Monday, November 30, 2009

Established Narratives, or why they hate us so much

I’ve recently been considering the idea of how Conservatives are seen in the general population and how other political parties are seen. Why? Well I’ve effectively recently started coming out as a conservative, to friends, acquaintances and colleagues, many of which are shocked and surprised that I am a conservative. “Never thought of you as a conservative, don’t know why” was a comment from an old friend on Twitter when he visited this blog the other day.

Or there was the comment from a friend at a recent party when it came up in conversation that I was working with the local party and even looking at becoming a conservative councillor, “but you’re nice” was the good friend’s reply, “I’ve never met a nice conservative”.

Here lies the issue for the party at the next election, we have to create one of the biggest swings in history, win seats that haven’t been held by a conservative since the early 1900’s, win over people who haven’t voted conservative for decades. We have to engage with people who we’re not currently engaged with, who haven’t even considered engaging with us before, and why haven’t they? It’s because we’re all nasty, we are the evil party, the party that caused hardship, that is just for the rich, that robs from the poor to give to our rich friends.

This idea that we are the nasty people of British politics pervades the public consciousness, despite evidence to the contrary. Individual aspects or outcomes of historical policy are held to be representative of the now, it doesn’t matter how much we talk about modern compassionate conservatism or the place of society over the state, we are the party that wants to cut the state back and leave the less well off with nothing. The austerity that was necessary to build the strong economy of the past decade (which Labour inherited) and the breaking of the miners' strikes is the prevailing view and memory of the non Conservative public. The Labour party are (as their recent Party Political Broadcast tried to paint them) the party of the people, the party cares, that created the NHS, and helped people out of poverty.

There is ample evidence to the contrary though, from as far back in history as Pitt the younger who fought vested interests to open up Britain to free trade The Duke of Wellington removed the worst political discrimination of the day against Catholics,  and Peel, Conservative PM, in 1834 outlawed the employment of women and children in mines, and regulated factory hours and public health. Disralei introduced one nation conservatism, still talked about by David Cameron today, to introduce social reform to “elevate the condition of the people”, he also carried out large scale slum clearances, and gave the vote to working men in towns and cities. It was Lord Salisbury in 1881 that created local councils to empower local communities, who championed local democracy and introduced free primary schooling for all, he also created the primrose league that brought large numbers of women into politics for the first time. These may seem like ancient history but they were policies of the same party driven by the same basic ideology.

But the policies and positive achievement for the masses don’t end in ancient history, in 1923 Stanley Baldwin introduced a comprehensive old age pensions system as well as introducing unemployment benefits and creating major housing schemes. He also allowed men and women to vote on equal terms. It was Chamberlain who introduced the factory act to place restrictions on child labour and regulations to improve working conditions overall and introduced paid holiday for employees. Everyone knows that Churchill helped defend Britain and defeated the Nazi’s but how many know he also introduced free schooling for all. Anthony Eden introduced the clean air act which pioneered environmental protection as far back as 1955 and it was Macmillan that built over 300,000 new homes a year to deal with housing shortages and increased living standards by 50% during his time in office.

In more recent times people remember Thatcher for breaking the miners and the tough times of the 80s but her decision to cut spending and increase taxes led to economic recovery for Britain. It’s also a rare individual who will remember that she gave a ground breaking speech to the UN on climate change. Equally Major is remembered for sleaze in the party, but he instigated the Northern Ireland peace process, created the national lottery, and laid the foundations for the next decade of economic growth and prosperity.
Now yes there are equally some great mistakes, opposing the aboloition of slavery, the poll tax etc but every party has their mistakes. None of the above though are the work of a nasty group of individuals who are only out for the vested interests of themselves and their friends and yet this is how we are seen either in terms of policy or in terms of individuals.

It has been my experience that in reality the nasty party is Labour, looking at it both on a national political level and just in terms of personal experience. It was the aide to a Laboru member of the Welsh Assembly who verbally attacked my wife, reducing her to tears at a dinner party over the fact she was middle class and happy to be so. It was Damian McBride a Labour Spin doctor who attempted to make up viscous rumors and smears about conservative MPs and along with Alastair Campbell bullied the press into submission. It is Gordon Brown that is said to have thrown office equipment around when he doesn’t get his way, not a Conservative Prime Minister but yet there is still this tag attached to someone who “admits” to being a conservative.

For yet more evidence look at a recent exchange on Facebook between some friends:

Person 1: “ Another word for the Tories springs to mind. Can't quite think what it is but I think it begins with a C”
Person 2: “compassionate?”
Person 1: “I think it rhymes with runts...”

Or look at how Labour’s new media twitter darling @BevaniteEllie simply retold a “joke” about hoping Lady Thatcher fell down the stairs whilst unveiling her new portrait at Number 10 last week.

“RT @CllrTime Thatcher at No.10 4 portrait unveiling. Hope they’re hanging it at top of stairs, nxt 2 where some1 carelessly left tht skateboard“

Is this the words of what is commonly portrayed as the party of niceness? The party of the people?

I titled this piece, “Established narratives or why they hate us so much”, so what did I mean by that. The issue here is about established narratives, the established narrative is that Conservatives are all nasty people and that if we came to power we would be nasty to the population. This is perpetuated by the media, and by society as a whole and of course by our opponents and opposition.

The problem with an established narrative (rather like a stereotype) is that it is difficult to break, generally experiences we have that reinforce it are remembered and those that go against it are forgotten, think about trains, whenever they’re late they reinforce the established narrative that they are late, when they’re early or on time we just forget about it. So all the evidence to the contrary that Conservatives are nasty gets left by the wayside in the face of this established narrative.

One of the issues with the personalisation of politics today is that new narratives are establishing themselves around the individuals not the party, so economic issues are the cause of Brown not Labour ideology, or the nastiness in Labour Politics is the result of Alastair Campbell not the party itself. The same is true I think of David Cameron, narratives exist around him but they haven’t overridden the existing ones of the party in the public consciousness.

So what’s the solution? How do you break down established narratives? Well I’ll be discussing that a lot in future posts.

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Einstein and Politics

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts”

“Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler”

Both fantastic Einstein quotes, which in the current climate of top down targets, NHS trusts measured to within an inch of their life but still failing to perform, schools inspected, targeted and counted but still failing to deliver education are very important. And why is it true that not everything that can be counted counts? Because when we count things we tend to take a reductionist view of them, if we count a and b then a+b will equal c (the thing we want to achieve), but as Einstein said we need to make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler...

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Alveston local By-election

So we were defeated last night in the Alveston By-election. Despite a hard working campaign team and the fact that the by-election had come about by the sad death of a conservative councillor the liberal democrats defeated our candidate Lynda Organ.

It was a narrow margin of defeat just 888 votes for Anthony Cronin to 834 for Lynda. With so few votes in it you have to wonder what swayed those last few voters, particularly as it appears that the Green candidate failed to pull any majority of lib dem votes (only 58 votes went to the Greens and 111 votes to the Labour candidate).

The town council seat was also won by a lib dem candidate, this time by a much larger margin (1028 votes to 694). Showing the sometimes incestuous nature of local politics the winning candidate, Ian Fradgley, is actually husband of the current town mayor Jenny Fradgley.

Something that I am increasingly thinking is of vital importance on a local level though is the local media. It's known in Stratford political circles that the local paper the Stratford Herald leans towards the Lib Dems (why though no one has been able to tell me). And on election day the front story of the Herald was a story detailing how the Conservative led council and cabinet will be voting on the building of 800 new homes in the region on Monday. The second paragraph of the story stated "All in all, new housing in the Stratford district over the next 15 years looks like rapidly becoming the single most explosive issue on the political agenda in South Warwickshire. It’s already been made into a matter of “stop press” urgency by the opposition Liberal Democrats in today’s (Thursday’s) district council by-election in Alveston." although there was no conservative quote or mention of the candidate's position on the issue at all. Her position was left implicit by the tone of the comment and article.

Equally on the same day we received our free local paper the Stratford Observer which in it's letters page included a lead letter from a conservative detailing that they will not be voting conservative because the current council has taken away free parking for over 65s in the town, and a letter responding in very negative terms to a previous letter from a potential conservative local candidate who questioned the validity of being a councillor but failing to attend meetings. His original comments were more than valid but yet the letter makes them sound to be false and accused him of attacking others without finding out all the facts. It also falls back onto the established narrative that Conservatives are all nasty people (more coming on that soon) by saying "... doesn't mark a return to tactics Mr Cameron claims the conservatives have given up."

In terms of most people's knowledge of truly local issues the only way they know what is happening is through the local paper so when it has a clear skew towards one party this causes great issues. In the weeks and months ahead as we head towards a real local election relatinships with the media and gateway individuals are going to become key. Sadly as a result of individual (not really conservative policy) in the last few years this is going to be a difficult sell

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tories Lead Labour by 2 million in fundraising

The latest figures from the Electoral Commission show that the Conservative party receieved 5.27 million pounds in donations in Q3 as opposed to just 3 million for the Labour party. The poor lib dems only received 816,663 which I think shows that regardless of how much people believe support for them is increasing or any hopes people may have they could become a stronger power / an opposition in British politics, they simply won't.

In total political parties received 9.5 million in the quarter down from 13.2 million in the previous quarter (april to June). Any way you look at it these are large figures, by comparison Children in Need this year raised 20 million pounds and was seen as a huge success, so are people more willing to give to political parties than to charity?

This also continues to be a great fact for the conservatives with most if not nearly all donations coming from individuals whilst the Labour Party continue to receive large block donations from unions. Interestingly when you look at per person figures there are approximately 290,000 members of the conservative party so in the last 3 months they on average gave just £18.17, by comparison the Lib Dems have around 73,000 members who are on average each giving £11. I couldn't find current membership figures for Labour, but apparently in 2005 it was 198,000 so they are on average gave the party £15 however I suspect that was one or two generous unions rather than a collective of generous individuals as unions supposedly represent 90% of Labour Donations now. If that's true then members on average gave just £1.04 each in the last quarter. Clearly an unexpected effect of the current financial climate for Mr Brown!

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Friday, November 20, 2009

ACPO says Tory Police plans will lead to resignations

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) has apparently warned that plans by the Conservatives to place forces under local political control may lead to the resignation of senior officers.

In a move that is purely political and I personally believe has more to do with the political persuasions of ACPO Sir Hug Orde said that police independence was vital to public trust and democracy and effectively that Conservative plans to allow locally elected officials to hire and fire police chiefs and set force budgets in England and Wales was crazy.

In an interview with the Today programme he effectively said we know what we’re doing and these democratically elected individuals won’t. Also saying
"Even the perception that the police service of this country… is under any political influence, I think that suggests you cannot argue that you are a proper democratic society. It's as simple and as stark as that.”

He effectively argued that handing control of local police forces to local regions will somehow create a police state, as if the town councillors of Milton Keynes are going to start sending police officers on personal vendetta’s arresting their enemies and rounding them up for summary torture and shipping off to the Gulag a la the old USSR.
In reality we currently have a centrally controlled police force working to targets and objectives set by the central government that often fail to take into account local needs. If anything we are far closer to a police state today with forces accountable and in the control of central government than we ever would be under the control of locally democratically elected officials.

Perhaps what ACPO are really worried about is that these individuals (be they specially elected or existing elected officials) will start questioning the ridiculous pay awards that their members get. The recent furore over Ian McPherson, the ex chief of Norfolk police who was paid nearly £130,000 a year and could earn an extra 20k a year in bonuses and alo pocketed a £70,000 relocation allowance (which included payment of stamp duty on his new house), only to see him move to the Met just a few years later I think shows the public’s concern about this issue. Something a democratically elected official wouldn’t be able to ignore.

Update: The Spectator Blog is pointing out that these kind of challenges will be a major issue for the Tories moving forward, particularly with the police who in the main remain a very unreformed organisation

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Queen's Speech - Laws are not for aspirations

Haven't got much time this morning as I have to head off to facilitate a workshop for a social housing provider in just a minute.

However my quick reaction to the Queen's speech is that laws and bills should not be used for aspirations. A law or piece of legislation either says how you are going to do something or introduces a new idea of something you shouldn't do. Targets and aspirations such as cutting the deficit by a quarter should not become laws.

This is another case of Labour fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of targets which are to tell you when you have achieved an objective not to be something to achieve. Whilst an aspiration is something to aim towards, but you still need to work out a plan how to get there.

Time after time the objective behind a target is forgotten and all focus goes into achieving the target, look at NHS targets, education targets, policing targets, recruitment targets, the list goes on. In this case cutting the deficit is a target that will tell us when fiscal responsibility and a return to a growth economy rather than recession has been reached, it is not the thing to achieve in itself.

All too often this government has believed that if it manages to achieve A, B and C then that will miraculously equal D, but it won't. The modern world is too complex, ideas are too inter related, problems are too inter-related, it is only by giving up centralised control and targets and concentrating on achieving objectives not targets that real change and transformation will take place.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cameron on the Queen's speech

There is a great piece in the Times today about Labour's claims that they will be politicising the queen's speech.

He clearly lays out the difference's between Conservative and Labour policies in a number of areas and highlights yet again the Conservative's approach to cutting the level of public borrowing. The statistic that keeps coming up from the high ranking Conservatives at the moment is that by next year we will be borrowing almost 14% of GDP (or as it has morphed into lately, our national income, for those that don't know what GDP means) and that this is twice the borrowing which under a labour government nearly took us bust in the 1970s.

I think this is a good tactic to remind people that we have been here before and that really New Labour inherited more of the foundations of a good economy than created them . Yes there were mistakes in the previous conservative government on pubic finances but nothing to the scale we're seeing today. At the end of the day I see it as an ideological issue, Labour is tax and spend, spend money to get people out of poverty (which hasn't worked), spend money to bail out the banking sector, spend money to solve pretty much any problem in fact. As an alternative the Conservative party are more willing to look at root causes, to look at the issue as complex and interconnected, a complex systems view, that sees the system as a number of interconnected parts that are more than the sum of the whole will always beat a throw money at the visible issues solution.

On the subject of throwing money at poverty an ICM poll last night showed that the Tories have a 13% lead over Labour, but more importantly in the context of this post are more trusted than labour to lift people out of poverty (admitedly it's 42%, 41%). I think this really shows that the messages on compassionate conservatism are really getting out there. Well done Team Cameron for beginning to change the established narrative (more on that later today)

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Wordles on Politics

For anyone that doesn't know a wordle is a graphic visulisation of word frequency within a document, the larger a word the more frequently it comes up. Someone decided to do this on the three main political parties websites with some interesting results.

Now much has been made today of the fact that the Labour website has no mention of Brown whilst the conservative website has David Cameron at it's centre, whilst the Lib Dems are focusing on themselves. When you look at strategy and approach this seems an obvious choice
1) Conservatives have David Cameron as a charasmatic and effective figurehead
2) Lib Dems rally around the party rather than their leader and although Nick Clegg is doing a good job he's not that out there as a figurehead preferring to push the party.
3) Brown is a liability and everyone knows it!

What I take away from these is something quite different and that is about clarity of messages. When you look at the conservative's wordle versus the labour one it's clear that the conservatives have focused on a number of key messages and ideas, whilst Labour have a muddle of messages on a huge range of topics and this I believe is the real learning point from this exercise. Labour has lost its way and is muddled, it lurches from one message to another with seemingly no strategy or approach, whilst the conservatives have a clear plan and focus on one item at a time.

I'm just starting to look at campaigning on a local level for the district council and this concept of identifying a few key messages that individuals can be represented by is I think vitally important. It helps a candidate engage with the electorate and communicate something clearly.

Thanks to who it seems made the Wordles orriginally

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Fantastically funny but mainly because it's all so true

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