self-deprecation came after this:

"I did not hesitate for too long [return to the government last year]. The pull was too great. The pull of coming back to serve my country when it was in the midst of the global whirlwind that had hit us. The pull of coming back to serve this Prime Minister, our leader, Gordon Brown – who was gripping this financial crisis, leading the fightback against it when so many others seemed caught in the headlights. But there was something else. It was the pull of coming back to serve our party. I did not choose this party. I was born into it. It is in my blood and in my bones."

The sub-text was an “I know what you are thinking” story. OK, you’ve never really liked me, Mandelson was telling delegates, but I’m going to validate your objections and then answer them head on.(2)

And Mandelson followed another classic piece of classic attention-gaining advice. He created his own frame, using the word “fight” or “fightback” nine times in his speech .

Denning’s second story telling step is to stimulate desire. He says that you can do it by telling a positive story - what Denning calls “a springboard story”:

"A simple story about an example where the change is already happening [that] connects with an audience at an emotional level and generates a new story in their minds that leads to action."

Mandelson told a springboard story – one of the best and riskiest I have seen in politics. For the story was really about himself.

"We must face facts. Electorally, we are in the fight of our lives. And, yes, we start that fight as underdogs. But if I can come back, we can come back."

Another way to stimulate desire is to offer a positive challenge. Mandelson’s “we’re fighters not quitters” rhetoric certainly did that. So did his closing preroration, with its call to “win for our party, for our country, for the British people.”

Denning also suggests “externalising the obstacles to change” by, for instance, casting people as antagonists or aliens. To Labour eyes, it’s obvious who these are – David Cameron, George Osborne and the rest of the Conservative Party.

But hang on: with Labour now into its thirteenth year in office, aren’t the Tories (or, as many of us say, the Liberal Democrats) the “change”? So Mandelson reached a lot higher, moving to reclaim the word “change” and reframe it in Labour’s terms. He told a story about how Labour would pursue “activist” strategies to ensure that Britain meets its full economic potential but that the Tories “just don’t get it”. He said that on three counts -limiting the recession’s damage to the economy tackling the deficit “without eating into the fabric of people’s lives” and investing in future growth, “the Tories are on the wrong side of the argument”. He went on to use the word “change” nineteen times..

In doing this, and with his claims of how the Tories have changed their image but not their substance, Mandelson was following Stephen Denning’s third step for sucessful storytelling. This is to “reinforce with reasons”, by telling “minimalist” stories that are usually set in the present or immediate future.

"I hope [Cameron and Osborne] can find the humility to acknowledge that at every point Tory policy would not just have put the recovery at risk but have made this recession deeper, longer and far far worse. As we get closer to the election, I want to see them and Tory candidates across the country explaining why they wouldn’t provide the money to help small businesses and families in this recession when they needed it most. No extra money to boost family incomes. No money for the tax deferment for business and no VAT cut. No additional money to help those who have tragically lost their jobs. No funding for the car scrappage scheme. They got it plain wrong at every step along the way."

No, 100 speeches like this between now and next May won’t save the Labour party. Some of the logic was faulty. Mandelson's many critics may call the speech self-indulgent and self-justifying. But after months of dreary lists and boring slogans, Mandelson told Labour exactly the sort of story they wanted to hear. It was no wonder the delegates cheered and the media swooned.

(1) Stephen Denning, The Secret Language of Leadership (Jossey Bass, 2007)
(2) See Annette Simmons, Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins (Amacom, 2007)

Monday, 28 September 2009

Storytelling with impact: Katy Gordon ppc in the Lib Dems' Real Women debate

As usual, I spent a fair bit of time in the hall at the Liberal Democrat conference. I enjoy policy debates. Also, I was looking out for examples of people using stories to support their arguments and policy ideas.

It was lean pickings I’m afraid, but one speech hit me right between the eyes: the speech by Katy Gordon, ppc for Glasgow North, in the debate on the Real Women policy paper. She was defending the paper’s most controversial proposal, to ban the use of digital retouching technology in advertisements aimed at under 16s and to work with industry professionals to ensure that legislation was appropriately worded to reflect these aims.

Take a look at what Katy Gordon said, almost at the beginning of her speech.

"I wanted to know if the proposals in this paper would be seen as more of the nanny state: those do-gooding Liberals getting worked up over trivia. So I took it along to a group of ordinary women in my constituency of Glasgow North, at the North West Women’s Centre in Maryhill. The group ranged from girls in their twenties to retired grandmothers, many of whom have faced real barriers in bringing up families. I asked them what they thought of media images of female beauty and whether there was any role for government on this issue.

"What struck me was that all of them independently came up with the proposals in this paper! From Gail, a retail manager, who asked whether we could put something in magazine pictures to say they are airbrushed to Denise, a caretaker, who suggested showing before and after photos so everyone could see the difference.

"What really struck home though was Trisha, who told me about her daughter, Mary-Ann. Mary-Ann is 20 and all the women agreed she is pretty but she is tall and she thinks of herself as fat. She is always comparing herself to the images in magazines and gets terribly depressed. In fact, Trisha is worried that she is secretly taking laxatives, in a desperate attempt to lose weight.

"Now the women were very clear that they had a responsibility to give their daughters the confidence to reject these unrealistic portrayals of female beauty. As Stacey said, you need to start young to get them to be confident in their bodies. Trisha tells Mary-Ann regularly that ‘she is a real woman and that beauty comes from the inside’, but however good a parent you are, you are up against the might of the media and the beauty industry."

Katy Gordon used stories, with real characters, a beginning and an end, to help build her case. Taken together, the stories pass the Anecdote test for what makes a story have impact. They are clear, believable and have strike an emotional chord. There’s an element of surprise: the “ordinary” women were, in effect, already calling for the same proposals as the party.
Katy Gordon told what Annette Simmons(1) calls an “I-know-what-you-are thinking story”:

"A trust-building surprise for you to share the audience’s secret suspicions that first validates and then dispels these objections without sounding defensive."

She acknowledged the objections held silently by many in the audience: that the policy paper that this was more “nanny state”, “do gooding” liberal “trivia” and then met them head on. “Nanny state”? “Do gooders”? “Trivia”? Yep, you’ve got it. Katy Gordon took the other side’s frames and broke them open with powerful stories.

Her stories were followed by some explanation and statistics, reinforcing the reasons for the proposed reforms.

At the very end of the speech came the “happy ending” that the proposals could bring.

"As Nick Clegg is stressing this week, if we want things to be different, we should choose something different.

"We need to think about Mary-Ann crying herself to sleep because she can’t attain the ideal body image, of Trisha worrying herself sick over how to cope."

And in very specific ways, Katy Gordon’s stories reinforced the values that her audience wanted to hear – that the Liberal Democrats are “different” - more “radical”, readier to take risks.

Why can’t more Liberal Democrat politicians use stories this effectively?

(1) Annette Simmonds, Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins (Amacom, 2007)

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Tackling climate change and building a green economy with clean energy. How would the Lib Dems do it?

Liberal Democrats talk about tackling climate change, investing in clean renewable energy and investing in green economic growth and green infrastructure. But how would we do it?

The scientific consensus is clear - the world must keep the rise in global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius above pre industrial levels, or we will face an apocalyptic situation where climate change is out of our control.

The science is becoming more pessimistic. Last year, for instance, climate scientists from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research found that cumulative CO2 emissions, along with carbon cycle feedbacks and the omission of emissions from international transport, mean that action to reduce emissions is needed much more urgently that previously thought. Global greenhouse gas emissions need to start falling by 2015. Their analysis also suggests that the UK needs to aim at the upper end of the IPCC’s recommendations, for industrialised countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions between 25 and 40 per cent from a 1990 baseline; in part to encourage other countries to aim for a stronger deal at Copenhagen. [click here].

The independent Committee on Climate Change favours strong domestic action, with little or no dependence on offsets purchased from abroad to achieve its suggested emissions reduction targets.

So the Liberal Democrats are correct to commit to cutting UK emissions by 40 percent by 2020; and to supporting an international agreement to do the same.(1)

We have also adopted targets for 40% clean electricity -- wind, hydroelectric, tidal, biomass, wave and tidal, solar power -- by 2020; and for making a major improvement in our energy efficiency -- the most cost-effective way of cutting carbon emissions. This is the key to reducing our carbon emissions. Research by the Carbon Trust and Imperial College proves it.

Liberal Democrats want to take carbon out of the electricity we use, the heat we need, the vehicles we use to get around by 2050. We want to create a new, green economy.

Let’s be clear. This is a transformation the like of which has never seen before. It will need the fastest acceleration of technological development and innovation in our history. And 40% clean electricity is eight times the UK’s current level.

The transformation to a zero carbon Britain will need investment in, for example: renewables generation; robust energy efficiency solutions; offshore wind power grids; electricity transmission and gas distribution grid reinforcement and interconnectors; and smart meters.

Last year, the Renewables Advisory Board estimated that to reach the government’s existing energy targets the private sector will need to invest £100bn by 2020.

In July 2009, new work by Ernst and Young, covering investment needs for all the government’s energy policy goals, put the figure at £90 billion by 2015 (though that includes new nuclear generation).

But market failures mean that private sector involvement alone will not generate enough investment to fully commercialise some new green technologies quickly enough.

In some cases, the lead times are too long. Some supply chains are too weak – in onshore wind, for example, we have to compete in a global supply chain with Spain, Denmark. And in offshore wind there are very few turbine manufacturers.

The Liberal Democrats’ general election manifesto should set out a green industrial strategy, to make sure that the technologies where this country has an advantage can come to market. This includes:
  • providing capital grants for clean energy sources;
  • creating a Green Infrastructure Bank to act as the catalyst for private sector investment; with public finance acting in partnership to carry forward low carbon infrastructure investment; and
  • using green bonds to raise new finance for green infrastructure and energy efficiency solutions; boosting confidence in low carbon markets without making the public debt worse.

Liberal Democrats talk about “using guaranteed prices to drive investment in renewable energy sources such as wind, wave and solar.” But so do Labour (now) and the Conservatives. We need to be committed to guaranteed prices that do the job – by being structured simply enough and set sufficiently high to promote investment in as many viable clean energy solutions as possible.

(1) Note that earlier this year, new research from the Tyndall Centre supported a 42 per cent UK emissions reduction target by 2020 (without using carbon offsets purchased from abroad.

[This is an edited version of the speech I would have given in the energy and climate change debate at the Liberal Democrat conference, had I been called.]

Zero Carbon Britain - Liberal Democrats should tell it straight

But we need to be much clearer than the Fresh Start pre-manifesto about how we would achieve it.

With every general election, we set out how much our policies would cost and how we would pay for them.

We should be just as open an honest about how we will cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Our next general election manifesto should set out an alternative carbon budget showing, for every major government department and every major policy area, how we will put the UK on a zero carbon path.

We need to show, with policies and figures, how every major department- for instance, energy and climate change, transport, communities, Treasury – will play its part.

[This a slightly edited version of my intervention in the debate on A Fresh Start for Britain at the Liberal Democrat conference, 22 September 2009]

Monday, 7 September 2009

New Zealand may ditch fair voting system

I came to the UK sixteen years ago, almost to the day. I remember how many people in the Liberal Democrats and a few beyond, were very interested to know about how and why New Zealanders had changed our voting system. People asked (and still ask) if there were any lessons from NZ that could be applied here. The answer is yes. But Kiwis may be about to make another change– to a voting system that is much less “proportional” and looks more like first past the post.

In a referendum held on the same day as the 1993 general election, Kiwis voted by 54 to 46 percent to scrap “first-past-the-post” and bring in the mixed member proportional (MMP) system. [For further details, click here and here]. General elections were held using MMP in 1996, 1999, 2002, 2005 and 2008. After last year’s vote, a coalition led by the (centre right) National Party took over. (The line-up is National/ACT/Maori Party/UnitedFuture NZ)

National promised to hold a binding referendum on MMP, to be held no later than 2011, when the next general election is due. This would:
“. . . give people a choice between retaining MMP without any further consideration, or having a further vote on MMP alongside another electoral system or systems.”

That seems fair enough. When the change to MMP was made, it was expected that Kiwis would one day have a chance to review their decision. Five elections on, they should be able to look afresh at the voting system.

But National’s election policy left open a lot of questions, such as the timing of the vote, how many referendums will be held and what the options will be.

It now looks as if the government plans a two-stage process. The first referendum, which would be held at the time of the 2011 election, would ask voters whether they thought there should be a change of electoral system. If change was favoured, a second referendum would be held before 2014 on the options. We still don’t know what the options will be: the cabinet is still working this one out.

Prime Minister John Key has said today that:

“New Zealanders have become accustomed to a proportional system, so I personally have been of the view it would be unlikely to go back to first past the post.”

He went on:

"Whether they might consider an alternative proportional system is something that's in their hands. I think it's a bit early to tell at this point."

Smelled a rat yet? Key personally favours the supplementary member (SM) system, in which the vast majority of MPs would be chosen from single member constituencies with a smaller number from party lists, to provide a limited “top up” for parties who had not won constituencies in proportion to their overall support.

SM is a “proportional” voting system only in the sense that a whitebait is a fish. It would advantage the two major parties over the smaller ones (apart from, possibly, the Maori Party). But it would almost certainly help National more than Labour. [There’s more on this point, here.]

And isn’t it funny how the anti-MMP campaigners, former Telecom chairman Peter Shirtcliffe (who led the pro-first-past-the-post campaign in 1993) and commentator Graeme Hunt are backing the supplementary member system?

UK electoral reformers should keep watch what the Kiwis do. Just as they used the NZ precedent as a model that can be followed, their opponents can do the same if Kiwis eventually get rid of MMP.

With an eye to any future UK vote on electoral reform, they should also watch the process and timetable used for the MMP referendum. For instance, the Greens’ co-leader Metiria Turei has called for an independent review, with full public consultation on how the system is working, before any referendum is held. These things are all about party advantage -- just like the debate on voting systems itself.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

How do you make political ads that work?

This has been one of my main interests in politics for many years now.
A New Zealand academic has offered up some useful suggestions.

On his Liberation blog, Bryce Edwards has been summarizing and commenting on chapters from Informing Voters? Politics, Media and the New Zealand Election 2008 (edited by Chris Rudd, Janine Hayward and Geoff Craig of the University of Otago Politics department).

He says that “’Vote for Me’”, the chapter by Dr Claire Robinson on political advertising, is one of the most interesting in the book. Having read a lot of Dr Robinson’s material and had the benefit of her advice, I can well believe it.

Edwards says that Claire Robinson found most of the advertising lacklustre – there were no classics like the dancing cossacks this time. She is critical of Labour’s advertising, found National’s bland and uninspiring (but then they were the frontrunners) but is much more positive about the Greens’ adverts and believes that NZ First at least pushed their brand (although they finished up with no MPs).

Just as interesting are the principles we can draw from Claire Robinson’s reported observations. Here’s my take:

· political adverts need to engage with voters and be inclusive (for instance – show your party leader adverts interacting and listening to voters, address viewers directly);

· to help in projecting this sense of engagement and inclusion, you need to seem externally and not internally focused (for instance, avoid using the word “I” in your adverts, as much as possible);

· you should project the image of a diverse voter base, especially if you are the market leader or a major party;

· if you are following a niche targeting strategy (like the Greens), don’t be afraid to use the same types of images and symbols that business marketeers use to reach that niche (for example, children, well known scenes and symbols, high production values);

· if you are a third or fourth party your campaign images - if done well - can help you seem different and fresh, above “politics as usual” (but see below);

· negative messages about your opponents are not enough (ok, third term governments seeking a fourth term almost always resort to these, but if people aren’t listening to you or those messages, then this is not going to work); and

· to be successful, a political advertising campaign needs to be based on a positive storyline – optimistic, action-oriented and looking to the future.

It seems Claire Robinson was very impressed with the Greens’ adverts. So was I. Yet the party did not do as well as expected on polling day. According to Bryce Edwards, she puts this down this down to the Greens’ mid-campaign decision to declare their preferred coalition partner, effectively siding with the Labour Party. Such an announcement:

‘was out of keeping with their message about transcending politics, [and] effectively meant they were only communicating with their core supporters from that moment on, and could not expect to attract new supporters from the other side of the political spectrum’ (p.88).

Here’s one more lesson learned: you can have a great campaign narrative but you have to embody it as well.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Pollwatch: Lib Dems ranked third on the environment, gaining little traction in economic debate -- ICM

Yesterday’s Guardian summarised the main findings of the ICM political poll for August. ICM have now published the full results on their website, so we can see in a bit more detail what they mean for the Liberal Democrats.
The question that I always find most interesting is:

“Irrespective of how you yourself will vote at the next election, which political party do you think is putting forward the best policies on . . .”.

As usual, the Liberal Democrats’ best rating – 16 per cent – was on the environment. But we came third, behind the Conservatives and Labour. Allowing for margins of error, the three parties were level pegging, which is not much cause for comfort.

That’s not all: 18% said that “another party” (meaning the Greens, presumably) had the best environmental policies. That figure has doubled since February, the last time ICM asked who has the best policies on a range of areas. And more voters picked “another party” on the environment than on any of the issues surveyed.

This is not the first time the Lib Dems have failed to top the ICM poll on the “best for the environment” question. Yet we should be doing better than this on what is supposed to be our strongest issue with voters and where we have long claimed the moral and intellectual high ground. I will post about this more over the coming weeks, but the Lib Dems may well have become too complacent over the last few years about our leadership on green issues.

On "the economy generally", just 9 per cent said that the Lib Dems had the best economic policies, compared to 33 per cent for the Conservatives and 22 per cent for Labour.

As for which party had the best policies for “sorting out the economic crisis”, the Conservatives held a 9 point lead over Labour, up from 2 points in February. Just 9 per cent picked the Lib Dems.

On these scores, the Lib Dems fared little better or worse than we did six months ago.

The ICM figures show, once again, that Vince Cable’s well deserved reputation with the political literati has not sprinkled any star dust on the Liberal Democrats or our economic credibility. Maybe the public has cast us as the “caring party” that stands up for ordinary people and does not really see Lib Dems as hard-headed economic managers. But there’s no escaping the fact that, as the general election draws closer, the party needs to put across a clearer story on the issue that is uppermost in voters’ minds.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Lessons from Gordon Brown's narrative failure

Liberal Democrats regularly beat ourselves up for “not having a narrative”. As I have argued many times, we always have a narrative but it’s not necessarily the one we might want. Yet our problems on this front are as nothing compared to Gordon Brown’s.
In today’s Guardian, Tom Clark describes the philosophical and marketing swamp in which the PM is now mired. He lists the worst of Brown’s abortive attempts to define what his premiership is meant to be all about, from the moralising of two years ago to last autumn’s promises to get tough with the bankers.
In each case, there was a cycle of failure that repeated itself. Brown issued bold statements of intent that were, in many ways, in line with the public mood. But they did not amount to a vision for government. Nor did Brown tell a clear story about what had happened and what was coming next. Most importantly, nothing came of them. Politicians in office are judged over the long term by their actions and achievement as by well as their words; all this forms part of their brand narrative. They have to make things happen and when action is promised but not forthcoming, the public has nothing tangible to latch on to; disillusionment soon follows.
Hang on - Brown has held high office for more than twelve years. He was chancellor for more than ten years – with an unprecedented amount of power over domestic policy - and has been prime minister for two. We should be able to see and believe what he stands for, where he wants to take the country; even if the PM has to help us. Just as we understood “Thatcherism”, we should able to see “Brownism” is about. But like Margaret Thatcher, Gordon Brown needs to tell stories to make it real.
The “ism” may be there after all. Tom Clark suggests that from all the micro-measures and ad hoc experiments, especially when Brown was at Treasury, we can identify his core values and principles:

“ . . . attempt to run a market economy with ruthless efficiency; then funnel as much of the proceeds as feasible to the very poor . . . with [a] strategic conviction that the state is vital in both parts . . . "

That’s a good summary but Brown has plainly not been successful in these aims -- though, it must be said, the global financial crisis has not helped.

When it comes to communication though, there’s less much room for debate. Tom Clark identifies the harsh reality:

“Brownism . . . will never be intelligibly defined by the man himself.”

I agree with Tom Clark. But read those words again, slowly. They go to the heart of why Brown has failed as a leader.

Political leaders have to tell compelling stories if they are to succeed. Leaders base these stories on a clear understanding of the people they are speaking to – their hopes, their emotions, their fears. Nobody else can do it for them. The leaders who do not tell such stories crash and burn. Think Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair – and Paddy Ashdown. Or Michael Foot, Iain Duncan Smith – and Ming Campbell. Brown seems destined to join the second group. (True, this is a big ask for a leader who has been a long time in government. Yet Australia’s former PM Paul Keating managed it well enough to win the 1993 federal election.) Tom Clark wants Gordon Brown to change his ways but I think it is too late now.
But there’s more. In order to tell powerful stories, successful leaders also know their own minds, understand their own values and are clear about what they themselves believe in and their goals for the future. Michael Deaver once said that one of the biggest lessons he learned from working with Ronald Reagan was:

“You've got to know who you are before you can communicate it.”

Love them or hate them, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher are two very good examples of leaders who knew who they were.

Maybe that’s the real problem with Brown’s premiership: he has still not really decided what Brownism is. And, perhaps, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have the same challenge.

Friday, 24 July 2009

A fable from Norwich North

Today, prime minister Gordon Brown demonstrated one of my favourite rules about politics: if you’re a politician, never comment on by-election figures or opinion polls because anything you say will come back and bite you on the bum.

Commenting on the result of the Norwich North by-election, Brown said:

"I don't think any party can take a great deal of cheer from this, the Conservative vote went down, the Liberal [sic] vote when down - only the fringe parties saw their votes going up."

Mr Brown’s comment on the figures was quite correct, as far as it went. The Tory vote as a share of the total number of qualified electors was down by 2.2 per cent from 2005. The Lib Dems were down by 3.5 per cent. UKIP saw their vote go up by 3.9 per cent and the Greens’ improved by 2.8 per cent.

I think you can guess the punchline. Labour’s support crashed by 19.2 per cent. Only one in three of those who voted Labour in 2005 turned up to vote for them yesterday. Brown had by far the worst result. He lost a seat that has had Labour MPs for 45 of the last 59 years.

The PM showed how politicians trying to make a clever point about by-election results– or, more likely, explain away a disastrous outcome -- are quickly caught out.

This is more likely to happen with opinion polls. I’m always fascinated by the way some politicians make excuses for dismal poll results by trying to pick at the details, playing with figures to no great effect. Or else they try to trace trends or make comparisons that just don’t stack up. It always sounds like making excuses. Remember Michael Heseltine’s tragic attempt, just days before the Tories’ 1997 debacle, to explain away dismal poll results? Like all politicians playing in public with adverse polling figures, he embarrassed himself.

So, governing parties everywhere: if you lose a by-election, just acknowledge that people are angry and then get on with it.

Politicians everywhere: if you get a bad poll result, just declare that the only poll that counts is the one of general election day. Better still, don’t ever comment on polls at all.

And never forget that great adage in the political novel Primary Colours: losers spin but winners grin.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Making things happen and dancing cossacks: political narratives 101

A few days ago, I came across on You Tube two old but still striking examples of the political narrative as party election broadcast.

I remember both of the adverts well. They feature here in a documentary of some sort, about innovative advertising in New Zealand elections. The first is a New Zealand Labour Party broadcast from the 1969 general election campaign. The party had been out of office for nine years (three terms) and believed, as did many observers, that their turn was coming around again. Labour’s slogan, after nearly a decade of conservative National Party rule, was “make things happen”.

In this clip, Bob Harvey, whose thrusting young advertising agency handled the Labour campaign, explains how he started re-making the image of the party’s c.27-stone leader, Norman Kirk, from grossly overweight slob to prospective prime minister.

Just as interesting is the way the advert projected Labour’s campaign narrative: if you change the government, we can make New Zealand better. The story was about the future, not the past and the archetype was the strong and purposeful community, working through politics to deliver positive results for everyone. As well as an upbeat campaign song, New Zealand symbols, including exports, new industries, farmers, old people and people working, were used to make the story real. (You’ll notice the iconic photo of a Vietcong prisoner being brutally executed during the Tet offensive of 1968 too. The Vietnam war was one issue on which Labour differentiated themselves from National.) And Harvey was trying to make sure that Kirk embodied the campaign narrative, as a credible leader who might, well, make things happen.

The broadcast looks a little quaint today but was certainly innovative forty years ago. Yet Sir Keith Holyoake’s National government clung on by their fingertips. Most Kiwi voters thought that Norman Kirk and Labour still weren’t quite ready. Three years later, Kirk led his party to a landslide victory, using the slogan “It’s Time for Labour”. “Change”, the classic narrative for opposition parties, hit home with a bored and restless electorate that wanted new faces and political action and believed that the economy was firing strongly enough to sustain it. And the re-imagining of Kirk was complete (though, as I recall, Labour’s tv campaign was a little less imaginative in 1972).

The next case study in the documentary comes from the National Party’s 1975 election campaign. That campaign is still some of the powerful political storytelling I have seen. By election day, New Zealand had been hit by the first oil shock, a collapse in the country’s terms of trade and double-digit inflation. And the government was shattered by the death in 1974 of Norman Kirk. Labour no longer embodied its narrative. Meanwhile, the pugnacious populist Robert Muldoon had taken over as National’s leader and marketed himself – incredible though it seems now – as an economic wizard.

In six different advertising spots, from which a few brief excerpts appear here, National’s campaign told simple stories to an anxious electorate. They did it by using simple, colourful cartoons with potent symbols and clever heuristics.

You’ll see the negative archetypes here, possibly as never before – “the enemy within” (trouble-making trade unionists and brawling, brown-skinned Pacific Island immigrants) and “the rot at the top” (the Labour government that had failed to manage the economy). Both came together in the infamous “dancing Cossacks” that powerfully symbolised National’s claim that the Labour superannuation (pensions) scheme would allow the state to nationalise all the farms and businesses in New Zealand and bring communism to the South Pacific.

This time, National swept to victory. Labour was decimated and Muldoon went on to be prime minister for eight and a half years. The crude appeals to prejudice and the “reds under the bed” scaremongering had Labour crying foul. The cossacks remain controversial to this day. [You can see the superannuation advert in full if you click here and scroll down to the bottom]

Like them or not, the National Party adverts are a textbook case of a successful political narrative. They talked about the issues of most concern to disgruntled Labour supporters and “swing” voters and engaged, very directly, with what these voters were thinking and feeling, as identified through the astute use of market research.

The National campaign structured these emotions – fear - into simple, easy-to-understand stories and played them back to voters. And they offered policy planks as “happy endings”: cut immigration to the bone, bring in a form of voluntary trade unionism, replace Labour’s superannuation regime with a very generous pay as you go scheme. Muldoon and his hard-hitting campaigning style embodied the campaign’s narrative.

Mike Wall, who masterminded National’s advertising campaign, is surely correct when he says in the clip that Muldoon would have won handsomely with or without the cartoons. But he adds:

“The commercials fitted in and somehow captured the mood of the campaign that Muldoon was running.”

Oh, yeah.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Reframing climate change, part II

For years, climate realists have been concerned that, despite all the grim scientific evidence, the public is still not fully engaged with the debate or the action that will be needed to address climate change. One problem may even be the term “climate change”. Now a new report suggests that another term may shift the public’s dial. The term is, wait for it: "global warming".

Framing Science’s Matt Nisbet cites a new study that shows how using the terms "climate change" versus "global warming" has a real bearing on public perceptions. Published in the Journal Public Understanding of Science, it comes from Lorraine Whitmarsh of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and is based on a postal survey of 590 people in Portsmouth, Hampshire.

Nisbet quotes from the study’s conclusion:

""Global warming" is more often believed to have human causes and tends to be associated with ozone depletion, the greenhouse effect and heat-related impacts, such as temperature increase and melting icebergs and glaciers. The term "climate change" is more readily associated with natural causes and a range of impacts. Furthermore, the term "global warming" evokes significantly more concern, and is rated as "very important" by more respondents, than the term "climate change." Finally, more people consider individual or public action to be an effective means of tackling "global warming than do so for "climate change"; while a higher proportion believe planting trees could mitigate "climate change" than it could mitigate "global warming.""

The political realities take us right back to the infamous memo produced in 2002 by the US conservative political strategist Frank Luntz. He advised the George W. Bush White House on how to neutralise global warming and the environment as political issues.

“It’s time for us to start talking about “climate change” instead of global warming . . . . “climate change” is less frightening than “global warming.” . . . While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge.”

All this suggests that climate realists should stop talking about “climate change” and start talking about “global warming”.

But Drew Westen and Celinda Lake, who are experts on the emotional and neurological drivers of public opinion, see it differently. They were involved with a recent comprehensive research project for the communications gurus ecoAmerica, which aimed to find new ways to persuade people who haven’t made up their minds about climate change / global warming. Westen and Lake contend that “global warming” may sound quite positive to some Americans and that they may be less inclined to believe it every time there’s a cold spell. In any case, they say, “global warming” may be too abstract a concept for most people.

Last month, ecoAmerica produced their report Climate and Energy Reports: Our Common Future. Here’s their key suggestion:

"For climate change, leading with global warming, climate crisis or climate change tends to polarize and weaken the message. The language itself is especially problematic among swing voters. We should speak of deteriorating atmosphere and only after establishing connections with Americans’ other values
first . . .

“The best new term is “deteriorating atmosphere” or “our deteriorating atmosphere”(personalizing the term) instead of ‘global warming’ or ‘climate crisis.’”

I agree with Westen and Lake on the need to get away from jargon and on the need for progressives and client realists need to speak to people in their language, speaking to their values. The ecoAmerica report makes many good points (example: don’t talk about “renewable” and “alternative” energy; instead, talk about energy sources that run out and ones that don’t run out.) It is worth reading in full.

But their big idea, “our deteriorating atmosphere” isn’t the most catchy phrase I’ve ever heard. The respected Democrat pollster Mark Mellman has argued that it lags a long way behind public American public opinion. He cites evidence that the vast majority of Americans believe global warming is real, is happening now and constitutes a serious threat, particularly to future generations.

Likewise, four out of five people the UK are very or fairly concerned about the impact of climate change on the country. Most think that the UK is already affected. The vast majority believe that it may result in increased pollution, changing local weather and increased risk of skin cancer. Around three quarters believe that climate change is mainly or entirely a result of human behaviour. Four out of five people in the UK are very or fairly concerned about climate change. [click here] We should use these assets and build on the foundations. This isn’t the time to forget them.

So where to now? "Climate change" is a more technically accurate term but, as George Monbiot has said, it does not explain the full impact of what we are doing to the earth’s atmosphere. If the Tyndall research is correct, "global warming" is more emotive but it may not public support for the action that we all to take. But nobody has yet come up with a new term that really works. And, as Nesbit says, there is a risk trying to bring in new ones may simply annoy or polarise the public, who may feel they are being “sold to”.

There may not be a silver bullet on climate communications. So let's keep working with the terms we know, such as "climate change" and "global warming". And we need more UK-based research (polls, focus groups) about these terms, some of the options, and what they really mean to people.

The same applies to framing. UK climate realists have long used the “environmental disaster” frame. There are others on offer, most notably the “economic development” frame, which usually translates into “green jobs” and the “public health frame”, which has some value too. All of these should help to target messages and tell stories, to build support with different sections of the public and persuade people to act. Yet there is still very little research about how these frames work or fail with British people.

Most importantly, we shouldn’t pretend that any of these can be used in isolation from the evidence and arguments about climate change and global warming. Too many of the arguments over climate communications – especially those in the states – are carried out as if there is a direct choice between the science and the popular messages” / frames. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The climate realists can win on all these fronts. For some brilliant examples of how the jobs frame, the economic security frame and the climate message can work together, check out this speech by Barack Obama, urging passage of the Waxman-Markey energy bill. (hat tip: Climate Progress) Or this post by Joe Romm showing how Obama uses rhetoric and metaphor, to push his climate change messages so brilliantly.

If only there was a politician willing and able to apply those lessons in the UK.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Lord Ralf Dahrendorf 1929 – 2009

All liberals should mourn Lord Ralf Dahrendorf, who died on 17 June 2009. We owe Ralf Dahrendorf a great deal for his contributions to modern liberal thought, which were based upon a profound belief in “the elementary desire to be free” which he saw as “the force behind all liberties, old and new.”

Lord Dahrendorf mapped out an approach to social progress that was distinctively liberal. He combined an understanding of the importance of markets with a deep concern for social justice and a basic equality of ‘life chances’. The latter concept was essential to his thinking. Dahrendorf perceived life chances as the social conditions that define how much individuals can realise their full potential. He recognised that people do not, cannot choose the conditions they have to work under and that life chances will be unequal, the opportunities to succeed unfairly shared.

This sounds, at first blush, like the start of a basic case for “social democratic” politics. But Dahrendorf saw the route to social progress as being about offering individuals greater opportunities to make the best of their talents. He argued that in order to achieve the greatest life chances for all, we need to create the correct institutions: a strong civil society, a market economy and the constitution of liberty.

Dahrendorf questioned whether large state organisations were always the best means of delivering a society in which ‘life chances’ were maximised. He believed that individual choice had a part to play in all spheres of society. And he saw the choices that people make and ‘the ties that bind’ in society as being both linked together and indispensable in delivering positive change. By contrast, traditional social democratic approaches were based on using state action to promote equality. They tend to see politics as being about improving the lot of particular groups - classes - in society.

To some contemporary liberals, there may have been too much Milton Friedman and too little John Maynard Keynes in Dahrendorf’s work. Yet he recognised that markets needed to be changed and refined, through continual trial and error. Hella Pick’s obituary of Dahrendorf picked up on another important distinction between his brand of liberalism and economic libertarianism.

“Dahrendorf became emphatic that basic civil rights, including equality before the law and freedom of expression, must be given constitutional legitimacy. But he went further, arguing that modern citizenship must recognise unambiguous social rights to free people from insecurity and to ensure that they have education and that their incomes must not be allowed to fall below a certain level. Such rights needed to be removed from party politics and constitutionally enshrined. "

And, as long ago as 1974, Lord Dahrendorf recognised the constraints that ecological damage, overpopulation and limited resources impose on the full actualisation of life chances. In other words, neither "life chances", nor "free markets", could be ends in themselves. He also understood that international co-operation would be needed to meet such challenges.

His ability to see clearly the difference between liberal ends and political means was shown in Dahendorf’s approach to European co-operation, which he supported as a bulwark of freedom and democracy. But he was sometimes critical of the way integration has gone ahead. As Timothy Garton-Ash explained on Radio 4’s The Last Word (19 June):

“[Ralf Dahrendorf’s] Europe was not so much the Europe of institutions even though he was a European commissioner. His Europe was the Europe of freedom and he always liked to say that for him the greatest European moment was 1989 – the velvet revolutions, the liberation of eastern Europe.”

Lord Dahrendorf’s thinking has been very influential on the Liberal Democrats, even if he was often ahead of his time. We have heard strong echoes of his theories widening life chances in many of Nick Clegg’s speeches as leader. In the 2009 European Parliament election campaign, the Lib Dems tried to focus less on the institutions, more on what matters to people in their daily lives.

I did not know Ralf Dahrendorf well but had a few contacts with him over the years, during my time as policy director for the Liberal Democrats and, a few years back, as a fellow participant in a policy working group that redefined the party’s philosophy and values. And on one memorable occasion, Lord Dahrendorf was the guest speaker at a business dinner on UK, German and EU politics. The evening was a great success. He was one of the most insightful and intelligent people I have ever met, and always a pleasure to deal with.
Update (26 June 2009): The Economist's excellent obituary of Lord Dahrendorf appears here.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Pollwatch: Nick Clegg is starting to click with voters

Three major polling agencies say that after a patchy first year, marked by low levels of public recognition, Nick Clegg is steadily becoming more popular.

The Populus leader index measures Messrs Brown, Cameron and Clegg on a 10-point “how good a leader”, scale. In June, Nick had a score of 4.64 (and 4.71 in May). This is well up from 4.08, in November 2008, his lowest score. Nick’s previous highest score was 4.52, in May 2008. (Note: Populus doesn’t run the leader index every month).

YouGov asks voters whether they think each leader is doing very well, fairly well, fairly badly or very badly. For most of 2008, Nick’s ratings were on the positive side of the graph, but only just. Last autumn his numbers went south, finishing at net minus 6% in December. But in March 2009, Nick had a net satisfaction rating of plus 4% and by June it had shot up to plus 18%. These, and the Populus figures, suggest that the bolder Nick Clegg of recent months, with the Gurkhas vote, the public call on Speaker Martin to quit and, perhaps, the expenses scandal have all had an impact.

Ipsos-MORI tells a different story about Nick. It asks voters to say whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with the way each party leader is doing his job. For his first six months as leader, more people were dissatisfied with Nick than satisfied, by margins of between 1% and 9%. Ipsos-MORI found a turn in the tide in June 2008, when Nick’s net satisfaction rating moved up to plus 9%. It stayed at around that level for the rest of last year and into the first two months of 2009. Since then, he has had a surge, from plus 9% in February to plus 22% in May.

There’s one caveat: Nick’s ratings may be on the up, and are generally better than Ming Campbell’s, but he is still not as popular as Charles Kennedy. For instance, Ming Campbell’s satisfaction ratings from YouGov polls were usually in negative, single figures and finished in the negative 20s. But Charles Kennedy’s went as high as plus 35 per cent at the start of the last general election campaign.

Another feature of Nick’s early months as leader was that not many voters knew who he was. He is now establishing a higher public profile. In May 2008, Ipsos MORI found that half of all voters had no opinion about how he was doing his job as Lib Dem leader. In May 2009, just under one in three had no opinion. YouGov tracks a slightly less dramatic shift, from 37% “don’t knows” to 24% in June 2009. But the trendlines are all in the right direction.