What my students saw when I took them to the Labour party conference

My students meet shadow education minister Angela Rayner. Author provided

As a political activist, I am used to conferences. But if the past year has taught us anything, it’s that fresh eyes are changing British politics. I took a group of second and third year students to the Labour conference in Liverpool this year and asked them afterwards what stood out to them.

We went along on the day the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, delivered his speech about the importance of winning elections.

It was also the day Labour was embroiled in a ferocious row about the arcane rules of its National Executive Committee. It was noted on the floor that rarely do procedural votes attract so much attention, but for a party as divided as Labour at the moment, the composition of its ruling body is a pressing matter.

For these students, our trip was a first glimpse at the kind of idiosyncrasies on display at a party conference. Here’s what they spotted on the ground.

Multi-tasking speakers

Media coverage before the conference suggested there were fears of violence and intimidation. There were reports that party staff were being briefed about how to handle bad behaviour. But we saw nothing like that. Security was in fact very light in Liverpool.

Nevertheless, my students noted that MPs rarely walk alone – but probably for different reasons. At least one accompanying aide is required at all times, preferably more. They should all look frightfully busy.

Lisa Nandy must possess roller skates, given the number of simultaneous meetings she seemed to be speaking at. The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee must have a pair, too. She seemed to speak at more fringe events than anyone. Owen Jones also seems very popular. We didn’t spot Owen Smith at all.

And while there may not have been huge demand to see MP Duncan Enright speak, the impending by-election in Witney made a high-profile appearance inevitable. You can guarantee your candidate will get a chance to speak at conference if he is about to take on a Tory – and as Enright is fighting to replace David Cameron, he got pretty high billing.


Watching conferences on TV is fine but it only gives you half the story. We visited the conference hall while debates were going on – a central part of the event that is not often seen by the world outside as mainstream broadcasters have a habit of “cutting away” for more chat with commentators.

Delegates know what topics are being debated well in advance. The actual text of the motions, however, is very last minute (in technical terms, it is the result of compositing earlier at conference). This makes it hard for anyone to focus in detail on a particular line but easier for people to make general speeches. Labour conference is not, as a result, particularly pedant friendly.

“Debates” are short. In one session there were only five speakers. People used to attending other conferences, like the Lib Dems’, where a debate can go on for 90 minutes and include one-minute interventions as well as three-minute speeches, would be amazed.

Conference hall proceedings sometimes get delayed by “points of order”. Frustrating for journalists and fringe meeting organisers but evidence that members do still have some power to interrupt with objections. I hope my students don’t adopt this tactic though.

When debating rule or constitutional changes, there will always be a speaker who complains that time spent on the debate is time not spent “taking the fight to the Tories”. That speaker is of course himself adding to the length of the debate.

It is noticeable at conference this year how many speakers said they were first-time delegates when addressing the room. Is this, perhaps, a sign of the changes in the party?

Fringe benefits

The very many fringe meetings going on in parallel to the main debates are a great way to hear more and explore ideas. At these sessions, you can often hear from quite high-profile people on discussion panels, and you can generally look around the packed (generally tiny) room to see an MP or shadow minister watching with you.

Discussion can get quite heated at these sessions and there is a certain type of delegate for whom the phrase “short question” translates as “long analysis of history”. Chairs of fringe meetings need to find ways to become more ruthless. Anyone remember the gunk tank?

Good doggy

Every party conference features a large exhibition and significant competition for the best stall. There are free gifts galore from think tanks, unions and campaign groups. I am not sure why they bothered at Labour this year, though. The clear winner was the guide dog area, complete with an exercise course, toys and a dog to meet. Sorry Falklands stand, Rover gets my vote.The Conversation

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

Liberal Democrats in Brighton – why their party conference still matter

Tim Farron hearts EU. PA/ Jonathan Brady

Party conferences are strange beasts. They can be a mix of sales conference, rally, social event, training course, decision-making forum, networking opportunity and job interview. And there will always be several “conferences” going on at once. For a charity campaigner or trade union lobbyist, the conference will be very different to that experienced by an MP or an activist.

But while us outsiders only get a glimpse of everything that goes on, there are ways to read party conferences that offer insight about the party and its people. The Liberal Democrats are at a particularly interesting period in their history, so the party’s meeting in Brighton offers particularly interesting fodder.

Who is on the podium?

A key issue at conference – and particularly this year – is who speaks. The Liberal Democrats only have eight MPs but they can’t all have keynote speech slots. The choice of speaker is significant.

This year, apart from the obvious Leader’s speech by Tim Farron, keynote MP slots have been given to Norman Lamb (Farron’s challenger for the leadership) and Alistair Carmichael (MP for Orkney and Shetland and home affairs spokesperson).

Carmichael could do with some good PR. PA/David Cheskin

The choice of Lamb, given he is health spokesperson, is not surprising. Health always yields plenty of topical material. Carmichael, however, is a less obvious choice. His inclusion could of course point to the party’s ongoing desire to stress the sort of civil liberty issues covered in his portfolio. Or it could suggest the need to provide him with a positive platform following a recent scandal in his constituency, during which he did not exactly cover himself in glory.

What’s on the agenda?

In politics, timing is key. At conference this means how much time is given to a topic and at what point. Scheduling matters. Has a topic been given a prime slot – such as mid morning or in the run up to one of the leader’s appearances? How much time is being given over to discussing the topic? That gives us an indication of how important the issue is to the party.

The selection of topics up for debate on the conference floor also tells us a lot about what is important to the wider party and about what it wants to promote. When an election looms, party leaders see it as more important to be seen making soundbite-laden speeches. With limited time, that can mean less time for votes put forward by the members. But since the next election is probably years off, there is plenty of time this year for voting on the nitty gritty of policy.

High on the agenda is Europe – an issue which has been given a prime-slot motion. The party has deliberately scheduled an opportunity for this highly pro-European group of people to discuss the fallout from the referendum and, more importantly, what comes next.

One of the problems faced by the Lib Dems in the past has been a certain fuzziness. Polls often showed voters were not clear about where they stood on certain matters. However, Europe provides a massive opportunity for the party. Brexit may well mean Brexit for the majority of voters but there is a clear advantage when it comes to the remainder for whichever party keeps the pro-European flame alive.

Both in post-referendum comments and in those closer to the conference, party leader Farron has managed clearer statements and more defined positioning than Labour. Now, a large chunk of the Monday morning session at conference has been allocated to Brexit discussion.

Less prominent this time, but important none the less, is a session on Trident and nuclear weapons. There will be no vote on this. Members are taking part in a “consultative session” in the run up to an actual vote in the spring.

These consultations are part of a rather lengthy policy development process which the party uses on some topics. And while this will get less attention than conference floor proceedings, it is important. Lib Dem policy is currently not unilateral nuclear disarmament but there is a strong seam of unilateralism running through parts of the party.

What does success look like?

Given how much political media coverage is based on speculation and preview, there is a real risk that coverage of the Brighton event will be drowned out by guesses about Labour’s annual conference later in the month. So one measure of success for the Lib Dems will be a decent level of positive coverage.

Externally the party will want the event to deliver profile and positioning. Internally it will want to bind members in more strongly to the shared efforts of the next few years. It will be interesting to see, next time there is a TV interview on Europe, whether broadcasters are more likely to pick up the phone and call Farron. If they do, then this year’s Brighton conference will have achieved at least one of its goals.The Conversation

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

Everything you need to know about metro mayors – and the latest Labour nomination


Next year will see the election of England’s “metro mayors”, in Greater Manchester, the Liverpool City Region, the North East, Sheffield City Region, Tees Valley, West Midlands, and the West of England. The role has been created by the Conservative Government and will see powers from Whitehall handed over to regional leaders – who will be accountable to voters as to how these powers are used.

The move will put one individual at the head of an area covering several local authority patches. But the mayoral powers that person will have, will differ from place to place. This is because each area has a different agreement with the Government concerning what the mayor will or won’t oversee.

Sound complicated? That’s because it is. Supporters of devolution, however, would argue that a one-size fits all arrangement wouldn’t work and that this is a positive step forwards for local politics.

Under the new system, each area will have a mayor who will be a significant local figure in the way that some council leaders, and some MPs, can only dream of. It is because of this power and significance that the candidacy for these roles has become a prize of some importance, encouraging former cabinet ministers and senior MPs – such as Andy Burnham and Ivan Lewis – to contest the party selections.

What has happened so far?

Currently, we have only seen Labour’s selections, voted for by party members. In the West Midlands, the party elected former Birmingham MP and current West Midlands MEP Sion Simon to stand. In Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham has been announced as Labour’s candidate, and in Merseyside – also known as the Liverpool City Region – Steve Rotheram will stand for election on the Labour ticket.

Of the three Labour party selections made this week, Liverpool City Region is perhaps the most significant, partly because the candidates represented different camps within the party and partly because of the region’s complex geography.

Liverpool City Region is in fact made up of six local authority areas, only one of which is Liverpool City. The other areas are Halton, Knowsley, Sefton, St Helens, and Wirral. All have their own very specific local concerns and fears about resources being “dragged to the centre”. This is also significant for other metro mayor areas, such as Sheffield – which also includes Doncaster and Barnsley, both areas with their own unique identity and issues.

In Liverpool, the selection process saw three main candidates vying for the role. Joe Anderson is already the elected mayor of the Liverpool City part of the area and chair of the Combined Authority. Luciana Berger is MP for Liverpool Wavertree and was Shadow Spokesperson on Mental Health until she resigned in protest against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. And Steve Rotheram is MP for Liverpool Walton and parliamentary private secretary to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Steve Rotheram was named the winner, with a 72% member turnout.

What does all of this mean?

What we can take home from the recent results is that Labour members are not always satisfied with those already in post. In both Manchester – where former MP Tony Lloyd was effectively acting as mayor – and Liverpool, voters have turned against someone who was effectively already doing the job. This of course could simply mean that post holders can make enemies through their decisions while challengers do not carry that baggage.

Steve Rotheram, Labour’s candidate for metro mayor of Liverpool. PA

That said, party candidate selections are unusual elections. Candidates need to make themselves distinct from the other challengers but must also be careful not to criticise them too heavily. The need to be seen as loyal to the party pulls in the opposite direction to the need to seem different. This means candidates need to identify issues on which criticism can be made without seeming disloyal.

In Merseyside, where campaigners from other parties have highlighted threats to park land, Rotheram made good use of the whole “open space” issue. He managed to talk about his commitment to protect open space in a way that effectively criticised mayor Anderson’s record – or the appearance of Anderson’s record – while not implying disloyalty to the party.

What happens next?

All of this also arguably demonstrates members’ continuing support for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Of the candidates, Berger was one of those who resigned her post, while Anderson has generally been noncommittal. This is in sharp contrast to the victorious Rotheram, who is associated with Corbyn through his role as private secretary, alongside his appearance with Corbyn at a rally in Liverpool shortly before the close of ballot.

Steve Rotheram, Jeremy Corbyn and Andy Burnham at the Hillsborough inquest earlier this year. ITV

The Liverpool outcome may well have an effect on shortlisting and internal campaigning in those areas yet to select, such as Sheffield – particularly as the announcement of the Liverpool result provoked some comment on social media about gender balance. All Labour’s selections to date for this role – or for the earlier comparable London and Bristol roles – have been men. And of the three recent selections, only Liverpool even had a woman on the shortlist.

Of course as shortlists are drawn up individually, it is quite possible for Labour to end up with no female candidates at all. But given how bad this looks, I would imagine the senior players such as Harriet Harman will want to think about how to persuade more women to consider one of these roles role. A discussion for the forthcoming Labour women’s conference perhaps?


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

Trump’s coronation week: what does a presidential convention really achieve?

Subtlety be damned. EPA/Shawn Thew
Subtlety be damned. EPA/Shawn Thew

This year’s Republican National Convention kicked off with a bizarre day. Party delegates openly fought over the convention’s rules, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani delivered a belligerent anti-crime broadside under the banner “Make America Safe Again”, and Donald Trump’s wife Melania addressed the convention only to be accused of plagiarising a speech by Michelle Obama.

But then again, conventions have always been strange beasts, especially when viewed from abroad. Voters in many democracies are used to at least annual party conferences that combine various functions from policymaking to PR, from internal elections to training grounds for candidates and party workers.

In the US, however, the conventions come along once every four years and they are really only about one thing: nominating a presidential candidate.

Of course, by the time a convention comes along, the candidate has usually already won. It’s now very rare for the decision to be brokered at one of these events, and although there is often speculation about this, there is also pressure on those involved not to leave things to the convention floor. So the event acts as a shop window, both for the candidate and the other figures clustered around them.

The choice, for example, of who else will speak is often a good pointer to who is viewed as a rising star, or who has managed to negotiate that appearance. And supporting speakers are often chosen to highlight particular themes. So we can learn both from the contents and delivery of the speeches as well as from who is up there on stage.

While the political establishment in each party may well know a lot about a vice-presidential nominee, the vast majority of voters will not. This matters because a running mate is often chosen to “balance” the ticket and broaden its appeal, whether on ideology, age, gender, or religion.

Trump’s choice, Mike Pence, will need to establish himself as a known quantity with all those citizens outside his home state of Indiana, and the convention is his first and best chance. This means giving his audience a sense of himself as a person as well as a politician.

Sarah Palin, John McCain’s ill-fated 2008 running mate, is a good parallel here.

Lipstick on a pitbull

The McCain campaign surprised almost everyone when it unveiled Palin the day after Obama accepted his nomination. Alaska carries as little weight as any other state in presidential elections and is far removed from most Americans’ lives, so Palin had no national profile to speak of.

Even in the few days between the announcement and her speech, various unflattering stories emerged that threatened to make her toxic before she’d even been formally nominated. But when she spoke only days later, she silenced her critics (albeit briefly) with a remarkably assured and powerful performance for such a newcomer.

Watching it again, its power is still striking. Confident and assured beyond her experience, Palin spent an inordinate amount of time talking about her family, with the camera focusing in on her children, husband and parents – a powerful tactic to quickly make herself seem familiar and sympathetic, a humble Alaska “hockey mom” with a son fighting in Iraq.

But the speech is best known for one of those memorable soundbites that find a permanent place in the political lexicon. There is but one difference, said Palin, between a hockey mom and a pit bull: lipstick. In one short phrase, she encapsulated a highly effective brand: a tough, protective mother just like millions all over the US, one who just happened to be a competent and effective governor.

Clearly Mike Pence can’t claim the cachet of a hockey mom. But when he speaks on July 20, he will need to find his own way to become relatable, as well as to convey some of those qualities which Trump’s campaign will want to highlight. Besides his religious and social conservative credentials – things for which Trump is hardly noted – his strong suit will be competence and executive experience.

While Trump has had trouble attracting party heavyweights to Cleveland, many of the other speakers at conventions are rising stars being offered one of their earliest national platforms. Some have gone on to run for president and to win; there are few better examples than Barack Obama, whose remarkable 2004 speech launched him as a national figure.

Bill Clinton, on the other hand, was a rising star when he was chosen to nominate Michael Dukakis in 1988, but the speech he gave is remembered mostly for the audience’s audible relief when he uttered the words “in closing”.

Ultimately, conventions are chances for the campaigns and their principals to test whether their brand will work in the autumn campaign – massive market research exercises where themes, phrases, and people are road-tested and focus-grouped for the intense autumn sprint.

In this most unpredictable of election years, it’ll be fascinating to see what survives the jamborees in Cleveland and Philadelphia and makes it through to election night in November.The Conversation

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

A political football

legs of a soccer or football player on ball on stadium, warm colors toned

The campaigns on both sides of the referendum debate – Britain Stronger in Europe and Vote Leave – hoped that football would help them win the tournament.

The beautiful game may not be as significant as the UK economy, but in a tight contest, campaigners knew they needed every tactical advantage, and anything that could mean a last minute score was crucial.

Both hoped that regulars at Deepdale, Turf Moor, the DW Stadium and others would hear their message.

So what were the campaigners saying about Brexit and our teams?

Both sides were arguing that their campaign goal is best for English football.

And while the message mainly focused on the Premier League, it’s clear that campaigners think that all professional clubs could be affected by a Brexit.

Burnley is among the clubs that Britain Stronger in Europe (BSE) claimed would be particularly hit if we voted to leave.

The claim is based on free movement of people.  If we are not in the EU, the argument runs, clubs will find it harder to bring in top players. BSE is so keen to target football supporters that it offers a form (via Facebook) which allows you to get a reply focused on your particular team. And while on one level this is a data collection exercise (you have to give your e mail) it is a creative way of campaigning.

Vote Leave agreed that pulling out of the EU could make it harder for clubs to bring in European players, but says this is a good thing.  Vote Leave has signed up Sol Campbell. He claims that “along with the star players, we are seeing teams load up with too many mediocre overseas footballers, especially from Europe, crowding out young English and British talent. Because of European rules on freedom of movement, it is virtually impossible for us to get a proper grip on the situation.”  Campbell argues that this in turn has an effect on young people considering a career in football, having a ripple effect all the way through the game.

Some managers have entered the debate with outspoken Sam Allardyce (whose long career includes managing Blackpool and Blackburn Rovers and playing for Preston North End) prominent among them.  Big Sam says Brexit will benefit our clubs.  But football fan, and Sussex Politics Professor Dan Hough says Allardyce’s own past, bringing in players to Bolton Wanderers, contradicts him.  Writing on the London School of Economics’ Brexit Vote blog Hough explains “…, ask any Bolton fan now – as they find themselves facing the 2016-17 season in the third tier of English football – about how Allardyce used the EU’s free movement of labour laws and they are likely to go bleary eyed very quickly.”

So what do football supporters think?  Something tells me that the referendum has not been the main topic of conversation at Deepdale or Bloomfield Road.  But Brexit has though made its way onto some of the blogs and discussion fora such as Back Henry Street and Vital Latics.

Earlier this month bookmakers Coral surveyed members of a loyalty card scheme linked to Euro 2016.  The result – a majority for Leave.  But if one of Burnley’s most famous fans has his way, that won’t be the result.  Former Labour spin doctor and Turf Moor regular Alastair Campbell has pledged to convert at least one person each day to the cause of Remain. On his blog he describes starting this mission in a chat with travelling Milwall fans when he, and they, were en route to support their teams.

So what does it mean now we have voted to leave the EU?  Will it be all over or will it be time to do a Hodgson and bring on the winning substitutes?  Neither campaign’s arguments were clear enough on football for us to know for sure.  But I doubt that the arguing will stop now the whistle has been blown.

Is the end nigh for independent election candidates?

Marking A Tick Box

When Ken Livingstone was first elected as mayor of London he was an independent. George Ferguson became mayor of Bristol in 2012 as an independent. And in the first police and crime commissioner (PCC) elections, also in 2012, more than one quarter of those elected were independent candidates.

These roles lend themselves to strong individuals who can project a personal brand. And because the voting system, the supplementary vote, means that second choices may be needed, too much blind party loyalty is a bad idea.

Yet in the May elections, with contests in PCC areas as well as four mayoral sites, independent candidates did rather badly.

Eight PCC positions which had been filled by an independent are now occupied by party candidates – Conservative, Labour and Plaid Cymru. And the mayor of Bristol is now Labour. These results might not mark the death of the independent candidate but they do suggest that it will become harder to succeed without a party badge.

The rebirth of party politics

Timing is crucial for PCC contests. In 2012 they took place in isolation. This time they shared a date with other elections. Voters will have been influenced by the other noise going on.

In every single PCC contest, turnout was up but that doesn’t mean citizens are suddenly more interested. It is much more likely to be the result of turnout being driven by the other contests.

Some people will have voted in the PCC election with a desire to support the party they had just supported in one of the other elections (be it Welsh Assembly, local councillor or elected mayor). This tendency works against independent candidates as unless he or she can achieve “cut through”, they are unlikely to be noticed.

Political parties also seem to be getting their act together in these contests. There was considerable reluctance in some quarters to campaign in 2012 and this, coupled with the massive areas PCCs cover, makes campaign organisation difficult.

One of the disadvantages of running as an independent is that the word “independent” is all you can put on the ballot paper. The law only permits descriptions of registered political parties or the word independent. This is why we no longer see descriptions such as Independent Labour, which used to be used to signal ideological stances.

If there is more than one independent in the contest, it can be difficult for the candidates to stand out. Some have even registered new political parties specifically to avoid the problem. These are not intended to fulfil a proper political function but to help the candidate stand out on the ballot paper. Bristol mayor George Ferguson, for example, founded the Bristol First party ahead of the city’s mayoral contest as part of his campaign to defend his position. Another was the Zero Tolerance Policing ex Chief party.

In some cases this year, the incumbent chose not to stand again. This does not mean there was no independent candidate, but that the name on the ballot paper was different. In Kent, the PCC elected in 2012 had become somewhat controversial and chose not to defend her record. Independents also chose not to defend their incumbency in Gwent, North Wales, Warwickshire and West Mercia – although in each of these, with the exception of Gwent, at least one other individual contested the seat as an independent.

Mayoral contests

Of the existing 18 elected mayors, just two of them are independents. These are in Copeland and Mansfield, both non-metropolitan district areas – not big cities, in other words.

Ferguson had been an independent mayor for Bristol but lost this election to Labour challenger Marvin Rees. The same day saw Labour triumph in the local elections in Bristol and it is easy to imagine the strength of the party machine in the city compared to that available to Ferguson.

Marvin Rees, Bristol’s new Labour mayor, with party leader Jeremy Corbyn. PA/Claire Hayhurs
While clearly independents are motivated by all sorts of factors, and are by definition all sorts of people, we can perhaps also learn from those who have never won. On Merseyside in 2012, an independent came third (in fact challenging for second) in the PCC election. This year there was no independent candidate. In Liverpool in 2012 an independent came second in the mayoral contest. This year the independent (not the same person) came fifth.

So are the independents on the way out? As far as 2016’s evidence goes, it will be much harder for an independent to break through in one of these big roles in future. Perhaps we need to look at those independents who defended well to see what their secret is.

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

Playing the expectation game

Marking A Tick Box

May 5th sees elections across the country.  And of course there will be election results.  But for those working in political communication, a result is not simply a number.  It is a chance to get messages across, of success, of progress, of popularity.  It’s also, for some, a chance to communicate about the strengths or otherwise of individuals.

So with a few days to go to polling day, we can expect communication teams from the major parties, and some not so major parties, to be working on expectation management.

What all parties will want is for the results in May to be seen as good for their party.  Clearly, not everyone can win every contest. So some will be keen to get journalists and commentators focusing on particular fights and paying little attention to others.

So what is happening and what will the comms people be doing?

May 5th will see people going to the polls to elect Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Members of the Welsh Assembly, Members of the Scottish Parliament, The Mayor of London, Mayors in Liverpool, Salford and Bristol, the London Assembly, Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales and local Councillors in many parts of the country.  If America has a Super Tuesday, this must be a super-extraordinary Thursday.

It could however be a confusing results picture.  With so many elections to choose from and so many different roles, political communicators will need to be canny about what matters and what doesn’t.

Perhaps the biggest challenge faces Labour. Corbyn’s team will be keen to direct attention to London, where polls repeatedly put contender Sadiq Khan in front.  Should Khan win, Labour will be hoping that this provides a message of success to drown out any coverage of failure elsewhere.  And failure, or the perception of failure could come from local government result totals and from Scotland.

Combined local government results are sometimes hard to analyse.  In 2012 Labour did well and political analysts will point out that it is the “same seats” being contested this year.  In reality, much can change at local level in four years, and some seats have seen boundary changes.  That caveat won’t stop totals being produced and a win/loss assessment being made. Labour’s challenge, should the party do badly at Councillor level, will be to pull focus back to London.  The Scottish results are already predicted to be poor for Labour so extra focus-pulling will be needed here.

In terms of personalities, expectation management spinning has been going on for some time.  Corbyn’s opponents will want to blame any poor performance on him.  Supporters will want to use a Sadiq Khan victory as evidence that the Corbyn leadership is making progress.  An example of the opponent spin was provided recently by veteran MP Frank Field.  This speech extract is about Europe, but the section at the end is a clear signal.

The Conservatives have an easier job of it.  Cameron’s spinners may need to deal with a loss in London, but uppermost in Tory minds will be the need to focus attention on failures by Labour.  The team will particularly hope for an extra “split” story with their opponents indulging in loud internal arguments. Interestingly, there is also some speculation about whether the Scottish Tories can overtake Labour.  On the face of it this seems unlikely, but any narrowing of the gap by Ruth Davidson’s team will be pounced on by spinners north and south of the border.

What Ukip does and says will be worth looking at.  Since the General Election, at which the party gained nearly four million votes, Ukip has seemed to be losing public support and attention.  Its result in the Oldham West by election was poor given the spin that the seat could be captured.  And there are signs of loss of local strength. On Merseyside for example, the party has failed to find candidates for the high profile Mayor of Liverpool position or the Police and Crime Commissioner role.  There are just a handful of Councillor candidates across Liverpool’s 30 wards.  If this failure to stand is replicated in other parts of the country, the party’s share of vote at Councillor level will be lower than previously – not a good news story for Nigel Farage. Ukip will want to direct attention to Wales, where the party is loudly contesting seats in the Assembly.  Given that Ukip had no representatives in the most recent Assembly, any victories can be spun as an advance.

And what for the Lib Dems?  Actually the Lib Dems are rather lucky this time.  The last few elections have seen an unremitting focus on seat losses and failures.  This time journalists will be looking elsewhere.  The pressure for Tim Farron is off.  The Lib Dems are highly likely to have some successes the party can point to.  The challenge will be cutting through to get those noticed.

Political junkies will be able to start making a judgement from early on Friday 6th May. By then the spinners will hope to have already established their focus.  It will be interesting to see which interpretation of Super-Extraordinary Thursday wins through.

Everything you need to know about the mayoral election

Foot voting. Ververidis Vasilis/shutterstock

On May 5 when the UK next heads to the polls for local and regional elections, voters in London, Salford, Liverpool and Bristol will have an extra choice to make – who they want to become their next directly elected mayor.

Directly elected mayors have a great deal of power – unlike their purely ceremonial counterparts who tend to be senior councillors wearing the robes of office and tasked with carrying out a range of civic duties. Directly elected mayors are there to exercise political leadership and to “get things done”.

London was the first to have this post, but by the middle of next year there will be more than 20 elected mayors across England. And in the recent budget, the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, spoke about increasing the numbers again which could mean more to come.

The modern London mayoralty began back in 2000 following a referendum in London which supported the creation of a mayor and a Greater London Authority and provided legislation to introduce the structures.

More positions were created shortly afterwards, in places as different as Bedford, Doncaster, Lewisham and Middlesbrough. Tony Blair was an enthusiast as is David Cameron – and the push to create more elected mayors has continued ever since. Mayoral elections are for a fixed term, which means those mayors last elected in 2012 will face a contest this year. Terms of office – assuming no death, resignation or disqualification – are four years long.

For or against?

Those in favour argue that mayors can provide strong local leadership. Research looking at the impact of the mayor in Bristol has shown that the introduction of an elected mayor directly resulted in an increase in the visibility of city leadership. But those against say that the creation of elected mayors actually reduces local democracy with most elected representatives having little or no power.

This is because the more power belongs to the one figure, the less power each individual councillor has. An example is that whereas an administration’s budget could be defeated by a majority, the mayoral budget requires a two-thirds majority. Mayors also may not feel answerable to elected councillors because rather than being elected by the council (as council leaders are) the mayor has a direct mandate.

The decision to have a mayor is often taken by a referendum, although there are examples – such as in Liverpool – where local people were not consulted and the mayor was elected by the council. Decisions have also been revoked – both Stoke and Hartlepool decided to abandon the role after controversies. Hartlepool’s elected mayor, Stuart Drummond, was an independent candidate best known for his role as the local football team’s monkey mascot. And a lot of other local electorates in England and Wales have actually rejected the idea altogether.

Despite the significance of these positions, turnout in mayoral elections has been low – participation in the last London contest did not reach 40%. And in Liverpool, back in 2012, just over 31% cast a vote. Politicians know that turnout is partly driven by a sense of a close contest, but in London there was a perception of a contest and yet still the turnout was low.

What does the role mean?

Being an elected mayor is a big job. The largest constituency in Liverpool has an electorate of around 70,000, while the figure for the mayoral contest is closer to 320,000.

The powers of elected mayors vary – but they have great symbolic importance and individuals can develop a strong personal presence, becoming “Mr Salford” or “Mrs Watford” for example. The focus on the individual also encourages image building. The first directly elected mayor of Middlesbrough, former senior Cleveland police officer Ray Mallon became known as Robocop by many,

Many MPs or former MPs also seem to view becoming an elected mayor as a good career move – and in London both main players are current MPs. Leicester’s elected mayor is former MP Peter Soulsby, while Ian Stewart in Salford was MP for Eccles at one time, and former MP Sion Simon reportedly plans to contest the West Midlands post next year.

Who wins? You decide. BasPhoto/Shutterstock

How does the voting work?

Voting in the mayoral elections is a little different to voting in local or parliamentary contests – the system used is the supplementary vote. This basically means that electors get a first choice and a second.

If no candidate reaches the 50% threshold, only the top two remain in the fight and all the other ballot papers have their second choices transferred. This clearly affects campaign strategies and messaging – annoy the supporters of every other candidate and you are unlikely to get second preferences. Boris Johnson needed second choice votes to get across the line in 2012.

There is also the consideration of how the other polls happening on the same day will influence the way people vote. While we might want to believe that voters carefully consider each role separately before making their choice, we know that the presence of one very popular or very unpopular individual on one ballot paper is likely to affect thinking about others.

I voted by post today and had three ballot papers: mayor, police and crime commissioner, local councillor – which is a lot of decisions to make about our future leaders in one go. If elected mayors are to have the legitimacy the government desires then electoral engagement needs to increase. But it’s not the voters fault if they don’t see the point. It is down to mayors themselves to become better at making us see them as relevant enough to care about.

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

Who is leading the EU campaign battle so far?

EU flags in front of European Commission

Mid April saw the official start of the campaign to either persuade us to Remain or to Leave when we vote in the European Referendum in June.  The Electoral Commission has designated two organisations as official campaigners.  On the In side is Britain Stronger in Europe.  On the Out side is Vote Leave.

In the last week a new poll showed the Remain side pulling ahead.  But the gap is still small and with weeks of argument still to go, no one can be certain of the result.

Of course the official ten weeks follows months of activity by organisations which launched last year.  So it’s possible to get a sense of what the campaigns have been like so far, and what they might do, or need to do, in future.

As a Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics, I’ve been taking a close interest in what the campaigns have been doing.  Specifically I’ve been looking at press releases to get a sense of proactivity, levels of activism in general, choice of spokesperson and use of language.  And while clearly we are now about to see things step up a gear, this early insight is useful.

Over a period of five weeks, up to 8 April, I looked at everything in the “news” section of the Britain Stronger in Europe website and the Vote Leave website.  I began by looking simply at language, but soon found that these sections provided information about a much wider range of factors.

So what did I find?

Before going any further, a key point is that the level of press release/news production by Vote Leave is noticeably higher than that by Stronger In during this period.

Firstly, both campaigns have been more reactive than proactive.  This means using other events, which might be Euro negative, Euro positive or Euro neutral to make statements.  A key example of this is the Tata Steel crisis which was used by Vote Leave to launch a number of statements.

When you work on a campaign, there are always more external events than events of your own.  This is simply the maths. So I am not surprised that the campaigns were more reactive.  What did surprise me however was the proactivity score.  Before looking, I would have assumed that Stronger In would be the more proactive of the two.  This was because Vote Leave, by its very nature, is reacting to a state of affairs.  In fact, Vote Leave showed significantly more proactivity than its opponent.  Often this proactivity consisted of collating existing statistics and re-presenting it, with planned timing, as a dossier, or report or statement.

Secondly, there has been a difference in press releases in the type of spokesperson chosen.  When I refer to spokesperson in this context, I mean the individual quoted.  Stronger In has mainly used UK politicians.  Vote Leave has mainly used campaign officials. Now this is initially surprising.  Those of us who have worked on political campaigns know that we are meant to use the actual politician when using quotes.  However in the case of Vote Leave, the campaign official used, in virtually every case, is Matthew Elliot.  He runs the campaign, but more importantly is the former head of the Taxpayers Alliance.  In this role, Mr Elliot became well known to journalists and was ever-ready with a quote.  This means he is perhaps more suitable in some cases as a spokesperson than those politicians signed up to the cause.

There may however be another feature to be deduced from this.  Using a campaign official will definitely be quicker than tracking down a politician to approve a quote.  This is however only possible when there is not a complicated sign-off process involving those politicians.  So it seems Vote Leave is simply better equipped for speed and this spokesperson-use is both a sign of speed and a way of making it possible.

The importance of speed in a campaign cannot be overstated.  Both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair’s winning campaigns set great store by this.  Vote Leave’s news page helpfully records not just the date of publication but the timing.  Stronger In does not record the time.  But it is possible to make a judgement about speed (particularly speed of response) by looking at whether statements come out on the day of relevance or a day or so later.  In each case in which I was able to compare speed, Vote Leave was faster.

Thirdly, I was interested in the types of statements being made.  US academic William Benoit, in his Functional Theory of Political Campaign Discourse, argues that political contest statements fit into three categories.  These are Acclaim, Attack and Defence.  This is a little too simple for UK elections and contests in which abstention and differential turnout plays a part.  But it is a useful way of categorising output.  I expected Stronger In’s material to be mainly Acclaim – “Your Life is better in Europe” and Vote Leave to be mainly Attack – “Europe is doing you harm”.  In fact both campaigns’ statements are more weighted towards Attack, the attacks mainly being about the other side’s desired position, statements or personalities.  An example of this is Stronger In’s release about the Boris Johnson speech which made a “mistake every eighty seconds”.

Finally I looked at language.  The language of speeches is almost always more powerful than the simple language of press releases.  And those releases with powerful language tended to be those using speech excerpts.  There are too many themes to go into here, but I want to focus on patriotism.  Patriotism is often heavily used in political campaigning and I would have expected this to mainly feature in Vote Leave communications.  During the period studied however, it was Stronger In that was making most use of this message.  The clearest example is a release using an extract from a March speech by Andy Burnham in Liverpool. He says:

“I say to everyone – don’t diminish this great country of ours. Don’t let them define how we are seen by the rest of the world…”

“Let’s fight them on the beaches of what it means to be British and reclaim that ground. Let’s be true to what we’ve always stood for and always should…”

With a phrase such as “fight them on the beaches” Burnham and the campaign are making a clear effort to link patriotism and pride in Britain with the Stronger In cause.

So what now?

To succeed, Stronger In needs to get faster, and since 15th April there are signs that is has.

To succeed, Vote Leave needs to harness the patriotism of those likely to support it, and since 15th April there are signs it is doing so.

It is all to play for.  And what a fascinating way to study PR and Campaigning initiatives and messages.

What now for the BBC?

© Copyright Christine Matthews and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

BBC senior managers probably hoped the Smith report (published Feb 25th) would lead to a day or two of heavy duty media work and then business as usual.

Like many of these key moments though, it’s impossible to draw a line. The ongoing story about Tony Blackburn is likely to run for a while. Campaigners claiming the report to be a whitewash are not likely to be silenced. And it’s hard to see how this won’t be taken up over and over again in Parliament. In the context of the forthcoming Charter renewal and the Secretary of State’s views on the BBC, this is a reputational problem that won’t be going away any day soon.

In one sense, there is little the Comms people at the BBC can do to stop, or deal with, much of this. It is probably wise to let some issues play themselves out.

But there are strategies the Corporation can adopt, and perhaps already is adopting, to navigate a way through the problems it faces.

When looking at the topic of reputational damage, you can’t do better than check with William Benoit’s Image Repair Theory.

Benoit has taken all the possible responses to reputation damage and put them into a handy classification list. These include denial – “its not true” shifting the blame “nothing to do with me guv” and mortification “yep I did it and I’m really sorry”. Now obviously the first two strategies here are not open to the BBC. But many of Benoit’s categories are.

The first real response by the BBC was Director General Tony Hall’s statement to the press conference immediately after publication of the Smith report. So what did he say and how did he say it?

The speech begins with a clear example of the mortification strategy. An apology and admission of responsibility. There was, of course, no other option here. But it’s instructive to see how long this passage is. A lot of crisis communications statements start this way with an admission but swiftly move on to next steps. Hall, in contrast, takes 29 lines or paragraphs. Look at some of the quotes.

“So today we say sorry. We let you down and we know it.”

“A serial rapist and a predatory sexual abuser both hid in plain sight at the BBC for decades…”

“The scale and nature of what they did was truly terrible.

The way Savile used his celebrity to promise access to excitement and fun, and then grotesquely exploited it. The oppressive power of his fame and his physical presence. The sense that no one would believe a complaint. Even in their own families, survivors felt alone. The idea that he was known as King Jimmy – there was no escape from him – and, I quote, “no one will believe you”.

Hall’s speech then makes use of what Benoit would refer to as Corrective Action. Depending on context this can range from replacing a broken product right through to a complete change in the organisation. Hall stresses what has already been done and what the BBC plans to do.

“But let me also be clear: since I became Director-General, we haven’t been standing still – we have made this a priority – and there is much we have done already:

“We now have a new child protection policy, shared across the industry, and a detailed procedure for complaints.

“We have child protection advisers, working together across the organisation.

“We have also put in place an improved whistle-blowing policy, supported by an independent investigations unit.

“And we’ve brought in a wide-ranging set of measures to encourage people to raise concerns about bullying and harassment – with a confidential hotline, independent experts assigned to cases and a service to allow mediation to take place wherever possible.”

A third Benoit category is that of Reducing Offensiveness. There are several variations , one being called Bolstering. Bolstering basically translates as “there are good things about me/about my actions too”. So if Bill Clinton were talking about Monica Lewinsky, he might admit the act but also talk about the great things he was doing as President. Or if a company had manufactured a faulty car, it might talk about the speed with which it organised a recall. In this case there are small elements of Bolstering in Hall’s speech. Given the context, this could never have been the major approach, but the stress on what the BBC has already done can be categorised this way as can this quote.

Referring to an external review he said: “They found that the BBC has strong child protection policies in place and that our whistle-blowing policy ranks well compared to other organisations. But they also made 53 recommendations for improvement. Of those, 51 are now complete, one is underway and in one case we have agreed to take forward what needs to be done in a different way.”

However, given the context, Hall was 100% correct to focus almost entirely on Mortification and Corrective Action as his strategies.

So, what now for BBC Communicators?

There is a danger in being too proactive in announcing every move towards change. While being open and transparent matters , it is important that the BBC does not come across as “bullish” about its reform actions. It would be better for future announcements to be seen in the context of wider developments. And of course Lord Hall has flagged up his plans to make announcements on structural change later this year.

The tone of questions at the press conference showed that there will be a hunt for senior heads. Some of the journalists pursued lines naming specific BBC executives. This means the BBC should expect the manhunt to continue for quite some time. It’s important for the Corporation not to get drawn into defending individuals (although simple statements of fact will be needed in some cases)

Relationships with survivors and those representing them will be key over the next months, or even years. Hall has already talked about working with at least one organisation, and of the BBC being in listening mode. But the Smith report has been described as a whitewash, and not just by campaigners but by some who have worked at or for the BBC.

The problem of course is that the BBC is not the report’s author. However, the Corporation is the only organisation that can deal with these accusations. Hall and his colleagues will need to find ways of showing that they are going beyond the report and beyond its recommendations . To be fair, this was the tone of his press conference. But this is very tricky as some survivors may feel justice is only served by particular individuals being named .

I used to think that the least desirable job in Public Relations was press officer for Network Rail. I suspect today many today would put Head of Comms for the BBC at the top of that list. It will be instructive to see how the Corporation manages its communications around this issue, and around its future, as we near Charter Renewal season.

Paula Keaveney’s blog was originally published in Influence, from the CIPR.

Photo:  © Copyright Christine Matthews and
licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.