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’.

 

As the TV Election dominates, what are the local issues?

The TV election debate is , as to be expected, shaped and defined by the personalities and the ‘incidents’ as interpreted by the media commentators.

And, of course, the political leaders (to a greater or lesser extent) play up to this.

But at a local level there is another election campaign taking place. It seems to me that whilst the national media tries to filter those campaigns through their lens of the actions and comments (and latest gossip) of the national leaders, they rarely stop to listen to the stories in local communities.

One of the recurring themes, if you spend time and listen to local residents or local leaders, is the growing impact of the cuts.

So at the local or city level of Manchester (where I live) you can observe at least two different sets of experiences co-existing.

One set of experiences is that which I heard about foyer weeks ago when I sat and listened to parents talk about the invaluable support they were receiving from a national charity that works with families and children. Parents described how supported they felt and how much more confident they, and their children, were as a result.

Why is this important in what is being described by the Government as part of the Northern Powerhouse?

It’s important because many of the public services the families might have relied on are being cut.

The often invisible infrastructure of support for local communities is being cut and replaced by a parallel set of services and agencies. This parallel set of agencies are made up of faith groups, voluntary organisations and charities.

From food banks to working with children and families, we can observe a retreat from the network of services that represented an investment in the needs of children at an early stage in their lives. The Sure Start programme is disappearing and the centres closed, or handed over to the voluntary sector. The investment in schools, with a different set of professionals working alongside teachers is being cut back. Over the next five years the scale and pace of these reductions will increase.

It is this different and parallel set of stories which the TV dominated coverage misses.

It also represents lots of different political choices at the local or city hall level across the country. And it’s a set of choices that is not being discussed in detail. To be sure, we are now starting to hear a different conversation – austerity or not.

But how quickly did that get drowned out by who said what and when to the French ambassador, and who leaked what? How soon did the coverage move from the big question to the trivial pursuit questions?

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.

Why we are missing out on a genuine political conversation?

Over the past two weeks I have had the opportunity to sit and listen to ‘real’ people talk about their hopes and aspirations as well as their anxieties and fears.

Their voices, as opposed to those which we hear on the news or indeed those that we engage in at conferences or workshops, provide a very different frame of reference from that which has shaped the political and national conversation over the last five years.

In this conversation people talk about what happens when their benefits are stopped or they describe the experiences of managing on very low wages ( sometimes barely meeting the minimum wage) and how they support their extended families in very emotionally fraught circumstances.

Or the conversation has been about how to raise the question of domestic violence and gain support from local community organisations, when to raise the issue runs the risk of even further marginalisation or exclusion. What about how one individual now feels able to talk to their child’s teacher whereas before they felt vulnerable and lacked the confidence to do so. Or where an individual describes the support they have had to start a training course which they didn’t think they would be able to do?

All of these conversations (some in the different parts of the North West, others in London) are examples of how the televised general election presents a very partial and different discussion.

The alternative conversation is one in which the support to vulnerable individuals and communities is itself vulnerable. The ways on which talented and committed individuals, some paid professionals, but many not giving of their time voluntarily, support others, campaign for change or indeed just offer very ordinary but humane support is huge and amazing.

It’s a different world from one which is trivialised on the news over how many kitchens a politician has. In this conversation we see the infrastructure of the social and welfare state creaking and bending.

The risk is, apart from what happens to individuals, that the gaps between these two worlds accentuates and on so doing it becomes much harder to have the political conversation and so individuals become even more disconnected from political discussions.

This is a theme to which I will return.