Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Framewatch: MPs' expenses and the rot at the top

Politics is all about ideas and debates. It’s also about people and about issues. But the information is pared down or magnified into frames. Most people like simple storylines. 

Just have a look at the covers of many of today’s papers. 

The Daily Telegraph:

“Public anger rises over perks for MPs”

Or the Daily Express:


Then there’s the Daily Mail:

“As ordinary Britons battle recession, MPs get an inflation busting pay rise AND their annual expenses sour to £94m WHAT PLANET ARE THEY ON?”

The frame is all about public resentment of MPs and, increasingly, elite groups in society, seeming to get loads of money from the public trough while many people face tough times.

The archetype, well worn over the years, is the enemy within. The narrative we’re seeing is that “it’s time to deal with them, to “stop the rot”. Sometimes it’s immigrants and asylum seekers. Other times “the rot” is yobs or hoodies. This time, the rot is at the top and the emotional trigger is all about resentment of people who are well paid out of the public purse and seem to have failed us all.

Some Liberal Democrats may see the rows over MPs expenses as an opportunity. That’s understandable. “The rot at the top” has been a staple of the party’s narratives ever since the days of Jo Grimond. Look at Nick Clegg’s speech to spring conference: the rot is both Labour and the Conservatives and the heroes are the Liberal Democrats. 

Politicians from the other parties seem very happy to help out. The employment minister, Tony McNulty and the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, have assembled their own firing squads (though Ms Smith has now been joined in spectacular fashion by her hapless husband). In its own way, the performance of the Conservative party chairman, Eric Pickles, trying to defend the allowances for MPs’ second homes, was just as astonishing. 

Yet this will be a hard issue for the Liberal Democrats to grapple with. First, Gordon Brown upstaged both David Cameron and Nick Clegg by calling for MPs’ second home allowances to be scrapped. The PM also wants Sir Christopher Kelly’s to speed up his inquiry into MPs’ expenses.

Second, and more importantly, the expenses row contaminates politicians of all parties. “THEY ARE ALL AT IT” screams the Daily Mirror on today’s front page. The Liberal Democrats are in the frame too, whether that’s fair or not. 

I think The Independent’s Steve Richards is correct when he writes that British MPs are not corrupt but have brought a lot of their image problems on themselves. They have allowed the rules around expenses to get complicated and been far too slow to take effective action. He also makes another interesting point: the overall quality of MPs, and not their integrity, is really the issue. 

There’s much more at stake. Despite Brown’s intervention, the public’s sense of indignation won’t go away. Polly Toynbee has an ominous but acute warning in her Guardian column:

“MPs have been caught napping by the new wave of puritanism. Others will now come under unaccustomed scrutiny. Let this be a warning to all public officials, quangos, councils, councils, NHS officials, sports authorities or anyone holding even minor power. Something has snapped. If public trust was low, it has fallen down a crevasse in this financial crisis.”

So, we can expect a media-driven revolt against “overpaid” public sector leaders and managers. As with the out-of-touch MPs, some of the criticism will be unfair and misplaced, with issues over-simplified. But anyone responsible for making “public policy” happen and running “public services” could be caught up in this hurricane. The very basis of liberal politics –democratic politics and action by an accountable as indispensable ways to addressing our problems- will be further eroded.

And the “rot” story still needs a hero; “the people” must have a champion. The core of the public resentment is too sour and bitter, too emotive, too radioactive for Nick Clegg and co to mess with. There will be no shortage of candidates ready to have a go. Over the last few days, I have become more convinced that minor and fringe parties will poll well in this year’s European Parliament elections. Yes, that includes the BNP.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

A perplexing comment from Tessa Jowell

You may have seen that The Guardian is running a series on the state of the Labour Party and whether they have any chance at all of winning the next general election. Today, the paper has run a “view from inside the cabinet” piece.

All day, I have been genuinely perplexed by this quote from the Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell.

"The Labour governments of the 1950s and 70s ran out of steam. They radiated exhaustion. We are not there. We have the dynamism and energy to take us forward, explaining what we see as the narrative of the future."

Of course, she may have been quoted selectively but Ms Jowell’s comments raise a serious question: what is this “narrative of the future”? And where can we find it? Really, I don't know.

At the 1997, 2001 and 2005 general elections, I had no trouble pinning down Labour’s narrative. At each of those contests, they had the strongest storyline of all three parties. After all, they won each time, even though in 2005, Labour’s core story, “don’t put the economy at risk”, was defensive and a little thin. Such are the limited options of most governments seeking a third term .

Other (unnamed) ministers in the article seem to acknowledge that Labour’s narrative problems are even bigger this time around.

“But another cabinet minister is more anxious. "We are doing as much as we can on the economy, and David Miliband seems fine on foreign policy, but on domestic policy there is frankly a rather large gap."

A third mainstream member says: "There is a problem. In 2001 and 2005, the electorate were almost saying: 'Why are you bothering us with another mandate? Just go on governing.' This time they will want to know our plans for the future."

It may, of course, be too much to ask any government that has been there for three terms and now faces an economic crisis to come up with “the narrative of the future”. So Labour’s election narrative may amount to a counter-story about the Conservative Party.

The Guardian feature concludes:

It is remarkable how much cabinet ministers say their fate will depend on increasing scrutiny of the Tories. One, close to Brown, says: "How parties respondto this downturn will shape perceptions of political parties for the next 20 years. How the Conservatives responded to the downturn in the 1980s defined them for 20 years. David Cameron can't escape from that perception of the Conservative party. If we get this right and point to where the Conservatives are, that can change people's perspectives."

That’s not much of a ray of hope for an embattled, long-serving administration. Labour will tell many stories about their opponents but people will have their phones off the hook. According to ICM, 69 per cent of voters now say it’s time for a change – which is, of course, the Conservatives’ core narrative.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Narrativewatch: "Barack Obama has lost focus"

I think it’s safe to say that there is a new narrative on President Obama: that he is trying to do too much when he should be focussing his efforts on stabilising the financial system.

Of course, this is not what the president is telling us. But one of the main rules of narratives is that politicians don’t get to decide what they are.

Mr Obama is being criticised for trying to act quickly on the wider agenda of healthcare reform, new investment in education and tackling carbon emissions -- and for trying to suggest that are all part of a plan for long-term prosperity.

The new narrative is well summarised in a major article in the latest issue of TIME, which starts off:

"Barack Obama's big reform agenda won't get off the ground unless he fixes the banks first. The case for doing one thing at a time."

Without endorsing it, the FT’s Clive Crook has summed up the new “conventional wisdom” about President Obama: “he has far taken on far too much” and may outstrip the system’s capacity – administrative, legislative and political – to deliver.

It should come as no surprise that conservatives are telling this “lack of focus” story. They oppose President Obama and have no truck with his policies. See, for instance, George Will on the president’s economic plans and Michael Barone’s (weird) views about global warming.

But some Obama supporters are also calling on the president to focus on the economy – or, in some cases, to avoid embarking on an FDR-style New Deal too quickly, in order to avoid a policy car crash.

Warren Buffett has accused the administration of having “muddled messages” on the economy.

David Brooks, a “moderate” writer for the New York Times, has said of the Obama administration: “I fear that in trying to do everything at once, they will do nothing well.”

The Washington Post’s David Ignatius has called on the president to avoid “financial giantism” and to focus on “reconstructing our broken financial system.

The risks of overload shouldn’t be brushed aside. Michael Galston, writing last week in the liberals’ house journal, the New Republic, made another case for caution. He drew a number of distinctions between the situation faced by Barack Obama and Franklin D. Roosevelt, a previous president facing a depression, and trying to take forward a big political agenda. Galston reminded us that FDR concentrated on fixing the financial system and delayed unrelated structural reforms until he was sure that he had Congress and the public onside. He concluded:

“In sum, our circumstances are not (yet) as dire as they were in 1933. In part for that reason, the people are not prepared to give the president and his party the degree of deference that Roosevelt and the Democratic congress enjoyed at the start of the New Deal--all the more reason for Obama to distinguish between short- and long-term measures at least as carefully as FDR did.”

And the veteran Washington Post columnist David Broder – usually cast as non-partisan and “centrist” – declared on Sunday that President Obama’s honeymoon is over. Broder set out the risks for the administration in having such a sweeping policy agenda; and, in particular, that its health and education programmes will get bogged down in Congress.

We shouldn’t forget that the “loss of focus” storyline is a clever political gambit for conservatives to follow. The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes gave some of the game away when he wrote that the president had a big “grandiose agenda” and that he was right to “go for it now”, while his popularity ratings are still high and the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate remain strong. The longer he waits, this argument runs, the more likely Obama’s personal ratings are to sag, with Democrats in congress becoming more worried about the 2010 elections.

Clive Crook explains:

“The prospects for Mr Obama’s agenda depend on his ability to marshal political capital and spend it wisely. In the simplest terms, he needs to stay as popular as he can for as long as possible. Once his approval ratings slide – and they show the first signs of doing so – he is sunk. This is why the “overload” critique is so significant: not because it is correct on the merits but because it is plausible and bipartisan and will erode his standing with the electorate.”

Even if he doesn’t buy the whole “Obama overload” story, Clive Crook regrets what he sees as the president’s failure to play to his strengths with centrists and to rise above left-right rancour.

If the “taking on too much” storyline sticks, his opponents will have succeeded in undermining one of President Obama’s strongest personal narratives: that he’s a positive, new force for real change who can put the “old politics” behind. Another embattled president, suffering falling poll ratings and seeming to play cynical games in order to advance an agenda that is too big and too “radical” can’t do that.

Or, as a very tough politician I worked with years ago told me, if you want to destroy your political opponents, you have to destroy their myths.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Narrativewatch: Nick Clegg's new order

Here’s the, err, story so far. Nick Clegg worked last year to communicate this narrative: Labour have had their day and can’t create a fairer Britain and the Conservatives won’t but the Liberal Democrats will make it happen. It was old third party wine in twenty first century bottles, but showed promise all the same. Then, after Lehman Brothers collapsed and the economic crisis hit, the media meta-narrative took a new turn: the government’s response to the recession and the short-lived “Brown bounce”. Nick's story was squashed flat and the Lib Dems (as opposed to Vince Cable) struggled to tell a story about the economy.

In his spring conference speech on Sunday, Nick presented an updated and improved version of last year’s almost-narrative. Labour had presided over economic collapse and were now a "spent match". But the Conservatives would be no better. He slammed the Tories' plan to cut spending in a recession as "madness".

More importantly, Conservative and Labour prime ministers, from Margaret Thatcher to Gordon Brown, were to blame for our economic problems. Sticking with the same “never-ending cycle of red-blue, blue-red government [that] got us into this mess” would offer no solution. The two old parties just wanted to "cling to those old 80s ideas with a tweak here, or a nip and tuck there".

So, a plague on both your houses. Grimond, Steel, Ashdown and Kennedy would all recognise that story. Nick also said that the crisis had “opened the door to a genuinely new way of doing things”. What the Liberal Democrats offered people, he said, was a choice between “policies to patch up the old order, or policies to build a new one”.

The archetype used was that of a fresh start, a new dawn, the phoenix rising from the ashes; a new dawn. Here, Nick’s rhetoric became more interesting. He cleverly grounded the narrative in historical stories and symbols: Christopher Wren who “looked beyond the pain and dreamed what might come next” after the Great Fire of London, Beveridge and Keynes after World War II with their new ideas for healthcare and insurance for all; and Monnet, Schuman and the founders of the European Union.

What Nick Clegg told on Sunday was the outline of what Annette Simmons calls a “vision story”.

“A vision story raises your gaze from current difficulties to a future payoff that successfully competes with the temptation to give up, compromise or change direction.”
[Whoever Tells the Best Story WINS (2007)]

This could work -- if Nick can show voters what the “future payoff” would look like. Perhaps we could see this as his story’s “happy ending”.

When he spoke of “not just . . . sticking plaster solutions – [but] a new, better approach,” Nick offered a bit more substance than previously. Reforms to split investment and retail banking; barring board members of failed banks from holding other directorships; forcing high-street banks to give up risky, casino-style lending, with their bosses banned from receiving short-term bonuses of any kind; and allowing investments that took risks and hit problems to fail. On Saturday, Vince Cable provided some more economic detail. (He also told the conference a familiar, plausible morality tale: that a decade ago Brown and Blair “made a pact with the Devil” – “the financial aristocracy” – and now it’s collapsing, leaving Labour exposed and without a soul.)

But first we need unity and cohesion around the policy messages. If Liberal Democrats are going to call for a “new order”, we’ll need to project a clear and consistent idea of what it looks like. Talk of a more radical approach could bring forward a wide range of messages. Compare, for instance, the tone and content of Vince Cable’s “responsible boldness” (my description, not his) with the way some leading “social liberals” perceive the new dawn. [Click here, here, and here] Other people will have suggestions too. Let’s not forget, for instance, the new world will need to be built on sustainable, low-carbon foundations.

The Lib Dems’ revamped story also will need to strike a chord with our target voters. Annette Simmonds explains:

“A good vision story makes otherwise ambiguous promises for future payoffs come alive with carefully crafted sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings that eclipse the work we do for tomorrow’s payoff. Overwhelming obstacles shrink to bearable frustrations that are worth the effort.”

Nick and the rest of the party needs to show what the “new order” would look and feel like for voters (and for that matter, how credible is it?). For instance, James Graham has pointed out that Nick has been arguing some time that a new economic order would need to be based on a new political order. I have blogged previously that in promising a better sort of politics, we are not really talking about what most people are most interested in. They will want to see and feel what it would mean for them, in their daily lives. As the American pollster and political strategist Frank Luntz says:

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

And Nick will need to embody the promise of a “genuinely new way of doing things” in his actions and appearance. In his 1995 book Leading Minds, Howard Gardner stressed that leaders need to embody their own narratives in order to seem authentic and credible.

I’ll finish with the same optimistic point that I made this time last year.

No-one ever said the Lib Dem narrative was going to arrive, gift-wrapped, in the post. It didn’t work for Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair – or, for that matter, for FDR or Ronald Reagan. But at least Nick Clegg – the only person who can provide the Liberal Democrats with a story – is on to it.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Pollwatch: Lib Dems behind Labour as best party on the environment and third on economy and education

Full details of the ICM’s Guardian poll for February are now up on the company’s website. This was the survey, you may recall, that led UK Polling Report to come to the entirely plausible conclusion that the Lib Dems’ 22 per cent rating in January was a blip.

I quickly turned to the results for the question,

“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 – 19 per cent – was on the environment. But we were one point behind Labour and one point ahead of the Conservatives. Allowing for margins of error, the three parties were level pegging, with one in five respondents saying that “none of them” had the best environmental policies.

The last time ICM asked this question (that I can find) was in September 2007. The results were Labour 24 per cent, Conservatives 20 per cent, Lib Dems 18 per cent.

All the same, this result is somewhat disappointing, especially given the government’s record over recent months, what with Heathrow, more news about missed CO2 emissions targets and ministers’ slowness to assemble a substantive green new deal.

There are a couple of possible explanations. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats are still not pushing green issues hard enough. Also, the environment is not a deal-breaker for many voters who, since the recession began, may be going into a climate trance. Just 4 per cent of respondents picked the environment as the issue that will be important in their decision on how to vote. (A comparable figure for 2007 is not available). Voters may be less inclined to look closely at any party.

The top-ranked issue was, unsurprisingly, the economy, nominated by 35 per cent of respondents. Just 10 per cent said that the Lib Dems had the best economic policies, compared to 29 per cent for the Conservatives and 23 per cent for Labour.

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

The big story, in my view, is Labour’s crash as the party that is seen as best at managing the economy.

But the ICM figures provide further confirmation that Vince Cable’s brilliant economic commentaries are perceived as just that: Vince Cable’s brilliant economic commentaries; wise, accurate and incisive, but above and beyond party politics and not much to do with the Liberal Democrats. The public may like and respect Vince, but that does not mean they are more inclined to support the party.

On the other issues of most concern to voters: taxation and public services; health and law and order; asylum and immigration; and education, the Lib Dems did not do much better. The Conservatives were ahead of Labour on each one, apart from health – but on education they had only a one point advantage. In September 2007, Labour was ahead in all of the top-ranking policy areas.

These sorts of polling figures need to be seen in perspective. We usually come last in this kind of poll. Most voters do not expect the Liberal Democrats to win power and may not look very closely at us or our policies, at the national level. The question facing party strategists is, just as in previous elections, how to be seen as the “best party” on the issues of most concern to voters, in constituencies where we can win.

Still, other polling agencies’ research usually gives the Lib Dems better scores on “key issues”. For instance, last September, Populus gave us 31 per cent and a clear lead as the best party on climate change (though a different set of questions and options were offered). On the environment, Ipsos MORI told a similar story.

And the party rankings could change during the general election campaign. In 2005, Populus found that, on education and health, the top two concerns for voters, the Lib Dems gained significant ground during the general election campaign and by polling day, were level pegging with the Conservatives in being perceived as the “best party”. Next time, we will need to do perform a similar feat on what is sure to be the big issue, the economy.

Another striking feature of the ICM results is, once again, the number of people saying that “none of them” have the best policies in what voters see as the top six issues. The “none of them” figures were: 21 per cent for health; 20 per cent for education; 21 per cent for law and order; 26 per cent for asylum and immigration; 22 per cent for taxation and public services – and 24 per cent for the economy.

So there is still a lot to play for. But are the Lib Dems playing it correctly?