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.