Unaccustomed as I am…..

This Spring sees the last lot of party conferences before the big event.

Some are specific national conferences, like the Conservative Welsh Conference that has just taken place.  Others are UK wide, like the Lib Dem conference due to take place later in March (13/14/15th) and Ukip’s event in Margate. Organisations such as “grassroots” organisation Conservative Home also hold events around this time.

Party conferences serve a wide range of functions, from policy-making, to socialising, from training to selling.  But the ones just before a General Election are those in which each party tries to make the event a “shop window” on vote winning policies and camera friendly delegates.

For everything happening on stage, there is as much if not more going on just out of sight.  The aim is to get the best camera angles, the best speeches, the most TV coverage.

Likely policy announcements are trailed weeks in advance with a drip-drip approach to media management.  Sessions are timed so that the most vote-worthy happen at the times most likely to provide an audience.  And of course the Leader’s speech is briefed out in advance and planned with a good clutch of soundbites in mind.

This might make attending conference as a delegate seem a little pointless.  But party members still compete for places at these events and put great stress on being there and taking part.

As a regular conference goer I find it fascinating to watch the changes that happen as the electoral cycle goes round.  Conferences shortly after an election can be loud and argumentative.  Those shortly before tend to be well disciplined and worthy.

In 2005, Florence Faucher-King published her work on the anthropology of party conferences. She spent years immersing herself in four different party cultures (Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green).  From who has votes to who has voices, this is a fascinating look at how the tribes behave.

But the tribe of members is arguably less important at a pre General Election conference than the tribe of media. This Spring, watch out for those manifesto moments.

(I’ll be taking a separate look at any comment worthy party conference happenings as this blog goes on. The BBC’s Parliament Channel often covers large amounts of each party conference so it’s the place to go to for conference obsessives).

Why policy matters and why we need to talk about it more

The General Election campaign, not formally announced but underway,is being dominated by the personalities (or lack of).

So it matters that the Green Leader had a difficult interview or that senior MPs can offer to trade their services for £5,000 a day but that other (potentially more significant things) issues can be ignored or missed altogether.

An important announcement by the Government some time ago (and backed by the other major parties) was the decentralisation of decision making and budgets to something called the City Region of Greater Manchester.

The language is not as important as the act and the decision that have been made.

All the decisions on policing, fire and rescue, transport, planning and infrastructure will be made by the leaders of the 10 authorities in Greater Manchester. Alongside some decisions on education and training (probably related to skills and apprenticeships).

At some point, possibly 2017 or 2018, an elected mayor will be responsible – a kind of Boris Johnson mark two. And now the Government are saying that all health spending will be devolved too. So goodbye Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs). And what about the NHS restructure introduced in 2010? The new addition has major implications for the kind of health service we have, we might want and we might hope for. But that wont be part of the General Election campaign.

The decision to decentralise is a really important and significant one. There is a whole set of arguments which support it and , indeed, it can be seen that it brings decisions closer to where we live.

But not to include it as part of the May 2015 conversation is a big error and misses the trick of connecting policy decisions to the wishes of local communities and thus brings the national (or in this case a kind of regional) to the local.

Its part of the accountability and transparency that makes civic society healthy (or healthier than it is) and we should be asking questions about what this new announcement means. It could be a way of reviving our public and policy conversations.

 

What price an MP?

In the wake of the cash for access scandal there has been much comment about MPs remuneration and whether they should have incomes beyond their role as MPs.

The various comments by Sir Malcolm Rifkind – the free time he had on his hands; dismissing his salary of £67,000; his right to have a higher standard of living given his professional background etc. – put paid to his political career and we await to see what happens to Jack Straw.

The arguments for raising the pay of MPs are familiar, i.e. in order to get the brightest and best candidates you need to pay more, or you can’t expect talented people who would otherwise go to the City or the Bar to sacrifice themselves and their living standards and manage on an MPs salary.

But the logic of the market cannot be applied to the role of a Member of Parliament. This is a highly privileged position which is essentially about access and proximity to power.

This is what often gets missed when the role of an MP is compared to any other job in financial terms.

Much can be made about public service but the role is essentially about power and everyone who puts themselves forward to become an MP in the Palace of Westminster are well aware of this.

That’s why I don’t buy the ‘logic of the market’ arguments. If MPs choose to use their privileged position to line their own pockets or feel put out that they are not earning what other ‘high-fliers’ earn, then they are in the wrong place and should look for employment elsewhere.

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.

Why the public realm still matters

 The idea of the ‘public realm’ is one which is unlikely to grab everyone’s attention. But it captures an important set of ideas and they are ones we tend to take for granted.

At its heart is the simple proposition that the health of a good society can be seen through its commitment to shared and collective provision of services from public health to education to welfare and social services.

In the late 19th century the urban centres of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow were places where this set of ideas had their expression through the provision of range of services including gas and electricity as well as libraries and parks. This age of city hall being the centre of a newly emerging public realm is an important historical moment. It sets up the expansion of the public realm  following the end of World War 2 with the NHS as well as key changes too in public education.

Why does this matter? And why now? It matters, I think, because we are at risk of forgetting the long history of state funded or locally funded investment in services which were about improving the quality of life as well as improving the health and education of society more broadly. Would we fund libraries now? Or would we assume that those who wanted access to books could go and buy them for themselves ? Would we fund art galleries from scratch – without the economic case or the business case which we make now?

The recent open letter (Who Is My Neighbour : A letter from the House of Bishops to the People and Parishes of the Church of England for the General Election 2015) reminded me of this past history. It makes the case – not just for public engagement with the debate and voting too  but also for a debate on what kind of society we are. It is a letter which sets out a particular case (based on the values and theology of the Church of England) and, at the same time too, makes the case for the ‘public realm’.

It argues for an healthy civil society which is itself a necessary pre-condition for a healthy democratic society too. Whilst, I think there are absences too in their analysis it is a good starting point for comparing the idea of a ‘public realm’ in which there is a sense of the shared and collective arrangements of services to the market in which provision of services is determined by price and demand not by values and an ethical framework. I will come back to this tension in the next series of postings.

Vote: Politics is about more than political parties and the ballot box

Russell Brand caused a stir in the media and amongst the political classes in recent months as he questioned the value of voting in what he sees as a corrupt political system which fails to serve the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

Whilst I might have sympathy with some of the things Brand says, I disagree with him on the question of voting. The legitimacy of representative democracy, imperfect as it is, depends on as many people as possible exercising their duty at the ballot box. That’s why the recent voter registration drive to encourage people to register and vote in the forthcoming General Election was an important and much needed initiative and campaign.

But love him or loathe him, where Brand does have a point is in his insistence that politics is about more than what happens in the so-called ‘Westminster bubble’. The media’s obsession with Westminster-based politics feeds the idea that political parties and the act of voting represents the only real means of engaging politically.

Yes, voting and party politics matter very much but we need to remind ourselves that democracy, politics and the exercise of power is about more than parties and voting – it is about who we are, what we value and how we envision and work towards a good society. As Bernard Crick, the political philosopher once said: ‘Politics is an activity which must be carried on; one does not create it or decide to join in – one simply becomes more and more aware that one is involved in it as part of the human condition’.

As citizens it is up to us to ensure that the public sphere is not just dominated by elected politicians and other elites, whether they be from corporate life, celebrity life, think tanks or academia. The political agenda must be shaped by and reflect the concerns of so called ‘ordinary’ people and this calls for different forms of political agency, including protest, lobbying, and campaigning. A good example of politics in this broader sense is the work of Citizens UK who started the Living Wage campaign over ten years ago. Click here to see their 2015 Manifesto and how they are engaging thousands of people in the activity of politics.

 

 

 

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.

Why listening to what is said is as important as what is not said: Policy lesson one

In the UK back in 2010 whilst the recurring theme was that the then Labour Government had been responsible for the financial crash all the mainstream parties agreed that austerity was a necessary pre-condition for getting the economy straight.

Looking back over the past five years, one of the things which is striking is how consistent that message has been. As we approach the 2015 General Election in May there is still a cross party consensus on the need for austerity. What has changed or where the points of difference between the main parties surfaces is on the scale and pace of the austerity measures.

Why does this matter? And isn’t it common sense that austerity is needed to ‘fix’ things ?

My own view is that on two counts the common sense argument falls:

Count One – we need to be clear about the causes of the Crash in 2007/8 before we can start setting out the remedies. What is interesting about the debate back in 2010 and now is that the consensus is clear: the crisis was not because we were spending too much on education or health or public services more generally, but the actions of the banking and finance sector. Through a range of decisions from sub-prime mortgages to the miss-selling of financial products or the manipulation of interest rates, the banking and finance sector wrecked the economy and the UK Government (along with other governments around the world) bailed out the banking sector. What the parties then and now have difficulty in explaining is how we got from there to here!

Count Two – the consequence of the mainstream consensus is a package of cuts which will go for at least another four years and cuts now in social welfare, education and support to those agencies which work with the most vulnerable.

And so on the issue of Fairness and Equality I have a difficulty with what is being proposed. Why does this matter ? From a policy point of view it matters a lot. The decisions which were made post 2010 and which will be made after 2015 will have a direct impact on the scale, quality and level of social and welfare provision as well as education and training available across the country. These things do matter. They affect us regardless of our needs now because they are about the kind of society we want to live in. Throughout the next few weeks I will explore some of the issues further.

 

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.