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)