Thursday, 24 November 2011

Narrativewatch: NZ Labour Party turns Grimond's law on its head

According to legend, Jo Grimond, leader of the British Liberal Party from 1956 to 1967, once said there were really only three campaign themes.  The opposition always said it was “time for a change”.  The government always replied, “give us more time”.  The third party was left inviting voters to cast “a plague on both your houses” – a protest vote.

 Sure enough, in the run up to New Zealand’s general election, to be held this Saturday, National, the lead party in the governing centre-right coalition, has used a “more of the same” narrative,  in a soft-focus, reassuring kind of campaign. 

But Grimond led his party a generation ago, in an era of two party politics, under first past the post voting.  New Zealand in 2011 is political light years away from his political world.  One basic difference: my home country uses the mixed member proportional (MMP) voting system.  The opposition Labour Party, who started the campaign as much as 20 points behind in the opinion polls, have defied Grimond’s maxim.  Their campaign has told many stories, but none of them is really about change.

Take their widely praised campaign opening broadcast.  The 20 minute documentary style video re-told the party’s myths, using black and white archive footage to highlight Labour’s beginnings on the West Coast and the achievements of the first Labour government.   Free milk in schools, free healthcare, thousands of state home . . . it was all there.  (Hey, I was raised on these stories!)  The grainy images were a series of cues designed to spark myths (stories) in the minds of the audience.  The video was a political version what Annette Simmons calls “values in action” stories.  A record is so much powerful than rhetoric.

Labour politicians set out to embody the party’s narrative about itself.  Party leader Phil Goff and his 87 year old father Bruce tell the story of how, after the death of Goff's grandfather, a boost in the widow's pension helped the family to survive.

Other Labour MPs told personal, “who I am” stories.  Damien O’Connor is well anchored in the West Coast Labour tradition. Jacinda Ardern took us on a drive through her home town of Murupara, a shadow of its former self after the big economic gales of the 1980s and 1990s.(I wonder if someone in Labour’s advertising agency has watched John Major’s famous 1992 drive through Brixton?)  And Stuart Nash is the grandson of former Labour prime minister and icon Sir Walter Nash.

But  there were no “vision” stories.  The video canvassed Labour's plans for a capital gains tax, tax free first $5000 of income, and retaining state owned assets, but on the whole it was policy light.

This is, after all, a party that does not seriously expect to win the election.  Labour has been in the polling doldrums since they lost office in 2008.  Earlier this week, Roy Morgan found that 49.5% of voters said that New Zealand was heading in the right direction and 31% said it’s heading in the wrong direction.

Even if there is little appetite for change, Labour wants to be a credible contender in 2014.  This time, the best way to avoid a wipeout is to shore up and bring out the core vote. Hence the invocation of the party’s myths and legends.

Labour has plenty of policies.  They have promised to raise the pension age and to make KiwiSaver compulsory. These are bold and, in many ways, risky stances, but then the party had nothing to lose.  And remember, “attracting attention” is the first of Stephen Denning’s key steps for inspiring action.

Labour has not been able to move on to Denning’s next two steps – “stimulate desire for change” and “back it up it with reasons”. Before making the case for the Labour alternative, they needed to tell voters why the National-led government should be sent packing after just one term.  The ad attacking National’s economic record contain some killer stats – but they are lists, not stories, and are less memorable as a result.   (For a devastatingly effective “case for change” advert from New Zealand’s political history, click here.)   Moreover, the tea tape argument – what did National Party PM John Key really say, and why wouldn’t he release the tape – dominated the penultimate weak of the campaign and deprived Labour of media oxygen.

In the final week, with its poll ratings hardly moving, Labour has gone back to its on-going theme – “stop asset sales” - and tried to turn the election into a referendum on National’s unpopular plan to partly privatise four state-owned energy companies and Air New Zealand.  That sounds to me like an appeal to cast a protest vote.   Labour’s closing broadcast is really another list of policies. And what's with the academic telling everyone how to think?

I'll finish with a brief comment about the Greens, the third party. At the general elections since 1999, between six and nine Green Party MPs have been returned, but they have always sat on the opposition benches.  This time, however, the Greens seek greater influence in the new parliament, using a smart new campaign pitch that promises "jobs that work for our environment, our economy and our people  . . . for a richer New Zealand”.  You’ve got it: it's a positive narrative, about change, rather than a "plague on both your houses".



Posted via email from Neil Stockley's posterous

Monday, 14 November 2011

Pollwatch: David Cameron's "blame Europe" strategy - a quick postscript


Leo Barasi has provided some useful context for the Cameron-Osborne "blame Europe" narrative on the economy. Their "blame Labour for the cuts" narrative still has some way to go. But half the country now holds the coalition responsible for the cuts, at least in part. Time for a new story . . .

Posted via email from Neil Stockley's posterous

Friday, 11 November 2011

Narrativewatch: David Cameron's 'blame Europe' strategy

In the second third of this parliament, the one now beginning, and whose opening will be marked by Osborne's autumn economic statement on 29 November, Britain's economic woes will be laid rather less at Labour's door and rather more at that of the eurozone. That's why Cameron and Osborne are now constructing a very obvious narrative of continental European failure, from which Britain is thankfully (as they depict it) exempt, but which nevertheless continues to put the UK economy at risk. 
In some ways, blaming Europe is not as easy as blaming Labour. Labour is a stationary target, and both coalition parties can unite in dumping on it. Europe, by contrast, is a moving target that divides the coalition parties and emphasises their differences. But the political beauty for the Conservatives of blaming Europe is big. It goes down well with Tory activists. It allows Cameron and Osborne to frame their engagement with the EU as candid friends and it chimes with public opinion. And in particular it provides a ready-made and not entirely specious excuse for the failure of the government's economic strategy in the first third of the parliament.

In today's Guardian, Martin Kettle has a very perceptive article about the Cameron-Osborne narrative that "Europe is to blame" for Britain's economic woes.

Kettle's analysis picks up on the main purposes of political narratives. He brings out how they work.

First, narratives provide an account and an explanation for current problems, complete with heroes and, more importantly, fall guys and villains.

Second, they enable listeners to frame options for the future and work out what they need to do next -- in this case, to keep giving the coalition, or more importantly, the Conservative component, the benefit of the doubt.

"Blame Europe" has many of the properties of a successful narrative. It's easy to grasp and not completely implausible. And it plays to an emotional reflex that is very familiar to a large section - almost certainly a majority - of the British public.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats will have a hard time grappling with this narrative. Labour's best bet will be to pin the blame for Britain's economic problems on Cameron and Osborne and to argue that they have not kept us out of the Eurozone crisis.

Nick Clegg will have little choice but to blame the former Labour government -- unless he wants to recast his party's storylines about the EU. But will the public have moved on by 2015?

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Reframing climate change: talking about insurance instead of apocalypse

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, has called on “the environmental movement” to rethink the way it engages with climate scepticism.  He told Business Green that following years of "pious alarmism”, green NGOs and businesses should develop a more "prosaic" argument for action on climate change based around its costs and benefits.  He went on to say that climate hawks should equate action to cut emissions with the insurance that households and businesses buy but rarely use.

"[People] spend money on house insurance and car insurance and life insurance, and, if what is overwhelmingly likely to happen and your car is not broken into or your house does not burn down or you don't die, it is money poured down the drain," he said.

"Even if you are a climate change sceptic, you surely think the chances of manmade global warming happening are probably a bit higher than your house burning down tomorrow.

"So you do not have to believe all the worst case scenarios on climate change to think it is worth doing what we do as a family and spend a bit of money and make a few changes just to ensure that something catastrophic does not happen."

Matthew Taylor’s criticisms of some green campaigners struck a chord with me.  I agree with him that the “insurance frame” is a very useful way of neutralising “climate sceptics” or, more likely, engaging with “climate neutrals”. 

But let's not get too carried away.  The “insurance frame” will not, on its own, build the political space needed for measures of the magnitude needed to meet the UK’s existing climate targets.  These include, for example, securing £200bn of private sector investment in energy infrastructure by 2020; substantially decarbonising electricity by 2030; and increasing investment in renewable power generation. 

Over the next few years, the government and climate hawks will need to advocate and defend low carbon policies against a backdrop of rising power prices and tighter household budgets.     

Prosaic arguments won’t cut it.


Posted via email from Neil Stockley's posterous

Monday, 7 November 2011

Narrativewatch: NZ National Party promises more of the same

 As New Zealand’s general election campaign rolls into its second week, John Pagani argues that the following comment by the National Party prime minister, John Key, sums up what the choice is all about.
Mr Key says don't expect a change in style from a second-term National government, should he win a second term.
''I think in a lot of ways it will have a very similar look and feel to it...."
John Pagani says:
It's a consistent message for a conservative party.
He then makes a more telling point, through gritted teeth I am sure:
The right track/wrong track polls all say most people think the country is on roughly the right path. So, it's going fabulously well, vote John Key and National for more of the same. 
That's a neat summary of how a governing party’s election narrative works, whether they are of the moderate right or the moderate left.  “Re-elect us, and we’ll finish the job”, the government says.  Translation: give us a fresh mandate, so that we can keep on doing the good things that you like, providing strong and competent government.  More of the same. Don’t risk a change.
National’s first campaign spot is exhibit A.  Here are the words:
Despite one of the toughest periods in New Zealand’s history we’re starting to see the promising signs of recovery. Make no mistake, this year we have a very clear choice to make. John Key and National: building a brighter future.
Notice though how the pictures add an edgier sub-message: a contrast between the National-led government with the “risk” presented by the main opposition party (Labour), who are miles behind in the opinion polls.  (For a good analysis of the images used and the text’s emphasis on “John Key and National”, click here).  And, after all, it’s barely three years since Kiwi voters sent a long serving Labour government packing.
As John Pagani suggests, this sort of narrative works when most voters are basically happy with the state of the country and with the government’s performance and are not inclined to try the main alternative.
Voters are much more likely to give an incumbent government “another go” after one term than when they have been around a bit longer.  Tony Blair’s re-election in 2001 was a good example.  So was Helen Clark’s successful 2002 bid for a second term. 
They both found seeking a third mandate a much trickier proposition. Both Blair and Clark (just) made it over the line in 2005 and in so doing, showed that the quest for a third term separates the strategists from the dilettantes, the political storytellers from the followers of old playbooks and, let’s be honest, the deserving from the undeserving.  “Don’t throw it all away” will fall on deaf ears when most voters are tiring of the government, especially if the opposition has started to regain some credibility. 
The governing party usually offers new policies that are more popular than the alternatives on offer.  Helen Clark’s promise in 2005 to scrap interest rates on loans for full time and low income students was one example.  They should also be bolder and more robust.  Sir Robert Muldoon’s “Think Big” energy programme back in 1981 enabled him to win the jobs argument but ended in disaster – after he had secured a third term.
OK, I’m getting ahead of the current New Zealand situation.  For now, it looks as if Key will win, and, just maybe, with an overall majority, by using a “more of the same” narrative, which is itself embodied by a safe and risk-free, if not dull, campaign. 
So, where does that leave Labour?  Pagani says:
Oppositions represent change.
He’s right about that.  The main opposition party usually tells voters that “it’s time for a change”.   But that’s not quite the story Labour is telling this time.  More on that soon.