Monday, 20 December 2010

Book Review - Palmer: The Parliamentary Years by Raymond Richards

Recently, I reviewed, for the NZ Listener, a new biography of Geoffrey Palmer, who was variously deputy prime minister, justice minister, environment minister and prime minister in the fourth Labour government (1984-90). The review appeared in the Listener of 27 November 2010 and is now available on line. Just click on the link above.

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Monday, 13 December 2010

AV campaign uses storytelling with impact

Here’s some good news. Someone in the campaign for AV gets this storytelling thing.

Last month, I was the guest speaker at the Hackney Liberal Democrats’ AGM. At the end of the meeting, a man from the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign was given a bit of air time. He didn’t give lists of reasons for voting AV. Nor did he spout statistics. He told a simple story about his time in NUS. The point was, when he went to lobby MPs, those with safe seats were much less likely to give he and his colleagues the time of day. I’m sure that his story made an impact on those present.

Since then, I’ve come across this video – Ralph’s story - on the Yes to Fairer Votes website. Ralph, a decorated World War II navy veteran, tells us how he and members of his members fought in various wars,

“for what? For democracy”


“I’ve voted in every election for 64 years but my votes have been confiscated by the system.”

Ralph’s story works because it passes Anecdote’s tests for a story with impact. In particular, his story packs an emotional punch. Wait till you get to this:

“For all the say I’ve had, I might as well have died on the D-day beaches or on the Russian convoys or in the Pacific later on.”

And this:

“I hope that one day, before I pass away, I will have the privilege of casting a vote that counts for something [and] for once in my life, I’ll have my say.”

To some ears, Ralph’s story may sound too much like a case for proportional voting, which will not be on the ballot paper next May. But he makes the pitch for AV that is most likely to work with voters: the Alternative Vote would allow people to cast their first preference for the party they really supported without wasting their vote.

It looks as if someone has learnt the lessons from Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, in which ordinary Americans told stories about why they were voting for him. And the Yes to Fairer Votes website somehow reminds me of Barack Obama’s effort.

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Sunday, 5 December 2010

Understanding the Liberal Democrats' identity crisis

[On 24 November 2010, I was pleased to be the guest speaker at the Hackney Liberal Democrats’ AGM. Below is an edited version of my speech, “rebuilding the Liberal Democrats’ identity”]

We should start by being clear about the Liberal Democrats’ brand image – what it is and how it has developed. Just what are we trying to “rebuild”?

In the run-up to the last general election campaign, the Liberal Democrats were seen as the nicest, most caring party - “for ordinary people, not the best off” and the most “honest and principled” party. [click here]

But most voters saw the Liberal Democrats as being “made up of decent people but their policies probably don’t really add up” and “basically a protest vote party because they have no chance of ever winning”.

There were other signs that the party was still not taken all that seriously as a contender for government. When it came to having “a good team of leaders” and being “competent and capable”, the Lib Dems had indifferent ratings, according to Ipsos-MORI. The party was still seen as a “wasted vote” in many parts of the country.

As we all know, the Liberal Democrats’ poll ratings went into the stratosphere during the general election campaign, especially after Nick Clegg’s performance in the first two leaders’ debates. Ipsos MORI found that voters tended to see us as the party that best represented all classes as well as the most moderate choice. We were seen, along with the Conservatives, to have the most sensible policies.

But as we found out on the night of 6 May, this new support was soft and unreliable. There are two, related explanations for our vulnerability to “late squeeze” messages from the other parties. In September 2010, Populus asked voters, who considered the party but did not vote for us: “what was the main reason you decided in the end not to vote Liberal Democrat”. The most common answer (from 24%) was “a minority party / didn’t think they could win”. And Ipsos MORI found that the Lib Dems did not win any of the arguments on issues that mattered most to voters.

More than six months into the coalition with the Conservatives, with the Liberal Democrats’ polling ratings collapsing, some of these perceived attributes have changed and some have not. In mid-May, YouGov found 17% of respondents agreeing that “the kind of society [the Lib Dems] want is broadly the type of society I want.” By early December, that had dropped to 10%. In May, 23% agreed that “Even if I don't always agree with [the Lib Dems], at least [their] heart is in the right place. By early December, that figure had also fallen, to 16%. The Lib Dems may have lost a bit of our “compassionate image” as a result of being in coalition with the Tories.

Just as likely, the public is finding it ever harder to get a handle on us. In May, 24%, agreed “[they] seem to chop and change all the time: you can never be quite sure what [they] stand for”. By early December, 35% agreed.

But being in government has certainly not fixed the weaker aspects of the party’s image. According to YouGov, our ratings for being “led by people of real ability” and having “leaders [who] are prepared to take tough and unpopular decisions” are still stuck in single figures. So are our ratings on the policy issues that are of most concern to voters. The Liberal Democrats seem no more credible than we were six months ago.

This data does not suggest that the party’s brand has been sent into reverse. Rather, the positive aspects of the Liberal Democrats’ image have started to fade. They are being subsumed into the Coalition narrative. And the perception that the Conservatives are making most of the decisions in the Coalition government persists, and has increased since June. According to Ipsos MORI, nearly two voters in three (63%) now believe that the Conservatives are making most of the decisions in the new government, compared to 51% in June. A little over one in four (26%) think that decisions are made jointly between the parties.

None of this should come as a complete surprise. New Zealand has had coalition and multi-party governments since adopting MMP, a proportional voting system, in 1996. Every junior coalition partner or support party has seen its share of the vote fall sharply at the next electoral outing, largely because of major problems with maintaining a distinctive identity. As the veteran Kiwi political commentator, Colin James has said, “tails on governing dogs get smaller, not bigger”.

The question is, how to stop the Liberal Democrats losing their identity altogether, and facing disaster at the next general election. Lib Dem ministers are aware of the need to re-assert the party’s identity and values by promoting their achievements. E-mail bulletins seem to go to party members every day. That’s a start but I have previously argued that the party risks becoming – once again - the town cryer in the square – “hear ye, hear ye, here’s a big list of policies”. We have learned many times that the town cryer doesn’t persuade people. Ministers should be telling people stories about what Liberal Democrats in government are doing now – what they set out to do, how they did it – and who benefits as a result. [For more, including my suggestions for a way forward, please see here]

One word of caution. The Liberal Democrats could try to reclaim those parts of the pre-election image – “the nice peoples party” etc. – that fall within their comfort zone. But with the advent of the coalition and the public spending cuts, politics has moved on hugely in the past six months. We cannot pretend that the coalition has not happened or that Liberal Democrat ministers have been unwilling participants.

The public’s expectations of the Liberal Democrats may be harder to pin down now. Voters are concerned first and foremost with the state of the economy and jobs. Liberal Democrat voters are more likely than the “average” to see the economy as the number one issue facing Britain. Lib Dem voters are also somewhat more prepared, so far, to give the government the benefit of the doubt over the case for spending cuts [Ipsos-MORI] and whether the effects of tax rises and spending cuts are being spread fairly, though it must be said that Lib Dem voters seem about evenly divided on the latter. [Populus]. “Going back” is not as simple as it might look.

Nick Clegg tried to go forward with a new “narrative” in last month’s Hugo Young lecture. He presented a set of political themes that were more in keeping with his own take on liberalism: making state activity and public services more effective, promoting local decision-making and reforming politics. But he did not tell a story, with characters, set-up, conflict, resolution and an underlying morality.

The speech had some of Stephen Denning’s specific elements for successful leadership storytelling. For instance, Nick tried to “externalise” Labour and his other political opponents, branding them as “old progressives” But there was no simple illustration of how his proposed liberal future will unfold or how we will get “from here to there”. His speech did not stimulate or reinforce the desire for change.

Politicians and parties can never control their own narratives. But the Liberal Democrats’ have an uphill climb that is steeper than ever. In the wake of the tuition fees debacle, the party is being been hit by sledgehammer counter-stories: that our ministers and MPs lie and break personal promises and, now, that they are divided and indecisive over tuition fees. It now seems that some will back the government’s plans, some will vote against and some will abstain. Over the longer term, the only story that has any chance of breaking through will be about the Liberal Democrats delivering in other areas that matter most to voters – the economy, jobs, education and (for Lib Dem voters) the environment. That is the huge challenge facing the Liberal Democrats in 2011 and beyond.

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Monday, 15 November 2010

Why Tim Farron won the vote for Liberal Democrat president

So, Tim Farron MP is to be the next president of the Liberal Democrats. In a ballot of party members, he defeated ex-MP and London mayoral candidate Susan Kramer by a smaller margin than some expected.

Their merits and personal constituencies left the two candidates fairly evenly matched: parliamentarian vs. non-parliamentarian, rising male star vs. woman and safe pair of hands, career politician vs. graduate of professional life. There were few policy differences between them. Both candidates were somewhat vague as to how they would go about leading or changing the party organisation -- but the job itself is somewhat ill-defined.

No, this election was really about the party, its independence and self-esteem. Six months into the coalition, who could be relied upon to protect the party’s values and its integrity; who would stand up for its distinctive identity?

In one of Tim Farron’s first campaign e-mails he promised to be:

a strong, persuasive and distinctive voice.

He added:

Ministers can present the coalition’s arguments. I will present a Liberal Democrat view. I’ll explain what we stand for and what we are achieving in power. I'll spell out what is wrong with Tory policies.

Susan Kramer promised to be

a strong champion for grassroots members.

In her election address she promised to:

work to keep our distinctive Liberal Democrat voice, and will champion Liberal Democrat achievements at every level.

She also pledged to:

work to keep our party strong, unified, distinctive and true to its core beliefs.

It sounds as if the two candidates offered the same thing. Not quite. In an interview with Liberal Democrat News (29 October 2010), both Farron and Kramer were asked how much party members should feel free to express dissent in the coalition. Their answers were instructive. Here’s Kramer’s well-modulated reply, promising better internal communications:

Party members always have freedom of dissent. We don’t take instruction from our leaders. I would never want to see that change. It’s what makes our party stronger. However, our party must be in constant communication with our members. For example, many members, although having qualms about joining a coalition, felt very much included in the decision to go ahead and although it would mean compromise, felt it was right both for the sake of the nation and because it would also implement policies for which we had been fighting for generations. So we have a very aware membership but I would never wish the membership to feel it took instruction from the leadership.

Farron gave a simple illustration – a story - about how he would handle disagreement with the Conservatives, or coalition policies for that matter. He promised to speak out whenever he felt it was needed.

There’s nothing shameful about compromise [but] I think we got the compromise wrong on tuition fees. Liberal Democrats are entitled to fight for what they believe in. We know we didn’t win a majority but we must still feel proud to be Liberal Democrats. I think perhaps the most important part of my job is going to be raising party morale not just by going around eating chicken and tofu but by being the person you hear on the Today programme making you feel proud to be a Liberal Democrat. It may occasionally be spiky and adjunct but it isn’t dissent. It’s loyalty to the party.

Both candidates embodied their narratives. Tim Farron and his supporters constantly reminded us that he is an “activist”, a “campaigner” and “a communicator”. (Hvae you ever seen him barnstorming during the end-of-conference appeal?). Susan Kramer ran an online survey of party members, to find out their concerns, and held face-to-face conversations with members across the country. Her last campaign e-mail said :

I have already learned so much by listening to you and that will continue. I will use that knowledge you have shared to help the party grow and I will make sure you have the tools you need to campaign and build local success.

Everyone wants to be listened to. But Kramer came slightly unstuck because in politics, “listening” to people is a process, not an outcome. The Australian commentator, Don Watson, has even suggested that one of the consequences of the influence of management language in politics is that governments only want to claim that they're listening to people. He argues forcefully that a sense of authenticity has been lost, as a result of this kind of management speak.

By contrast, Tim Farron and his campaign team understood that you communicate in politics by telling stories that strike a chord with listeners’ emotions. In the Lib Dem presidential contest the emotional crux was party members’ anxieties about being smothered by the coalition and policies of which they disapprove. Above all, he recognised their need to keep feeling proud of being Liberal Democrats. You’ve got it. Tim the communicator will be on The Today Programme, Channel 4 News and in The Guardian and The Independent, setting the record straight and making party members feel OK. Such are the politics of belief. They have kept the liberal flame alive for generations now.

And Farron’s campaign made the most effective use of “heuristics” -- mental short cuts that enable people, especially low awareness voters to decipher issues and make choices. Susan Kramer had endorsements from Vince Cable, Chris Huhne and Jo Swinson. But Party members received a “vote for Tim” e-mail from Paddy Ashdown. (Paddy even compared Farron to the late David Penhaligon, a Liberal campaigning legend from the 1970s and 1980s.) And his election address carried endorsements, with photos, from Baroness Shirley Williams, former leader Sir Menzies Campbell and former chief executive and target seats guru Chris Rennard. Note that all of these have been, to some degree, sceptical about the coalition with the Conservatives.

Now, let’s see if Tim Farron can bring to the party’s communications the same intuitive storytelling skill that he brought to his presidential campaign.

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Wednesday, 10 November 2010

AV is public's third choice of voting systems, says new poll

Today, reports on a new poll showing that AV is less popular than first-past-the-post which is less popular than PR.

The research by ODC was commissioned by Lindsell Marketing, a business consultancy, and says that:

In a poll of over 2,000 British adults, just 29% wanted to keep the current voting system, with 20% in favour of the Alternative Vote system (the subject of a national referendum on May 5th 2011) and 45% wanting some form of proportional representation.

You can see the full results here.

The FT’s Jim Pickard suggests that Nick Clegg should have gone for a referendum on PR rather than AV. The only trouble with that is that David Cameron and the Conservatives would need to agree to hold a vote on PR!

Pickard is closer to the mark when he says:

Alternatively, this could just be proof that public opinion on such issues is far from fully-formed and there is still all to play for. How many members of the public would die in the ditch for any of the options?

The Lindsell findigs need to be compared with the YouGov poll from the autumn showing that public understanding of AV and how it works is still very low. I can’t find the specific question that Lindsell asked, but we should be sceptical of the results if people were invited to say whether they want “some form of proportional representation”. That’s a very vague proposition and I’m not convinced that most people get what “proportional representation” means. And the YouGov poll found that most voters had never heard of the party list or AMS systems; nearly half had ever heard of STV.

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Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Lessons from the "carbon stealth tax"

The Spending Review’s biggest surprise on climate change policy was to turn the CRC Energy Efficiency Commitment - an auctioned emissions trading scheme for large-scale commerce and the public sector - into a carbon tax. The money from the worst emitters under the scheme won’t be recycled back to low carbon emitters after all. Instead, the money raised, expected to reach around £1 billion a year by 2014-15, will go straight into the Treasury’s coffers.

The Coalition Agreement promises to “increase the proportion of tax revenue accounted for by environmental taxes”. The same pledge appeared in the Conservatives’ election manifesto. Liberal Democrats have backed a green tax switch for years. In September, the party conference called on the government to set a target for not less than 10% of its revenue from such measures by 2015, compared to about 8% now.

Numerous studies, including the work of the Green Fiscal Commission, have shown that green taxes are one of the most effective and efficient ways to cut carbon emissions and hasten the shift to a low-carbon economy. And taxes on carbon enable the government to set the price of carbon emissions – the carbon price – and leave it up to the market to decide how much to reduce emissions.

Yet ministers are not talking up the changes to the CRC as a major environmental achievement. “Green” NGOs are not exactly applauding either. One reason may be that the changes to CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme weren’t mentioned in the chancellor’s big speech on 20 October. You had to turn to page 62 of the full Spending Review report to find them, along with a vague statement that some money will be spent on environmental programmes. The phrase “carbon tax” was not even used by the government. As a result, the changes to the CRC look like a “stealth tax”, a point that the CBI and the British Retail Consortium have been quick to seize on.

The more important point is, surely, that nearly one fifth of the UK’s CO2 emissions come from the energy used in non-domestic buildings. With CRC reformed as a carbon tax, business and public sector organisations will now receive a clear message that they have to take the energy efficiency of their buildings seriously. A carbon tax should stimulate the innovation needed to cut emissions from the built environment more quickly than ‘recycling revenue’ from the CRC energy efficiency scheme. And the new scheme will be simpler to administer; the costs of complying with the original version were becoming a major bugbear for businesses.

Still, the “polluter pays” argument doesn’t completely settle this one. First, the new carbon tax may not be fair (that word again). Carbon Clear’s James Ramsey has pointed out that bigger emitters, who are covered by the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, are not taxed and can receive free emission allowances, often in excess of what they require. We also need to avoid distortions between domestic measures and the EU ETS. So, future environmental tax measures should be looked at as a coherent whole, rather than as a quick way of raising revenue. One option is to run a comprehensive UK carbon tax alongside the EU ETS, with other taxes reduced.

There will soon be opportunities to consider these questions in detail. The energy and climate change secretary, Chris Huhne, has promised wider increases in green taxes. He has also said they will be offset by cuts in other parts of the tax system.

Second, we need more trust and accountability around environmental taxes. The Green Fiscal Commission and others have found that the public are already highly suspicious of “green taxes”, perceiving them to be revenue-raising measures in disguise. The argument over the CRC Energy Efficiency scheme shows that imposing environmental taxation by stealth only fuels business and public distrust. The government should be open with people about any new environmental taxes and what they mean and, where possible, give those affected time to prepare.

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Tuesday, 19 October 2010

New poll shows reformers how to win - and lose - the AV referendum

YouGov recently put up the results from a large poll on the AV referendum for the Constitution Society, conducted on 31 August – 1 September. As described by UK Polling Report, this contained a similar exercise to the YouGov poll in the summer that asked people how they would vote in an AV referendum. The result this time was 32% for AV, 33% for first past the post (FPTP), 26% don’t know and 9% wouldn’t vote.

The survey then exposed to people to various pro- and anti- arguments on AV, along with questions about what they wanted from an electoral system, which parties would benefit and so on to encourage them to think around the issues. At the end of the survey they were asked again, and once again opinion had shifted further against AV. The end result was 31% for AV, 38% for FPTP, 25% don’t know and 6% wouldn’t vote.

One of the striking features of the results is the dominance of the “simplicity” and “quick result” frames. Respondents gave the notion that “an electoral system should be simple and straightforward so everyone can understand it” a net “important” score of +80%. In a similar vein, the idea that “an electoral system should produce results that the voter can see are logical and not open to question” had a net “important” score of +78%. And the idea that that “an electoral system should give people the chance to kick an unpopular government out of office” had a net +67% “important” rating.

The “strong government” frame was also important to voters. The idea that “an electoral system should tend to give the most popular party an overall majority of MPs so they can form a strong government” had a net +59% “important” score.

The “proportionality” or fairness frame was less dominant. In net terms, +46% saw the concept that “the number of MPs each party wins should be in proportion to the total vote they get in the country” as important.

The “constituency link” – having single member constituencies for an area – as important was seen as important by +61% in net terms. But only a net +13% (and a minority of respondents) were concerned about having multi-member constituencies, so that most voters could turn for help to an MP from the party they support.

The above frames were all more pronounced amongst voters who answered “don’t know” the first time they were asked to choose between AV and the current voting system.

All this may explain why voters, including the “don’t knows”, tended to turn against AV when some arguments were put to them.

The most effective arguments for AV were:

· The Alternative Vote would allow people to cast their first preference for the party they really supported without wasting their vote. For all voters the net “convincing” score was +30%;for don’t knows +32%.

· Unlike most fully proportional systems, AV would retain constituencies so people would still have a local MP. For all voters the net “convincing” score was +28%; for don’t knows +23%.

The following arguments for AV were only moderately effective:

· The Alternative Vote would make it more likely that every MP had the support of 50% of people expressing a valid preference. For all voters the net “convincing” score was +15%;for don’t knows +7%.

· The Alternative Vote would make it more likely that every MP had the support of 50% of people expressing a valid preference. For all voters the net “convincing” score was +11%; for don’t knows 0%.

The least effective pro-AV arguments were:

· AV would increase the chances of a hung Parliament and therefore make parties more likely to work together for the good of the country. For all voters the “net convincing” score was +3%; for don’t knows it was +5%.

· FPTP is unfair and unproportional. Adopting AV, although not proportional, would be a step towards a fully proportional electoral system. For all voters the net “convincing” score was +2%; for don’t knows it was +7%.

· Under AV, someone's third or fourth preference could count just as much as someone else's first preference. For all the voters the net “convincing” score was +1%; for all voters it was +3%.

The most effective argument for FPP was:

· First Past the post is straightforward - the candidate who gets the most votes becomes the Member of Parliament. For all voters the net “convincing” score was +44%; for all voters it was +49%.

But there’s a health warning. Public understanding of AV is still very low. Just 33% of respondents said that they had heard of AV and had a broad idea of how it works. Almost the same number, 32%, had never heard of AV. The remaining 35% but were not sure how it works.

Between 25% and 30% of respondents did not know what they thought about most of the arguments for and against AV and FPP. Amongst undecided’s, those figures ranged from 45% to 59%.

So there’s a lot to play for. For now, however, the priority is to make sure that the government, or the Electoral Commission, should invest in educating the public about both first-past-the-post and AV.

Anyone know what’s planned in that regard?

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Sunday, 3 October 2010

On 10:10 and "No Pressure"

The 10:10 campaign, set up to persuade people and organisations to commit to cutting their carbon emissions by 10% by the end of 2010, has shot itself in both feet.

No Pressure, their latest mini-film, tried to push climate change back into the headlines in a way that made people laugh. Produced by Richard Curtis (Blackadder, Four Weddings and a Funeral), the mini-film contains four scenarios in which people who do not make pledges to reduce emissions are blown up by committed carbon campaigners, scattering their blood and bits across the faces and clothing of classmates, workmates and friends.

Bill McKibben, the American environmental campaigner writer and founder of, has called the film disgusting, distasteful and depressing. I think that Curtis was trying to be ironic and amusing, but the film failed miserably on both counts. The end result was ghastly and boring.

10:10 have pulled the film and said sorry. But they’ve seriously damaged their credibility and handed their (/our) opponents some powerful ammunition. Sure enough, The Daily Telegraph’s James Delingpole has denounced this latest example of “eco-fascism” and slammed what he perceives as the dark heart and intolerance of “the environmental movement”.

I appreciate that this opportunity was too good for a provocative columnist like James Delingpole to pass up. But let’s stop and ask: just what is “the environmental movement” in 2010? “The environmental movement” encompasses NGOs like Greenpeace Friends of the Earth and WWF-UK and campaigns like . . . and 10:10. It also covers think tanks like Forum for the Future, Green Alliance and E3G and commentators and campaigners like George Monbiot, Mark Lynas and Jonathon Porritt.

But then the “environmental movement” might be business organisations like the Climate Group, the UK Business Council for Sustainable Energy, or the Prince of Wales’s Business and Sustainability Programme. Or the OECD Environment Directorate. Or merchant banks like Climate Change Capital.

This list, by no means exhaustive, captures a wide variety of drivers, agendas, ideologies, policies, strategies and tactics, from “deep greens” to “environmental citizneship”, “environmental justice”, “eco-feminism”, and “ecological modernisation” and much else. An inept film from one campaign proves nothing about all the strands and streams of modern “environmentalism”. It tells us rather a lot, however, about the judgment of those running 10:10.

So, should 10:10 pack up and go home? I think not. Individuals should be encouraged to “make a difference”. In his 2009 book A Blueprint for a Safer Planet, Nicholas Stern discusses “the power of the example” and shows that the annual emissions of greenhouse gases for a typical European lifestyle are, per person, around 10-12 tonnes, the most significant contributors to which come from heating homes, using electrical appliances and travel by car and air. He says that in the UK, the average household can save around 1.5 tonnes of greenhouse gases annually by making their home more energy efficient.

Campaigns like 10:10 can engage people in tackling what is surely the greatest challenge that humankind has ever faced. Over time, they can also help to build a public consensus behind some of the difficult and potentially costly (in the short term) measures that are going to be needed (such as consumer levies for renewable energies or even higher power prices to pay for new investment). Campaigns like 10:10 can put pressure on their governments to take the decisive action that is needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But where personal targets are used, they should be clear and long term in nature, with incentives and enablers available (which is what the Green Deal is supposed to be about). And if people set themselves targets, they need to be able to verify the savings. For me, this has been where 10:10 has always come up short.

More urgently, 10:10 needs to re-think its communications strategies. In recent years, some of us have tried to work out more effective ways to inspire public support for shifting to a low carbon economy. New perspectives – and not a small number of debates - have been opened up, on having a positive and compelling vision, communicated with emotionally resonant stories and frames, by credible messengers. [Click here, here, here and here].

The real tragedy of “No Pressure” is that, for all its attempts at irony, the film preached to us, with a negative message and a ‘doomsday’ frame, all sure-fire ways to push people away. This debacle could so easily have been avoided.

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Friday, 24 September 2010

A liberal path to green growth

[Edited text of my speech opening the debate on a topical issue, “Building a Low Carbon Economy” at the Liberal Democrat conference, 21 September 2010]

What a year it’s been for the planet!

Last December, we saw the disappointing conclusion to the UN climate change summit at Copenhagen. We’ve seen the US Senate fail to even vote on a bill to cut carbon emissions. We’ve seen heat waves scorching Russia, and nearly one-fifth of Pakistan submerged underwater, vindicating predictions by the IPCC that such events will be more frequent in a warming world.

Whatever the climate sceptics say, the evidence is clear: we are increasing enormously the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. 2010 is shaping up to be the hottest year on record. New data shows that the air temperature over land is going up and so are humidity and sea levels. The arctic sea ice is thinning and glaciers and snow cover in the northern hemisphere are declining.

Our government’s independent advisers on climate change keep saying that we need a step change in the pace of emissions reduction and in our use of renewable energy in order to meet our emissions targets.

It’s been quite a year for another reason. Chris Huhne has taken charge at the Department of Energy and Climate Change and we have Liberal Democrats in key portfolios across government. Vince Cable at BIS is committed to spearheading a green industrial rebirth; Andrew Stunell at CLG is in charge of the regulations for energy efficient homes; and Norman Baker at the DFT handles alternatives to transport.

With these ministers working together, Liberal Democrats have an historic opportunity: to make our dream of a low carbon economy a reality; to promote green growth that helps rather than harms our environment.

A low carbon economy with green growth can give us more energy independence, greater security and new sources of prosperity and jobs. The global market for environmental goods and services is already worth around £3trillion and could grow to more than £4 trillion by 2015.

The path to green growth must take the carbon out of the energy we use. But the current carbon price provides a poor incentive to green investment. So we should welcome Chris’s plans to provide more certainty and support to the carbon price. And we should all back his campaign to raise the EU target for cutting emissions; from the current 20 per cent to 30 per cent by 2020.

But the path to green growth can’t stop there. The government’s advisers have concluded that £200bn worth of investment in a new green energy system is going to be needed by 2020. Most of that will have to come from the private sector in difficult financial conditions. But the existing energy market arrangements are not up to the challenge of delivering investment on that scale. So we look forward to seeing reforms that will give clean energy generators the incentives and the certainty they need.

We shouldn’t forget that the coalition’s programme for government echoed our manifesto in promising an emissions performance standard, meaning that no new coal fired power stations can be built unless they are equipped with highest level of carbon capture and storage. The government should also look at having such a standard for gas generation.

Study after study has shown that energy efficiency is the most cost-effective way to cut emissions. I welcome Chris Huhne’s Green Deal, a pay as you save energy efficiency solution for all householders. That’s a Liberal Democrat idea and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! And Chris is now extending it to non-residential buildings as well. We’ll also need an ambitious national programme, to insulate the walls and lofts of existing homes and more clarity about energy efficiency polic, right across government.

When it comes to boosting clean, renewable energy the most urgent actions the government can take are to give the industry more certainty about the financial support that will be available, especially for renewable heat.

We must deliver on our promise of a Green Investment Bank. Let’s be clear: the GIB will need at least £2 billion to stimulate investment in the infrastructure that we need, and have the ability to issue bonds, if it is to underpin a green industrial revolution.

This, then, is the liberal path to green growth and a sustainable future for our children and our children’s children.

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Thursday, 23 September 2010

How to rebuild the Liberal Democrats' identity

[This is an updated version of my speech to the consultative session on party strategy at the Liberal Democrat conference, 19 September 2010]

We Liberal Democrats need to think seriously about the party’s identity – but we need to understand how the voters see us, not about how we see ourselves.

Remember the Times-Populus polls we hear about year after year. In 2007 and 2008, clear majorities saw the Liberal Democrats as being “made up of decent people but their policies probably don’t really add up” and “basically a protest vote party because they have no chance of ever winning”. Many think that a vote for the Lib Dems was a wasted vote.

It’s not all bad, however. As Labour’s flame flickered and died, the Liberal Democrats were seen as the nicest, most empathetic party: “for ordinary people, not the best off”, the most honest and principled -- as we’ve proved ourselves many times. By the middle of the 2010 general election campaign, Nick Clegg was perceived as, by far the most honest leader and the one most in touch with ordinary people.

But the 2010 British Election Study has found that we didn’t win any of the arguments on the policy issues that mattered most to voters. According to Ipsos-MORI, we weren’t seen to offer a credible team of leaders.

Then the coalition came. Now the big story people hear from government ministers is that they are to fix the crippling deficit that Labour left behind. By paying off our bills and living within our means, we will have fiscal redemption. It’s little wonder the familiar Lib Dem messages have been crowded out.

So we – all of us - have to get back into the persuasion business and start telling people about the difference we are making in government on the issues that matter. They’ll judge us on what we do, not on what we used to say.

No, that doesn’t mean being like the town cryer in the square – “hear ye, hear ye, here’s a big list of policies”. And no, it doesn’t mean dusting down the old manifestos, leaflets and slogans of yesteryear and pretending that the last coalition never happened. I’ve never met a liberal who thinks who you can go back.

What I’m talking about is telling people stories about what Liberal Democrats in government are doing now. Stories because that is the way people have communicated for thousands of years. Stories about the difference Liberal Democrats are making – giving the specifics. Most of all, stories about the people whose lives will be better as a result.

Here are two quick examples. I can remember Nick Clegg, years ago, calling for more money to be focussed on the most disadvantaged pupils. We worked up the idea and campaigned for the pupil premium at the election and now our ministers in government are making it a reality and thousands and in time millions of people will have a better start in life.

And we can’t forget the area where we have shown a strong commitment for decades, and reaped some political benefits: looking after the environment and tackling climate change. Chris Huhne and Vince Cable have reaffirmed their joint commitment to building a low-carbon economy that will meet our ambitious climate-change targets, deliver energy security for all of us and help our economy to recover. They are telling us how the Liberal Democrats government will do it.

So, let’s start telling people the stories.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Julia Gillard's narrative failure reveals harsh political realities

Today, Australia’s Labor prime minister, Julia Gillard, faces two possible futures. One is awful beyond belief. If the final counts in a couple of seats don’t go Labor’s way, and if Gillard fails to gather the assured support of enough Green and Independent MPs, her political career ends in disaster. The other is a prolonged nightmare. Gillard stays on as prime minister but with her government unstable and unsure, its legitimacy called into doubt.

In June, just after she rolled Kevin Rudd and became prime minister, I wrote that Gillard would need to tell and embody a story that enabled Australian voters to develop (or to confirm) a sense of who they are; and that let them reframe their thoughts and plans for the future.

There was strong evidence that she could pull it off. Julia Gillard started out with a good, strong brand, based on her undoubted competence and gift for plain speaking.

But Gillard’s credibility suffered when she stumbled over the issues of asylum-seekers and deadlines for cutting emissions. Then, she was sandbagged by a series of damaging leaks from within her own party that depicted her as callous towards pensioners and young families. After these disasters, and the fall-out over the ousting of Rudd, there were signs that the brand of the tough, smart and likeable leader was being eclipsed by a new one: Gillard the hard-bitten political opportunist.

All politicians have a narrative, but none get to write it. That brutal reality was rammed home when Gillard’s campaign became overshadowed by a few dramas that reminded voters what they didn’t like about Labor. A lot of media attention was paid to Kevin Rudd, who eventually agreed to campaign for Labor. Soon after, another ex-leader, Mark Latham, ambushed Gillard in a media scrum, challenging her about the way Labor had treated him in the past and over claims that Rudd was behind the leaks. Later, Latham urged Australian voters, who are required by law to turn up to the polling booth on election day, to spoil their ballot papers.

All this was outside Gillard’s control. Yet the Labor campaign may also have played up her political weak points. When she assumed the leadership, the BBC’s Nick Bryant argued that Gillard’s brand was based around what he called her “Bungalow politics”, which identify the PM with “mainstream” Australia.

By the end of July, commentators were slamming her over-controlled appearances, excessive use of marketing-speak and robotic presentation. With her campaign failing to fire, Gillard promised that voters would see the “real Julia”. Yet by polling day, the “real Julia” remained elusive. This was an important failure. In The Political Brain, Drew Westen shows how voters’ feelings about candidates -- or, in Australia, party leaders -- are more important than their assessment of policy positions in deciding how they will vote.

Today, The Australian’s Kate Legge observed that:

Labor's campaign accentuated [Gillard’s] solitariness in contrast to an opponent who wears several hats as father, husband, community volunteer. These roles helped flesh out a sense of Abbott.

Gillard's candour about her atheism, her de facto relationship and personal choices that put children out of her reach was refreshing, but we didn't see enough of the depth beneath her political skin.

. . . In the hundreds of campaign events and picture opportunities that both parties plot assiduously, Gillard's army of one did not allow her extracurricular personality to break through.

Gillard was well placed to live the "Australian dream". Nick Bryant also wrote in July that the new PM could embody the myth – the narrative -- of the “the Australian everyman” [sic].

From her pride at her immigrant "Ten Pound Pom" roots to her Western Bulldogs scarf, from her red-brick suburban bungalow to her Akubra hat, Julia Gillard is presenting a quintessentially Australian story - and therein lies much of her appeal.

Launching Labor’s campaign, Gillard stressed her values: hard work, "earning your keep” and the transformative power of education.

Of course I learnt these values in my family home, I learnt them from my parents. . .

When my parents migrated to this country they didn’t come asking for a free ride, they came seeking a fair go, and they found it.

She then told a brief story about how both her parents had always worked hard.

All good stuff. Yet it was tied to a policy programme that was cautious and a vision that was hazy. Gillard stressed Labor’s fiscal credibility and plans for a nationwide broadband network, as well as education and health. In the end, her promises added up to a continuation of the Rudd programme.

Such an incremental narrative can for do it a popular government, in benign times. It can also work when a new leader has taken over from a popular leader whose vision was well established. Bush I’s 1988 victory after eight years of Reagan is a good example. None of these conditions applied and so Australian voters’ minds turned back to the government’s record and judged Labor accordingly. But then Gillard was Rudd’s deputy and a key member of his government, meaning that she had little choice but to tread carefully in presenting her own story.

The lack of choice that leaders have over the stories they can tell voters may be the real lesson from Julia Gillard’s grim experience.

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Sunday, 22 August 2010

What does Australia's election mean for the UK debate on AV?

Green discusses the political deadlock

ABC election analyst Antony Green discusses the federal election outcome where neither the Coalition or ALP holds a majority in parliament.
Contains: video, image,

The question is relevant because Australia uses the alternative vote (AV) for the House of Representatives.

The answer is that we can't say - at least, not yet. Here, the ABC's Antony Green explains that the result of the Australian federal election -- which he describes as the closest in the country's history -- may not be clear for at least another week. And he believes that which party governs, albeit with the aid of Independents and in Labor's case, the Greens, will come down to just one seat: Hasluck, in Western Australia.

Labour voters surely hold the key to the UK's AV referendum. They should note that with 78% of the votes counted, the conservative coalition has won just under 44% of the primary vote, to Labor's 38%. So, had Australia used the first-past-the-post voting system, Tony Abbott would be prime minister. And Labor may not have won in 2007 either. The point will not have escaped British Conservatives.

Labor may now be in a strong enough position to stay in office because of AV. Green and minor party voters are much more iikely to give Labor their second and third preference votes. Under AV, in seats where no candidate wins 50% or more of the vote, every vote can count and the two-party preferred vote is what really matters.

And Julia Gillard has staked her moral claim to The Lodge on the assertion that Labor has won the nationwide two party preferred vote. But, as Antony Green points out, the election is so close that we won't know who has picked up that prize for some days yet.

Now, try this: what if Labor loses the two-party preferred vote but ends up with more MPs than the coalition; then Gillard manages to secure the support of enough independents to hang on? Perhaps pro-AV campaigners will not want to dwell too much on Australia's example.

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Friday, 20 August 2010

Getting the Coalition Government's political narrative

In its first 100 days in office, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has launched a raft of substantial new policy initiatives, from NHS reform and academies to reorganising the police. The “Big Society” has emerged as a major theme, alongside a drastic programme or decentralising political power. Nick Clegg has big plans for political reform. The speed with which the government is moving and the radicalism of its programme are both big themes of the media narrative about the coalition.

The government has produced a lot of lists of speeches, policies and bills. But so far they have told only one story.

They started in the very first paragraph of the coalition’s full programme for government, which declared that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had come together to work in the national interest.

“The national interest”: above party and sectional interests; policies that are good for all of us. One of the most powerful frames in politics but, oddly, ministers hardly ever use it.

Right from that first press conference in the Downing Street rose garden, voters saw two people, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, uniting behind a common purpose. They embody the coalition’s narrative by looking almost like characters in old, familiar movies. The Guardian’s Marina Hyde was on to something when she compared the Cameron and Clegg partnership to a buddy movie -. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Road to Morocco. Tango & Cash, Maverick and Iceman.

And the metaphor of the “civil partnership” has been used frequently to describe the government.

Now for the plot of the story. The Coalition Agreement said that tackling the UK’s record debts would be the new government’s most urgent task. The chancellor, George Osborne, has since set a tough target - to have the deficit fixed by 2014-15. Seismic spending cuts are on the way which, by the normal rules of politics, could well leave the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats sharing the same electoral tomb.

Just as well the coalition’s story comes with a ready made villain. By leaving behind a record budget deficit of 11% of GDP, and not explaining where or how they would make cuts, Labour hardly needed to audition for the part. George Osborne has seized every opportunity to blame the previous Labour administration for the cuts that are now needed. [Click here, here and here] Cleaning up the last lot’s financial mess – a story that seems almost as old as democratic politics itself.

Earlier this month, the energy and climate change secretary, Chris Huhne, pulled the story strands together, in his speech on Labour’s legacy.

It only took one party to create this mess. Now our two parties – the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives – have come together in the national interest to clear it up. Labour’s [leadership] candidates cannot go on pretending that the budget deficit doesn’t exist. It does and it is the single greatest challenge facing Britain. They must take responsibility. You cannot keep spending when the money dries up. Write cheques you know will bounce. Put party advantage before the national interest.

But that’s not enough. Any politician who is selling painful change has to tell stories that appeal to a bigger sense of morality.

So the government has adopted a narrative that's about good housekeeping: by paying off our bills and living within our means, we can enjoy fiscal redemption later on. [Click here and here]

In his Bloomberg speech this week, Osborne set out his account – his story – of how the budgetary crisis came about. He described the forthcoming spending review as "a crucial stepping stone on the way to recovery". The chancellor added that "the choices within that review will lay the foundations for future growth and for a fairer society”.

There was a new, clever twist to the narrative. Osborne denied that it was “progressive” to oppose the cuts, arguing that left-of-centre politicians in other countries agreed that fairness for future generations and job seekers could only be delivered once the nation’s finances were in order.

Osborne alluded to a few springboard stories but, like many British politicians, did not develop them fully.

In the US it was Bill Clinton and the New Democrats who made the case for balanced budgets and deficit control in the early 1990s. And during an economic recovery they eliminated the budget deficit and pushed ahead with deeply controversial welfare reform.

In Canada, [Liberals] Jean Chretien and Paul Martin took the necessary steps to bring their exploding deficit under control.

Or there is Goran Persson, the Swedish Social Democrat Prime Minister, who turned a 9% budget deficit into a 4% budget surplus.

And he touched on a more hypothetical type of morality story by simply asking:

. . . what is fair about forcing the next generation to pay for the debts of our generation?

The government’s narrative has at least two potential weaknesses. First, the “happy ending” is not too clear and phrases like “future growth” and “a fairer society” have little emotional impact.

Second, there are powerful counter-stories. As The Economist pithily summed it up last week:

Debate rages—not only in Britain—over whether it makes economic sense to tighten fiscal policy so much, so fast. And austerity plans may not be achievable without ripping vital public services to shreds.

But most people buy the coalition’s story, so far at least. This week, a YouGov poll found that a majority of the public have confidence in the government’s ability to run the economy (55%) and there is widespread confidence in their ability to cut the deficit (62%). Last month, YouGov found that 48% of people blamed the previous Labour government for the spending cuts while only 17% blamed the coalition government. 19% blamed both.

Now, here’s a tricky postscript. What have stories about massive spending cuts and the morality of good housekeeping and fiscal redemption got to do with the Liberal Democrats’ narrative of “stopping the rot at the top” and our established brand as the most understanding and empathetic party, “for ordinary people, not the best off”?

More on that soon.

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