Friday, June 15, 2007

The Cocktail party

Last night I decided not to watch the Labour deputy leadership husting on television and toddled off to drink cocktails instead. I felt suave and sophisticated and elegant, even when I fell off my chair.

Yet I felt a little guilty for my alcoholic exploits. The bitter taste of angst intruded into each chilled glass. Instead of sipping expensively mixed drinks, should I have been supping the ales of the people? If Harriet Harman disapproves of expensive handbags would she also frown at the cost of a well put together cosmoplitan?

Whisper it, but the Left is not quite comfortable with spirit based debauchery, preferring more proletarian methods of intoxication.

A social democrat can drink eight pints and be the toast of his fellows, but let him ask for a Dry Manhattan and eyebrows are raised. Looks become quizical. Inferences are made.

Sadly, we are a beer party. Up with this I will not put. I declare firmly that it's good to be a Prosecco progressive or a margarita marxist. Let us proclaim loudly that under socialism, it'll be Cosmopolitans all round.

I am biassed in this argument, because I am an apalling beer drinker. I can't stomach the stuff. I don't mind the taste, it's just that after the second pint I begin to feel queasy. If for some dreadful experiment I am forced to drink three, I need to go and have a nice lie down while gurgling incoherently. In other words, I become a big brother contestant.

The stronger the drink, the more I can sup. Wine is tolerable, while spirits slide down nicely. The problem is that raw sprits taste foul. (I'm looking at you, Whisky connisseurs), So I end up drinking cocktails.

Cocktails have an air of dissolution and decadence to them. This is exactly what is needed in an alcoholic drink. Clean tasting, fast acting and a measure of elegance as you careen headlong towards intoxication.

Now, this is not to support conspicuous consumption. I abjure the loutish type who waste good drink on a treasure chest. That's not just bad taste, it's a bad cocktail, which is unforgiveable.

Still despites the foolishness of the crass and tasteless, we must stand up for cocktails for the left.

After all, if we let the right be the people with the good drinks, all we'd have left with is real ale, leaflet rounds and worthiness. It'd be like being a liberal democrat. If that doesn't make the case for a lunchtime bloody mary, nothing will.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Round and round the parcel goes..

So, another twist in the never ending saga of the Welsh Assembly Government. Apparently, now Labour and Plaid are talking.

I'm no expert in welsh politics but electorally speaking I can't see how Labour can lose from the various prospects ahead of them in Wales. (Of course, Wales could lose from bad policy, bad leadership and bad ideas, but that's the realm of the serious policy people and I am a mere hack)

Scenario one- Rainbow alliance. Labour would be by far the largest party but in opposition, which would fire up our vote and our activists, while a disunited coalition tries to implement a populist political programme. The price might be PR in local elections, but the prize would be the ability to peel off almost all anti-Tory LD and Plaid seats at the next election.

Scenario two- Labour and Plaid govern together. Politically this damages Plaid much more than Labour for the simple reason that they will have to bear the burden of Government unpopularity. I'd expect to see a much stronger Welsh Conservative party as a result. That would give labour the chance to pick up floating Liberal and plaid voters who wanted to keep the Tories out in the next General Election.

Of course, the big prize for Plaid is to be in government and that's more important than any narrow electoral consideration. However, they're in a very different place to the SNP, who have taken ofice on the back of a narrow victory and can therefore claim a mandate of sorts and can govern alone and confidently.

Plaid don't have that option. For them all roads ahead involve messy compromise and responsibility for failings that are not of their own making. Indeed, they'd probably be better off in opposition for another 4 years with the objective of making a serious and sustained assault on Labours status as largest party.

You might say that the SNP seem to be popular in office, so why not Plaid? Well, its easy to be popular as a new government three months after an election. It's harder 4 years down the line.

The SNP have a tough road ahead keeping their support together, and they're in a far stronger position than Plaid. There are already Labour MPs who feel happier not having to defend the Scottish Executive each day. By the time of the Next General election Labour might even be able to run an opposition style camapign in Scotland (as long as we don't fall into the trap of letting the SNP portray us as the big "No").

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Another self absorbed look at the media and the internet (part 1)

The departing, outgoing, soon to be former, retiring, stepping down, Prime Minister made a speech today about the relationship between the media and politics.

The speech is important because Tony Blair is probably the most masterful media operator in contemporary politics, and hearing him question the system he’s won repeated victories by exploiting is pretty important.

It’s like hearing that Pete Sampras wrapped up his final Wimbledon championship with the confession that the reign of the power server had been bad for Tennis.

Blair argues that a combination of fragmented news sources, intense competition and a sharper understanding amongst editors about what readers want to hear fuels a race to the bottom amongst the mass market, and at the same time changes in media structures forces an intensity of coverage amongst the news market competitors that ensures everything is covered in great intensity but little depth.

This combination of disinterest and hyperactivity puts incredible pressures on politicians and journalists alike- leading to ever more cynicism about both politicians and the media.

Thirty years ago, political coverage was decided at a national level by four TV news programmes that everyone watched, a few review programmes with audiences in the 5 million range and about fifty lobby correspondents who wrote the national political stories that everybody read.

Today, there are two 24 hour news channels with tiny audiences. The actual BARB data is here, with Sky News’s top programme last week getting 94,000 viewers. Audience figures like that put it up there with the Broadcasting juggernaut that is UKTV style (+1).

Each of the News channels has three or four political correspondents. I’ve worked on political campaigns, and you would not believe how much time is spent dealing with the 24 hour news channels, despite their statistically insignificant audiences.

You work to their needs because they’ve got the resources to cover everything, and because you know that’s what people are watching in campaign HQ and in newsrooms.

You also work to their needs because their coverage is the access point to the Big TV News shows, the Six and the Ten. These have much bigger audience- between three and 5 million on a daily basis. Then there are about 10 different political shows of varying levels of intellectual self regard, all with audiences in the 1 million and below camp.

These are profoundly irritating programmes, because with the exception of Newsnight and the Sunday morning shows, they’re not big enough to make news but they must be supplied with fodder.

All of these shows audiences have been falling steadily over time. People used to watch the news because they had to. Now they don’t have to.

So what do editors do to try and recover audiences? They find out what audiences want and give it to them. Horrid, isn’t it?

They discover that gossip is interesting, scandal is shocking, disgust is compelling and tragedy makes great viewing. Combine this with the need to keep coverage easy to assimilate because attention spans are low and the need for reporters to convey that they are sharing secrets worth knowing and you have the recipe for the most confrontational and yet oddly empty coverage possible.

This process is not a foolish or an idiotic one, it’s the same reason why Guido Fawkes and his blog of scurrilous tat gets many thousands more readers than any number of worthy emo-blogs like mine.

At the same time as the “national” news agenda becomes ever more ephemeral, the new technologies allow incredibly intensive coverage. We’ve already got 24 hour news. Soon, there will be twenty-four hour politics coverage as bloggers will make their living covering politics. They won’t be traditional journalists, they’ll be people like Iain Dale or Alex Hilton, Mike Smithson or Philip Cowley.

They’ll be insiders, “experts”, people focussed on very particular points of interest- moving easily between covering politics and working in politics. They’ll be totally focussed on inside politics and utterly boring for everyone else

They’ll be desperate for information, will cover inside politics obsessively and will have tiny, tiny audiences- but will break real, important stories that will occasionally go meta.

How do politicians respond to this? When politicians began to be torn apart for gaffes they responded by building a strong public image and stuck to that image. Every appearance had to be controlled, every word measured, every appearnce delivering the message because they knew that mistakes and misteps would be ripped apart by a media interested in scandal and division as much as substance.

Tony Blair was and is the greatest politician in these terms. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him make a gaffe, lose his composure or misjudge the media coverage. Name the great Blair gaffes? The only one I can think of is Yo Blair- and that was because Bush had left his microphone on.

To do this day in day out is almost impossible. It requires an iron discipline. If even Tony Blair feels it can’t be maintained, I don’t think anyone can do it.

So what now?

My feeling is that the impact of new media and narrowly focussed media coverage meeting the needs of tiny audiences will be to give us a flowering of gossip in the first instance, as we suddenly get to learn all the embarrassing things we never wanted to know about politicians- which ones are shagging their cousins, which ones enjoy the odd sherbert. Which ones are crossdressers. All that stuff.

Then that ease of access to politicians will make them seem less unapproachable.

Politicians will learn that people don’t care about their private lives. They only care if they seem to be hypocrites.

At the same time that’s happening whole communities will grow up focussed on important policy areas. There will be a move back to policy and content driven by the fact politicians will be able to communicate to 10,000 people who really care about Bank charges, the 5,000 who are concerned by school facilities. The 2,000 who are obsessed by technology issues.

The politicians that are able to string these tiny fragmented coalitions together, not by promising everything, but by actually engaging and gaing credit for understanding, will be the ones who win. They’ll be able to use the insights they gain from in depth understanding to connect with what will be the holy grail of politics, the mass audience.

So meet the next generation of politician.

The one who’s relaxed about their sex life being gossiped about because they know no-one cares really.

The one who builds their career through building in depth relationships with narrowband audiences and who never stops communicating directly with them, who realises that authenticity is the key to trust. (Oh, and who has the resources to spend time building relationships- let's not forget that this means legions of communications staff)

The one who is canny enough to use their knowledge of real issues to connect with what remains of the mass audience.

The one who is able to keep utterly focussed on the concerns of the coalition of voters behind them and knows that by communicating directly to them they can regards the daily ebb and flow of the no longer mass media with rather greater detachment- and therefore is less obsessed by the teeming multitudes in the lobby.

The one who doesn’t try to set up a plastic outer shell to protect their real selves from the media.

Funnily enough, against this standard it’s the media obsessed, soundbite focussed, image manipulating, mass media, political editor courting David Cameron who’s the analogue politician in a digital age.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

This is just a test

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So why is Peter Hain kicking off?

Reports indicate Peter Hain is beginning to swing wild and free at various targets.

Why now? Well, Peter knows his deputy leadership campaign is in trouble. Cruddas from the left and Bann and Johnson from the right are squeezing him to death, while Harman is busy stealing his "radical insider" posture.

On top of that, He's not got a historically strong relationship with Gordon Brown (suggesting taxes should be raised when it's not government policy tends to annoy Chancellors), so without a strong showing in the Deputy Leadership election he could well be toast.

So he's realised he's got nothing left to lose. As Kris Kristofferson correctly noted, that's synonymous with freedom.

Only problem is, it's about six months too late. Cruddas has been saying the same things for six months, and because he's a nobody (surely you mean "unfettered by office" - Ed) hasn't caused a row in doing so.

My prediction? Hain to come next to last and to be joining John Reid on the backbenches, where Hain will be able to rediscover his radicalism in time for another leadership job bid if we lose the next election (which we won't).

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