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’.

 

Bookies sort political favourites from rank outsiders

Political betting is one way of forecasting how this election might go.

Working on the premise that bookies rarely lose money and always do their homework, the odds they are offering might give an overall picture of what the country will look like electorally on May 8.

There has been a remarkable transformation in the fortunes of the leaders of the two main parties. Despite being trusted more by voters, Prime Minister, David Cameron is neck and neck with Labour leader Ed Milliband, to be the PM, with both being offered at 10/11 on.

Just as the opinion polls see the Tories (6/1) with a small lead on Labour (16/1) with the smaller parties likely to hold the balance of power, no overall majority is a very short odds on prospect at 1/6.

But it is in some of the key marginals where the betting could help shed a light.

Thurrock, once a fight between Tories and Labour, taken by only 92 votes by the Conservatives in 2010, looks likely to be taken by UKIP if William Hill’s odds are to be believed. Despite Labour having Milliband’s key aide Polly Billington as candidate, Hill sees UKIP’s Tim Aker as the odds on favourite (8/13) to take the Essex seat.

Hampstead and Kilburn was the number two most marginal seat at the 2010 election, when Labour took it by 42 votes. The bookies are reflecting recent polling data by Lord Ashcroft that saw Labour up by 17pts and Tulip Siddiq, the candidate chosen to replace the outgoing Glenda Jackson, is 1/4 to win.

In Warwickshire North, the third most marginal seat in 2010, taken by the Tories by 54 votes, UKIP’s damaging effect could have most impact. The 0.1% Tory majority has now been transformed to a Labour lead of more than 10 percentage points and the party is very short odds at 2/7. UKIP has stolen a large number of votes from both the Tories and Lib Dems.

In another key marginal, boundary changes mean Labour is likely to take Lancaster and Fleetwood and William Hill offers 2/7.

Labour is short priced to win key target seats in the North West. Government minister and former TV presenter Esther McVey looks likely to lose Wirral West in a close race. Labour are 8/11 on, with McVey even money. Ashcroft polling in March saw Labour with a seven point lead.

Closer to home there’s no money to be made. Labour is short priced in the majority of local constituencies. In West Lancashire Labour is 1/66 for the win, cruising in nearby Sefton Central at 1/50 and in staunchly red Knowsley, it is an even greater 1/100. The Tories are odds on to take South Ribble at 4/11.

The interesting constituency at one stage was Southport, where the Lib Dems faced a threat from both the Tories and Labour. However, sitting MP John Pugh is 13pts up in polling and is now 1/3 to take the seaside seat.

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.

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.

What about the issues that don’t figure in the election campaign, but matter ?

The ways in which the formal election campaign and its associated conversations miss out the issues that touch most people, are ones I will come back to over the coming weeks.

It’s important to start though by recognising that the shared conversations between the politicians and the media rule out a whole series of voices and experiences.

The impact of welfare reform, which will be a centre piece of the next five years if the present Tory-led Government retain power, is ruled out of discussion by ministers.

And yet whilst the media may press them on the issue, the headlines focus not on an absence of an answer, but on the skill of avoidance.

All three of the major UK based parties are in favour of education and all three have a shared commitment to maintaining the new status quo on the roles of academies and trusts rather than local schools.

Indeed all three are also in favour of the status quo on how the NHS is organised.

However, they do differ on some things. But it is the shared consensus which is rarely up for discussion. Why? And why aren’t the voices of  those that rely on the services (not those who work in them) heard?

On May 7th local elections will take place too. Here, the absence of a rich and diverse debate is very evident. But does this matter? I think it does. Whoever wins nationally on May 7th will be putting in place spending plans which directly impact on local communities.

It will be City Hall making many of the cuts and therefore we do need to try and make the connections between the local and the national. Accountability only works if those that make decisions are open to challenge and are willing to engage with that challenge.

 

How Northern Ireland’s parties could hold the balance of power

Northern Ireland might be a small place that has receded from the public imagination since the end of the Troubles and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, but it might just be propelled back into the political spotlight.

It remains religiously and politically divided along sectarian fault lines, but the 18 MPs that it returns to Westminster might just hold the key to forming the next government in the event of a hung parliament. Its pro-British Unionist parties, the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which has links to the neo-Conservative Christian right and the Ulster Unionist Party, are traditional Tories in Westminster.

In recent months there have been two major developments.
Firstly, to combat the threat of Sinn Féin, the former political wing of the Provisional IRA which has made the dramatic move from the political margins to leading Nationalist party, the Unionist parties have agreed an electoral pact to only run one pro-unionist candidate in four constituencies.

Secondly, this pact means that the DUP, assured of keeping at least seven of its current eight MPs, while also winning back its leader Peter Robinson’s East Belfast seat, is in a position to demand financial reward for supporting whichever government is formed after May 7.

The Independent noted that Ian Paisley Jnr, son of the former radical Protestant DUP leader, said the party, “will seek up to a billion pounds more funding for Northern Ireland as the price of keeping a Tory or Labour government in power.”

With the former three party domination of Westminster likely to be smashed at this general election, thanks to the remarkable Post-Indy Ref advance of the Scottish Nationalists north of the border and the projected growth in UKIP in England, the smaller parties are central to forming the next government.

Northern Ireland shows there is always going to be a price to pay for that support.

Why we need a different ‘conversation’ before May 7

As the General Election campaign shifts into a different gear – the wall to wall coverage, the on / off TV debates , the post debate analysis and the stage managed events in local high streets for the cameras  – the gap between the politicians and their reference group and the rest of the country will get wider.

The big questions:

  • what was / are the causes of the austerity measures?
  • what has been the immediate impact of the cuts?
  • what is the likely impact over time?

are all ignored and re-framed to meet the particular needs of the mainstream parties.

There are two aspects of this silence or consensus between the parties which should be of concern to all of us.

Firstly, the discussion is almost entirely based on the idea that there is or was no alternative to the austerity measures. The circumstances leading up to the banking crisis of 2007/2008 have been rewritten or reordered. Both mainstream parties shared a view that there should be minimal regulation of the banks. It was a view that was common across the international networks of politicians and financial interests. The Clinton Administration in the US was an enthusiastic supporter of deregulation, as were New Labour and the Conservatives. So there is an important point here: The crisis was not solely New Labour’s nor was it caused by excessive public spending. And as the events of 2007 ( Northern Rock) or 2008 ( Leaman Brothers) slip into the past we are likely to miss-remember what happened and why. 

Secondly , the popular discussion is almost entirely devoid of international comparisons or examples. So that the new Greek Government are presented as unreasonable for wanting to change the deal with the EU, or the demonstrations in Spain are seen as peculiar to  the country rather than illustrative of a different response or a different way of seeing the austerity crisis.

It is this lack of a different conversation which is is of concern. On May 7 in many places there will be local elections too. This is a chance to link the two events. And yet that discussion is not happening. But for a brief moment in the polling station the two will be handed to us to act on. Symbolically we will hold separate ballot papers: one for local councillors and one for the MP. And yet we don’t bring these two together and within a few seconds they are separate again.

How we might link them and what that might mean in framing a different political conversation will be an idea I will return to next week.