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’.

 

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.

Further Education Matters

At the end of last month, the Government outlined their plans for adult further education.

Excluding funding for apprenticeships, the budget for 2015/16 will be cut by 24 per cent. That’s 24 per cent of the funding for adults who want to gain a better education later in life. Further education was deeply scarred as it was, with a third of its budget already severed since the 2010 election.

The teaching of basic skills such as numeracy and literacy is a key aspect of further adult education, and it’s not as if the UK ranks highly on this front and we don’t need to worry. According to the OECD, it’s quite the opposite and the government is fully aware of the problem.

Its own 2014/15 report on Adult Literacy and Numeracy stresses the importance of these skills both to the economy and to the learners themselves, who are healthier, happier and better off as a result of their improved abilities.

At a personal level literacy lies in the development of self-identity; in our social, cultural and emotional life. In my recent study Learning trajectories, Violence and Empowerment amongst Adult Basic Skills Learners (2013), I explored the learning journeys of adult basic skills learners.  For the male and female learners, returning to education was a means for them to develop their literacy skills and more.

Literacy was very much linked with their subjectivity and how they viewed their self-worth in the public space (for example, work) and private spaces (for example, the home). They wanted to develop their confidence, improve their social and economic positioning and improve their life chances and those of their children. The study confirmed the incredible power of Adult Education to enrich learners’ lives, and importantly offer them choices they never thought possible.

When one of the research participants, Joanne, a single mum with three children, arrived at college, she struggled to read and write. Initially, she sat at the back of the class, lacking confidence and avoiding eye contact. However, after Joanne joined the research group, we began to spend more time together. This allowed us the opportunity to speak in detail about the barriers she had faced and her hopes and aspirations for the future. She described how she had come to college to learn to fill out forms and to become more confident in spelling. However, as Joanne’s confidence increased in both herself and her writing skills, there was a simultaneous shift in aspirations. This was the first time she had planned for the future.

She began to make choices that she previously thought were not for people from her background.

She began to speak about a career rather than a job. After completing a Level 2 course in literacy and numeracy, Joanne progressed onto an access to nursing course, then to university to pass her diploma.

She is now a qualified staff nurse working in the north of England.

Any discussion of basic skills, and its impact in challenging the barriers and inequalities faced by many learners, cannot overlook the vital issue (and what can be a real barrier) of funding.

Basic skills provision needs to continue to be fully funded for all adults, including providing choices of flexible and accessible formal courses together with supporting those with skills at lower levels to engage in informal learning.

Basic skills courses for young and older adults can offer them a crucial second chance of re-engaging with education.

Predicting results.. what works and what doesn’t

Predicting election results is a mix of art and science.  We can all think of polls and pundits in the past who have got it wrong.  But there are some signs observers can look out for to make at least a partial judgement.

Yesterday (March 5th) I attended an excellent event at the BBC in Media City which looked at the North West (the region with the joint highest number of marginal constituencies) and attempted to make some predictions.

This got me thinking about what we should be looking for as indications of potential political success at election time.  So I’ll be writing a few pieces about the various measures and what they might mean.

Yesterday’s predictions, which only involved four seats in the North West region changing hands, used a number of factors including financial donations, polling data, local election results, incumbency factors and so on.  Audience members raised other potentially significant aspects such as levels of activism, key campaign issues and the personalities of the various contenders.

The aspect I am concentrating on today is local election results.

It is easy to look at a constituency, look at the local election results in the run up to a General Election, and make a party-based judgement on those figures.  In fact, in isolation, local election results are among the weakest of predictors of GE success.  Let’s take Edge Hill’s local constituency, West Lancashire.  In the run up to 2010 there had been Conservative local victories in Skelmersdale.  (If you don’t know the area, think in terms of Labour suddenly winning Surrey).

These were unexpected and many felt this pointed to a growth in Tory support that would turn out the incumbent Rosie Cooper.  In fact , although there was a small vote-share increase for the Conservatives, in line with the national trend, Ms Cooper is still the MP and had a 2010 majority of more than four thousand.

The thing is, local elections are simply different.  Firstly the turnout can be considerably lower than in a General.  Secondly, party allegiance can be weaker.  Finally the personality and activity level of a local candidate, particularly one running on an “us against them” ticket can be significant in a way that simply does not transfer.   This becomes apparent on those polling days when a General Election and Local Election take place on the same day in the same area.  Vote-splitting can be very common.

So what do local election results tell us?

Well they give some indication of party organisation.  A badly organised party will not  usually manage a large number of victories.  They give some indication of activist levels as volunteers need to be found to stand and again found to campaign. And they give some indication of local roots and knowledge.

But what they don’t do is tell us who will become an MP.

In 2001, had local election results been an indicator of national success I would have become an MP in Liverpool.  This on its own should be a warning to those who put too much prediction weight on the colour of the local council.

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).

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.

 

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.