May 31, 2008
Thanks to a minor operation, I suddenly find myself with a great deal more free time, part of which I have spent catching up with the slow decline of Gordon Brown’s mental health, and by extension that of the Labour Party as a whole.
It’s fascinating, it really is. In any form of company, a chief executive who spent his time dealing with complaints from individual customers would be seen as a pathological control freak. The minor PR benefits in no way make up for the time lost by someone meant to be providing strategic direction to the organisation, in this case Britain. And this has supposedly been released in an effort to make Brown appear more human? If this is his most human caprice, I fear what else may be lurking behind the doors of No. 10.
More worryingly, the Prime Minister’s reality disconnect appears to be spreading to the rest of his party. Draper writes that “…sure, Brown has made mistakes but that the main source of his unpopularity is that people blame him for the economic downturn. He is hoping that he will receive reciprocal credit for any subsequent recovery. In the meantime something akin to mass hysteria has gripped the nation.” Draper asks us to believe that, instead of one man in an incredibly stressful job who has been described by members of his own party as ‘psychologically flawed’ cracking under the pressure, the rest of the nation has gone mad.
Leaving aside the amusingly ironic way in which Draper attempts to use Freud to transfer the blame for Labour’s current poll ratings from its leader to the public, this is something I’ve seen elsewhere in the Labour Party too. A couple of weeks ago, while out guerilla campaigning, I met my opposite number in the Islington Labour Party, and had a long chat about the London election. Even taking into account the slight mental disturbance generated by meeting a Geordie who introduces himself as your nemesis, the poor boy seemed entirely incapable of processing why Ken had lost. The combination of high taxes and allegations of corruption didn’t appear to be featuring on his radar at all. And it appears to be the same with Draper.
Labour hasn’t just been making mistakes. It’s been making fundamental miscalculations. It’s been holding down public sector wages to lower inflation – while at the same time allowing the tax on fuel to rise along with the price, giving Brown additional funds but simultaneously contributing to inflation. I am not convinced that the public blame Brown for the economic downturn – but I am convinced they blame him for making it harder for them to live with. And yet Brown still manages not to see it. The 10p tax band removal was a classic example, one that should’ve been flagged up as obviously against the interests of their core vote as soon as it came up – but it didn’t. Again with the relative lowering of public sector wages. Nervous Labour MPs have started forcing him to take account of these concerns on particular issues, but still there appears to be no change of direction from No. 10, no even slight admission that the current approach is not working.
The problem is, as many commentators have said, that Brown is psychologically incapable of admitting his mistakes. And he is passing this on to the rest of his party, in a real example of ‘Crowd Behaviour’, as Draper puts it. Is it possible to have an entire political party sectioned?
May 9, 2008
WE WON! We won! Not the election of course, but rather the fight to save Essex Road Post Office from the ravages of a Labour Government bent on ruining anything of benefit to the poor & vulnerable. A concerted effort involving the local community, our PPC Bridget Fox and the Lib-Dem run Council had produced an agreement with Royal Mail Ltd. to allow a franchisee to take it over.
This was a tremendous victory for Bridget. She’d campaigned for over a year to keep it open, and had gathered thousands of petition signatories and organised hundreds of people into protests. I’d taken pictures of lots of them and put them into exciting leaflets. And so we marched down Essex Road early on Wednesday morning to proclaim our victory before the media.
Unfortunately, Labour had had the same idea. The local MP and champion pie-eater Emily Thornberry had been given a roasting in the press over the hypocrisy inherent in voting in favour of post office closures in Parliament while simultaneously campaigning to keep an Islington branch open. A few minutes after we arrived a rather aggressive man in a red t-shirt appeared and started shoving a piece of paper with ‘Emily saved the PO’ scrawled on it in marker pen into the faces of passers by. We took advantage of this by introducing Lib Dem Councillor Emily Fieran-Reed to the same passers by. He then scrawled on the reverse ‘Local MP saves Post Office’, and given that an awful lot of Islington residents think that Bridget is already the MP thanks to our campaigning and Thornberry had chickened out of turning up, was again quite amusing.
More Labour activists showed up, and after an initial period of studiously ignoring each others’ existence we started to exchange accusations of lying. I nearly got into a fight with the aggressive red t-shirt, although to be fair he did become distinctly more aggressive after I tickled him to get him to lower the sign. It all got rather ugly. The lady from the Gazette took pictures of each set of politicos, then one of the avowedly ‘neutral’ people, which was quickly swarmed by Thornberry’s lackeys. So I pushed into the middle. Unsurprisingly, the neutral photo was used.
Politics shouldn’t have to be like this. Instead of coming together to celebrate a victory for the community, we spat at each other like children fighting over a toy. This is especially a shame, as one of the Labour activists was quite pretty. But it leads to an interesting question: would the Post Office have been less likely to be saved if two separate groups of people hadn’t been quite so determined to beat the other in terms of campaigning? Demonstrating that your party is better equipped to represent local people is a big spur to activism, and I am not convinced that either party would have put in quite so much effort if everyone had agreed to share the PR spoils equally. But then, that’s why socialism doesn’t work, isn’t it?
May 4, 2008
Selling pre-packaged opinions is part of my trade. You know when you’re at a dinner party and the political discussion is at the level of assertion – when people are merely repeating sentences at each other without any form of engagement? Well, that’s what I do. I sell those sentences, those forms of proto-opinion that are far too common around the dining tables of Britain. How does it work? It depends on three factors: the relationship between an opinion and a person’s own interests, the form in which the opinion is received and the number of times it’s repeated.
Of these factors, repetition is by far the most important – people can be persuaded to act against their own interests if they hear the same opinion frequently enough without anything to counter it. Just look at my aunt – a former left-winger in the grand Grant clan tradition now, after ten years of repeated exposure to the Daily Mail, believes immigrants are taking over the country and there’s a Muslim waiting in every shadow.
I find the process of opinion-forming fascinating, and this election has provided many wonderful examples of the art. By far the best-conducted campaign has been by the Evening Standard – the form and content of their opinion-forming has been simply superb.
For example, the Standard ran an analysis of Paddick’s policies about a week before the election. On his plan to switch the management of the Tube to a concession model, the paper wrote: “This would only add another level of bureaucracy. The unions would have a fit.”
In the mind’s ear, you can hear people repeating those sentences back to you across the dining table. It doesn’t matter that they don’t have anything to do with the policy, it only matters that they’ve been associated with it. This is the end goal of politicians’ soundbites, the focus of the messaging of our literature – to lend the listener or reader an easily embedded opinion. It’s about identifying whose interests will be best satisfied by which opinion, then using an appropriate form to transmit it repeatedly. But this is a game played at every level – every single person has their own interests and their own need to communicate them with others. Unlike what some Marxists would have you believe, the populace are not generally docile and receptive to the opinions of the intellectual elite. They’re players too.
Now that I’ve given a explanation of what I’m talking about to those of you who don’t spend all their time trying to mindfuck the voters, what went wrong with the Lib Dem campaign in London?
The slightly glib answer is that we were heavily squeezed between Boris and Ken. But why did this have to be the case? Are there things which could have been carried out differently which may have changed the final result? I don’t believe we ever could have won – but we could have and should have polled higher than we did. What went wrong?
Put simply, I think we failed to take into account the role of particular interest groups in this election, and the way in which our opponents were able to portray them as being uniquely under threat unless they cast their ballot for Boris or Ken. ‘Opponents’ doesn’t just refer to our political opposition – there were multiple political actors who had influence over this result. Let me give a couple of examples.
A large part of our vote comes from slightly better off public sector employees – people like teachers, junior managers and their ilk – the sorts of people who don’t fully agree with Labour’s policies, but aren’t vicious enough to vote Tory. During this campaign, the workers in the many and varied quasi-public sector organisations nominally under the control of the Mayor – like Transport for London and the London Development Agency – were told by UNISON, PCS, and the other unions that if they didn’t vote for Ken Boris would embark upon a purge as soon as he entered power. We had a significant number of people who may have otherwise voted for us with a strong economic incentive to vote for Ken. How did we attempt to counter this? We did nothing – indeed, we allowed our opponents (see above) to portray our policies as almost as damaging as those of the Tory party.
The rise of the BNP during this campaign also cost us votes – but it did so invisibly. This is because of a separate under-the-radar campaign ran by various interest groups and sponsored by the Daily Mirror. In Hackney, two tabloids paid for by the Mirror were delivered to nearly every address. While ostensibly politically neutral, this tabloid was full of scare stories about the implications of the BNP coming into power. Since not being ethnically cleansed is a pretty fucking good incentive to vote, the combination of this campaign with the newspaper stories about the BNP backing Johnson meant that all of a sudden an awful lot more black people had a big reason to vote than last time. This came out in the results – Jeanette Arnold’s vote doubled since last time. What did we do to try to take some of these additional voters for ourselves? We talked about the importance of the police not excessively focusing on young black men – which, while important, rather missed the issue.
We were thus abandoned by a lot of our traditional support, and failed to capitalise on the increased voter turnout. This is because our campaign was insufficiently sophisticated to take this into account. Focusing on crime was important to overcome what has traditionally been perceived as a weak issue for us, and indeed we started getting the signals that this was working (people calling us up to tell us to stop just talking about crime). The problem was, we started getting these signals two weeks before election and didn’t start diversifying our message to take this into account.
I would argue that what we can take away from this is twofold. Firstly, we must resist the temptation to retreat to our comfort zone and focus exclusively on the local interest groups in council wards that we can already deal with. We will never win big if we do that. Secondly, one of the roles of the London campaigns department must be to identify these London-wide interest groups and develop a strategy and materials for targeting them. In essence, we need to find ways of doing street letters on a far bigger scale – partly through media work but also through ground war operations co-ordinated across multiple boroughs.
There are, of course, lots of other reasons why we didn’t win – two prominent personality politicians turned the contest into something more presidential, which Brian as a newcomer had a difficult job to break into. But the lessons we can learn from this contest will help us do better next time.