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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Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Sorting the good arguments for AV from the bad

If the government has its way, on 5 May 2011 there will be a referendum on bringing in the alternative vote (AV) system for electing MPs. With the campaign not far off, and the opinion polls suggesting that there’s everything to play for, it’s time to start thinking more carefully about what arguments, stories and frames will work – and which ones will not.

Both sides will surely look to Australia, which uses AV to elect the House of Representatives and the equivalents house in every state except Tasmania, to back up their cases. We should expect to hear plenty of springboard stories from Australia.

Australia is, after all, an English-speaking democracy whose system of government is based on the Westminster model. No, AV would turn not UK politics into an bigger, old world replica of Australia's. But we can learn a lot from that country about which pro-AV arguments stack up and which will crash and burn.

A House of Commons that looks more like Britain?

A recent Lib Dem event posed the question: “this parliament does not represent us – time for the alternative vote?”

There’s no certainty that AV would produce a House of Commons that was more representative of Britain’s population. Take the issue of gender balance. Australia has used AV in every national election since 1919 and the dearth of women in the country’s political life was much commented upon, for many years.

The last Australian federal election, in 2007, delivered a House of Reps in which just 27% of members were women. This compares to 22% of British MPs today. Such gains that have been made in the representation of Australian women have had nothing to do with the voting system; rather, they can be explained by looking at how the Australian Labor Party (ALP) has used affirmative action programmes [click here]. The (centre-right) Liberal Party has rejected any sort of quota system, preferring to use a Liberal Women's Forum to lobby for more women candidates and to train and help potential candidates through the selection process. But it in the outgoing parliament, the party lagged well behind Labor for having women MPs, much to the obvious chagrin of some Liberal women.

No more safe seats?

Another suggested line of attack is that the current voting system lets too many MPs to stay in safe seats, breeding complacency and arrogance in our politics – one source of the expenses scandals.

The usual definition of a safe seat is that a two-party swing of 10% of more is required to change hands. According to the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), 44% of seats in the UK House of Commons currently fall into this category, compared to 35% of seats in the Australian House of Reps. This is a bit of a crude measure but it suggests that Australian MPs may face more competitive electoral contests than their UK counterparts.

Yet the evidence that AV would end the safe seat syndrome is hardly overwhelming. 32% of seats in the Australian House are “fairly safe” – that is, they need swings of between 5% and 10% to change hands. That figure is rather higher than the 26% of Commons seats that can be classed as “fairly safe”.

As for marginal seats – constituencies that are vulnerable to swing of 5% or less – the two parliaments are close to level pegging. 33% of Australian House seats are marginal, compared to 31% of seats in the Commons.

So, the ERS may be on safer, if less exciting ground, with its description of how AV would be better than first past the post.

One problem of the current system is that MPs are often elected with the support of only a minority of people voting in their constituencies. In the 2005 election, 220 MPs had majority support but 426 did not. This means that most MPs cannot claim to speak for the majority of their constituents, and sometimes the voters of a constituency end up with an MP most of them do not support or like. Under AV, each MP will have had to reach 50 per cent of the vote in order to represent their constituents in parliament, making them more accountable and representative.

The other problem of the current system that AV would solve is that people often have to decide whether to vote for what they really believe, or to cast a vote that will help decide who represents the seat in Parliament (‘tactical voting) . . . .

Or, in the elegant words of Roy Jenkins:

[AV] would increase voter choice in the sense that it would enable voters to express their second and sometimes third or fourth preferences, and thus free them from a bifurcating choice between realistic and ideological commitment or, as it sometimes is called, voting tactically.

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Please note: You can find a new and updated version of this post, here.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Explaining the Liberal Democrats' disappointing performance in 2010: an update

I have just come across the “emerging evidence” from British Election Study (BES) for the 2010 general election.

The findings confirm two of my earlier conclusions, based on the Ipsos MORI election data: that Liberal Democrat support grew during the campaign but remained soft; and whilst Nick Clegg’s personal support shot up after the first debate, support for the Lib Dems did not firm up as a result.

As the BES summary and conclusions slide puts it:

With weak fundamentals, ineffective campaigns and widespread voter disaffection with politics as usual, the two major parties were susceptible to a move by the Liberal Democrats. The leader debates provided the Liberal Democrats with the exactly the opportunity they needed.

Despite their surge after the first debate, the Liberal Democrats had to rely heavily on Nick Clegg’s popularity. Their partisan base remained small, and they had little pulling power on the economy, the issue that dominated the campaign.

On the last point, the BES data seems to back up another of my previous conclusions: the Lib Dems did not win any of the arguments on the issues that mattered most to voters. Only 9% of the CIPS post-election respondents chose the Lib Dems as the best party on the issue they saw as most important. (Yes, nearly half of those who saw the environment as the top issue opted for the Lib Dems. But “green issue” voters accounted for only 3% of the electorate.)

The Lib Dems can draw a small amount of comfort from this BES finding:

. . . no party had the overall pulling power on major issues that Labour enjoyed in 1997, 2001 and 2005. In the CIPS post-election survey only 25% chose Labour as best on most important issue and only 30% chose the Conservatives.

And one of the above BES conclusions should be tempered, just a little. Voters were more likely to see the economy as the number one issue. Amongst those most concerned with the economy, the Lib Dems drew even with Labour and the Conservatives as the best party. I am sure that has not happened before.

But there’s no getting away from the twin realities. The Lib Dems will make little further progress unless we are more credible across the range of key issues that matter most to voters. And we need to go into election campaigns with a stronger base of core supporters. Just 11 per cent of voters, the same proportion as in 2005, identified with the Liberal Democrats in the run-up to the campaign. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives made any progress on that front either, but both started from much higher bases.

The big question for the next five years is: how will being in the coalition help or hinder the Liberal Democrats’ efforts to build more credibility on the issues -- and a stronger partisan base?

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