Monday, 28 September 2009

Bloggers As Candidates

Iain Dale has confirmed he is on the shortlist as a candidate to replace Andrew MacKay in Bracknell.

Leaving aside the fact that his connection with Conservative Party deputy chairman, Lord Ashcroft (who owns a 25% stake in Dale's Total Politics magazine) makes him by far the establishment candidate, I find it interesting that he has used his 'celebrity' status among online political activists to position himself as the 'popular' contender.

Bracknell Council leader Paul Bettison had apparently attempted to assure his selection as the only local candidate, but found himself in hot water with Conservative Party chairman Eric Pickles as the local party under his leadership became associated with the policy of 'bin taxes'.

Cllr Bettison had been a major critic of across-the-board cuts promoted by shadow chancellor George Osborne, even going so far as to speak out at the party conference last year, saying people will ask 'where's our library?'

As Paul Waugh describes, this is a sore point for the ideological base of the party who are strongly motivated by issues having a bearing on the state of their pocketbooks. And any split between local councillors and the national leadership represents a massive threat to the Conservative election strategy.

It also throws up some major questions about their credentials as a prospective government-in-waiting, as they have refused to allow a man who is one of the most highly respected local government experts and a major player in the LGA the chance to stand before his local members.

Which brings us back to Iain Dale and the grassroots movement of online commentators, who he has been most responsible for turning into a community with some real political clout.

Considering Andrew MacKay's expense claims on his second house were all the more embarrassing because he shared them with his wife and Bromsgrove MP Julie Kirkbride - while not even owning a home in the Bracknell constituency - it strikes me as potentially very dangerous for them to parachute in a favoured candidate who has little local knowledge. And yet they still felt it was more dangerous to have their local chief!

While many representatives publish their own blogs this may set a precedent as the first occasion a candidate rose to prominence by being a blogger first (although Dale spectacularly failed in 2005 when he was previously the candidate for Norfolk North, turning a LibDem majority of 483 into one of over 10,000, and was subsequently rejected after the first interview stage in the selectioin process for Maidstone and The Weald in 2007).

So maybe we should ask whether it is his name recognition which is being counted on to mobilise the public, and if this represents a shift in how to launch a political career.

I've been asked whether this is my intention as a 'political blogger' and I have to say I hadn't considered it until now.

In the medium-term I can see blogging will become a medium by which individuals will be able to gain respectability (or not) and familiarity (or not) by publishing their considered views, but at the same time I can also see that one's blog develops a style for more local or national issues which can be either a help or a hinderance when it comes to campaigning in an area.

So I have to say this is one process I will be following very closely.


NB I also note that the Conservative majority in Bracknell was just over 12,000 in 2005, making it just safe enough for Mr Dale!

Friday, 25 September 2009

Scotland's Scot Free!

Baroness Scotland, The Attorney General, has come in for a lot of scrutiny in recent days.

There are two main points taken up in the criticisms of her: The first is that as a representative of the people she is a law-maker and therefore may not be a law-breaker. The potentially more embarrassing gaffe was that the law she broke was one which she was personally responsible for designing and should therefore have known exactly what that entailed.

So a £5,000 fine for her and deportation for the 27-yr-old Tongan maid and all's right with the world again, isn't it?

Except Baroness Scotland's PPC didn't think the slap on the wrist was appropriate and resigned on principle.

Now Labour are doing the rounds and claiming it was an administrative error, that she is a good person and shouldn't lose her job over this minor detail!

Excuse me, but they form the national administration and they set the standards for administration in this country. Not only that, but for the maid deportation was a much more serious sanction and they had no hesitation or qualms over that.

If their example is not to be followed then it is a case of "do as I say, not do as I do," - which is wholly and completely unacceptable.

If they are happy to make the argument that it is fine to make policy on the basis of flawed information and in the face of strong warnings to the contrary, as the Attorney General's predecessor did (although Lord Goldsmith denied he knew it was flawed) and as small businesses had (criticising this particular regulation for being excessive and overburdensome), how will similar unnecessary and avoidable situations (be they civil procedures or wars) ever be prevented in the future?

Frankly this episode is symptomatic of the wider illness which infects Labour and how they have betrayed principles they may once have defended - punishment is not a cure and it certainly doesn't address the causes of the problem!

So Gordon Brown was at the UN trying to grab a photo opportunity with Barack Obama... now the mere appearance of any national Labour figure on TV or radio makes me so physically nauseous I have to leave the room.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Some Advice, Danny Alexander

Watching you get skewered in your interview with Andrew Neil was painful. So take some lessons from Paddy Ashdown about how to deal with his personal style.

Be more avuncular. Be more affable. And don't squabble with him while letting him dictate the agenda: turn the interview on it's head and use your knowledge of his attitudes and life to build some bridges.

You've got the arguments on your side, so all you need to do is coax them out.

Is disagreement at the top of a hierarchy damaging? However Andrew Neil may wish to portray things, we can also ask since when was he ever a demure lapdog of his bosses willing to do their bidding with out even so much as a by-your-leave?

LibDem conferences are not designed as carefully stage-managed presentations to manipulate the perception of the party as a highly disciplined electoral machines. LibDem conference is real politics where members and leaders reach democratic decisions in alliance with each other about the direction of the party.

Having open and inclusive conversations where truth is told to power is the only way to tease out the reasons why what might initially be considered desirable must be tempered.

Having open and inclusive conversations where examples of experience brings a diverse range of sometimes conflicting evidence to the table is the only way to tease out imaginative solutions able to satisfy the concerns of more participants.

So when Andrew Neil challenges you, reverse the knife and let him offer his experience - don't allow him to impose on you.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Who Needs A USP?

It's LibDem conference week.

Andrew Rawnsley skirts round the main issue and comes close to giving an interesting answer. But in coming closest to describing the situation facing the LibDems as they head to conference he still manages to fluff the punchline.

In a way this is infuriating, but it is also inspiring me to write this post, so what the hell...

The perrenial question posed of any party outside the big two is how to grab the public's attention and hold it for long enough for the so-called 'opinion formers' to decide that the message of the day is relevant. Stuck in the purgatory between the real world and the corridors of power, close enough to touch both and in a perpetual coil of anxiety ready to jump, the life of a political journalist is a tantalising one. It is a rollercoaster ride between the highs and lows of being flavour of the month one minute and being given the cold shoulder the next. It is an addictive life and can be all-consuming.

So it should be no real surprise that the chattering class in on constant alert looking for their next hit of hotness.

And in politics this translates as the holy grail of a silver bullet - a unique selling point; some indispensible policy or intangible sense of being 'in touch' which is utterly compelling. Call it magic or stardust or something similarly mesmerising (though the x-factor may once have been an adequate description, that was before Simon Cowell got his hands on it).

All sorts of people have had 'it'; they might just have been in the right place at the right time, or have had a way with them which only hits you later. But this elusive quality is not only the stuff of legend it is also the stuff which pays the bills for all those in the intermediate trade of communicating it. And professional communicators such as journalists need a steady diet of it to survive in the cutthroat world they exist in.

Smaller parties than the LibDems don't need to worry about communicating what their identity is because they are essentially single-issue parties. The Greens are the party of the environment; The BNP are the racist party; The SNP are the scottish party; Ukip are the anti-EU party... you get the picture. Their problem isn't gaining definition, but breaking out of their self-imposed shackles and being taken seriously by the wider public on all the other issues which inform our voting choices.

Labour and Conservative parties don't need to worry about communicating their identity because they are composed of class-based factions and are defined by their opposition to each other holding the reigns of power, which in practice means exchanging it at regular intervals.

The LibDems are different. The freedom to be be judged according to one's own stardards is what sets LibDems apart.

So maybe it was a tactical mistake of news management for Nick Clegg to come out before conference and call for 'savage' even 'fierce' cuts.

It complied with all the accepted nostrums about grabbing headlines, but it also submitted meekly to the recieved truth imposed by the established powers that a party needs to show how it is different.

I believe you can only be yourself and then you have to let commentators describe what they see.

A smaller party doesn't need to actively go out and try to define itself with showy eye-catching initiatives, or not just. The wider substance of a complete, comprehensive and coherent picture must be allowed to emerge from the profusion of numerous different perspectives.

The old chestnut 'what do the LibDems stand for?' is a standard journalistic device which hamstrings anyone who represents the party - either they end up criticised for being wishy-washy and spouting platitudes or anything which is said is used to drive a wedge between the harmony of different factions who happily work together.

LibDems don't need and can't provide a single means of definition for lazy commentators to hang their peg on - that's just not what the philosophy is about.

And a general election campaign can't be won by offering just one single wonderful policy. This might pick up a few votes among people for whom that area is the most energising, but it's not enough.

Instead a party with ambitions of forming national government must be one which appeals to the widest number of people. And that means having a full manifesto and being able to link together the different strands into a consistent narrative.

Anybody can say they stand for 'prudence' or 'justice' or 'doing the right thing', what's really needed is practical policies which show all these things in action.

LibDems stand for all sorts of different things - electoral reform, law reform, tax reform, constitutional reform, social reform... the list goes on. And which of those does anybody seriously disagree with?

It's easy to get picky about the precise nature of deisred reforms, but the underlying issues are ones we are all anxious to deal with.

So why worry about having an informed and inclusive debate about what the details of those reforms should be when our opponents have already made up their minds on the basis of their preconcieved notions and prejudices?

LibDems need to fight against the recieved opinions passed down from on high - so when heavyweight political journalists such as Andrew Neil cry 'leaders lead', LibDems need to be able to respond 'yes, but our leaders don't dictate'.

Friday, 18 September 2009

A Moment of Definition

Nick Clegg has published a lengthy (92 pages) pamphlet setting out his stall to use the LibDem conference (starting this weekend) to define the party 'narrative' which will take the party into the general election next spring.

He called it 'The Liberal Moment'.

You can read it here.

There's been much comment on this from the main commentators in the LibDem blogosphere (James Graham, Charlotte Gore, Stephen Tall, Jonathan Calder, Stephen Glenn, Costigan Quist, Neil Fawcett, Caron's Musings), bringing with it a large sense of reserved optimism.

In the wider spectrum Sunny Hundal says it is 'music to his ears', while Anthony Barnett notes that LibDems consistently make the right calls on the issues which matter and the only sound of dischord is a matter of personal style.

The more ideological spokesman for the Fabians takes an analytical view. Sunder Katwala explains the historical context that liberalism was defeated through parliamentary carve-ups, but not philosophically, and ends by pointing out how the great hope for renewal on the 'progressive left' Jon Cruddas also recently talked about reclaiming their liberal heritage.

The Times has also published a lead editorial recording this as a significant shift, while in his supporting article and on his blog Nick Clegg sets out the framework even more clearly,
"The choice between a fading, exhausted Labour Government and the ideologically barren Conservatives... is not a good one."
In other words now is the time for the LibDems to step forward.


So here's where I slip into speechwriting mode to give my opinion:-

There's only one narrative that counts and that's honesty.

Only through honesty are we able to sort out our problems and make sure they don't return to haunt us.

I'll mention Charles Kennedy and Mark Oaten. We can be honest about their problems because there is no shame in admitting the truth; any embarrassment evaporates by being able to show the situation is being dealt with and mitigated.

I'll mention St Vincent of Cable and our argument on the economy.

I'll mention our resolute stance against the 'false prospectus' for war in Iraq.

I'll mention party funding and the expenses scandal.

I'll mention civil liberties and the database state (lately the ISA...).

I'll mention Jo Swinson's 'Real Women' campaign.

I could go on.

Each of these are cases where honesty about the problems and the causes of the problems are fundamental to what it means to be a LibDem and how we go about looking for solutions which provide positive and lasting solutions.

Even in the areas where the public is largely unconvinced with our stance we remain steadfastly honest in not playing to the braying crowd.

We are honest about the EU, about its weaknesses and limitations - in contrast to every other party. We are honest about calling for a referendum on the substantive issue of membership, rather than the technical issue of singular treaties.

We are honest about the need to balance competing concerns such as the environment and the economy - in contrast to every other party. We would not sacrifice one for the other, nor do we manoeuver for simple gain - we are honest about the need to reconcile opposites in a way which combines them for mutual benefit and that our electoral success is a product - not a prerequisite - of our achievements.

We are honest about the UK, about the need for constitutional renewal - in particular contrast to the SNP or Sinn Fein. We are honest about the fact we live in an interdependent world and borders between people are no more than a figment of administrative imagination.

We are honest about our place in the world and how we prepare and conduct ourselves in places where conflict exists. What is Trident for, after all?

And most of all we are honest about not playing to peoples prejudices. all we have to do is get more people to start noticing how this all amounts to a consistent theme and we'll be set fair.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Blog Evangelising

Mark Valladares composes a fascinating series on the issues facing the bloggertariat from the perspective of a LibDem functionary (in the nicest possible sense):

Part 1 - When Silence Is Not Golden
Part 2 - A Brief Personal History Of 'Reporting Back'
Part 3 - What Went Wrong?
Part 4 - Is there an easy answer to the dilemma?
Part 5 - Ghosts in my machine

Just to recap, bloggers have by-and-large become a voicepiece for the parties they stand for, and while this makes them (us) ideally positioned to pass comment and criticise from the edges, it also is the cause of headaches inside any hierarchy.

With the ability to spread information freely there also grows a desire for more and more accurate information. But while the speed of public response has increased exponentially the ability for communication from those at the heart of the organisation has not been able to keep pace.

Locally there has been a somewhat unofficial decree for Labour members to avoid the medium of blogs presumably to give critical opponents less opportunity to attack their regime and hurry their departure.

In the LibDems Party President Ros Scott deleted her very good blog because although it was a good means of communication with the ordinary member whilst campaigning expectations were built up that an inside source into the inner working of the party would spill details - an unrealistic expectation of anyone in that position.

This tension then came to a head when pseudonymous LibDem blogger Agent Orange used his blog (and the comments section of Federal Executive member, PPC and noted anti-sleaze campaigner, Duncan Borrowman) to attack the official response of the party in the aftermath of the resignation of Chief Executive Lord Chris Rennard. Liberal Vision helpfully (or not) added fuel to this incendiary mix by summarising the exchange.

Anyway, as the blogging ecosphere evolves it is carving a niche for itself. How it shapes itself will ultimately do much to inform the perception of what a party stands for and how it manages its' communication both with the public and internally.

There is an obvious conflict of interest between the considered collective viewpoint of a group and the immediate personalised reaction of an individual, so it's worth asking how this can be resolved.

As you can see from my sidebar there are several different styles which have been adopted and I suggested to Mark that a form of 'official' Federal party blog be made the responsibility of an elected officer, ideally the secretary, who could be held accountable for the impartiality of their view.

Even were such a blog to concentrate solely on publishing copies of agendas and minutes this would be an enviable resource to help engage with a wider audience and help us start to consider the issues at stake from different, previously unconsidered angles. If this then expanded into a wider discussion of those issues then so much the better, and in doing so we'd suddenly discover it had transformed into an influential forum for political thought.

At the heart of this subject is the highly topical debate between privacy and honesty, which are still in many areas seen as mutually exclusive. And I'm certain they will not be successfully reconciled until there is a practical way of demonstrating how to do so.

So I'm disappointed that the central organisation of the LibDems isn't more enthusiastic about bringing their world online to engage with the bloggertariat in a more equal and participatory manner, since freedom of expression and the relationship between public and private behaviour must be central to the identity of any liberal democrat.

Nevertheless I'm optimistic that this is an opportunity which will be taken advantage of in the medium term. As it is I'm less excited by the flat formats of most websites and think it is the ability to be heard in return which makes blogs so compelling.

Of course it can be quite time consuming to get a good blog off the ground (as I keep finding with my own rather over-ambitious local news site), but once it is airborne and flying the freedom it confers is hard to beat.
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Friday, 11 September 2009

The Co-Operative Party Conference

It is one of the invisible political forces on the British political spectrum, but with 29 MPs the Cooperative Party is the fourth largest bloc in the country and a force to be considered, if not yet to be reckoned with.

It starts its annual conference in Edinburgh today and over the course of Saturday and Sunday respected figures such as John McFall MP and Iain Gray MSP will be on hand to speak in support of a range of policy positions which it will argue for as the junior partner within Labour's governing coalition.

The recent welcome given when Conservative leader David Cameron openly flirted with the cooperative movement 'raised eyebrows', if not as a demonstration for pragmatic politics, but for the way it showed the cracks which have opened up in the hitherto subservient relationship it had assigned itself on the left.

Now I admit I have a soft spot for their stated approach and I think there is a clear space for mutualism in society, such as with the desire to transform Network Rail into a not-for-profit company and the remutualisation of state-held building societies.

But I have serious misgivings about the strategic approach they have adopted since they consigned themselves to a 'sister-party' to the more statist labour movement in 1927.

Ever since that point in the aftermath of the general strike their subordinate role has contributed to the tendency towards polarisation of political discourse and worked against the very cooperation they presume to stand for. In effect they have become a neutered factional voice within the official Labour party.

Admittedly they claim to have successfully weaned the Attlee government away from the socialist doctrine of nationalisation, but with the manifesto of 1945 largely underpinned by the likes of Beveridge and Keynes' Liberal thinking this is more a matter of hype than reality.

So why did they do it?

The practicalities of presenting a national face and standing candidates in every area of the country has always mitigated against smaller parties breaking through and increasing the range of views represented in our constitutional democracy (as Ukip and the Greens have discovered to their chagrin).

However, with devolution now a reality and local solutions to the fore the opportunity and means is surely there for them to make a stand now more than ever.

Ideologically they should be pushing harder for electoral reform which would make acknowledged coalitions an inevitable consequence. And by dissolving the official link with Labour the volatile nature of electoral maths would be reduced to the benefit of all in society.

The more moderate Cooperative grouping has always had more in common with Liberals and LibDems than hard-line Labour and it would be much more in-keeping with their mission to work on issues of common concern with any party than to slavishly follow where Labour takes them.

With Labour looking increasingly likely to be heading for meltdown at the next election and facing the risk that their platform may evaporate with Gordon Brown's leadership it would send an immeasurable statement to the public that we don't live in a two-party hegemony and there are more options out there.

Politics is about cooperation and mutual interest after all - so what are they waiting for?

Friday, 4 September 2009

A Televised Debate

Sounds like a good idea, doesn't it?

Much like at any hustings you gather the main protagonists together and let them squabble and shift and allow the real picture to emerge as the viewing audience graduall make their minds up...

Sky News have been promoting the idea in conjunction with The Daily Telegraph after launching a campaign.

Meanwhile The Guardian reports that Gordon Brown has 'sidestepped' the calls and BBC reports that although he is 'happy to do debates all the time' this is not the moment to be discussing the matter (the irony is not lost).

Obviously politics plays a part in how this discussion is managed because the simple fact that the PM would be prepared to put himself on equal footing with his opponents gives them the opportunity to cut him down to size in the eyes of voters. So this is standard fare for oppositions at a time when the government is seen to be weak and on its way out.

While it might automatically be assumed that this is a tory plot to hammer home their perceived advantage as indicated by the polls it was also a no-brainer that Nick Clegg jumped at the suggestion.

But this is about more than mere party-political jostling. It is also about media jostling in their crowded marketplace.

Sky has clearly seen an advantage in pushing this as a means to gain publicity in their on-going war with the establishment BBC (which officially reflects the diversity of views in society and cannot directly or overtly campaign). The Murdoch-backed company clearly feels it can get one over the national corporation.

But again, it also about more than that. It's about who decides to set the all-important context.

The range of alternative ways of presenting a debate means that in the decision to set the context - which could come down to minutiae such as whether the participants are seated, standing or are given a floor to roam about - can have a significant impact on the outcome.

Like they say "framing is all".

Because presentation is half the battle in politics the manoeuverings which go into the lead-up are often the most decisive phase.

In the US Presidential campaign each of the major networks got to run a televised debate and each of them tweaked the 'Town Hall' format to provide slightly different slants as they saw important. The networks also had commercial constraints placed on them which limited the extensiveness of their debates.

In the French Presidential election audience participation was largely done away with as a more discursive and open-ended approach was adopted.

Then there is also the possibility that the actual debate can be framed and analysed with the vast expert resources at the disposal of the broadcasters. But it is precisely the availability of these resources which is a game-changer and make televised debate nothing like ordinary hustings.

In the US the networks agreed to balance the biases on each others presentational format by sharing out the debates and conducting a series of them, and I would argue for the same here.

So if there is to be a formal televised debate, then each of the major news broadcasters (ie Sky, BBC and ITN) need to be involved equally in the discussions with each of the major parties (ie Labour, Conservative and LibDems) to reach a decision about how a framework for debate can be arrived at.