Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Narrativewatch: Conversations with Nick Clegg

Here’s a frustrating paradox about the Liberal Democrats. One of the main difficulties we face in putting across a narrative of our own choosing is that other people – viz. the media – filter what we say. OK, all parties have to cope with filters and the media are more likely to ignore us altogether. That means election broadcasts are a golden opportunity for the Lib Dems to tell our story. Yet the party doesn’t always use these broadcasts –- or Nick Clegg's obvious talents as a communicator -- to best effect. We don’t use them to tell enough stories.

[Before going any further: if you don’t know why stories matter, click here, or here, or just remember the words of US Democrat political strategists James Carville and Paul Bagela:

"Facts tell, but stories sell . . . If you're not communicating in stories, you're not communicating.”]

Conservations with Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems’ two-part broadcast for the European elections has a lot of good points, especially Nick’s delivery and the production values -- though I claim no particular expertise in the latter. But the broadcast could have been so much better if it had told some stories.

Part 1 starts promisingly, as Nick introduces his town hall-style meetings and explains that, by getting out of Westminster and talking to people, he might go some way towards restoring peoples’ faith in politics. Soon after, Nick presents a more voter-friendly version of the narrative from his spring conference speech.

“Labour has completely lost its way . . . I don’t think people think that things would really be that different under the Conservatives – so I think it’s a great opportunity . . . there is a chance for change.”

Nick goes on to explain two specific policies: abolishing tuition fees; and cutting taxes for those on middle and low incomes. The stories are not fully developed, however, and, on taxes especially, the explanation has almost no human element or emotional impact.

Compare that answer to Part 2, when Nick is asked about how he would go about rehabilitating ex-offenders. He explains how Lib Dem councillors in Chard successfully used community justice panels to bring reoffending rates down. Nick combines a challenge plot with what Annette Simmons calls a “value in action” story. The latter are usually deployed to influence group or individual behaviours. No matter, his story from Chard illustrates clearly how he approaches the issues around crime and social exclusion. The Lib Dems are innovative and, where possible, prefer community-based solutions that prevent crime. The story is credible; the viewer can “see” it.

The other questioner asks how Nick he will convince people of the benefits of the EU. He replies that “we have to learn to act together” in Europe, to address a raft of problems, such as international crime, terrorism, the international economic crisis and environmental destruction. But there is no story to show how “acting together” is to Britain’s benefit. Much more to the point, this was an opportunity to invoke a challenge plot about how Lib Dem MEPs address these big issues.

By the end, the two broadcasts have not, in themselves, conveyed a story. There is a set up at the beginning of both parts. (“People have lost faith in politicians . . . they don’t trust them; this [town meetings] is just one attempt to cut through that . . .”) I may have missed it, but there does not appear to be any sort of resolution.

I hate to say this but, by way of comparison, David Cameron’s first broadcast for the 2009 elections is a story in itself. “Ordinary”, disillusioned voters are seen showing up at Cameron Direct events all over Britain (well, in key marginal seats) and saying what’s on their minds. The carefully edited footage shows the Tory leader listening and engaging with them on today’s big issues. At the end, at least some of the voters said that they were thinking of voting Conservative.

So why can’t the Lib Dems tell more stories of our own?

Monday, 25 May 2009

A referendum on electoral reform? Yes, but let's think it through

It seems incredible, with these new calls for a referendum, but, in the wake of expensesgate, the cause of electoral reform is back.

The health secretary, Alan Johnson, has an article in today’s Times calling for a referendum on electoral reform for the Commons, to be held on the same day as the next general election. Mr Johnson may have various motives for coming out at this time in favour of a referendum [click here and here] but he is a long time proponent of electoral reform. Other members of the cabinet are known to agree with him.

Yesterday’s Observer supported reform, arguing that “the expenses scandal . . . has exposed the underlying illegitimacy of a parliament stuffed with complacent lifers in safe seats.” The same paper featured a letter from a variety of politicos, authors, artists, NGO leaders and others, with backgrounds across the political spectrum, demanding a binding referendum, to be included on the next general election ballot paper, on whether to adopt a more proportional electoral system. The Electoral Reform Society is running a campaign for such a vote. After years of near-silence, Liberal Democrats are back on the case.

MPs should be chosen using a proportional voting system. Not because “fair votes” would magically transform British politics or cure the nation’s ills. But it would be the key to strengthening the Commons as against the executive. We could have a parliament that better reflects the range of political viewpoints in the UK. Other countries’ experiences suggest that a change to PR would speed up (but not guarantee) the election of MPs who reflect the UK’s gender and ethnic diversity. In time, government policies may be more responsive to the needs of particular groups. That includes the poorest members of society, who tend not to vote or live in marginal constituencies.

There are good reasons for supporters of reform to welcome the new calls for a referendum, as the only democratic, legitimate and practical way of achieving change in the electoral system. On the basis of New Zealand’s experience in 1992/93 [click here and here], I have long argued that British voters would only opt for change when they were furious with politicians from both the main political parties and saw a chance to get even. People are now angry with the whole political “establishment”, and with a depth of feeling we have not seen before. Recalling the Obama administration’s mantra, “never waste a good crisis”, it’s hardly surprising that long-time electoral reformers sense a golden opportunity to achieve their aims.

But I fear that Britain's electoral reformers are, once again, going to be disappointed with these new calls for a referendum. One reason is the lack of clarity around what the public would be invited to vote on and how the choices would be arrived at.

The ERS wants “a referendum on electoral reform to appear on the ballot at the next general election”. It’s wise at this stage to call for “reform” rather than getting bogged down in the details of rival forms of proportional electoral systems.

If the referendum is to be legally binding – that is, on parliament – the ballot paper will have to give the options: first-past-the-post or a specific alternative. Supporters of reform need to know what they are campaigning for. Straight away, a basic, strategic dilemma opens up. Alan Johnson supports the “AV plus” system that was recommended by the Jenkins Commission. But the ERS officially supports the single transferable vote (STV). So do the Lib Dems. One of the main lessons from both New Zealand, and Scotland’s constitutional shake-up is that a proposed new reforms must have cross-party support. The Jenkins formula surely stands a better chance of gaining acceptance from Labour MPs and activists. It is not, however, a perfectly “proportional” system. STV meets this standard, but may be a harder sell. [For more details and a quick sample of how deeply some opinions are held, click on to Costigan Quist’s blog here and read the comments]

How to resolve this dilemma? The letter to The Observer suggests that the public would vote on whether to switch to a “more proportional electoral system [to] be drawn up by a large jury of randomly selected citizens, given the time and information to deliberate on what voting system and other changes would make Parliament more accountable to citizens.” But it would take time, perhaps many months, to complete this process, including passing the legislation required to set in train a binding referendum.

And here’s the real rub: with less than a year to go until the general election (assuming it’s held in May 2010), time is not on the reformers’ side. The outcome of a “citizens jury” may not, in the end, be credible. Tainted or not, MPs from all parties need to buy into the process and a citizens jury – still a relatively unfamiliar concept - may not be acceptable to them. Another option is to have another full-blown commission to study the options. That would take at least a year to complete. One of Alan Johnson’s strongest arguments today is that “the heavy lifting has already been done” by the Jenkins Commission. He adds that nothing has fundamentally changed (apart from the public getting much angrier with politicians) since Jenkins reported in 1998.

The New Zealand experience showed it takes a lot of time and effort to engage with a bemused public, who are more concerned with other things, and explain the merits of the alternative voting systems. The New Zealand reformers’ final victory in 1993 was the result of many years’ campaigning by a broad cross-section of political and community groups. The anti-change forces hit back, and started to close the gap in the final months before the vote. There’s no reason to suppose that this country would be any different.

Make Votes Count seems to have got its act together compared to where it was say, ten years ago. But I hope the reformers will be geared up and well enough funded for the sort of campaign that would be needed to win a referendum.

I really hope that these concerns turn out to be misplaced, that government and enough parliamentary opinion moves behind having a referendum and that Make Votes Count and its allies campaign effectively for reform. Despite being a long time supporter of STV, I’d happily campaign for “AV-plus” on the basis that it represents real progress. If no referendum is held next year, the current calls for reform need not be wasted. Once again, what is sometimes called the “progressive” side of politics is considering actively the possibilities and strategies for acheving electoral reform. A new momentum is building and that shouldn’t be allowed go to waste, as happened after Tony Blair broke his 1997 promise to have a referendum, and then shelved the Jenkins report. Let’s hope it doesn’t take ten more years for another opportunity to come around.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Narrativewatch: Green Party European Election Broadcast

The Green Party start their European election broadcast by showing what looks like the archetypal green “geek”, sitting behind a computer, in a dark and somewhat messy room. Then the (male) voice over reminds us why we may have doubts about the party. What gives?

The broadcast tries to tell an “I know what you are thinking” story. In her book, The Story Factor, Annette Simmons explains that if you name peoples’ objections first, you are that much closer to disarming them. She says:
"Telling an "I know what you are thinking" story can neutralise concerns . . . and dispel fears . . . without direct confrontation."

Simmons stresses the need for a subtle approach. I’m not sure that some of the broadcast’s statements (“if you think we're only concerned about the environment, think again . . .” ; “you might assume we don’t know much about the economy. . .”) are really what she has in mind.

Likewise, one of the party’s defences is to say “our policies cover the economy, jobs and human rights, to name but a few”. Another is that their economic policy will “create jobs”. But these are statements, not stories. So the Greens ask us to take them on trust – just like the other parties.

When trying to take on the “all talk and no action” charge, the broadcast offers a bit more detail – with, for instance, the Greens’ work in the European Parliament on GM food labeling and on toy safety. These don’t really amount to stories, despite the obvious potential they provide to use what Chip and Dan Heath call the challenge plot.

Still, the broadcast is partly saved by its visuals. The geek is replaced by a series of “ordinary guys” (yes, men), each of whom are seen working on a succession of diverse policy issues. The messy room becomes more and more tidy. And they stress the potential for the PR used in European elections (oops, wrong frame) to elect more Greens. The photos of the party’s candidates also try to convey their diversity.

The Greens’ broadcast tells another story. We keep hearing about villains – “big corporations” (whom other parties support for their own gains), “immoral bankers” and “unethical businesses”. They tell us that “[a] vote for the other parties will only result in more of the same . . .”. And guess who will “take on anyone who threatens your health, your community, or your future”.

Stop the rot at the top. A plague on all their houses. We’ve heard all that before somewhere. In this angry political climate, these story lines are too good for the Greens to miss.

“Just think what a change [voting Green] would make,” says the party leader, Caroline Lucas. But they may not have disarmed enough peoples’ objections or won enough trust. In these tough times, and with a public in a climate trance, the Greens do not tell a story with the sort of ending that grumpy, anxious voters are looking for.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Signposts from the Kiwi Cameron

There are many intriguing similarities between the styles and strategies of David Cameron and John Key, leader of New Zealand’s National Party. [For my earlier blogs on this, click here and here] The Nats and their allies won NZ’s 2008 general election and Key has now been prime minister for six months. The PM and his party are travelling very well in the opinion polls.

The respected NZ political commentator, Colin James, has offered an interim assessment of the Key government’s performance so far. Here’s one of his more interesting comments:

"Before the election National presented the differences as competence and efficiency plus a different tax and regulation lean. It adopted large chunks of Labour policy it had earlier opposed.

"In office a more distinct National is emerging, one which might over time make some big changes. This is part-driven by necessity -- the financial shock -- part-driven by opportunity -- don't waste a good crisis -- and part-driven by predilection."

Inevitably, the PM is the main driver of the government and its fortunes. James describes Key as “decisive . . . tough-minded . . . flexible, smart” and his style as “ equable and relational”. He says:

"If big policy changes are coming he has more capacity to take the country with him than any Prime Minister for many decades."

Perhaps. But Key’s sunny image, his reputation as a “centrist” and the recession, have camouflaged some signposts as to what the government may really be about. The confusion over climate change policy is one example. The plans set down by the previous government to address the gender pay gap also seem to be in big trouble.

Back to the UK. David Cameron’s preference would surely be to be run a “low risk, minimum target” campaign, of the sort that Key ran last year. The idea would be to call for “change”, for which read “get rid of Labour”, whilst offering voters as little sense of risk as possible. With the recession and the turmoil over expenses scandals, that will be much harder. The Conservatives are the favourites to win, meaning that Cameron will be under more pressure to come up with details about policy, especially on spending and economic management. That won’t be nearly enough to rescue Brown and Labour, but Cameron will need to offer a clearer sense of where he wants to take the country and how he will get there.

The parallels with John Key are still relevant though. David Cameron’s “moderate” image enables the Conservatives to gloss over a few things that may not go down very well with the public. See, for instance, their likely new MPs’ conservatism on social issues and lack of interest in the environment. The Conservatives’ first campaign broadcast for the current elections aimed to present their leader as being in touch with, and engaging directly with the people – the sort of image that Key has cultivated (see above).

And Cameron has tried to look decisive and tough, especially over parliamentary expenses. He is trying to demonstrate all the qualities needed of a long-term, reforming prime minister. But will Cameron tell us, before the general election, what big changes he is planning?

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Reframing climate change, part I

A big problem with climate change may be “climate change”.

I am with George Monbiot when he says that the term “climate change” does not really explain the impact of what we are doing to the earth’s atmosphere. In a recent blog, Monbiot pointed to the devastating implications that we are already seeing for global food security, water supplies and human settlement and called “climate change”:

“. . . a ridiculously neutral term for the biggest potential catastrophe humankind has ever encountered.”

Yet most UK media coverage of the issues uses what Matt Nesbitt calls the “Pandora’s Box” frame of “looming climate crisis”, with depictions of polar bears perched precariously on shrinking ice floes or famous cities under water. He suggests that

“One of the unintended consequences of this line of communication is that it plays into the hands of climate sceptics and further reinforces the partisan divide in climate change perceptions.”

Nesbitt was writing in the American context, where the issues play differently. But some UK commentators have suggested that the way that “climate change” is discussed and reported is too alarmist and deters people from taking action. The IPPR has been one of the main proponents of this point of view. [Click here and here]

This is really about different ways of framing the issues around global warming and climate change. What’s framing? Framing is really about giving people a way to think about political issues, usually with a model or structure or question. (For more details, see here, here and here).

I am still not convinced that “crisis” coverage, or a “Pandora’s Box” frame have, in themselves, pushed people away from the issue. More to the point --as I remain open to persuasion – far too little research has been done about how the British public perceives climate change: which frames they use and how their views are shaped. More people need to be engaged, peoples’ understanding deepened if we are to see real progress.

Monbiot says that a new “crisis” terminology is needed. I agree. But we must also attract new audiences make the issue seem more relevant to people. We need new and different frames, including some that connect “climate change” to problems that people already know and see as important. The concerns of both George Monbiot and those who worry about “climate porn” should be met.

Here’s one suggestion from Matt Nisbett:

“The public health frame stresses climate change’s potential to increase the incidence of infectious diseases, asthma, allergies, heat stroke, and other salient health problems, especially among the most vulnerable populations: the elderly and children.”

Sure enough, a new report warning that climate change is the biggest threat to the global health of the 21st century has been picked up in today’s Guardian.

Now, for the next challenge: applying the public health frame as an issue for the UK and people in their local communities. [UPDATE: From Comment is Free – The NHS must wake up to climate change]

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Found: A quick guide to successful storytelling - plus an invitation from Neil

If you’re looking for some quick guides on how to tell stories that inspire and persuade people or, perhaps, encourage people to vote for you, then check out the website of Anecdote. Anecdote is an Australian consultancy that “helps business leaders engage their people to be even better collaborators, leaders and change agents using the power of business narrative”. The ideas and principles that they espouse are often applied in politics.

Anecdote have just published a short “white paper” called “Why some leaders inspire action while others are mostly forgettable”. The paper explains how and why stories are so effective and necessary for effecting change. It also suggests ways that putative leaders (and politicians?) can find their own stories. These can be summarised as follows:

1. Develop an awareness of the stories that swirl around you every day.

2. Move your style of speaking away from being predominantly rational and argument-based to being a good mixture of stories and argument. BUT start with examples, that turn negative case studies into positive stories.

3. Where possible, ask for feedback about what people infer about you from your stories.

Last week, Anecdote ran a “story week” that invited people to rate on line five different stories - i.e., one story on each day. The most interesting part was the criteria used to judge the chosen stories. The criteria, which are explained in some more detail here, were:

· Clarity: Is the story simple and clear

· Emotional: Did the story connect with you, have impact?

· Believable: Does it sound like it could actually have happened?

· Transport: When you read the story, could you picture yourself there?

· Surprising: Were any aspects of the story unexpected?

· Relevant: How relevant is it to the issue of 'leadership'?

· Overall: How memorable was this story for you

This checklist is as accurate and useful as any that I’ve seen. I am especially impressed with the way Anecdote emphasises the need for stories to build an emotional connection between a leader (or politician, or audience) and his/her audience. This crucial point has been developed by the sage of storytelling, Stephen Denning, and Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain (2008). Yet it has too often been ignored by the political party of which I am a member.

Similarly, Anecdote also pick up on the theme that stories are sensory experiences. In her book, Whoever Tells The Best Story Wins (2007), Annette Simmons argues that we need to smell, taste, hear, touch and see stories that we hear if they are to have any impact.

The point that seems to be the least well explained is “relevance . . . to the issue of leadership.” On this one, Howard Gardner has the most to offer, when he argues that when leaders tell stories, they must convincingly embody those stories, in order to make themselves seem authentic.

“The creator must in some way embody his story although he need not be saintly . . . The story may grow out of the leader’s personal experiences and may well have been embodied in his or her daily living before being expressed overtly”. [Leading Minds (1995)]

For my views on how Thatcher, Churchill, Blair and Obama embodied their narratives– as well as some suggestions as to how some Liberal Democrat politicians might do it - please click here.

Now, here’s an invitation. The European / local election campaign is now underway. When you see any of the above elements of a successful story, from any politician or party, please post the details below.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Are we in a climate trance? An update

There is new evidence that the public in Europe, including Britain, is in a climate trance. If so, that’s bad news. If politicians perceive that the public doesn’t care, they may be less inclined to take forward “costly” climate policies. And with the Copenhagen summit barely six months away, this is no time for anyone to go to sleep when it comes to the future of life on Earth. [For my January 2009 blog on the “shock and trance” syndrome, and my reasons for doubting at that time that Britain was really going into a full blown climate trance, click here]

An article in today’s FT says there is general agreement that the economic crisis will be the key issue on voters' minds when they go into the polling booths in next month's European parliamentary elections. No surprise there. But the boss of Gallup Europe is reported as saying that as people have become worried about their jobs and house prices, they are less concerned about the environment, crime and immigration

"There has really been a big shift," said Robert Manchin, managing director
of Gallup Europe, calling climate change "the big loser".

This is backed up by the Eurobarometer poll on the 2009 European Parliament elections. In January / February, EU voters were asked to name which campaign issues they wish to see tackled as a priority during the European electoral debate. Unemployment (named by 57 per cent) and economic growth (52 per cent) came out as the top themes. Just 26 per cent named climate change, a drop of 3 per cent since the same time last year.

UK voters also named unemployment (47 per cent) and economic growth (41 per cent) as their main themes. But 21 per cent named climate change, a drop of 5 per cent since last year.

In Ipsos MORI’s April issues index, 65 per cent saw the economy as an important issue facing Britain (again, no surprise), compared to just 8 per cent naming“pollution / environment” (which is, of course, wider than climate change). The latter figure was up one point from February. Yet in January 2007, at the height of the “shock,” 19 per cent named “pollution / environment” as a top concern.

On the other key measure of a climate trance: what level of interest the media takes, recent developments are a bit more encouraging. Maxwell Boykoff of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute studies the extent to which 50 newspapers in 20 countries (including the UK) cover climate change. His tracking graph traced a huge jump in climate coverage over 2007, the year of the IPPC fourth report and Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth. Last year, the trend lines crashed as coverage stagnated. Boykoff has now updated the chart, to cover the first three months of 2009. The trend lines are now moving back upwards on a steep angle, especially in Europe. There was, after all, plenty to report, with the Obama presidency’s early moves, new, more pessimistic scientific evidence and the Bonn conference

In the UK, political interest in climate change is, if anything, higher than it has been for some time, with the appearance of the government’s carbon budgets, the new policy on coal and CCS and the budget measures on environment. The latter were not what they might have been, but at least, they are not evidence of a climate trance. Also this year, the Conservatives have brought out their policies for reforming the electricity networks and the Lib Dems have unveiled the green road out of recession.

So, the British public are mostly concerned with the economic crisis while remaining broadly on side with measures aimed at tackling the climate crisis, so long as they do not impact too heavily on their wallets. And the politicians (and the media) are doing what they think they have to, while remaining mindful of how much they think the public will be prepared to pay for. Let’s see how long that lasts.