Friday, March 11, 2005
Let us suppose for a moment that a sitting government has a reasonably consistent 6 point lead in opinion polls* and the ability to call an election as it suits.
Next week, this theoretical government will launch a budget which will highlight that it has been able to deliver a strong economy for it’s entire period in office, announce a few goodies, highlight some unpopular policies by he opposition and generally spread it about a bit.
Now supposing I told you that the dominant media theme of the moment was that this Government’s election campaign was in crisis, meltdown, and general disarray and the opposition was already celebrating their own success. Would you join me in thinking that the world had slightly lost a sense of perspective?
So why are we hearing all this?
First, the Conservative campaign has been technically superior. The Conservatives have used the announcements of minor but specific policies to successfully own the news agenda; while Labour’s more lumbering and generalised proposals have largely failed to connect (The one-day announcement of Labour’s six pledges seems to have been largely wiped from our collective memory).
The voters seem largely unmoved by all this, so it may not matter all that much. Yet any campaign manager who allows the opposition to make the running should face some searching questions. This is what I think is driving the briefing against Milburn (that and a sense that it’s rather fun to take Alan Milburn down a peg or two**).
Second, I think Milburn is suffering because he has not presented Labour's campaign as a remorseless juggernaut. There is little sense of a clear campaign direction as yet. It’s entirely possible that it’s all worked out in a book somewhere, but yer average journo, party activist and leaflet deliverer don’t know what it is.
This makes you feel rather vulnerable to suggestion. When I am down the pub and someone tells me Labour’s campaign has been c**p, if I am in receipt of inside information that tells me how we will triumph I merely smile gnomically and tap my nose. If I’m not, I shrug my shoulders and shuffle my feet. At the elevated level of political types there seems to be a lot of foot shuffling happening.
As for me, I have a naturally panglossian attitude to these things, I just don’t see how the Tories will be able to move from headlines to hearts and minds with their current policies. They will be able to get a story up, but not convince people they would do better. So, at least for this correspondent, Panic will be deferred. At least for a week or so.
*I take this from Anthony Wells’ excellent Polling report blog.
** for some reason this footnote got cut off originally, but i think I was talking about how obviously this supposedly revelves around the blair/brown stuff and how I had absolutely no idea whether this was true or not and was somewhat bemeused by the conflicting and mutually contradictory accounts.
Thursday, March 10, 2005
"Immigrants have offered to buy her house - at a price which the prospective landlord would be able to recover from his tenants in weeks, or at most a few months. She is becoming afraid to go out. Windows are broken. She finds excreta pushed through her letter box. When she goes to the shops, she is followed by children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies. They cannot speak English, but one word they know. "Racialist," they chant. When the new Race Relations Bill is passed, this woman is convinced she will go to prison. And is she so wrong? I begin to wonder"
Enoch Powell, Rivers of Blood speech, 1968*
The Mail, Sun and Express have spent the last two days beating up on gypsies. It’s remarkable, I think, that three newspapers which employ a wide range of university educated, well paid, middle class journalists should devote so much effort, money and time to demonise a small, poor and unpopular group of people.
Still, at least they are living up to the noble traditions of the press, with Journalistic ethics, the commitment to truth, and all that jazz.
The Sun claims that their campaign is against John Prescott’s new policy on gypsy camps. They are protesting against is a government attempt to create a few extra legal Gypsy locations against the will of local communities.
Why is the Government forcing local communities to accept a number of camps? If we accept that Gypsies have to live somewhere, it is better for society if they are able to live in a licensed, planned, stable community, than in a selection of illegal, constantly shifting, unplanned camps that create misery for those who wake up one morning to find the camp on their doorstep.
Yet local councils, for obvious political reasons, have not been very forthcoming in providing licensed locations for sites, so with a shortage of locations, Police and councils have to forcibly relocate groups of gypsies from place to place, creating many illegal settlements or tolerate an illegal camp.
So the Government is proposing to force councils to create a few licensed camps where the support systems would exist to deal with a reasonably stable population, infrastructure would build up over time, and in the end, increased integration, community stability and a better life for the gypsy population.
This is what the Sun is leading a charge against. The stated aim of the Sun’s campaign is to create a situation where the police break up camps immediately, harass gypsies (except for the “decent ones”, who if the Sun's picture is to be believed, live in picaresque wooden caravans) wherever they attempt to live and generally make life unbearable for them.
The Sun’s position is, of course, no solution at all. The Sun’s preferred policy would do nothing except exacerbate an unstable, harassed, angry community on the very edge of society, constantly shifting between improvised camps on the edges of communities where they are hated, feared and subject to persecution. Sound familiar?
This position is defended by reference to two things. First, the rights of the residents of communities, and second the by outlining the abusive, criminal, parasitic and violent behaviour of the gipsies.
The first is ludicrous on its face. Most residents will be worse off under constant threat of a set of shifting informal settlements, while where Gypsy communities are licensed, the State will be able to increase resources to match needs for schools, infrastructure and so on.
The second, which the Sun chooses to communicate through the medium of readers letter’s and pictures, thus insulating itself from direct criticism of racism, is to demonise gypsies as Layabouts, criminals, dirty, (Gypsies, tramps and theives...).
I wonder where the Sun would draw the line in this characterisation? Perhaps a cartoon of a dirty, wild looking eastern European gypsy leering over a frightened pensioner with dusky features and hooded eyes full of menace? Would that be a step too far? Would that be enough to rouse our ire, or would we need something along these lines?
* to be strictly accurate, Enoch Powell was quoting a letter sent to him. However, I believe this was a rhetorical device to distance himself from the prejudice in his position, and I believe the sun is using the same technique. as an example, this letter to the Sun today: “I’ve had my van broken into four times, stealing tools worth hundreds of pounds. It just so happens a gipsy camp had set up not far away. Telling police was a waste of time.”- Of course, you are free to believe that the Sun and enoch Powell in no way meant to endorse these respective veiws, and selected them neutrally and without approval.
Tuesday, March 08, 2005
A new poll in the Times. Labour 39 Tory 32 LD 22. surveyed Fri-Sun,
But how come? I hear you cry, The Tories had a great week!
Well, the answer possibly lies in the fact that only 22% of respondents believed that cases like Mrs Dixon's would disappear under the Conservatives. Which is what your correspondent said originally, n'est pas? If even your own supporters think you'll save the problem, you aren't going to shift many votes. Would love to see that 22% by party ID.
I'm thinking of creating a nice Pander Bear graphic for Mr Howard*. What with his latest stunt, creating a new Tory education policy to suit the reality TV age we have to admit he is showing a remarkable facility for pandering. The Maria Hutchings show over at Tory HQ bought forward the following classics from Michael White:
"...her main beef is actually with Tory-controlled Essex council. "
"....Mr Collins ducked a challenge from a Tory newspaper to prevent Tory
Wandsworth closing two such special schools now."
"How would Mr Collins pay for his policy? He ducked that too. "
So to confirm. Tory education policy is to: devolve power down to communities. (Unless they want to close SEN schools), but then Tory councils can close SEN schools). Also, to allow teachers the freedom to teach the way they want (Unless they teach in a "politically correct" way, in which case central government will step in).
*Nothing anti-semitic about pander bears is there? Good. then we'll move along.
Monday, March 07, 2005
You may have noticed some political reporters calling the Tory campaign a campaign defined by wedge issues. But what exactly is a wedge issue? Why is it a powerful political tool? How are political parties going to use them in the upcoming election- and how can you spot them when they’re being used?
The first thing to recognise is that the very term “Wedge Issue” is a loaded term, both politically and emotionally. The American Enterprise magazine defines Wedge issues as “what the press calls issues that cut against liberals”.
In contrast, for much of the Liberal/Left, a wedge issue has come to mean the use of cultural messages (for example on race, religion, etc) to trump a more “conventional” political interest (such as Pensions, Union recognition and so on. In that sense it has become a ‘dirty’ term, speaking of the distortion of “true” political allegiance.
In fact, wedge issues are an absolutely normal part of politics.
Think of it this way. If you have 45% percent support in a 100% turnout election, all other things being equal, you need attract just under 10% of your opponents supporters to you. (Of course, this is an entirely unrealistic scenario, but I see no reason to let economists and scientists alone enjoy the pleasure) There are two ways of doing this.
The first is to let some outside event –such as depression, corruption or other failings alienate the voters, as you gratefully scoop up the votes. This strategy does not tend to appeal to candidates.
The other is to drive a wedge between 10% of your opponents supporters and their candidate. This is where a wedge issue comes in.
If 10% of your opponents support care passionately about protecting the lesser spotted gibbon while 30% are supportive of a logging proposal that will destroy the lesser spotted gibbons habitat, you focus your campaign to this group on the sorry plight of the monkey.
By making this the cause of the election to these people, you put your opponent in a hole. Either they alienate 30% of their support or 10%. Which is it to be?
Of course, this stance requires something more. You need to actually be seen as someone who is in favour of monkey habitations. If you are thought of as believing in monkey annihilation, you are not practicing wedge politics, you are practising opportunism and your appeal to the 10% will fail.
So, we can say the following. A wedge issue is an issue where a small proportion of your opponents support feels strongly about an issue on which they agree with you, not their normal party. By identifying this issue, campaigning on it ruthlessly in a targeted way, you can peel off their support and take it into your camp.
The most successful and important wedge issue in American politics has been the issue of race in US politics. From Nixon onward, Republicans have used wedge politics to divide the Southern Democrats from their Northern cousins. This is an extreme example, because the issue is at once so divisive, and so important to either side of the Democratic party that it was less of a wedge and more of a wholesale defection.
Yet there are wedges at all levels. The Liberal Democrats are perhaps the most skilled practitioners of wedge politics in Britain today. This is a practical necessity for a party with about 5% core support in the population. Look at any local Focus leaflet and it is jam packed with Wedge issues, from the state of roads, to Council tax levels, to the fate of a local hospital, to post office closures. Each designed to peel off a proportion of their “opponents” votes, even down to the street level.
These positions don’t have to be coherent, as these two examples from Finchley and Golders Green show. In the first, the candidate complains about higher council tax, in the second about council spending cuts.
The final characteristic of a wedge issue is that it is a secondary front. For example, one of the most effective wedges in British politics was the “right to buy” council housing introduced by the 199 Conservative Government. A large proportion of Labour supporters liked the Idea but the labour party ideology was opposed to it. However, look at the Conservative PEB’s in 1979 and 1983 and it is barely mentioned.
The only reason a wedge issue is a secondary front, is that if it wasn't it would be called "The Election campaign". That's why I don't really think of Immigration as a Conservative Wedge issue- and they don't attempt to taget the message only to those who it appeals to. Tt's far to much of a central part of their election offer.
Wedge politics are a normal practise of politics, and of course my own party practices it too, with our attacks on the Lib-Dems as being soft on drugs being perhaps the most striking recent example (also interesting because it also functions as a “reverse wedge” – preventing those who might consider switching to the LibDems from doing so).
The issue of mobile phones masts in Birmingham Hodge Hill was another interesting one, an intriguing piece of Wedge jujitsu by the Labour campaign that drove a wedge between the Lib-Dem candidate and her own party base.
Finally, I wanted to close this long article by saying that I’m not sure the current Tory strategy is in fact a classic “Wedge” strategy. I don’t think the Tories are really trying to peel off the votes of the Parents of children with special educational needs, or those who have had cancelled operations, though I’m sure they’d welcome them.
Instead, What I think they are trying to do is neutralise Labour’s advantage in these core areas ahead of the election so they can move the main election debate onto their issues- namely, Asylum, Immigration, crime and Taxes. There’s also an element of attempting to suppress Labour’s vote, by driving in the message that not much has changed under Labour.
None of these are classic wedge tactics, instead, they’re neutralisation strategies.
OK, I’ll shut up now.
A slight diversion. While politics is a grubby, nasty and occasionally depressing business, it is always worth remembering the transformative power of ideas.
Today is the 40th anniversary of the worst violence in Selma, Alabama during the civil rights marches. These marches sparked some of the greatest changes in American politics in the last century.
Change can be instant and transformative, such as when Lyndon Johnson strode into congress, stared down the segregationists who had made possible his own ascension to power and urged the immediate passage of a full voting rights act, saying:
“At times, history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many of them were brutally assaulted. One good man--a man of God--was killed.”
“There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma. There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans. But there is cause for hope and for faith in our Democracy in what is happening here tonight. For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great government--the government of the greatest nation on earth. Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country--to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man.”
Or political change can be glacial, as in Selma, Alabama, itself, where the Mayor who looked on happily as troopers attacked civil rights marchers on March 7th 1965, was only defeated five years ago, at the age of 70 – by a black candidate.
Politics can change the world in a day. Just as importantly, If you work for thirty –five years, when you never stop and when you devote everything to it- you can even change your home town.
Here endeth the lesson.
Sunday, March 06, 2005
Well, one of the wonders of the internet is that you get to read the Sunday papers online. Bloody depressing it is too. There's just so much of it. When I get the paper copies of the Sundays I'm tempted to try and calculate the average wordage thrown at the assidious reader on a typical Sunday. So If you're anything like me, you flick through the news and review section, flip over to the Sports page and read a couple of papers. Then you read the comment page. and throw the rest of the pile away. Oh, except for looking through the magazine. Sometimes there's models in stockings.
Thing's I've learnt so far today from the Sundays: Kimberly Quinn's baby isn't David Blunkett's. An Indian Newspaper editor denies he's the father. That's right. A newspaper editor who lives in New Delhi is added (allegedly) to the ever-increasing list of Ms Quinn's lovers. I dunno. I keep having to remind myself that If Ms Quinn was a man, she'd hafve been able to get away with all this without being non-too-subtly deririded as a slut. Even so, The last vesitges of traditional morality I posess are indeed outraged.
Johb Redwood confirms that the tories want to cut Taxes beyond £4billion they've announced so far. So how exactly does he think they'll pay for it? Ahhh the holy grail, "better management in the public sector and by growth in the economy". Honestly, it's just that easy. You'd think someone would have thought of that by now?
In other news, You can also cut taxes without any spending cuts if you click your heels three times and think of Kansas.
In the Sunday Telegraph, Matthew d'Ancona gives Michael Howard bad advice. While he is correct to say the Tories need to move onto labour's ground, they need to do more than just find an example of failure, they need to at least have a policy that would improve what happens in that example. If any Conservative can explain to me how Margaret Dixon would be better off underTory NHS policy, I'd be grateful. Perhaps she has the nescesary money to pay for half a private operation under the Voucher scheme. She's not said she does though, and I can't see her being a top notch candidate for getting low premium Health Insurance.
In the Observer, Gaby Hinsliff gets to sepnd a couple of days with the Prime Minister and reports that his staff eat his plums. Oh yes, and he thinks that the choice before the country is about the economy and public services and new ways of communicating with a jaded, cynical, less deferential electorate. Yeah, Whatever. Now where's my plum, Bitch?