Words… words…words

Is there any phrase more annoying than “hard- working families”?  This seems to have entered the political phrasebook and is now trotted out by just about every party on just about every occasion.  Some say it was first used in the 1990s although Liverpool University’s Dr Stuart Wilks Heeg has pointed out a use in Hansard in the 1920s. (Just above the start of column 515)

When George Orwell wrote about Politics and the English Language back in the 1940s he argued that for clear thinking you needed clear language.  He wanted political writing to be more direct and straight forward.

One reason I dislike the phrase “hard-working families” is that it combines vagueness with a sort of “dog whistle message” intended to push certain buttons.  If you think about it, how on earth can a family actually be hard-working (unless of course the children are up the chimney and granny is on piece work)?

I suspect this coming election will be full of words and phrases that either don’t mean a lot or mean a huge amount if you can pick up the signals.

So to join “hard-working families”  here are the other two in my starter list of three words or phrases that should go in the banned box.

“I want to start a debate on this”.  A common political phrase in interviews and discussions which roughly translates as “don’t really know what I think about this one”.

“Firm but fair immigration”.  What on earth does that mean?  If the opposite doesn’t work (in this case flabby and unfair immigration) then the phrase carries no concrete meaning.

Writing speeches is not easy.  Taking part in interviews and debates can be tricky.  So you can see why scribes and speakers fall back on their regular phrases.

But I wonder if, this time, we can have a little less obfuscation and a little more of Orwell’s clarity.

Broken links!

Earlier this week (9 February)  the Conservatives gave away the list of constituencies the party is not targeting  in the General Election.  They did this by including the words “non target” in the URL of each candidate’s page on the central website.

A bit of an Ooops moment!

So we now know, from the Conservatives’ own material,  just how many seats they have already given up on.

Now every party has seats on which it concentrates and those that it knows it can’t win.  If you live in a tightly fought target seat you will soon realise because of the volume of leaflets.

But the Conservatives’ error in making their thoughts clear reveals two key points.

Firstly, there are political activists out there who will check things like URL titles.  Those of us who take great care over what we write and then hand over the production of the links to others have just had a warning!

Secondly , the Conservative list is strange.   Now I am not surprised that Sedgefield (Tony Blair’s former seat) is on the list.  But so is Norfolk North, Sefton Central and Rochester and Strood.

It isn’t that long ago that Norfolk North was a closely fought contest between the Lib Dems (current incumbent Norman Lamb MP) and the Tories.  It isn’t that long ago that Sefton Central (current incumbent Labour’s  Bill Esterson) was projected as a win for the Conservatives’ Debi  Jones.  And Rochester and Strood was the second UKIP by election win last year which surely the Tories should be aiming to take back.

I am sure there will be candidates up and down the country now telling central office to edit its website.  But for candidates who are not Conservatives this slip up is good ammunition.  After all, if a representative’s own party has made it clear he or she can’t win, why should anyone listen to requests for votes.


Leaders’ Debates – a lot of fuss about nothing?

There’s certainly been a huge amount of fuss about the Leaders’ debates.  Will they happen?  Who will be included?  When will they take place?

All the rows certainly make for good copy.

But we are missing the bigger question, which is what do these debates actually mean?  How can we read them and their significance?

The 2010 election in the UK saw these debates take place for the first time.  We were used to seeing Presidential debates in the US.  But despite challenges from one side to another over a number of poll contests, the UK had never quite got around to organising them.

The debates certainly attracted viewers.  The first of the three 2010 contests had more than nine million viewers, more than Coronation Street.  Media outlets organised viewer polls and commentators went into overdrive.   Based on audience reception, Lib Dem poll numbers soared and “I agree with Nick” became the latest catchphrase.

Fast forward to election night however and the Lib Dems lost seats.  So how significant are debates and how do we read them?

The first key point is timing.  Today any UK voter can get a postal vote without giving a specific reason.  With postal voting increasing, there are effectively two polling days.  Evidence shows that most postal voters fill in their papers as soon as they get them.  Any debate after this mailing then can only have an effect on some of the electorate.

The second key point is interpretation.  Much of the coverage of the debates last time was not about what was said, but who had won.  And this was based not just on polls but on sophisticated spin operations.  Our first leaders’ debates also saw our first post- debate spin rooms.  After each event teams from the three parties worked on reporters and commentators who were there in person.  Party staff and high profile politicians like Paddy Ashdown answered questions about “how their guy had done”.  Common practice in the US,  this was dramatized in US drama the West Wing with spinner CJ Cregg and surrogates for the candidate fighting their way through the throng.

Attempts have been made to assess whether the 2010 debates had a significant effect on voting decisions.  Pattie and Johnston[1] looked at data from the British Election survey to see if the events had been persuasive in any way. And while there is evidence of polls and opinions being influenced, particularly by the first of the three debates, Pattie and Johnston call for some perspective.  “Most voters,” they write “had made up their minds long before the campaign began, let alone the debates held.  For them, the debates may have confirmed them in that decision, or may have had no effect at all”.

The Fixed Term Parliaments Act (2011) means we have known the General Election date for quite some time.  That’s quite some time to make up our minds.  Leaders’ debates may be the icing on the cake for the Newsnight crowd, but they are unlikely to really change minds.

[1] Pattie and Johnston (2011) A Tale of Sound and Fury, Signifying Something?  Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties. 21:2 147-177.

Oh no.. not another one!

In the run up to this election there’s a torrent of comment about unpredictability and possible deals.  I have even heard people talk about another election shortly after this one.  Certainly after the 2010 election many believed that a second election would follow quickly if a suitable deal couldn’t be done.

The most recent example of this is of course back in 1974.  It’s this topic that formed the theme of this weekend’s BBC Radio Archive on 4 (7 Feb).

But we are in different territory now as the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (2011) not only tells us exactly when the next election should be, it makes it much, much harder to have one in between.

People from the US and other countries with fixed term elections must have thought us very strange pre 2010.  A democracy in which effectively the Prime Minister could load the dice, time the economic tide, call a contest when he or she was already in the lead.  As a political activist I remember the Gordon Brown election that never was.  Half way through a leaflet delivery, with speculation at fever pitch that the PM was about to go to the Palace, I was phoned to say that Brown had announced there wouldn’t be an early poll. Very much a “calm down” moment.  Steve Richards, in Whatever It Takes, paints a dramatic picture of the tensions around the decision on whether to call an election or not.  The rest is history, but the point is that he (Brown)  had the power.

So are we better off with Fixed Term Parliaments?  It’s certainly more democratic if the PM can’t wield that power.  And in planning terms, for politicians, business, the media and just about everyone else, knowing exactly when an election will happen must be a good thing. It is also delightful not to have to wade through the acres of ill- informed election date speculation in the press!

But nothing in politics is wholly good!

The US, with its fixed terms has election campaigns that start much earlier than ours.  The temptation to “be first” to “go off early” to “get momentum going” means these get longer rather than shorter.  In the UK we are experiencing some of this already. The first Monday after the winter break (5 Jan) saw just about every party doing election launches of one sort or another.  Is this good?  Well it means people have longer to think about issues but I wonder if many aren’t bored already.

And as for that possible snap election after May 7th.  Difficult but not impossible.  Commentator Mark Pack says look at the manifestos.  So we shall.

Late to the party?

Among all the pre-election coverage of policy launches and manifestos, we’ve now had the first pre-election human drama – a defection.  Time will tell whether we’ll see more of these in the febrile atmosphere of the run up to May 7.  But as the world of football has its transfer season, we may well be into the equivalent in the world of UK politics.

The January defection, of UKIP MEP Amjad Bashir to the Conservatives, had its element of slapstick.  Did he jump or was he pushed? (UKIP would claim the latter).  Was he in fact a serial rosette changer? (Respect claim him as a former member ).  Are the Tories keeping him under metaphorical lock and key to avoid unfortunate remarks? (Blogger Guido Fawkes, in his usual inimitable style, thinks so)

Defections are not really about one-in   one-out.  Parties see these moves as primarily about publicity.  And the publicity can be immense if handled properly .  The trick is to surprise as many people as possible while manoeuvring for the best news coverage.  Former Conservative MP Emma Nicholson’s defection from the Tories to the Lib Dems is a textbook case.  The then Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown and colleagues had the announcement planned with military precision (as you would expect from a former Royal Marine).  Every detail, from hand- delivered letters to Conservative office-holders in Nicholson’s Devon constituency  to the exclusive BBC TV interview, was timed to the minute.   Both Nicholson, in Secret Society, and Ashdown, in Diaries Volume 1, give inside information about the events of that December in 1995.  The announcement on  the 29th caught the usually quiet news period between Christmas and New Year thus guaranteeing even more prominent coverage.  (And political geeks will also spot the significance of that date – William Ewart Gladstone’s birthday).

Defections during actual election campaigns do happen.  1994 saw a Parliamentary by election in Newham in East London.  Candidate Alec Kellaway defected from the Lib Dems (for whom he was the official candidate) to Labour just before polling day.  He had reportedly wanted to defect dramatically from the stage at the count but was persuaded to bring the announcement forward.  Voters had the odd experience of seeing Mr Kellaway’s name on the ballot paper as a Lib Dem (as by then nominations were well and truly closed and the papers printed) while hearing that he was in fact now a Labour member.  And in 1983, National Chair of Young Social Democrats, Keith Toussaint, moved from the SDP to the Conservatives during the campaign.

Lower level political defections are surprisingly common.  At local councillor level most weeks see a story about someone “disgruntled” or “principled” changing allegiance.

But national level, and therefore politically significant, moves are both a lot less common and a lot more newsworthy.  Will we see more between now and polling day? You know I think we might.