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.

General Election 2015 is a great indictment of the Northern Ireland Peace Process

It had been hoped that the religious and political binary fault line between Catholic/ Nationalist/ Irish and Protestant/ Unionist/ British was something that 20 years of the Peace Process would begin to erode.

This election will suggest quite the reverse: ‘real’ politics, based on political, ideological issues rather than simple religious affiliation may be some way off.

So, despite a devolved Assembly which enshrines representation of all political identities, and billions of pounds in Peace Process money financing multiple cross community initiatives to build a post conflict society, this election sees Northern Ireland as divided as it ever was.

The recent Protestant/ Unionist electoral pact between the Democratic Unionist Party and Ulster Unionist Party, illustrated the narrow identity lines down which Northern Ireland’s communities remain split. Protestants will vote for their own – especially against Sinn Féin. In at least 10 constituencies the Unionist vote will prevail for this reason.

Sinn Féin on the other hand will continue it remarkable rise from the political wing of the Provisional IRA to the largest mainstream party in Catholic Nationalist community.

It has achieved this largely down to how it has transformed itself to encapsulate its role as the key defender of Catholic Nationalist identity politics.

The Catholic middle class has come to see Sinn Féin as the natural defender of Catholic Nationalist rights against the neo-Conservative Christian Protestant assault of the DUP.

But, as traditional Irish republicans Sinn Féin does not recognize the British state and its MPs will not swear allegiance to the Queen, therefore it will not take the five seats it is likely to win.

The other significant Catholic nationalist party, Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), born out of the Catholic civil rights movement of the late 1960s, was the largest Nationalist party until 2001. Since then Sinn Féin has largely usurped it in all but three Westminster constituencies.

There has been no electoral pact in Nationalist Catholic politics and the SDLP might see its influence decline further this time round.

Therefore, with the exception of the hugely affluent North Down constituency, Northern Ireland’s millionaire Gold Coast, which has the independent unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon as MP, Northern Ireland’s 2015 election should just divide down largely religious lines.

As a barometer of the Peace Process’s brief to reform the polarized nature of Northern Irish society, General Election 2015 could be its most damning indictment.

Journalist Damian Wilson got to the heart of the religious polarization of the state and the effects of the Unionist electoral pact.

Instead of holding an actual election, he noted on Twitter, we should just award the constituency to the religious group with the largest numbers:

“Wish Sinn Féin and SDLP would get on with their pact so we can forget about elections and just count names on church registers.”

Plus ça change.

The televised political debate: Body language under the microsope

In 1960 politics changed forever.

It was the first televised political debate in the U.S. between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

The significance of the power of television in politics is demonstrated by the fact that those who listened to the debate on the radio thought that Nixon had won, whereas those who watched it on television thought that Kennedy was the clear winner.

These behaviours sent powerful signals to the television audience who made their own judgments about the suitability of each of these candidates to lead the ‘Free World’ at a critical time. And this debate revealed another great truth – once people make a judgment of this kind, it is hard to reverse that effect. Nixon did much better in subsequent television debates but it was too late. The damage was clearly done that first night.

You can see why there was so much argument and discussion in advance of the recent Leaders’ Debate itself – a great debate before the debate even started. The final compromise was a seven-person debate, with only the leader of the DUP excluded. Of course, this was going to be more unpredictable than previous formats used in the UK and brought a new set of social dynamics to bear on the process. It was going to be harder for the politicians involved to maintain their rehearsed and controlled performances in terms of their body language.

There are, after all, many behaviours that might allow the public to see behind the masks of the modern politician, like, for example, fleeting, unconscious micro-expressions revealing their underlying emotional state, be it anger, fear, disgust or contempt, where these micro expressions emerge most clearly when the masking smiles fade.

Then there is the possibility of gesture-speech mismatches when the content of the speech and the message contained in the gesture differ, but where the unconscious gesture may give some insight into the politician’s underlying thoughts. Each politician would also be trying to get their voice heard, and stand out in the debate, but there are gender differences in how politicians can do this. ‘Overlaps’ are an effective form of interruption used by individuals high in dominance and these can tell us something about the various participants in the debate.

So what did we learn that night apart from the fact that David Cameron lip licks and frowns when he is stressed, whereas Nicola Sturgeon has a very high blink rate at critical moments, indicating high levels of stress, even when her voice shows little sign of this. Or, that Ed Milliband shows lots of precision gestures to signal that he has a good grip on economic and other issues, and Nick Clegg displays lots of ‘casual’ gestures reminiscent of Tony Blair. Or that Nigel Farage displays many different facial expressions, especially when he is under attack, or that both Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood are quite prepared to glance down at their notes, perhaps as a deliberate signal that ideas are more important in the end than appearances, as if content and style can be easily separated in this way.

Maybe, it was the higher order things that we learned, like the fact that Ed Milliband’s over-coached body language looks far too unnatural when it is extended beyond a mere soundbite, and that in real life as the topic changes, we expect to see a different set and pattern of gestures emerging, rather than the mere repetition of the same controlled set of gestures.

In other words, we want to see nonverbal behaviour that can reveal something rather than being designed and rehearsed to reveal nothing. Only his micro-expressions gave us any glimpse into his personality, character or psychological state. We also have a memory, and that Nick Clegg returning to the nonverbal style of 2010 looks like a deliberate attempt to recapture something. Or, that when it comes to interruption battles between politicians, even between politicians and the Chair, Julie Etchingham, Cameron usually comes out on top, and he often overlaps in a very dominant style. But ‘dominance’ rather than statesman-like ‘authority’ might not have been what he was hoping to signal.

But perhaps the most important thing that we learned that night was that the old two-party politics, Labour-Conservative, with attack, attack, attack the other, at any cost, may have gone forever. That was why Nicola Sturgeon appeared so effective: clever, flexible, committed, a different vision, a strong woman in a world of domineering men, body language that was more open and itself flexible, and which supported her message rather than being designed to say nothing at all, of any substance. That was why she stood out. We recognised in her body language that was believable and meaningful in a world of rehearsed control, and suppressed emotions and thoughts. And all that with a blink rate which told us something about the pressure she was really under.

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.