EU Referendum Campaign – Should we stay or should we go?

If there’s one book you’ll find on most politicians’ bookshelves it’s Drew Westen’s The Political Brain.  This 2007 work said that facts and logical arguments are not enough in political communication.  Even those who are hyper-logical make emotion-based decisions.  And if politicians or campaigns speak to feelings, they are more likely to succeed.  Think back to Gordon Brown’s often statistic-laden statements and contrast with Tony Blair’s emotional, but often fact-free passages.  It’s clear which cut through to the audience.

With this in mind I have looked at  communications by both sides in the debate around Europe.  Should we stay or should we go?    This is an area of contested fact and we’ve already seen a blizzard of arguments. But as the referendum date (23 June) is now known, it’s useful to see how both sides’ comms are shaping up.

There is more than one group on each side.   The Electoral Commission will make two of these “official” shortly. But we don’t need to look at every single campaign group to get a sense of what strategies are being pursued

Britain Stronger in Europe looks set to be the official Remain group.  BSE (slightly unfortunate choice of initials) has already attracted an impressive list of supporters.  Field operations (that’s handing out leaflets and knocking on doors to you and me) have started.  But the front window currently is the website.  So what sense of communication and messaging does this give us?

The first thing that sprung to mind when I looked at www.strongerin.org was British Airways!  It feels very corporate (unlike my sense of what an active campaign normally looks like). The slogan, that Britain will be Stronger, Safer and Better Off, if we stay in Europe, is prominent and repeated.  Front page material included (on Sunday 21st Feb) two “self-interest” type messages and two attacks on, or challenges to, the opposing camp.  A sign-up form for potential supporters is given much space.

Some key components of active campaigning are missing here.  As of 12 noon on Sunday 21st, the website was reporting that the organisation hoped “to see the completion of the Prime Minister’s renegotiation package shortly”. Now I know that this is from a press release issued a few days earlier but given that David Cameron’s announcement came on the Friday night, the lack of a speedy update or editing job should concern campaign managers.

The attack material consists of a challenge to the other side to spell out the likely outcomes if Britain withdraws from the EU and an “aha we got you” type release reporting statements by prominent Brexit supporters.  This second piece focuses on whether Britain would be able to take part in the single market post-withdrawal.  It’s not a bad subject. In fact it’s a very good and key subject.  But here it’s presented in an overly technical way in which the main message is somewhat lost. (I was itching to rewrite this!)

As a reader, I didn’t feel emotionally engaged by the messages on this site.  It felt very safe, almost uncommitted in parts.  Someone already supporting the Remain message would find helpful material, but a neutral reader would, I suspect, stay neutral.

On the Brexit side we have Vote Leave and this campaign was quicker to react to the Cameron announcement. In fact its press release is timed 10.01 pm on 20 Feb which is a whole minute or so after David Cameron’s announcement started!   Leave also had the Michael Gove announcement lined up so was able to post a lot more news more quickly over the weekend. (Surprisingly, the Boris Johnson announcement does not appear on the Leave front page or news section as of 22 February. This may be because he has yet to formally contact the campaign, or because of agreements with the Daily Telegraph, for whom Boris writes a column).

The first thing anyone visiting the  Leave website sees is a sum of money, increasing  roughly  once a second, which is described as  the UK’s total contributions to the EU.  We don’t know the start point for this sum, but that niggle aside it is a very clear piece of communication. And is of course to be expected from a campaign run by a former head of the Tax Payers Alliance.

It’s not just money though.  Frankly a message that is only about money won’t cut through to emotions.   A short video about British ”heroes” is clearly designed to reinforce pride in a distinct, shared identity.  Winston Churchill’s appearance was 100 percent expected, but we also see Emmeline Pankhurst and Alan Turing among the personalities featured.   It’s tempting to argue about inclusions or exclusions from material like this, but the existence of this video is significant for the messages this campaign clearly wants to communicate.

Website names, the actual words that will appear on a url, can be key evidence of the core of a campaign’s message.  Vote Leave’s name is not Vote Leave (which after all is about rejecting something) but Voteleavetakecontrol (a much stronger piece of messaging).  How many of us, given the chance to take control rather than be told what to do, would turn that down?

Vote Leave’s website, like Stronger In, doesn’t feel like an active campaigning website yet either.  Both however are e mailing supporters and asking for activity on social media.

I’ll be looking at the communications by both sides over the next few weeks.  I’m interested in how the tone and content changes.  And I’ll be using Benoit’s Functional Theory of Political Communication to do some analysis.

June 23rd will be a key date for our country.  I hope the communications will help us all become engaged in the decision and cast our vote in an informed and committed way.

 

This post was originally published on the CIPR’s Influence website.

Emy Onuora discusses Racism and Football with Peter Hooton

Emy-event-1024x576Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) describes how powerful conversations can be for exploring serious social and political questions:

As part of the University’s Festival of Ideas Emy Onuora talked about his new book and explored the ideas in the book through a dialogue with Peter Hooton.

The Q and A facilitated by Peter was a really powerful experience, as Emy talked about his childhood experiences of going to matches in the 1960s, his love of the game and his wish to reclaim the lives of those black footballers who have been hidden from history, and the power of representing their stories to a different audience.

The power of the ‘conversation’ is that it has the potential to connect a number of themes and ideas, from politics to racism, to economics and to social change. At the same time because it is a particularly personal form of presenting ideas, it breaks down the invisible barrier between the speaker and the audience. It makes the person more real and powerful in a way.  And through the lens of the experiences of black British footballers, it is possible to see the ways in which British society has or has not changed.

By then connecting the story of football in the UK to another set of stories from the murder of Stephen Lawrence to the increase in attacks on asylum seekers and refugees it is evident how far we still have to go to.

The debate on poverty and inequality should include actions too

Street-View-definitive-selection

Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) looks ahead to the 3rd Annual I4P Lecture on 9 February:

This year’s lecture is being given by Professor Kate Pickett (York University and co-author of The Spirit Level).

The Spirit Level addresses in a powerful and straightforward way, the causes of poverty and also inequality, not only here in the UK but across the world. The book can be read as a careful and systematic analysis of a range of data which illustrate the relationships between health, poor housing, low paid work, unemployment and poverty. But it is not merely a well argued, well informed analysis of the data. It points to the actions that governments as well as employers can take to address these structural inequalities and it argues as well, that both the non-actions of the state and those of employers represent choices to maintain inequality.

It seems to me that the value of The Spirit Level lies in the way it sets out the data and the evidence. You don’t have to agree with their recommendations for action but it is hard to dispute their analysis. And for those that agree and share the analysis and the overall set of actions, it is important to think of what we then choose to do. We can choose to agree with the analysis but say that we can’t adopt some of the recommendations (including adopting the Living Wage or looking at our procurement policies and thinking about our capacity to influence our suppliers and contractors) because we don’t have the power or we can seek to adopt the recommendations as one set of small steps that begin to change the lives and working conditions of those who are dependent on our choices.

We are involved in a funded piece of work from the Webb Memorial Trust on ‘What Makes a Good Society’ – adopting these recommendations would be a start.

The regeneration of housing estates illustrates the change in the Government’s narrative

Inner city demolition of High rise building

Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) argues that the announcement of funding to undertake an initial identification of housing estates which need ‘regeneration’ should not be dismissed:

I am not suggesting that there has been a change in priorities where the allocation of resources is concerned. The amounts outlined over the weekend do not go far enough, nor is the assumption that pension funds will be the primary source of money convincing. But, the announcements mark another subtle but quite important shift in the Government’s public policy narrative.

Following the 2010 and 2015 elections, first the Coalition, and then the Conservative Government made it an important part of their new approach that most of the New Labour initiatives were cut (out went Regional Development Agencies, integrated Government Offices and regeneration initiatives were regarded as old fashioned and not relevant to the new public policy  priorities or strategies).

So has everything changed? Not totally. But just as the devolution agenda (the Northern Powerhouse) is a case of taking other party’s policies and claiming as your own, so is the regeneration agenda. Does this matter? I think it does. Because in both cases to be successful there needs to a ‘public’ or civic society presence. Neither of these two developments can be undertaken by the private or not for profit sector alone. It is this reintroduction of the ‘public’ and with it the idea of the local agency facilitating or brokering changes as well as providing some element of accountability for what is done, which is the real potential shift in policy. Both of these developments need governance mechanisms to ensure that public needs are met or at least addressed. Governance is what the public agency or civic institutions provide. We need to reflect on what this means in the long term but in the short term it is another subtle but important shift in thinking and decision making at a central level.

Making Devolution work – cities and regions in England are next

greater manchester

One of the surprising developments (for some) regarding the changes facing those who want to devolve and democratise services has been the Government’s push to create city regions in England as a way of demonstrating their commitment to further decentralisation.

These proposals have had a mixed reaction from some: there is serious doubt as to whether the economic gains cited by the Government are achievable and as the proposals have been set out (in an apparently random fashion) it is difficult to see how coherent or connected they are.

At the same time for cities to take advantage of the offer, they have to commit to changes in the way the new structures and processes will be governed.

The requirement to have an elected mayor is being resisted in many quarters. The proposals are, also, not uniform across those English authorities who have either opted to be included or who are exploring the possibility.

The 10 authorities that make up Greater Manchester are seen to be the flagship of the changes. And whilst the 10 councils have agreed on their mayor (the present Police and Crime Commissioner) the potential impact of the changes is still difficult to assess: the current package includes the usual suspects (infrastructure, economic development) but also childrens’ services, health and social care as well as skills and training.

But not all of these initiatives will sit together even in Greater Manchester.

So we can expect a patchwork quilt of services some co-existing alongside others and some being configured and managed across the new combined authority.

Why does this matter ? I think it is important for three reasons: firstly , we are a provider of education and training for a whole generation of individuals who want to work in these professional settings – thus the organisation, structure and governance of these services matters to them and it should matter to us; secondly,we know that the short to medium term funding of these services is undergoing profound reductions and cost cutting – it should matter to us because of the impact these changes taken together will have on communities and individuals – there is a whole research agenda here; and finally , it matters because there is a potential space being created (in my opinion) which is also about local democracy and decision making and given that we work within a highly centralised system the opening up of spaces to speculate on different ways of doing things is something we should be interested in.

This is a key policy, practice and political set of questions we will return to in 2016.

What do we learn from the Comprehensive Spending Review?

There are three lessons from the Comprehensive Spending Review.

First, don’t believe the spin before the statement;

Two, don’t believe the spin after the statement;

And three, look at the trends in spending and their impact.

Whilst the headlines are saying it wasn’t all bad and the cuts weren’t in the order of 30 per cent, but in some cases 20 per cent, and there is investment in some areas that wasn’t anticipated (sport especially) we can look at the trends.

One lesson immediately is that the revision of growth means that the Government has more flexibility than they thought and we can assume (even though the next election is just under five years away) that this will help prepare for 2020.

The second immediate lesson is that the percentage of spending by the state as a proportion of national income is heading downwards past European levels and moving towards US levels.

This is significant and profound. It means that some of the financial and policy changes introduced over the last five years or so are going to be irreversible without significant investment through taxes should a new (non-Conservative government) wish.

The third lesson is what is happening at the local level: since the late 1970s successive governments have shifted the share of money spent at the local level from taxes raised by city hall to money allocated from Westminster. Now the move is the other way. But it is happening in a context of cuts and social and political change.

The responsibility for spending is being devolved (the shift to city regions or combined authorities) but the resources are not following. Hence closures of many local services which are regarded as non-essential (libraries and children’s services) but at the same time statutory services are bring squeezed – especially adult social care.

We can expect more closures of services for the elderly and these cuts are likely to lead to more localised resistance and opposition. As part of our role we will be monitoring these changes and will post updates and briefing papers too over the next twelve months.

Find out more about I4P and its calendar of events here. 

After the election: What next ?

The General Election result will, for those fascinated by the intricacies of such events, provide much fertile ground for endless speculations and interpretations.

And there is a risk that these conversations crowd out some important questions as once again the daily media return their gaze to the succession competitions in the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and the up coming leadership campaign in the Conservative Party (given Cameron’s decision not to seek a ‘third term’).

The important questions which remain after the results were announced last Friday still remain:

What are the immediate consequences of the planned austerity cuts?

Where are the cuts coming to fund the reductions in welfare spending?

Where will the funds come to meet the crisis in the Health Service?

We know that there are planned cuts in public spending and we know that some of these planned cuts have factored into them a failure to keep pace with increases in utility costs.

As a consequences for those managing budgets across the public sector (education, health, social care and all locally provided services) the real reductions in funding are likely to have more impact than has been assumed or expected.

We know too that those responsible for managing local government services are talking about not being able to meet their statutory duties and services. One of the known (but often unappreciated by the wider public) ways in which some social and welfare services are provided at the local level is through the voluntary and community sector. What might appear to be small scale operations (good neighbour schemes or community based mentor or advocate schemes) but have a profound significance for those that use them are at risk in this context. There has been a contradiction throughout the last government’s policy and practice.

On the one hand there was a time when the Cameron-led Conservatives valued the idea of volunteering and the ‘Big Society’ on the other hand the cuts to mainstream services has pushed the provision of some of these services to the voluntary sector. So rather than providing an important added extra based on what might work locally, the Voluntary Sector has found itself looking to provide core services or in some cases through contracting out seeking to win commissions to run them.

There are also questions about those aspects of the last government’s budget which were never quantified. We can anticipate that these will be made explicit sooner rather than later. We might expect that the Government will want to get these cuts announced and implemented within the next three to four years to give themselves a chance of preparing for 2020.

And yet, there is still the impact of these changes at the local level. We can expect that as the cuts result in still further and major reductions in services there is likely to be more campaigning and opposition. One of the unintended consequences (perhaps) of last week is that the political context is ‘clearer and cleaner’ than it was in 2010. The Government no longer has the political advantage of being in coalition (that advantage enabled them to see their partners punished last week) and the opposition (whilst not united at all) might yet begin to articulate a shared critique.

The other potential base from which we might see opposition developing is at the local level. We are moving, I expect, to more direct cuts in services and so those who are local councillors or those who are school governors or members of hospital trusts will find themselves either defending their decisions to cut services or sack staff or they will be joining a broad network of opposition.

It is this period of unpredictability which we need to watch and engage with.

The results are in: What do they mean?

As the results come in across the UK there are a number of headlines from the collapse of the Liberal Democrats to the rise of the SNP to the growth in votes for UKIP but with little electoral success.

As with every election night the stories and speculation focuses on the individuals. So there is lots to fill the airwaves of the futures of a number of high profile candidates from Nick Clegg to Ed Miliband.

But it’s important to remember that this is the first stage in the election story. Now there will be the results from the local elections where councillors in city halls across England were being elected. This second part if the story is really important.

If Act One is the election of a national government – that looks like (at 5.10am) to be dominated by the Tories then Act Two is who will be responsible for implementing the decisions of the central government across the cuts in public spending. It is this which is as significant I think as the results in Scotland. I say this because the vote in Scotland does not change the balance of power in Westminster it actually strengthens (in the short term) the power base of the Conservative economic policy.

It means that the austerity measures as outlined (and as implied) are likely to be implemented. And the pace and scale of the cuts will be similar to the last five years.

Why does this matter ? I think it’s important because at the local level (where the bulk of the cuts are directed ) the gap between city hall and Westminster will accentuate. And the gaps between the political classes (including the media) and communities and families and individuals dependent on the welfare state will widen.

It is these widening gaps which reflect growing inequality too which is the longer term story of the night. And they are ones we will return to.

The formal campaign is nearly over but what happens next matters more

As the General Election comes to a close, the speculation on what happens next is starting to seem much more important than what has been going on for the last six weeks.

We have seen, as I have been arguing through these election blogs, at least three different campaign.

From the media’s point of view the most significant has been the one on TV and the radio. In this campaign the language is carefully monitored and bears very little resemblance to how we speak in everyday life, and much more significantly perhaps this campaign is regarded as legitimate. Despite the fact that much of this public campaign has little direct contact with real voters and neither does it invite public dialogue and conversation, it has been a campaign which has been based on a shared consensus.

The second campaign has been local and in some cases very real. There have been public meetings and this general election campaign has, at times, bumped into the other campaigns going on at the moment: local elections to local councils where the results on Thursday do affect what happens in local communities and especially with respect to social care , housing and economic development.

These two campaigns (local elections and local constituencies) in most cases exist in parallel. They rarely touch. And indeed what has seemed the most striking story of the 2015 Campaign is the one that current First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon thinks has little to do with policy and much more about how the post Thursday events are framed.

What we could have gained from the Nicola Sturgeon discussion is how we make sense of coalition politics rather than single party government.

Thinking of these developments, the rise of smaller parties, the cumulative impact of devolution and the consequences of devolved assemblies and parliaments, might set up more fruitful discussions.

The final election conversation is the one not covered in the campaign, but touches the size and reach of the voluntary sector and the development of services and infrastructure to support those of out of work or living on benefits .

These include the rise in food banks, the cuts to welfare, the rise in the peripheral labour force (zero hours contracts or part-time and fixed-term contracts) and the prospect of five more years of austerity. These conversations are taking place within neighbourhood groups, voluntary sector organisations and networks.

It is here, I think, that we will see new sets of activity and interest coalesce around the concerns which the first campaign has ignored. I will explore some of these developments after the election.

Under the radar conversations

I have been struck by the growing gap between the election campaign as it appears in the media and the conversations and discussions I am having through my work with community based organisations and residents.

Over the past two weeks I have sat and listened to people talk about their voluntary work in a community enterprise which is working with vulnerable adults and young people, or the community activists who are advocates and supporters of local residents as they navigate their way through the complexities of the welfare state.

Or there’s the Health Watch lead who is seeking to ensure that their role as advocates on behalf not just of patients is heard and respected. The media, however, seem pre-occupied not just with the usual photo opportunities that are part of any campaign but the stage managed ‘events’ which appear to rule out ‘ordinary’ people and have them replaced by party workers.

So ‘under the radar’ is a large network of connected (and sometimes unconnected) projects and organisations from food banks to community re-cycling schemes. Often these networks are embedded in their localities drawing in some diverse sets of interests and partners, from faith groups to schools to local professionals to single issue campaigners.

But in these networks and partnerships you are likely to hear quite different conversations from the ones offered by the media. These meetings and encounters in communities over quite specific issues are usually person driven ,from the Living Wage Campaign, to improving adult literacy and everything in between, and they offer a very different idea of politics and how we construct political conversations.

Why does this matter? For two reasons, I think. Firstly, they suggest that there is a much bigger desire to talk about what is really going on than might be assumed from reading the newspaper, and secondly they tend to be quite results focussed. They are practical discussions. And whilst they might become pragmatic at the expense of other things, fairness, equality and social justice, they do open up the space for these broader and deeper conversations.

There is a risk that as May 7th gets closer the national conversation will have closed down opportunities for this more philosophical and open dialogue.

It is happening. I have sat and listened to the conversations and listened too as individuals recount their stories and weave together an alternative narrative on ideas of ‘community’ and ‘solidarity’ and ‘change’.