Wednesday, 31 October 2012

This isn’t Romneysia, Mitt knows exactly what he’s doing

It’s just a week before the biggest political event… in four years. Only eight swing states and possibly only a handful of independent, undecided voters separate President Obama and Mitt Romney.  Calculations have been made to show that an unprecedented draw, at 269 Electoral College seats apiece, is quite possible.

How did we get to this point? Just a month ago, President Obama was climbing to an almost unassailable poll lead in the wake of the infamous ‘47%’ MotherJones video. On 4th October, one forecasting site estimated he had an 87.1% chance of winning the election. Obama’s campaign had front loaded much of its campaign funding into attack ads that got their point across before Mr Romney had a chance to establish his own image (much like Bush Jr did to John Kerry in 2004). Despite a weak economy, the 47% video appeared to confirm everything the Obama campaign had said, and the game seemed to be up.

Now it’s all to play for again. This is largely down to an almost catastrophic first round debate performance from the President. Since then he has recovered slightly, but there is no doubt that in round one he was trounced. What Mitt Romney did was to pull an incredibly predictable trick and Mr Obama should have been far better prepared for it.

In effect, he lied. Ok so it’s more ambiguous than that. It depends on which comparison you want to make. Either its October 2012 Mitt vs Republican primaries Mitt; or, October 2012 Mitt vs Massachusetts governor Mitt. I have previously argued that Mr Romney instinctively sits on the liberal side of his party: His record as governor shows that he pre-empted ‘Obamacare’ and was willing to use tax increases to close a deficit. However, since Ronald Reagan, neo-conservatism has captured the American right, turning the GOP into a viciously ideological, inflexible and aggressively uncooperative party. To win the vote, Mitt Romney had to tack right.

Now he’s tacked back. Secure in the knowledge that the Republican base will be energised to come out against a black, ‘socialist’ President, he’s now appealing to independents. Mr Obama was left looking woefully unprepared in the first debate. He and his team arrogantly assumed that Mr Romney’s policies were so illogical that they could be easily dismantled by the Commander in Chief on live television. Instead, the President was left chasing a shadow as Mr Romney planted a flag on the centre ground. He literally built an elephant-shaped castle there.

The President has recovered: He could barely conceal his glee at unveiling ‘Romnesia’ as the illness of forgetting all your own policies (the video is well worth a watch, particularly for the ending). Frankly, Mr Obama’s recovery should never have been required; he should never have been left so floundering. Mr Romney’s move was incredibly telegraphed: By the very nature of the American political system, a candidate is required to win the base in primaries and then win a small number of independent voters in key swing states. The President should have been briefed that Mr Romney would suddenly change his tone.

The ‘Romnesia’ attack is effective and also hilarious, but it may be too late. With so little time left, there is only a tiny fraction of undecided voters left to play for and Mr Romney has gone some way to closing the gap with his shift in position. The President is right to paint Mr Romney as someone who sails whichever way the wind is heading; forgetting his own positions and making things up as he goes along. For a candidate who labels himself as a decisive businessman, Mr Romney has been dangerously scatter-brained in his positions. For his part, he also made an arrogant assumption that the ‘I’m not Obama’ line would get him into the White House.

Despite this, the election is in my opinion, Obama’s to lose. Notwithstanding a poor record of delivering on his promises, he has enough to boast about and he should do so. Unfortunately, it is difficult to convince people of his record by saying ‘if I hadn’t done this stuff, you’d be worse off, trust me’. However with ‘Frankenstorm’ Hurricane Sandy tearing into New York, the incumbent has a chance to draw attention away from the vicious partisan scrap and onto his (hopefully) decisive leadership as President. If Obama performs well enough in the next week, Romney won’t even have a chance to connect with voters, whatever stance he decides to take.

And what if Mr Romney wins? The most dire prediction is of a Zomney apocalypse. Hurricane Sandy makes this slightly more plausible.

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Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Does British politics need rebranding? (Part II)

Occupy: Politics still matters to some people

The British political process continues to alienate ordinary people. Few people think politicians represented their interests, and even fewer trust what they say.  Voter turnout is low, and even lower among young people. Just over a week ago, I sat on the panel for a debate on how to rebrand politics. There was undeniably a consensus in the audience that the political system is innately elitist, and was disconnected from the problems of ordinary young people. Against this, Shaun Bailey, an advisor for David Cameron, argued that it was up to the individual to be the change they wanted to see. He was right to point out that our system, compared to others in the world, is relatively uncorrupted, accountable and participatory.

The debate was easily able to identify some of the symptoms of the ‘illness’ of democracy. Indeed, the causes too are being more frequently discussed in the public sphere: Labour MP Gloria de Piero has conducted a study that concluded, amongst other things, that the public feel alienated due to a lack of ‘ordinary’ people in politics. In the first part of this article, I argued that since party democracy is a zero-sum game, it discourages honesty and cross-party cooperation; I believe this is innate to the modern system, and it makes politics both exciting (for those interested) and impregnable (for those who are not). Turning to American politics, it has been argued that the two-party democratic system there is responsible for the increasingly extreme policies of at least one of the parties (guess which).  Let’s be thankful that as yet, the Labour and Conservative parties have not yet been tempted on to the extremes of the divide.

There is relatively little debate however over what can be done to reconnect democratic politics with those whom it claims to represent: the demos. This is partly because few people are looking at the problems, and even fewer people have any ideas as to how to cure them. The issues are inevitably complex and widespread, but here are a few suggestions.

Let’s take the core tenet; that the public feels alienated from politics and the political process. This is partly an issue of education – educational standards need to be raised, and young people have to be instilled with the idea that politics matters and affects them. It is impossible to ignore the fact that a (largely) left-leaning audience at the debate were in contention with an advisor to a conservative Prime Minister. Educational standards will raise the ability of ordinary people to get involved themselves, hold MPs to account and make better informed decisions, so satisfying one half of the argument.

Undoubtedly though there have to be some changes to the system as well. One proposition I have is through devolution. The more localised power is, the more the public would see how decisions affect them – people would care more because they would see more clearly how an elected candidate influenced the local area.  At the current time, we have MPs, who represent a constituency but may find their interests conflict with national ones. We also have elected councillors, but who have relatively little power.

A small change such as allowing councils to keep a higher proportion of the income and business taxes they raise, rather than sending it to the centre, would give more local incentive for growth and job creation. It would also make local politics more important, and the public would have more of a say over local prosperity. Issues such as house building would therefore be decided locally and with local needs accounted for. Local debate would be more active because the issue would be between local growth and employment in local companies versus local environmental issues, rather than local versus national needs and benefit. Councillors would also be held accountable. The government should restart the regional development fund to ensure poorer areas did not fall behind.

A re-energising of local politics would hopefully have the effect of drawing in more local, ‘ordinary’ people into politics. In any case, the public would feel that their MP or councillors were more representative of their interests if more powers were devolved from the centre. In a similar vein, the election of mayors in cities might encourage people to take interest in the political process out of pride of wanting their city to do well. This may well lend itself to personality politics and more Bojo copycats. Nevertheless characters like him are refreshing to see, and he connects with people, despite being an old-Etonian. Elected councillors and mayors can step out of the partisan political process and be accountable solely on their local successes.
The devolution of these powers would mean there was more to play for in local elections, and hopefully this would mean more vigorous marketing campaigns, more effort to engage local people and more substantial local debates coming to the fore.

This suggestion is by no means perfect. What I mean to do is look practically at what can be done to stimulate public engagement and connect politics with people, rather than simply condemning the system and those who do nothing to change it. Shaun Bailey is right – people do have the power to change things, but equally that comes with the recognition that change does need to happen. So let’s get round to changing it.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Does British politics need rebranding? (Part I)

Occupy London: Some people still get passionate about politics (©Max Nash/PA Wire)
On Saturday I was invited to represent Catch21 at a Bite the Ballot debate on rebranding politics at the Youth Enterprise Live event at Earls Court. The key issue was how politics could evolve to be less elitist and more appealing to people in order to create a fuller democracy, and whether young people could lead this change. The discussion was audience led and there were some very strong opinions put forward. Although by no means unanimous, there was a generally held view that politics was elitist, out of touch and needed to be seriously modified to reconnect with people.

My fellow panellist Shaun Bailey, who came from a council estate to having the ear of the PM, told the crowd “you don’t know how good you’ve got it” and came close to being heckled. He argued that compared to other, far more corrupt systems of government elsewhere in the world, we in Britain had the power to really change things for the better, but it was down to the individual to do this. The murmurs of discontent were understandable from an audience who sees the current system as synonymous with the highly stratified society we live in. When a teenager in the riots gets six months for swearing at a police officer, is it any wonder that London’s politically aware young people get mad when David Cameron backs Andrew Mitchell over pleb-gate?

Of course, both sides are correct. Politics does need to be rebranded and reinvigorated; it needs to be more representative of society, and matter more to more people. Undeniably however we are also blessed with a (relatively) uncorrupted system in which citizens can make a difference. Labour MP Gloria de Piero has conducted a study into why people ‘hate’ politicians and identified some core problems. She argued that the man in the street did not believe that politics particularly affected him, or that he could really change anything or get involved. She also said that people did not see politics or parties as representative of the public.

The latter problem is already well known; governments on both sides (but particularly on the right) are always keen to get more people from business into politics, in an attempt to break the cycle of career politicians. But how to do this? Party politics is not an overly appealing prospect for top business chiefs used to the freedom of dynamic private sector businesses. The former of Ms de Piero’s issues could simply be a matter of marketing. However I think both are symptoms of a bigger problem in our party political system.

Unfortunately, this problem is not likely to change very fast. British politics is a zero-sum game. The winner gains power for five years and has control of policy. It is therefore in the parties’ interests to do whatever they can to work against the other. Through this, complex issues are given black and white answers. Answers that should require nuance become a simple choice of ‘us versus them’; parties promise one thing, and then find that the reality makes their actions more complicated. Politicians defend their failure if they are in power, or condemn success when they are in opposition. All sides come out looking like liars.

I would obviously not make a good politician; I’m probably a bit too honest for my own good. I think if we saw a bit more honesty from politicians however, a bit more willingness to admit mistakes, and a bit more cooperation across the parties, the public may think that they are less out for self gain and more working in the interests of the country.  The effects may not be as damaging as politicians would fear: An interesting article from Matt Paris has argued how the cliché ‘a week is a long time in politics’ is only really applicable to a select clique of interested observers. For Joe Bloggs, ten years is a more appropriate length of time to judge parties on. The conclusion is that things such as ‘pleb-gate’ or departmental cock-ups like the West Coast rail franchise affair may not be noticed by the public as much as everyone in the inner circle fears. To draw a tangent, you could argue that if politicians were more down to earth and honest, they could gain more in their successes than they lost in popularity from their failures.

So we come back to the issue, and perhaps the solution – how to get more ‘ordinary’ people into politics; how to make more politics more representative and prevent the majority from feeling isolated. There seems to be cross the board agreement on this need. But neither ‘ordinary’ people nor business chiefs are going to be interested in playing the party game when it’s so messy and mired in slander.

In part two of this discussion, I will look at some more practical measures to draw in young people and the population as a whole, things like devolution, elected mayors and media. Finally I will look at how the nasty side of politics can actually be turned into a strength: Politics is exciting and you only have to look back a few decades to see how invigorated and passionate young people used to feel about politics. Maybe it could just be an issue of connecting politics with young people in a way that they find exciting and appealing. 

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Tuesday, 16 October 2012

David Cameron bites back

Hands up who liked David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative conference? I have to put up my hand actually, despite the ridicule I will get from many readers. I was also quite impressed by Ed Miliband’s speech though, so maybe I’m just fickle. As that may be, I thought both speeches and conferences had their good points and bad points; which makes them fairly reflective of the parties themselves. Supporters of both sides (except the Lib Dems) have reason to be happy with their leader’s speeches. Despite the good ideas I saw in Mr Miliband’s speech, it was Mr Cameron who I thought really lifted the bar and laid the ground for a (relatively) epic two and-a-half year battle going into 2015.

Conservative commentators have largely been satisfied by Mr Cameron’s speech. I was impressed by the clarity of the argument from a leader who has hitherto struggled to define himself during his premiership. Mr Cameron needed a good message with good delivery to steady a party that has been rocked (along with his leadership) in the past six months. Unlike his counterpart, he relied on notes, but as No. 10 duly noted; “he’s Prime Minister, he doesn’t have days and days to practice and memorise a speech – like you do in Opposition”. From behind the podium, he perhaps looked more Prime Ministerial than Mr Miliband’s walky-talky performance.

After Mr Miliband’s attacks, Mr Cameron needed to come out fighting. This meant that he was seen as reactionary by some, but he could not have let Mr Miliband’s accusations go unchecked, or else look weak. His response was to effectively line up all of Labour’s attacks and ‘misconceptions’ and deal with them one by one; simultaneously he was able to clarify his brand of Toryism and land some good blows on Labour.
The central tenet of Mr Cameron’s speech was well summed up by the following lines:

“We don’t preach about one nation but practise class war. We just get behind people who want to get on in life… They call us the party of the better-off: no, we are the party of the want-to-be-better-off, those who strive to make a better life for themselves and their families – and we should never, ever be ashamed of saying so.”

This message will do little to placate the disgust of Labour supporters towards the Tory’s economic policies but that was never the aim. Labour commentators constantly argue that “everybody” can see that the Coalition’s economic policies are failing, but unfortunately the public are equally, if not more, distrusting of Labour’s economic record. Instead, Mr Cameron attempted to deliver a unifying message to all those conservative, liberal and independent voters disenchanted with the government, but equally less keen on the opposition. If you’re a Labour supporter and you watched it and hated it, then that’s not really surprising.

The speech also included some genuinely moving words on how the Paralympics affected Mr Cameron, as a father of a deceased disabled son, as well as an attempt to clarify the ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ image with, amongst other things, a recommitment to the NHS. But the real message remained the neat explanation of how conservative values are the answer to the current economic situation. Undoubtedly Mr Cameron’s best line was his ‘Labour is the party of one notion – borrowing’ pun. Ignoring the fact that a recession has meant that borrowing has gone up, Mr Cameron stuck to his guns and backed George Osborne to continue the party’s task of taking the ‘tough choices’ for the country.

Indicative of this was the ‘sink or swim’ message Mr Cameron used to justify the difficult decisions that he has taken for Britain. This was a message that certainly needed repeating after the past six month of gaffes and incompetence that has come close to ruining the image of the government. But it was the personalised version of this message, the one targeted at the individual, those so called ‘strivers’, which I think is strongest declaration.

Labour should be wary of this message; in defining this target group Mr Cameron has also found a level of clarity at a critical point two years before the election. In backing the ‘strivers’ Mr Cameron also sums up the other big party policies: Welfare reform to guarantee no benefits claimant will be better off staying on benefits; devolution of the education system; tax breaks and loans to small businesses – given out in a ‘Dragons Den’ style.

The narrative is clear: Mr Cameron reiterated that the country is suffering short term pain for long term gain, that this was needed in order to survive in an ever more competitive world, and that Labour are too irresponsible for the job. I have previously commented on the good ideas that came out of Mr Miliband’s speech; Mr Cameron now has found his central message, and has two years left in government to put any good ideas into effect. If he would just fire Andrew Mitchell then supporters may see things looking up.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Labour gain the momentum

Ed Miliband makes his brilliantly delivered speech at the conference. ©Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

So what’s the verdict on Labour? The conference had its highs and lows, and some very interesting statements and omissions for the politically interested to obsess over. As a fiercely independent, politically aware, middle-class young person who voted for the Liberal Democrats last election, I rather enjoyed being courted by Ed Miliband in his big ‘One Nation’ speech. Even the Telegraph had to admit, the speech was flawlessly delivered. Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail said Ed looked constipated in the way he walked around the stage. Others made flattering, but not especially welcome, comparisons to Tony Blair at his best.

If nothing else, Mr Miliband should get a big bounce in his personal polls, which hitherto have had him eating David Cameron’s dust, despite the crashing popularity of the PM’s party. Some may say he even looked Prime Ministerial. Certainly, Labour can begin to build some momentum from this, and why bother with policy specifics when the current government is so unpopular?

‘One Nation’ – the theme of Mr Miliband’s speech, seems a very blurry concept. Amongst all the opaque-ness there were a few specifics. There was the usual ‘we’ll put the ‘N’ back in NHS’ from Liam Byrne and ‘we won’t cut the police’ from Yvette Cooper, but there was also some genuinely new stuff too: Top of the list was undoubtedly Mr Miliband’s unveiling of the ‘Forgotten 50%’ policy – to plough money into vocational qualifications and private and public apprenticeship schemes. Not only is this badly needed, but it signals a break from New Labour’s focus on getting 50% of young people into university. Another was Mr Ball’s very good suggestion to spend the 4G windfall on new homes. The Coalition will be kicking themselves that they didn’t think of that first.

Both are also indicative of the finely balanced message of the conference. On the one hand, the party could not be too specific about what it would do in 2015, since no one knows what the state of the economy will be then. Yet neither could it ignore policy ideas entirely. ‘What we would do now if we were in government’ was therefore the middle ground. A nice bit of political manoeuvring if I do say so.

Yet when the conference finished, I was still left feeling a little unsatisfied - policy is still too thin on detail to come across credibly. ‘We’re conducting a policy review’ has become the stock detail-avoidance answer of Labour ministers recently, and this has to be improved.  On the penultimate day of the conference, the story broke that the Virgin vs FirstGroup rail franchise process had been torn up, and three civil servants suspended for supplying ministers with bad sums. Maria Eagle, Shadow Transport Secretary led the inevitable vanguard against her opposite number Patrick McLoughlin, who has redder roots than most in the Labour party. ‘Shambles’, ‘humiliation’ and ‘incompetence’ were words bounded about, but when the equally inevitable question came back, ‘we’re conducting a policy review’ was the go-to answer. Ms Eagle added that she always checked over the sums of the civil servants who worked for her.

©  Dave Thompson/PA Wire
Moreover, you can’t help but take ‘One Nationism’, that warm and fuzzy concept, with a pinch of salt when Unite union chief Len McLuskey begins and ends his speeches with ‘comrades’. The irony is almost cringe-worthy when a union leader refers to a Liberal-Conservative coalition as ‘ideologues’. Ed Balls was brave to stand up in front of the unions and say that he would not repeal the 1% wage increase cap. This will add to Labour’s economic credibility, but most other Labour ministers were all too eager to soak up the easy applause with a ‘no to cuts’ agenda.

Much of what was said was empty politicking. The beauty of being in opposition is that you don’t really have to be too detailed in what you say. But for all Labour’s criticism of Coalition indecisiveness and U-turns, it would have been refreshing for them to cut the crap and lay down a bit more of a blueprint.

As Martin Ivens has argued, it is perhaps in labour’s interest to remain a bit vague. With the current crisis and the Coalition’s lack of popularity, Labour could get in just on that. But across the Atlantic another (if entirely opposing) party is learning the lesson that an opponent’s economic record may not be quite enough to get you elected; especially when the opponent’s leader is more popular than yours.

Labour showed that they have some good ideas for getting the country moving again; it would just be nice to see more of them.