Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Abbott vs Blanchett: Australia's battle of climate frames

There’s a new front in Australia’s climate wars – the battle of the frames.

Actress Cate Blanchett has appeared in a TV advert to urge her fellow Australians to back the Gillard government’s proposed carbon tax.

But Tony Abbott, leader of the Liberal Party (that’s conservative in Australia) weighed in with this comment:

"People who are worth $53m have a right to be heard – but their voice should not be heard ahead of the ordinary working people of this country."

And this:

"You do not give special weight to celebrities . . .

''You do not give special weight to people who live half the year in Hollywood where there is no carbon tax.”

Abbott was using the “people vs. the elites” frame that has worked powerfully in the US. He set out to cast Cate Blanchett as a symbol of wealthy left-liberal elites who say they want action on climate change but are out of touch with the day-to-day concerns of “ordinary people”. It all comes down, once again, to “who pays?”.

Cate Blanchett has come back with a double-frame of her own – “fighting pollution” and “protecting children”.

'Everyone will benefit if we protect the environment. There is a societal cost of increased pollution and that's what I'm passionate about as a mother. That's where it gets me in the gut,'' she said. ''I can't look my children in the face if I'm not trying to do something in my small way and to urge other people.''

The fact that Cate Blanchett is a mother of three adds an authenticity to her statements. In speaking out, she embodies her narrative.

But the real impact of the row may be to shift attention away from the advert’s message and on to personalities. So Cate Blanchett has tried to frame the argument around protecting the environment.

And she made an interesting aside:

''I understand that if you use the word tax, people are rightly and understandably concerned about their standards of living.”

The UK’s coalition government is bringing in a carbon tax too. They and climate hawks in this country should be relieved that the tax is officially called a “floor price for carbon” and will work within the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. The frame may blunt some of the attacks that are surely coming.

Footnote: Check out this new article from The Australian’s editor-at-large Paul Kelly about the updated 2011 Garnaut report on climate change. Kelly says:

Garnaut repudiates every basis on which Tony Abbott relies for his campaign against the expected multi-party compromise to put Australia on the historic path to a carbon price.


Garnaut's conclusion is unmistakable – [Prime Minister Julia] Gillard is advancing the national interest while Abbott is reviving a regressive past of sectional interests.

Posted via email from Neil Stockley's posterous

Friday, 27 May 2011

Political narratives - a few basics

If you're like me you hear the term 'narrative' all over the place these days: "What's the political narrative?" "We need a compelling narrative." "Their narrative is unclear or even non-existent." I'm certain most people have little idea what is really meant by the term.

That pertinent observation comes from Shawn Callahan of Anecdote. He has written a great post that clears up much of the confusion around what a narrative is.

Replying to an article by John Hagel, Shawn says:

A narrative must have a narrative structure. That is, it is told as a story . . . For example, John comes close to giving us narrative structure when describing the Christian narrative when he says, "people are born in sin but have an opportunity for redemption through a Savior." This is a statement rather than the narrative but anyone familiar with Christian ways will immediately fill in this statement with the stories that help us make sense of it. The narrative version of this statement is simply "people are born in sin but THEN have an opportunity for redemption through a Savior." Two events connected. Without the 'then' it's not a narrative. Narratives, like stories, are made from events. Their connections infer causality.

These observations are very relevant to politics. To make a political narrative stick, you need a causality, a ‘then’. “Free, fair and green” is not a narrative. It’s a (bad) slogan. So is “muscular liberalism”. Don’t get me started again on “alarm clock Britain”.

“Liberal Democrats believe in healthcare available to all, free at point of delivery, based on clinical need, not ability to pay”
is not a narrative either. It’s a statement of belief.

Here’s an outline of what an accompanying narrative would look like.

In March 2011, the Liberal Democrat spring conference voted overwhelmingly for more accountability and openness in commissioning, to reject turning the health service into for safeguards against cherry-picking by private sector providers… and against the undermining of local NHS services. Then, Nick Clegg insisted on scrapping the requirement that Monitor, the NHS regulator, compels hospitals to compete with each other. Clegg has since put himself on collision course with the Tory health secretary, Andrew Lansley by saying that a clause in the health and social care bill encouraging "any qualified provider" to take over services from the NHS should be radically rethought or dropped.

Tell that story according to your political tastes. Nick Clegg the fearless fighter for the NHS, a liberal creation. Or Nick Clegg, the potential wrecker of the coalition.

After explaining the difference between a description of the narrative (which is a statement) and the narrative itself, Shawn goes on to stress:

Narratives require a narrative structure. Story structure provides a narrative with its power.

He reminds us about the key elements of a story:

Stories are not merely about plots and action. Stories are about people, events and something unanticipated (Jerome Bruner). Jay Callahan, the celebrated professional storyteller, puts it another way: stories are about people, events and trouble. You just can't have a story without characters.

My Nick Clegg / NHS example has characters – the deputy PM, the Lib Dem conference and the health secretary. The events were the Lib Dem spring conferences and Nick Clegg’s subsequent demands to change the NHS reforms.

Other political narratives have been based on characters, “good” versus “bad”. Ronald Reagan versus the evil empire. Margaret Thatcher versus the Argentinean generals and, later, the miners. Tony Blair versus Gordon Brown - -though most people had trouble working out who was the “good” and who was the “bad”. “The west” versus Al Queda.

In each case, something important and quite unanticipated, if not troublesome, took place. Reagan held summits with Gorbachev and called on the Soviet Union to “tear down this wall”. Thatcher had the Falklands War and the miners strike. Blair vs. Brown seemed like an unending psychodrama, yet there it had many signposts and highlights along the way. 9/11 and the killing of Osama Bin Laden were two ends of an especially grim story arc.

But there are four important features that mark political narratives out from business and other narratives. First, the story and the events must affect people and their world views. They must evoke an emotional reaction. The emotions are usually either hope or fear. They can also be compassion, empathy, patriotism, loyalty and other feelings of identity and belonging, anger, contempt or nostalgia.

Second, political storytellers should explain the world to their listeners and enable them to understand their place within it, to reframe their plans for the future. “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem,” said Ronald Reagan in his first inaugural address.

Margaret Thatcher blamed previous Labour and Tory governments for their lax fiscal and monetary policies, as well as the trade union leaders who had brought the country to its knees, for Britain’s economic woes. Her narrative was about standing up for Britain, its people and its aspirations, and against their enemies, both within and without. The characters and how people felt about them were always clear. So was the underlying morality.

During the 2010 general election campaign, Nick Clegg struck a chord when he decried “the old politics” and blamed “the old parties” for letting Britain down. He, too, was telling a morality tale. But he was also singing new versions of old tunes by David Steel and Paddy Ashdown.

Third, a true political storyteller will give people hope – or at least, reassurance about themselves and their future. S/he will explain what happens next and why and how the story will have a happy ending or, at least, a next stage that is good. There may not be an “unanticipated (past) event” but the clever political storyteller will make this future story bigger, better and, above all, more plausible than a simple recitation of their election promises. Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” tv spot in 1984 is still hard to beat. But Barack Obama’s “Yes, we can change” rhetoric from 2008 is up there too.

Fourth, politicians need to remember who owns the narrative. It’s not them. Here’s one of Shawn’s most acute insights:

Narratives emerge from a combination of events and people deciding what aspects of those events they want to retell; what gets amplified. It's much like history really, an emergent process. Regardless of what we do narrative patterns will emerge and only when we are mindful of these narrative patterns will we are able to choose those patterns to nurture and the ones to disrupt. Nurturing comes from retelling stories. Disruption happens when new stories are triggered that counter the narrative. If the disruption is big enough (think Egypt) then a new narrative is born.

Politicians try to tell stories about themselves, but they are invariably overwhelmed by the stories that other people – the media especially – say about them. It’s unhappy for some of us, but Nick Clegg is a classic example. He was the hero of the 2010 campaign and now, the political villain of 2011. I wonder what kind of “disruption” will create a new narrative for him.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Learning from the AV result

The debate over what went wrong with the Yes to AV campaign is bubbling along.

Given that the “Noes” had it, by 68% to 32%, the quality of the campaign was but one of the reasons why AV went down. (Tom Clark of The Guardian has provided a good summary of the ten main reasons, even though the ordering and emphasis will be debated for a long time.) Nobody expects to ever see another referendum on AV in this country, but discussions about “what went wrong” are neither irrelevant nor academic. But the dismal failure of the Yes campaign carries a valuable lesson for future political reformers.

Tom Clark’s article is a good place to start. Two points in particular struck a chord with me:

[The] no campaign got down, dirty and deceitful in the best traditions of the party of which it had became a wholly owned subsidiary. Made-up costs were attached to made-up voting machines, and posters proclaimed that these would be paid by soldiers making the ultimate sacrifice. After an infant's need for a maternity unit failed to shift the polls sufficiently, a sick baby in intensive care was deployed instead. The cynical message was that because hospitals matter democracy doesn't, and so you'd better vote no or else the little one gets it.

But sour grapes are no substitute for hard analysis. He goes on:

[The] wet yes campaign, on the other hand, entirely failed to meet fire with fire. The wrong celebrities (Eddie Izzard) were marshalled by worthy functionaries who looked like they would be most at home arguing in favour of a Financial Times editorial about joining the euro . . . In a political culture that rewards those who pitch themselves against the system, for all the semi-comprehensible suggestions that AV would make politicians work harder, the campaign looked like the work of a metropolitan elite. More use should have been made of self-interested yes-mavericks, such as Ukip's Nigel Farrage, to summon up a rabble army.

The Yes campaign seemed to be engaged in a worthy discussion and too often, they were having it with like-minded people. Meanwhile, the No campaign, who saw where their interests lay, were waging total war.

Their contrasting approaches were typified by two broadcasts that played on BBC1. Take a look at this video from the Yes campaign. I can’t see a logical argument that explains how AV could have averted the expenses scandal. (And which MPs are lazy?) Worse, it fails to tell a simple story, that explains how AV would be the solution to voters’ disillusionment with politicians. For all the loud hailers, the video does little to engage in any meaningful with way with viewers’ emotions or concerns about politics. .

Next, check out this No broadcast, which is full of simple (simplistic?) stories. They aim for the heart at least as much as the head. The campaign may have been dishonest, but it played successfully to Conservative and Labour voters’ suspicions and resentment of the coalition and voters’ fear of the supposed complexity of AV. Here’s the rub: they got away with it. They won.

These stories didn’t come out of thin air. In his fascinating account of the campaign, Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome has explained how the “No” team used market research to focus and hone its messages:

Cost, Complexity and Clegg.

It would interesting to see an account from the Yes campaign of how their messages were created.

The strategy and the messaging are not just a concern for political geeks and future PhD students. There was no proportional voting system on the ballot paper, but both the “yes” and “no” campaign carried on as if it was. Both camps wanted to have a big argument about basic views of politics. A more pluralistic politics versus “winner takes all”. “Letting more people have a say” versus “giving my side all the power”. “More representative politics” versus “strong government”. Hope versus fear. Even though it would have meant a modest change in the way we elect MPs, AV became the totem for these bigger political arguments.

The drivers of the AV campaign are going to be with us for a long time. I’m sure it won’t be long till we see the same basic arguments again over another reform issue, with many of the same protagonists on either side.

Let’s try to avoid making the same mistakes again.

Footnote: Just in case you think I am having a case of “after hindsight”, please take a look at this post, from July 2010. Point 4 predicted that the “No” campaign would fight rough. This post, from last October, analysed some research findings on the most effective arguments both for and against AV.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Up and down with climate change | Political Climate


In yet another interesting post, Political Climate have picked up on the UK and world media’s current lack of interest in climate change. They place the “trance” in the context of Anthony Downs’ “issue attention cycle”, in which problems suddenly leap into prominence, remain there for a short time, and then – though they are still largely unresolved – gradually fade from public attention.

I have added a comment, suggesting that the public may now be more interested in related environmental / energy issues and that media coverage of climate change may also be evolving and becoming more specialised.

Posted via email from Neil Stockley's posterous