The Week in Politics – 7 October

No sooner than they were back, they’re set to be off again! The Government plans to prorogue Parliament on Tuesday (8th) to prepare for the following week’s Queens Speech. That means no Prime Minister’s Questions and generally less of everything. (There could still be time though for a vote on the latest Brexit plan as the order of business early in the week looks very light indeed).

Of course the Commons isn’t the only game in town and over in Cardiff Welsh Assembly members are set to vote on….whether to change the name of the Welsh Assembly. That might sound flippant but the point of the name change is to emphasise the changed nature of the body. Those in favour say Senedd better expresses its Parliamentary nature. It does a lot more now than when it started and the name should show this. It’s not just about nomenclature though. The Bill also gives 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote in Assembly (or Senedd) elections. This week is Stage Two – a Committee of the whole Assembly. The whole thing goes on to a plenary debate later.

There’s rarely a week without an election of course, and this week sees Poland go to the polls on Sunday (13th) to elect a new Parliament. At the last contest the Law and Justice Party won enough seats to form a Government with Civic Platform (Donald Tusk used to lead this) becoming the main opposition party. Since then the Law and Justice Administration has stirred up some controversy, with rows over attempts to control the judiciary and stand offs with parts of the EU. The ever useful Europe Elects site tells us that Law and Justice are currently polling 47 per cent with Civic Platform (and partners) on 28. (Poll fieldwork 2 October). That’s quite a gap.

And as if there hasn’t been enough legal excitement recently, the Court of Sessions in Scotland is due on Monday (7th) to make an initial ruling on another Brexit related case. This time it’s about what could be done if Boris Johnson refuses to ask for the Article 50 extention as specified in the Benn Act. There are some key features of Scottish law which don’t exist elsewhere in the UK, and one of these is the brilliantly named nobile officium power. Could be another nail-biter for the Government!

The Week in Politics – 30 September 2019

This week sees the Boris Johnson speech at the Conservative Party Conference, potential co operation by anti-Brexit MPs in the Commons, the formation of a new Government in Austria and a key debate in the Canadian General Election.

Firstly, the PM speech. Party Conferences are designed to fulfill a range of roles. They are about enthusing party members, deciding policy (at some conferences), announcing policy, gaining positive media coverage and generally acting as a shop-window on the party. Usually Parliament takes a break so that the three main parties can have their events uninterrupted by Parliamentary process. This year however the recess has been refused for the Conservatives, who meet in Manchester.

Leaders speeches are generally the final act and crescendo of the conference. This year Johnson is scheduled as final speaker (2 Oct)and will be hoping for a good reception, both in the hall and elsewhere. Of course last time the Conservatives were in Manchester Theresa May had a coughing fit, a comedian attempted to hand her a p45 and various bits of the stage fell down. (I saw it all being in the hall with a group of Edge Hill students). Of course Johnson is more of a showman and you can imagine him working disasters into his act in a way that May couldn’t manage. However this time he will be focusing on delivering a message to people outside the event. It is a vitally important moment for him. Expect plenty of “surrender” and ” Get Brexit done”.

Back at the Palace of Westminster, while the cat’s away….. Pundits have been saying that these few days are a chance for anti-Brexit MPs to come up with more moves designed to make attack the Government and to reinforce the so-called Rebel Alliance. Some of this punditry is based on anonymous source briefings, and of course it’s worth remembering that some sources don’t actually have much in the way of information. However, with cross-party working very much to the fore these days, it makes sense to look out for signs of further moves. The tricky issue is yet again the Vote of No Confidence. Will it happen? Will there be enough in favour? Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (2011) a vote of no confidence doesn’t mean an immediate General Election. But it could lead to one in pretty short order. Parliament doesn’t officially resume until around 2pm today (30th) but that won’t stop the behind-the-scenes work.

In the UK we tend to have our elections on a Thursday, meaning a rush before or after work for some. On the continent they are a little more civilised and have polling on a Sunday. So there are often election results on a Sunday night. This time we’ve had results from Austria where it appears the Austrian People’s Party (in Government before) will be the biggest party but may need Coalition Partners. The Austrian People’s Party is the mainstream Right Wing Party (OVP). Previous Coalition partners have done badly so it remains to be seen who they can team up with. Incidentally, for election and opinion poll junkies I highly recommend the Europe Elects twitter feed. We cover European Politics as well as Elections and Voting on our Politics course at Edge Hill.

Finally, October sees the Federal Elections in Canada. Last time (2015) the Liberals left from third place to first, installing Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister. His brand was great then, young, fresh, open. Today however he struggles as first a row about alleged interference in a legal process and then revelations about previous “blackface” incidents have tarnished the brand. Both other main parties have changed their leaders since 2015 so it’ll be a case of seeing whether the newbies can overtake the Governing party. This week (2 Oct)sees one of the few Leaders debates – a French language one in Montreal. Trudeau is good in debates and the next few weeks will be crucial if the Liberals are to hang on.

EU elections 2019: the story so far

In my third article about the Euro elections I’m focusing on the campaigns so far (here are parts one and two).

European elections are always tricky campaign-wise. The constituencies are in fact massive regions which makes it harder to mount an intensive campaign. They often come soon after other elections, which means activists are tired. And they tend to be a contest voters are not that interested in – what we politics academics call a second order election.

This time they are even harder because the last-minute decision to go to the polls means that selection and campaign planning was all a bit rushed.

So parties generally have fewer methods to use. I am going to look at what is being done and how it is working out.

1: The Freepost

In Parliamentary elections, the Royal Mail will deliver a leaflet free of charge for each candidate (in this case party list). This is a massive bonus in areas as big as Euro regions.

There are two types of ‘freepost’ delivery. They can be unaddressed, in which case one goes through every letterbox. Or they can be addressed, in which case a household might get a different one for each resident over a number of days.

The addresses come from the electoral roll, and contrary to some of the conspiracy theories on facebook (including by one award-winning journalist – tut, tut) this is perfectly legal and normal.

If you have a look at your freepost deliveries (they all say election communication on them somewhere) you can tell how organised the parties are and how much attention they are paying to the campaign. Unaddressed leaflets – basic level campaigning. Addressed leaflets – more organised and complicated. These parties are also likely to be targeting postal voters among others. No leaflets – no money or no energy.

2: The Media

There are rules about broadcast media being fair to parties. And, of course, there are Party Election Broadcasts.

But every party wants to find a way of making news.

Heidi Allen (of Change UK) challenged Nigel Farage (now of The Brexit Party) to a debate.

This was never likely to happen, but it was a useful story for Change when much of the talk around the elections is crowding them out.

If it had happened, it would also have been a high-risk strategy. Nick Clegg debated with Farage in 2014 after a similar challenge. And the result wasn’t entirely what he had hoped for.

3: The Ground War

It is fascinating to see the different approaches adopted by parties when it comes to the campaigning they can manage.  Of course, most parties do more than one thing, but these are the tendencies I have noticed to date, either from paying attention to my own region or from media coverage elsewhere.

The Brexit Party has gone for rallies and large public meetings. This was the previous Ukip tactic and clearly enables them to reach more likely supporters more quickly than walking around door-knocking.

Change UK has gone for handing out leaflets and talking to people at existing events, or places where people tend to congregate. Latest posts on activities show a focus on railway stations and local occasions. It remains to be seen how effective this is. In my experience commuters are not always keen to stop and talk about politics. It is however a useful tactic if numbers are small.

The Lib Dems have gone for leaflet delivery. This party has a network of activists well used to pounding the pavements with bits of paper. This has the advantage of achieving a lot of quick visibility and message repetition.

Labour have also been out on the doorsteps and using street stalls. It’ll be interesting to see how much leeway is given to local areas to ‘depart from the national script’.

As for Ukip and the Conservatives, I have seen nothing yet. The Conservatives are on record as saying they don’t want to spend money on these elections, so frankly I wouldn’t expect a ground operation to speak of.

4: Events, dear boy

It was Harold Macmillan who replied ‘events, dear boy’ when asked what would blow the Government off course. But in campaigns, events and how parties respond can make or break. And some events are carefully timed to have impact.

At the time of writing the Change UK lead candidate in Scotland has announced he will support the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems clearly were ready to publicise this and it’s worked well in supporting a Scottish manifesto launch earlier in the week.

The ‘defection’ doesn’t get David McDonald’s name off the ballot paper, but it does cause problems for Change. How the newer party responds will be worth looking at. (I am aiming to write about crisis communications in my next piece.)

And with just over a week to go there is scope for plenty more events, although it’s worth remembering that as most postal voters have by now had their ballot paper, part of polling day has already gone.

Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics

EU election manifestos: unread, but still important

As polling day in the European elections (23 May)  gets nearer, I am writing a series of articles about the messages and communications techniques involved.  Today I am focusing on that staple of elections – the party manifesto.

Despite the, sometimes lengthy, arguments about phrasing and content, virtually no one actually reads manifestos.

No one, that is, apart from political journalists and lobby groups.

They might not be widely read but these documents are one of the key communication opportunities in an election. Why? Because there is a need for a slogan and message, and you can also show which of your party’s many, many policies are the ones that matter.

You can also show how good you are at anticipating and avoiding problems. Think back to 2017 and you’ll realise the Tories failed this challenge.

The whole “what’s going in the manifesto”? issue can also yield plenty of stories.

Manifesto launches tend to involve a press conference or photo opportunity of some sort, plus a massive mailing to journalists and opinion-formers.

So, what do we know about those manifestos already published?

First up is the Lib Dems.

No one can argue that this isn’t direct. The cover title Bollocks to Brexit is unambiguous about where the party stands. There has been some criticism of the language, Lib Dems usually being seen as nice but a bit vague. But here, if there is to be any chance of cut-through, Vince Cable’s team can’t allow any fuzzy language.

Labour’s manifesto is a bit more traditional. The cover, with the line, Transforming Britain and Europe, for the many not the few is followed by the traditionally expected foreword by the party leader.

It looks a bit stale compared to some of the productions by its rivals. But given the row about what to put in the document, including a lengthy NEC meeting and speculation about a shadow cabinet strop, maybe unremarkable and workmanlike is what is needed.

There’s been some reluctance from some parties to take part in these elections.  After all, they weren’t supposed to happen. The Green Party however makes it clear that it is ready for the fight. “We are full of excitement to be standing in these European Elections” is the very first line in a manifesto titled Right Now. For the Future”.

The Brexit Party at the time of writing does not have a manifesto. In fact, it’s reported that it has no intention of publishing one before these elections. While not producing this document does mean a loss of the associated media coverage, no one can claim that this party’s aims are not crystal clear.

Less clear are the aims of the Conservative Party, but we are not likely to see a manifesto from Theresa May’s team either.

Members are clearly reluctant to fight these elections and senior officials are saying there will be no manifesto per se. It is hard to think of a message which could be agreed for these elections the party doesn’t want.

At the time of writing, I can’t find a Change UK manifesto. On the one hand this is surprising as, unlike most of the others, they haven’t had to spend time on local election campaigning.

But on the other hand, do they need a lengthy document? After all the messages so far can be conveyed without publishing and new parties like this don’t have a back catalogue of policies to promote.

Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics

Parties launch for unexpected elections

Later this month we have an unusual, and potentially defining, political event.

In previous years, the five yearly European Elections have been low-key. Most parties have run campaigns about anything but Europe. Many voters haven’t bothered to turn out. Electoral regions have been too big for any real sense of a constituency link. And the results, rather than coming on a Thursday night and Friday morning after polling day, have waited till counts on a Sunday when only the very keen were paying attention.

But this time we have an election which wasn’t supposed to happen, and not one, but two new high-profile parties joining others on the ballot paper.

In the run up to the elections I’ll be looking at some of the communications issues surrounding the contest.

In this article I’m focusing on campaign launches.

It’s probably significant that, at the time of writing, the two parties with potentially much to fear from these elections (Labour and the Conservatives) haven’t held their launches. But we have heard from, among others, Change UK, the Brexit Party, Ukip and the Liberal Democrats.

The style and content of those launches can tell us a lot about each party and its current state of health.

Time for Change (UK)?

Change UK, the party based on the breakaway of a group of MPs from the Labour and Conservative parties, is so new that its logo wasn’t registered in time to make it onto the ballot paper.

I suspect in an ideal world the party would have wanted a longer build up before actually contesting an election. But this late May event could not be ignored, given what the founders have already said about Europe and Brexit.

Change UK traveled to Bristol for an invited audience event which also highlighted some of the potential MEPs. Media coverage has pointed to ‘celebrity candidates’ such as former BBC man Gavin Esler and journalist (and Boris Johnson’s sister) Rachel Johnson.

Realistically what we have here are people famous in a particular media environment rather than more widely. But given the objective of getting coverage, and given that this was not a policy launch, it is easy to see why Change would want to point to particular recruits.

Change UK, in its previous Independent Group form, did manage significant positive media attention. But the challenge for a new party, once the initial excitement is over, is to find other ways of standing out.

For me, having seen far too many political launches, this one didn’t really tick the boxes.

What Change needs is something which clearly explains why they deserve support in an increasingly crowded political market. However, they made a wise choice in appointing the media friendly Heidi Allen as interim leader, which will help them look fresher for longer.

Lib Dems and the B-word

The Liberal Democrat event took place later in the same week. There are clear benefits to going first, but there are other benefits to avoiding news clashes, and the Lib Dems’ Friday launch meant less competition with other political stories.

What I found interesting here was the focus on women as speakers and a clear ‘Stop Brexit’ message. This message is also used by Change, by the Greens, and by some other parties, and one of the big questions of these elections is whether it will end up definitively attached to one more than others.

The Lib Dems, however, must be pleased that at last there is an election which is highly relevant to this particular message of theirs.

Back to Brexits

The Brexit Party, which sees Nigel Farage back in a leadership position, has a very clear message too in its name. It traveled to Coventry for a launch, early in the season, which saw some candidates announced, including Jacob Rees Mogg’s sister, and former Conservative candidate,  Annunziata.

The party slogan – ‘fighting back’ – and its clear arrow logo mean it is easy to brand any venue.

In media terms, Farage is usually box office so there was little need to add much to the launch.

What I found impressive was the series of mini launches which followed, with the announcement of star or significant candidates over several days.

While a high profile leader matters, organisers will know that other capable and high profile interviewees are needed to carry the media load. And in former Government  minister and more recently reality show participant, Anne Widdecombe, the Brexit party has certainly found one.

Ukip-ed

Of course, the last Euro election, 2014, was a massive success for Ukip.

That party has suffered since from splits, defections, rows and rapid changes of leader. It will be impossible for Ukip to repeat the previous success. The communications issue is how to position the team so that the Brexit party does not simply roll up all support.

Middlesbrough was the location for a launch event with the slogan ‘Tell them Again – Make Brexit Happen’.

The dilemma facing leader Gerard Batten is whether to talk about The Brexit Party or not.

He needs to distinguish Ukip, perhaps by pointing out differences, but he also doesn’t want to talk up Farage by raising perception of his significance.

He’s chosen, perhaps unavoidably, to criticize, with one statement telling us that the party is ‘a wholly owned subsidiary of one man’s ego’.

To be fair to Ukip, this launch also included plenty of material about policies and plans, but unsurprisingly it is the personal invective which breaks through.

Spoilt for Choice?

Voters can only choose one party in these elections, so  campaigners will need to find ways to stand out and be preferred. This is going to be tricky for those on the Stop Brexit side of things.

Launches and slogans matter, but they are only part of the package.

In future blogs I am going to look at other key comms issues, including those affecting the Conservatives and Labour as they attempt to position themselves on the grid. Is there even any room?

We will soon see.

Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics

Developing the Independent Group’s brand

They say a week is a long time in politics but frankly it feels at the moment as if a day is a long time.

February’s drama has included eight Labour MPs leave the party to become part of the Independent Group, followed by three Conservatives doing the same. The political world has been awash with speculation about more names and those with long memories have been looking back to 1981 and the breakaway that led to the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

So now we have a group (not yet a party) with a website, some social media and lots of coverage.

The SDP had a relatively lengthy period of high profile semi adulatory attention.  Time spans are shorter these days as communications have speeded up, and the Independent Group may find the honeymoon period is more like a mini break.

As they approach the danger period of scrutiny and uncertainty, what do they need to do?

1 Get a leader: The SDP had a collective leadership for a while – the so called Gang of Four.  And the Green Party currently has a joint leadership.  Normally though parties need an identified single leader.  It helps provide an obvious person for the media.  And it helps avoid the sort of split stories when a collective leadership accidentally contradicts each other.

Of course it is easy for me to say this, but choosing a leader is not that easy.  The first issue  is who should choose?  The MPs on their own?  A wider supporter base?   The second issue is the need to be seen not to lean in either  a Labour or a Conservative direction.  And remember, we are dealing with MPs from two different traditions.

2 Think about the name: While the Independent Group is useful in the short term for making a Parliamentary point, in the long term it risks being confused with people who are just, well, independent.  As someone who sat through the rows about the Liberal Democrats and their name (at one point the name Democrats was being tried) I know this is not as easy as it sounds.  But it does need thought.

3 Decide whether you are a party or a movement: If you are a party you need to register, which in turn means having a name and a strapline and a logo.  To run candidates in elections with anything on the ballot other than the one word independent you need to register with the Electoral Commission.  Even the phrase The Independent Group wouldn’t be allowed.  This is why individuals who stand as independents for Mayoral positions often register a shell party in order to stand out a bit.  Try not to be tempted thought to answer journalists questions with detailed suggestions about party formation.  This non glamorous side of politics is littered with technical problems and you don’t want to end up suggesting the impossible.

4 Publish a few more basic policy themes: But don’t be tempted to write huge amounts of detail.  People want to get a sense of your general direction and perhaps some examples of your attitudes on current issues.  You don’t need the sort of policy heavy prospectus that some national parties have.

5 Think about post Brexit: So far you have made it clear that you want a second referendum or People’s Vote on Brexit.  This might not happen. We may leave at the end of March. You need to know what you will be saying if Brexit happens on the day Theresa May says it will.  A People’s Vote is only a short term policy.

6 Finally, work out what you will do if you disagree on a Parliamentary Vote: There may be times in the near future when your members want to vote different ways.  Will you try to enforce discipline (with all the old politics vibes this creates) or will you be more relaxed?  You can be sure that some parties will try to create situations which could cause split voting.  Whatever happens you need to know what you are saying about this.

What Labour’s Brexit motion means in practice

Paula Keaveney, Edge Hill University

As Labour delegates gathered in Liverpool, it was impossible to avoid mentions of Brexit. There are 25 separate fringe meetings listed on the conference agenda and there are certain to be more meetings arranged on the fly.

The challenge Labour faces, whether at conference or immediately afterwards, is that it is simply impossible to satisfy all the strands of opinion among members and Labour-leaning voters. While the party’s position has been made clear on some policies (with rail renationalisation an obvious example), Brexit is one of those areas where it is all a bit vague.

This has not necessarily been a problem to date. With doubt surrounding the government’s Chequers proposal, it would be difficult to have a hard and fast position that is not total opposition or total support. Of course Labour can do neither. It has instead drawn up a list of six tests it says the final deal must pass in order to be acceptable. But these are carefully drafted to be general enough not to frighten the horses.

But conferences have a habit of throwing a spotlight on what is missing on party platforms, and there has been a build up of pressure on Labour to be more precise and to commit to a stronger statement of opposition.

Ahead of conference, more than 100 motions on Brexit had been proposed for debate. Under Labour’s processes, this meant a lot of stitching together and compromising had to happen to produce one motion to put to a vote at conference. Late on Sunday night the wording emerged ready for a debate on the Tuesday (September 25).

The words agreed won’t please everybody. But they do move Labour in the direction of supporting a people’s vote – a referendum on the final Brexit deal. The key phrase, which campaigners will fix on is “if we cannot get a general election Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.”

This immediately raises two questions. First, how likely is another early general election? It is good campaigning fare for Labour to keep calling for it, but under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (2011) there either has to be a large House of Commons vote in favour (which is what happened last time) or a successful motion of no confidence in the government, which is not then reversed by a second vote. At the moment there is no parliamentary arithmetic showing such a vote can be won. An early election is simply not in the interests of either the Conservatives or the DUP, so crucial votes are not available to make it happen.

The second question is about the logistics of another referendum. The UK is due to leave the EU on March 29 2019. Referendums don’t just happen. Parliament has to agree to one, the wording has to be sorted out, there have to be official campaigns designated, expense limits need to be agreed and there has to be a campaign period. Some argue that there simply isn’t time. However the roadmap published by the People’s Vote campaign argues that the logistics can work. The Article 50 letter can be withdrawn, the campaign argues, to make this possible.

The motion also includes the line “conference believes we need a relationship with the EU that guarantees full participation in the single market”. Shadow Brexit minister Keir Starmer had in fact already highlighted this aspiration by proposing in 2017 a lengthy transition period with single market membership. This could also be a reference to future membership of the European Economic Area, something that is controversial in Labour circles.

The question of a question

This is only part of the story for Labour however. There is ambiguity among anti-Brexit campaigners (or pro-second vote campaigners) both inside and outside the party about what form of words a public vote would use.

Some believe it should offer the option of remaining in the EU. Others say it should simply be about accepting the government’s deal or not. It is not even clear if it would be a binary choice. Some, including the Conservative’s Justine Greening, are advocating a three choice ballot, which would presumably offer the choice of accepting the deal, rejecting it and remaining in the EU or rejecting it and leaving without a deal. (A linked problem arises here over the form of vote. A first past the post approach to the three options would cause an almightly row.) Of course some of this ambiguity is deliberate. Campaigns wanting to establish the principle of something need to avoid too many early details as that usually derails momentum.

The task for Labour, as an opposition party wanting to get into government, is to adopt a position which is clearer than it has been while not offering up hostages to fortune by being overly specific. The position also needs to be maintainable during those tense weeks between the return of parliament on October 9 and the vote on the government’s deal. No small task.The Conversation

Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics, Edge Hill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

JARED O’MARA AND WHAT LABOUR NEEDS TO DO NEXT

In a few days we have seen an MP’s past become a problem, an inquiry launched, a resignation, a suspension and any number of new stories and commentators emerge.

In a few days an obscure back bench MP has been on every news and political programme with his party playing catch up to deal with the backlash.

This week’s political soap opera revolves around one Jared O’Mara.  Elected (to some people’s surprise) in June in Sheffield Hallam, the backbencher had been pretty low profile. In fact, he has yet to speak in Parliament. But now, initially thanks to stories on one of the leading political blogs, his distant past and more recent actions have caused a major headache for the Labour Party.

In a nutshell, a series of online posts by O’Mara were found which managed to offend or insult many people. These included a suggestion that musician Jamie Cullen should be sodomised. While these were written well before he became an MP, allegations then emerged about insulting behaviour towards women earlier this year. And in the way of these stories, a steady stream of quotes, accusations, allegations and attacks began.

Rival political parties poured oil on the flames and Labour was, at first, seen to be dithering in the face of increasingly shocking revelations.

Frankly, O’Mara has no future in politics now. It is inconceivable that Labour, or any other party, will select him as a candidate again.

But that aside, the whole episode is also a major problem for the Labour Party.

So what options remain for party managers and activists?

One argument which has been deployed, for example in the Guardian, is that when the snap election was called there certainly wasn’t time to look into the background of every candidate.

In other words the Labour Party is a victim here. I am afraid that won’t wash.

It is inconceivable that in a seat which was likely to attract media focus, having been surprisingly close in 2015, there was no time to do a bit of basic research. Labour MP Lucy Powell, speaking on ITV’s After the News programme, made it clear that candidates are and should be vetted. And for anyone to carry the Labour Party name, or any other party’s name, an official from the party has to sign shortly before polling day. (For the political geeks out there, this is someone called the Designated Nominating Officer – I have been one myself in the past).

So, given the victim response is not available, Labour retains a number of options.

Launching an investigation and removing the whip from O’Mara were obvious, and necessary steps. But the party now has a timing problem. At some point the investigation will have to have results. Labour will want to make sure that any announcements likely to cause more problems are far enough away from the elections in May, which in 2018 include all the Councils in Greater London.

Labour will also need to find ways of responding to accusations that allegations had been made, but not dealt with, in the past.

The party will also need to be ready to deal with an increasing number of stories on this topic. Even relatively minor accusations will gain strength as they now have media salience. The Sophie Evans accusations for example (she tells of being insulted by O’Mara in his bar) had been published previously and gained little attention. Now of course they gain importance. And I am sure journalists are going through the Trip Advisor page about O’Mara’s bar to contact anyone who posted reviews mentioning violence or insults.

Labour also faces a stakeholder problem. Because of the range of insults posted by O’Mara in his younger days, a potentially large number of groups have been affected. Among these are groups Labour would generally expect to be supportive.

So, what can Labour do?

The instinct in a political party to protect one of your own is a strong one, and some, such as Angela Rayner and Shami Chakrabarti have attempted to do this (Chakrabarti’s comments are some way into the story in this link). However, any further vocal defence would be a massive mistake. It will simply look as if the party is applying different standards to different people.

Labour also needs to repair any damaged links with particular groups, but to do it quietly. LGBT campaigners, for example, may well want to know why O’Mara’s online commentsweren’t spotted. The party will need to be in receive rather than broadcast mode to rebuild any lost confidence.

They key thing the party can do however, is to make it clear that its processes will be such that candidates with baggage like this will get caught in an improved filter. No one wants MPs to be identikit. But party members and managers do need to be able to select candidates without the worry of stories emerging into scandal.

Ambitious leader speech sees Vince Cable aiming for the top job

Paula Keaveney, Edge Hill University

As the Liberal Democrats met for their first conference since the 2017 general election, many were feeling disappointed at the state of things. The party came away with a mere 12 election victories after mistakenly believing the Brexit referendum had given it a branding which would help it capture more votes. Yet despite disappointment, party managers reported a higher than average conference attendance and membership numbers remain high.

Members met to reflect on the past, look to the future and begin working on how to take the party forward in an increasingly muddled political environment. Lib Dem conferences are a mix of decision-making votes and key note speeches and the leader’s speech is traditionally the final session of the event. This year that fell to Vince Cable.

Leaders’ conference speeches are difficult at the best of times. They have to communicate to party members in the hall, to (often) cynical journalists who have “heard it all before”, to members of the “political community”, and to potential voters, members and others who will only catch bits of the speech on the news. And whatever the leader wants to say, there will be questions which need to be answered and fires which need to be put out. Anyone reading the Alastair Campbell Diaries, or indeed the accounts of John Major’s time as Conservative party leader, will know just how fraught and last minute the speech preparations can be.

And of course if it is your first run out as Leader, the pressure is worse.

So today Cable had a lot to do. He had to look and sound like a leader, positioning both himself and his party in the most beneficial way. And he was certainly ambitious about it.

When, a few days before his speech, he told an interviewer that he does genuinely believe he can become prime minister, some may have thought that this was simply the answer to expect from a politician. But a theme which sprung out from Cable’s speech was government. “We are the government of the future,” he said at one point. And he ended with a call to head “back to government”.

This is actually quite risky. Many will remember David Steel’s rallying cry at the Liberal Assembly in 1981 when he called on members to “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government”. Government for the Liberals, now the Lib Dems, didn’t arrive until 2010, and only then because of the need for a coalition. The Steel phrase is often recalled with raised eyebrows at party conference. (It also became a regular in sketches at the Liberal Revue or the conference Glee Club.) And of course when Steel made his speech, the SDP Liberal Alliance was riding high in the polls.

So for Cable, head of the group of just 12 MPs, to make such a bold statement is a risky piece of positioning. But it is also necessary. For Lib Dems to have an obvious purpose, they must be seen as working towards that end. And that end must seem possible.

Safe pair of hands

Another theme of Cable’s speech was the need for people with experience who could take a grown up approach to things. He devoted significant time to talking about ministerial work and achievements. This is not an unknown practice for a political leader but it is a little unusual to look back more than two years. However, if Cable’s pitch is about being able to govern, there will be an ongoing need to stress examples of this work by key people such as Norman Lamb and Jo Swinson, both MPs, and Lynne Featherstone, now in the House of Lords.

As ever in a Leader’s speech there were short points on issues which would go down well with the party and also garner soundbites. Donald Trump’s state visit should be cancelled, the hall was told. Votes at 16 would be the centre of the party’s campaign for political reform.

The ConversationIt’s never clear how to measure the success of a conference speech in a non-election year. Is it about membership increase, good media coverage, more donations, poll ratings? For this piece of positioning however, what will matter is whether the message can be credibly sustained over the years to come.

Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A council has been intercepting emails to elected officials – here’s why that matters

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Terry Kearney, CC BY-NC

Paula Keaveney, Edge Hill University

Emails from local people to elected councillors have been intercepted by officials at Liverpool City Council. It’s not clear whether this involves a large or small group of people, but a recent example, and the council’s response to it, has shown that this is a practice that has been going on for some time.

The issue came to light when a particular email was stopped and gained an addendum before being passed on. The story appeared in the Liverpool Echo and has led one group of councillors to refuse to use the official council email system. In fact, reaction by some has been pretty fierce.

While this might look like a “little local problem”, it actually raises a host of issues about the relationship between politicians and citizens – and between corporate state bodies and elected people.

Local councils in the UK vary in what they do. But they all exist to run services for people in their area. They are also democratic organisations, with individuals elected as decision makers and representatives. This means the council has a legal existence as an organisation, but also that there are councillors who are the political side of things and who have votes at meetings. In all but the smallest council, the paid staff (often referred to as officers) will considerably outnumber the political “elected members”.

It’s not clear how many emails have been intercepted and over what period of time. I fully expect individuals and organisations to now make use of Freedom of Information laws and subject access requests to find out more. Anecdotally, I have heard that people are already contacting local councillors in Liverpool to ask whether their email communications have been intercepted.

In the particular case that brought the issue to light, an email intended for a councillor was diverted to the chief executive’s office, read and then added to with a suggestion of how the councillor might like to reply. It was then forwarded on to the councillor.

Most of us imagine we have a good idea of what members of parliament do but public understanding of the role of a councillor is much vaguer. Yet there are many more councillors than there are MPs. So this group makes up the majority of those elected to political roles. And given that councils are responsible for issues like planning, roads, schools and waste collection, the decisions they make have a very direct effect on people.

The Liverpool incident raises two very important questions. Should citizens expect to be able to communicate with an elected politician without interference? And should councils, as corporate bodies, be able to control the information of the people elected to effectively be in charge?

Liverpool City Council’s defence in this case was that it was trying to protect email recipients since a local citizen had been behaving “unreasonably” in her communications with councillors and officers at the council. Her actions were described as a “scatter gun” approach and the council system was then set up to divert all emails from her address to a central point. The council also said that it applied this approach in a “small number of cases”.

This argument might work for an organisation wanting to protect its staff. The problem here is that councillors are not staff. They are not employed by Liverpool City Council. They are accountable to the electorate and it is reasonable to assume that if I send an email to Councillor X, Councillor X is the person who gets it.

Councillors do receive money but it comes in the form of allowances, not pay. And there are none of the things we expect from an employment contract such as performance reviews, progression pay and so on. So a relationship between a resident and an elected member is a direct one. It is not mediated by an employer.

It is clear to me that when a citizen makes contact, there is an expectation of confidentiality and privacy. The issue of confidentiality is vital here. Some citizens pass on sensitive personal information when requesting help. Others may be asking for assistance in pursuing a complaint about part of the council.

Some issues are difficult neighbour disputes. Others may be lobbying for a particular decision which runs against the policies of the ruling group. In my time on Liverpool City Council, I experienced all of these situations. And in all cases it would be difficult to have trust in the casework and representative system if it was felt that communications were likely to be read by other people.

Of course, it is possible that some incoming emails could be threatening, I have had some myself. But elected representatives can still take their own decisions about how and who to block. And many threatening communications are surely issues for the police anyway.

The issue of control is an interesting one. Clearly councils have to have rules about how they operate. But it’s also clear that there have to be some standards.

Constitutionally, elected members come together to make decisions which staff then carry out. Even where there are elected mayors with executive powers, councillors make a range of other decisions. And although many decisions are delegated, the responsibility for oversight rests with the elected individuals, not the staff.

The ConversationWhen I was a councillor, I used to roll my eyes at those few elected members who refused to use the central email system because they didn’t want staff to interfere. I now know they were right to be wary.

Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.