PR challenges facing Vince Cable

By Paula Keaveney, senior lecturer in PR and Politics

It is all change at the top of the Liberal Democrats, with Vince Cable replacing Tim Farron.

Cable’s  position comes as a result of Farron standing down in the wake of the most recent General Election. The Lib Dems will forgo a leadership election though as Cable was the only nominated candidate after a series of likely contenders, including  Scottish MP Jo Swinson and North Norfolk’s Norman Lamb, ruled themselves out.

Since the 2015 General Election, and 2016 Euro Referendum, the Lib Dems have seen membership soar. But the clear pro EU positioning in June failed to deliver much of an increase in seats. In fact, there were more lost deposits and a low vote share, leading to internal discussions about what happened and why.

So, what are the key challenges facing Cable?

Sir Vince does start with one advantage: He is known in a way that Farron was not when he took over. Cable became prominent for his prescient warnings over the economy in the run up to 2008. He has also had time standing in as Lib Dem leader – remember the soundbite about Gordon Brown going from Stalin to Mr Bean – and he was a Cabinet member during the Coalition.

So, the party has less to do in terms of making journalists and the wider public aware of who the new leader is. Being known will make it easier for him to gain broadcast time and print inches .

However, the profile of an individual leader does not necessarily mean the party’s image is right or the party well positioned.

The immediate challenge for Cable is party conference in September. It is one of the few guaranteed shop window events for a smaller party.  Farron was known for his energetic , activist style. Cable will need to use the occasion to show that the party is very much back in business.

However, poll bumps as a result of  a good conference rarely last and the first big challenges, barring any by elections, will be May 2018, when local elections include those in London (in which every seat is up for grabs) and in the Metropolitan Boroughs (in which some seats are contested in places like Liverpool and Manchester). In many cases the party will be attacking Labour which will be in the happy position of facing a Government party likely to be garnering poor reviews. This makes life very tricky for Lib Dems. A good showing is needed but this is not particularly fertile ground.

This means Cable will need to be very canny in terms of positioning. Some individual campaigns will go against the general run of play, but in many local elections people follow their general impressions of the parties on offer.

So which positions would work?

The clear ‘give people another say on the EU’ call did not work in the General Election. The ‘sage advice on the economy’ is useful but not unique.  ‘More investment in schools, health and policing’ is usually a welcome message but is shared by just about every party.

There is no one position which is both stand-out and likely to work at the moment.

Of course, politics is not just the art of the possible. It is also the art of opportunity. In the past leaders such as Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy and Tim Farron (on Hong Kong, Iraq and refugees respectively) have found and pursued issues which made clear calls about human rights and liberal values. Sir Vince will need to bide his time and be ready to recognise the issue which provides a liberal moment which resonates with the public.

He will also need to avoid overstatement early on. Reports in some media that he is likely to talk about making the Lib Dems the second largest party will worry long term activists. Many remember talk by former leaders of replacing Labour.

And meanwhile? Meanwhile the task is to reassure activists, many of whom did not see the poor result of 2017 coming, and take the fight to Theresa May in the Commons. The Mr Bean sound bite won’t work now, but I feel sure the Lib Dem team will be looking for something equally cutting and memorable.

Abuse of women MPs is not just a scandal – it’s a threat to democracy

Julia Gillard in Australia: another high-profile victim of online abuse. EPA

Laura Bliss, Edge Hill University

Following the intense election campaign of 2017, Labour shadow home secretary Diane Abbott spoke out about the racist and misogynistic abuse she received online.

Abbott revealed that she was subject to a litany of abuse on Twitter. In a recent Westminster Hall debate, she described the comments she received as “characteristically racist and sexist”.

Abbott’s experiences are not just depressing on a personal level – they pose a threat to democracy.

The BBC recently reported that a huge number of women MPs are experiencing abuse on social media. The problem was so bad during the 2017 election, with several MPs making complaints to the government, that Number 10 asked the Committee on Standards in Public Life to investigate the abuse of MPs during election campaigns.

Comments during the 2017 campaign included: “stab the c*nt”; “nazi witch” and “repatriate the b***h back to Africa”. The prime minister herself was called a “whore” by some Twitter users.

In Australia, the former prime minister Julia Gillard was subjected to twice as many abusive online comments as her Labor party rival Kevin Rudd between 2010 and 2014. Many of these statements were of a sexual nature.

Similarly, in the Democratic presidential primaries in the US, Hillary Clinton received almost twice as many abusive comments as her Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders.

These types of comments have started to become the norm for women politicians. Gillard has said:

As a woman in public life, the violent threats take on another sicking dimension. Threats of violent abuse, of rape, are far too common. A woman in public view may expect to receive them almost daily.

With so many people subject to online abuse, many are choosing to withdraw themselves from social media. In fact, a campaigner I recently interviewed about the online abuse she received was advised by the police to shut down her social media accounts.

But advising a woman to remove her online presence if she doesn’t want to be abused is akin to telling a woman that she needs to behave a certain way if she doesn’t want to be raped.

Rather than engaging in victim blaming, we should be tackling the behaviour of abusers. We need to be sending stronger messages to individuals that online abuse will not be tolerated. A full, in-depth inquiry is needed to establish if social media companies need to take more responsibly for what is posted on their platforms; or, if in fact, we need more specific legislation to govern social media. The likelihood is that we are now at a point where the law itself needs changing.

Who’d be a woman politician?

Online abuse may be seen as an everyday part of being a politician, but it’s a threat to democracy. Constant abuse aimed at politicians, especially female politicians, threatens to reduce the plurality of voices essential for a modern democracy. As conservative MP Sarah Wollaston recently said, online abuse is “designed to intimidate”. If that intimidation is successful, women will be dissuaded from becoming politicians. Already, only 23.3% of politicians worldwide are women.

Abbott has said:

Other women look at how those of us in the public space are treated and think twice about speaking up publicly let alone getting involved in political activity.

The ConversationIf we want to live in a world of true equality, we need to start tackling online abuse. Simply concluding that such abuse is an everyday part of life is clearly a threat to the political system.

Laura Bliss, Graduate Teaching Assistant in Law, Edge Hill University

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

Voters with learning disabilities are being excluded from this election

Michael Richards, Edge Hill University

There are more than 1m people with learning disabilities in the UK and the number is expected to increase. These are people who face exclusion from society more than ever – particularly when it comes to voting. Not enough is done to enable their participation in the most basic democratic right available to British citizens. The Conversation

The charity Mencap recently found that 70% of people with a learning disability said they want to vote in the future. However, of those surveyed, 64% didn’t vote in the recent local elections, of these 60% because it was too hard to register and 17% because they were turned away from the polling station. This does not amount to being a fair way for thousands of voters who want to be part of the political processes.

People with learning disabilities are often denied paid employment only to face accusations of benefits scrounging when they seek state support. The ruthlessness of the bedroom tax, “fit to work” tests, unescapable poverty, high energy bills, cuts in care and underemployment have ensured that people with disabilities are facing terrible times like never before. So hearing their voices is critical – not least in the run up to a general election. So many of the austerity measures implemented since 2010 have affected their lives, it’s surely only right that they are given the opportunity to deliver their verdict on them.

Voting with a disability

Before the last election in 2015, the Electoral Commission made it clear that there should be no barriers to anyone with disabilities who wished to vote. In fact, any voter with a disability is entitled to request assistance to get to their local polling station and help to mark the ballot paper. They can be provided with a large print ballot paper or a tactile voting device, which is fixed to the ballot paper so the visually impaired can vote in secret.

But these are all measures to help with physical disabilities. Where are the specifics for people with learning disabilities? This is unusual considering people with learning disabilities have the same right to vote as anyone else. The Electoral Commission is clear that a lack of “mental capacity” is not a reason to prevent someone from voting. Nor is it for anyone else to decide how someone with learning disabilities should vote.

Voting can be extremely difficult for people with learning disabilities. The form to register is not accessible to all, particularly if you cannot read or write. The struggle to get to grips with political jargon and the complicated political leaflets stuffed through the door can also make people with learning disabilities feel alienated.

The stereotypical perception of people with learning disabilities is that they don’t have the capacity to understand what is happening in the world around them. Frankly, this is an old-fashioned, false perception. In fact people with learning disabilities have knowledge and experience to share about politics, real life experiences, family life, education and healthcare. It’s really more the disabling impact of wider society that ensures people with learning disabilities don’t always have the voice they need and have a right to express.

Opening up the vote

There are ways to change this. Easy read manifestos would be a good start. It would also help if they were published in good time, so that people can spend time considering the proposals the political parties put forward. There should also be more events and hustings that are accessible for people with learning disabilities.

For people with learning disabilities to have a say in their future, access to knowledge, resources and people in politics is vital. This may go some way in turning the dire life situations many of them face into something better.

Overall, for an equal and respectable vote to take place in the general election, marginalised groups, particularly people with learning disabilities, need to be able to fully engage in the political process. People with learning disabilities have knowledge, skills, experiences and perspectives to share like anyone else, and this should be reflected in a vote that effects the lives of everyone in Britain.

Michael Richards, Lecturer in Applied Health and Social Care, Edge Hill University

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

Why Andy Burnham’s Manchester could change the face of UK politics

Paula Keaveney, Edge Hill University

So, with the result of the Greater Manchester metro mayor election declared, Andy Burnham completes his move from opposition MP to local leader. The Conversation

Burnham’s decision to stand for the new post was seen by many as a signal that for ambitious Labour politicians, the place of power may no longer be in Westminster but rather the combined authorities – with all the powers they carry.

In a similar vein, this election also saw MP Steve Rotheram – Jeremy Corbyn’s parliamentary private secretary and occupant of the ultra safe seat of Liverpool Walton – decide he would rather be Merseyside’s mayor.

Greater Manchester is one of six metro mayor positions elected in the recent poll. And while each role has a slightly different combination of powers, it’s argued that the Manchester role is the most significant.

Here, those drawing up the combined authority remit – which looks to cover Greater Manchester as a whole – have included policing and health along with the more expected responsibilities, such as transport. And in the run up to the election, lobbyists and think tanks have been quick to see the potential, and the need to build alliances.

A victory for Labour?

While it will take some time before citizens in Greater Manchester, and the rest of the country, get an idea of just how much of a difference this new mayoral figure will make, the implications of the recent vote for political parties and for democracy can be examined straight away.

Labour will of course point to this result as a sign of success. When Sadiq Khan won the London contest, much was made by Labour of the victory here. But it will be harder for Corbyn and others to make as much of Greater Manchester.

This is mainly down to the fact that in London there was a contest – or at least the perception of a contest – between Khan and Zac Goldsmith. Whereas in Manchester, while it is true that other candidates have worked hard, no one was realistically expecting anything other than a Labour win. The combined authority is made up of ten local authority areas, nine of which are currently Labour led.

But beside the immediate spin, there is a bigger strategic point here. Because if Labour is smart, it could use its position in city regions – such as in Manchester – to build and maintain a reputation for running big things well.

This could mean that Manchester may well turn out to be of great use to the party as a way of demonstrating ability on a significant stage.

But of course that in itself will depend on making the rest of the country, and the nations voters, all realise that the stage is in fact significant.

Low turnout

But despite Bunham’s win, many of course will be concerned about poor turnout – which was 28.93% for Greater Manchester. For a big job with big responsibilities, this is a poor level of voting.

Similarly low levels of voter turnout were previously seen when the regional police and crime commissioner roles were initially introduced. And it is true that it takes a while for people who are not political obsessives to get used to innovations like this.

Nevertheless, there will be work to be done to make people both aware of the metro mayor role, and convinced of its democratic legitimacy.

But low turnout figures and awareness aside, the role could clearly play a key role for Labour’s regional strategy. And given that Burnham recently said he is ready to leave Westminster and devote himself to Manchester, it may be that the the political watchers will need to start keeping an eye on the Irwell rather than the Thames.

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

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

Shock reaction to election proves May and her team know what they are doing

Paula Keaveney, Edge Hill University

Britain had barely returned from its Easter break when the press reported that Theresa May, the prime minister, was to make a statement in Downing Street. After an hour’s frenzied speculation about what she might say, May stepped up to a podium in front of Number 10 and announced that she and her cabinet had decided there should be a general election on June 8. The Conversation

And that, it seems, is that. Under the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act, at least two-thirds of the House of Commons must vote in favour of an election for one to be called – ahead of the due date which in this parliament was scheduled for 2020, the last election having taken place in 2015. But with Labour saying it will back May’s decision, the country will head to the polls in a matter of weeks.

This was a bombshell announcement delivered at remarkably short notice. Even though political commentators have been debating the advisability of calling a snap election since the Brexit referendum, the announcement caught most of them by surprise.

So what does the announcement tell us about May, her team, and the challenges they now face?

First of all, May is taking a gamble on her personal brand. Until now, she presented herself as a steady, no nonsense, get-the-job-done leader. To reinforce that image, she several times reiterated that she would not call an early election. Her sudden U-turn might seem like an opportunity for the opposition parties, but she’s probably not too vulnerable on this front.

For all that politicians and political reporters obsess over process issues and consistency, most voters don’t. May will also be protected by the vote in the Commons to come: Labour, for one, will vote in favour of an early election, so Jeremy Corbyn and his party can hardly attack her for calling it.

Game on

The U-turn factor notwithstanding, May’s argument for holding the election is reasonably logical. As she acknowledged in her announcement, the Brexit process has caused confusion, and many people will want a simple and clear way through the minefield. By painting the opposition parties as obstructionists and troublemakers that endanger the future of a post-Brexit Britain, May puts herself on the side of the people.

It all added up to a fantastic example of a leader wrongfooting both the media and the opposition, who scrambled to issue their responses.

The Conservatives are also surely keen to fight a Labour party run by the dramatically unpopular Corbyn.

May has also reportedly ruled out any TV debates along the lines of those held in 2015. That’s a blow to the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and the Lib Dems’ Tim Farron, both of whom stood to gain from sharing a stage with May. (Anyone who watched the 2015 debates will remember that Sturgeon’s debating skills are especially formidable.)

The May team won’t have the element of surprise again, and a lot now depends on whether they’re actually ready for the campaign. But the timing, tone and surprise factor of the election announcement was the work of a team that really knows what it’s doing. The fallout over the next few days will tell us a lot about the Conservatives, but even more about the other parties.

As Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP and UKIP respond in full, we’ll start to see just how strong, prepared and determined they are – or aren’t.

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

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

Hillary Clinton’s concession speech – a class political act

Presidential election banner background. US Presidential election 2016. Hand putting voting paper in the ballot box with american flag on background.  Flat design, vector illustration.

It’s normal for conceding presidential candidates to give their speech in the middle of the night, as their guests are still at HQ and the final results are trickling in.

Hillary Clinton, however, decided not to do that after losing the 2016 election to Donald Trump. Instead her team arranged for a mid-morning speech on the day after the vote. It was held at a separate venue – at a hotel in New York – with seats for staff and supporters.

Speeches by losing candidates are interesting. The chosen tone, message, content and length tell us a lot about the state of democracy and the health of the candidate’s party. In fact, a CNN commentator claimed ahead of Clinton’s address that the concession speech is often more important for the health of democracy than the victory speech.

Clinton’s decision to make her speech in the morning means that she could say something more planned than if she had to cobble together a late-night reaction at a “let’s get it over with” event. It also means a better chance for news coverage, since a little time has passed since the upset of the result.

A later speech, according to commentators such as CNN, allowed Clinton to concede “on her own terms”. Crucially, it also meant not speaking in front of a set clearly designed for a victory speech.

Her role post result was to thank supporters but also to attempt to get some key messages across. Media have been briefed that Clinton’s speech would be a message to the American people about “the way forward”.

Chelsea Clinton after her mother’s speech.EPA

She stressed the need for participation over time. Democracy, she reminded her supporters, does not just mean casting a vote every four years, it’s a constant commitment. While she appealed to her audience to accept the result, the message was clear – continue to monitor Trump’s America.

“Our campaign was never about one person or one election,” she said. “It was about the country we love, about building a country that was hopeful, inclusive and big hearted.”

She was also keen to stress inclusion, shared values, and the “vision we hold for our country”, despite not making any direct references to concern that her opponent lacks these values.

There was a strong sense of passing on a torch to her supporters: “You represent the best of America,” she told the room, before promising that a woman president will happen one day.

I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling but some day, someone will and hopefully sooner than we think right now.

Speaking to the alarm felt by many about the tone of the campaign, Clinton acknowledged the divisions in American society and stressed “the rule of law” and equality under the law. “We respect and cherish these values … and we must defend them,” she said.

Whether this was a goodbye, or a rallying call for a new movement, isn’t quite clear. But Clinton was certainly keen to focus on the future of her country rather than dwelling on her loss. She admitted the the result is painful and “will be for some time” and there was a moment when she looked ready to cry, but she pulled it back quickly.

So what now for Hillary Clinton? I’m not sure. But the delivery of a speech like this on a day which must be full of pain shows she is nothing if not a professional political operator.The Conversation

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

Barry Goldwater’s ‘paranoid style’ may yet win Trump the presidency

‘Crooked Hillary’, as Trump supporters know her.  EPA/Cristobal Herrera
‘Crooked Hillary’, as Trump supporters know her. EPA/Cristobal Herrera

The historian Richard Hofstadter wrote a still widely read 1964 essay for Harper’s Magazine outlining what he called the “paranoid style” in American politics. Marked by “a sense of heated exaggeration”, suspicion, and wild fears of political conspiracy, it was, he argued, a common part of American political life. It dated back to the rise of the antislavery movement before the Civil War, and every so often, it resurfaced at times of national crisis.

Hofstadter was alarmed to see this way of thinking infuse the politics of his own time. One example was the “Red Scare”, a series of anti-communist investigations and purges led by Senator Joe McCarthy. And then there was Barry Goldwater, the Republican party’s 1964 presidential nominee.

Goldwater, a senator from Arizona, was an outsider in the Republican party, known for his staunch anti-communism and opposition to the Civil Rights Act. He surprised everybody by beating the better-known and more moderate Nelson Rockefeller to become the party’s choice for president.

Goldwater picked up support from conservative voters who feared their role in society was under threat – that the fast-changing US was being taken away from them and their kind. “Traditional American values” were being undermined by left-wing intellectuals; the country was in danger, under threat from communist aggression abroad and Soviet spies and sympathisers at home.

Barry Goldwater.Marion S. Trikosko via Wikimedia Commons.

Mainstream political leaders didn’t understand these fears, or simply chose to ignore them. But Goldwater did understand, and he won over grassroots activists by speaking directly to their concerns.

At home, he promised to reduce government spending and cut welfare payments. Abroad, he was committed to militant anti-Communism, including the use of battlefield nuclear weapons. He summed up his views at the Republican party convention in 1964: “

I would remind you that extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

Goldwater was admired by Republican activists, but the wider electorate considered him beyond the pale. In the November election, he was crushed by the incumbent Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson. Nonetheless, Goldwater’s campaign fundamentally changed the thinking of his party – and five decades on, the conditions that led to the rise of Goldwater are on full display once again.

Fear and loathing

In his 1964 essay, Hofstadter argued that the paranoid style tends to resurface when class, ethnic and religious conflicts come to the fore. All three are roiling the US today.

The gap between the political elite and middle- and working-class Americans is as wide as it’s ever been. The uncertainty that set in after the economic crisis of 2008 endures; it has left workers deeply anxious about jobs and wages – and they fear labour competition from immigrants, especially Mexican ones. Internationally, the rise of radical Islam has threatened American interests abroad – and a series of “home-grown” extremist terror attacks have only reinforced the image of a nation under threat.

Mainstream politicians have been slow to respond, but like Goldwater before him, Trump has seized the moment. He has promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico, keep out Muslim immigrants and cancel free trade agreements to protect American jobs. As for the rest of the world, he has promised tough measures to wipe out the so-called Islamic State and has talked particularly tough on China.

As a self-proclaimed crusader against a corrupt political establishment, Trump has promised to see Hillary Clinton thrown in jail. He will “drain the swamp” to clean up the political system.

As Hofstadter put it, the paranoid style of mind creates “heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed”. Sure enough, many of Trump’s supporters apparently see their candidate as a knight in shining armour who can do no wrong. From this standpoint, attacks on his campaign aren’t grounded in reality or motivated purely by political differences; they are the work of a political conspiracy.

Crooked Hillary” is a “nasty woman” rather than a political opponent with a different vision for America. The election is being “rigged”, and Trump will only accept the result if he wins.

Trump has successfully cultivated an image of martyrdom, which goes a long way to explaining why he has survived myriad allegations of personal misconduct that would have destroyed any normal campaign. To his devotees, accusations of tax evasion and scamming are over-egged or false, while the women who have accused him of sexual harassment are lying gold-diggers bankrolled by the Washington establishment.

So while Trump may seem like an anomaly, his campaign is in fact a constellation of familiar themes pulled together at a particularly fraught moment in US history. And candidates like this have won before.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan, another ideologically conservative Republican outsider, was elected president. To some on the right, Reagan – who spoke in Goldwater’s favour at the 1964 convention – represented the ultimate vindication of Goldwater’s vision. The thread connecting the three candidates was on full display in Reagan’s convention speech in 1980, where he pledged to “make America great again”.

It remains to be seen if Trump will enjoy the success of Reagan or go down in flames like Goldwater. Either way, Hillary Clinton should understand his political appeal as well as anyone: in 1964, aged just 17, she campaigned for Goldwater herself.The Conversation

Kevern Verney, Associate Dean (Research), Edge Hill University

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

Britain’s first post-Brexit by-election a triumph for Liberal Democrats

Robert Courts won for the Conservatives but on a dramatically reduced majority. PA/Chris Radburn

For those who like to read the runes of politics, parliamentary by-elections are a gift. Each local area of course has its own characteristics but these contests offer a snapshot verdict on the government and major parties between general elections. It’s also a chance for those parties to try out and refine campaigning techniques.

The Witney by-election, caused by the resignation of former prime minister David Cameron, has certainly given us something to pore over.

By all accounts this is one of the safest Tory seats in the country – Cameron took 60% of the vote in the 2015 election. West Oxfordshire Council is Tory run and, although there are pockets of relative deprivation, the constituency is generally rural and affluent.

And indeed, the Conservative candidate won the by election on October 21. But the significance in Witney lies less in which party won than in the performance of the parties that didn’t.

Back in the game. Paula Keaveney, Author provided

After being almost totally wiped out in the 2015 election, the one-time coalition partners increased their vote share by 23% in Witney, beating Labour to come in second place behind the Conservatives. There was a swing to the Lib Dems of just over 19%, denting the Conservative majority by around 20,000 votes.

The Lib Dems have a reputation as a formidable by-election fighting team. Actually this reputation is based on events quite some time ago. Since 2007 the party has performed relatively poorly with tiny increases and some falls in percentage vote share. Even Eastleigh, which the party held in 2013 after Chris Huhne’s resignation, saw a large drop in vote share.

So party organisers will be extremely satisfied with this result. It indicates that the Lib Dem campaign machine is working again. Considerable effort went into encouraging activists to making phone calls to voters – or making the journey to Witney – and at times it was hard to walk down a street without seeing a Lib Dem campaigner. Labour was less obvious on the ground, although the party had clearly worked in its areas of strength, as demonstrated by the number of posters in some pockets of support.

It also shows that there are Conservative supporters who will swap to the Lib Dems. That may indicate that they are unhappy with the whole Brexit saga (Witney voted to remain) or with new prime minister, Theresa May.

2015 election results in Witney

Lib Dem slump. Paula Keaveney, Author provided

For Labour, I am sure the party forums will carry arguments about Corbyn’s failure to deliver a challenge to the government here. Witney is not a seat Labour could conceive of winning, but there must be some anxiety at a failure to make progress. The Labour candidate was, after all, a local councillor with a core of support.

As for UKIP, it will not be happy to have been beaten into fifth position below the Greens. We’ll never know how much the fight between two of its MEPs and the ongoing saga around the leadership has affected this vote. But common sense tells us that the party is facing not just a series of rows but a crisis of identity. It is impossible to do well in this kind of battle without a clear sense of purpose and message.

The Liberal Democrats clearly approached this race with a clear purpose and have achieved it. A full recovery is still a long way off but the Witney result has brought some much-needed cheer.

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

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.

Debating

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.