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.

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.

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.