Thursday, May 31, 2012

Not a bad month for blogging

Disney's Cheshire Cat isn't quite
as sinister as Lewis Carroll's
I think May 2012 has probably been this blog's most successful month in terms of visitors.

I certainly haven't noticed getting over 3000 pageviews in a month before. (The total is 3042 as I write)


About a third of those pageviews were for the results of the Exeter local elections (941), making this the most read post on the blog.

Related posts include:

Craig Oliver and Norman Smith

There has been much media comment this week about the accidentally-recorded row between Downing Street's Communications Director (Craig Oliver) and the BBC's Chief Political Correspondent (Norman Smith).

Most of the comments have focused on the body language, the subtext, the strategy and the parallels of Craig Oliver's complaint. But not the actual complaint.

My post "It's not BBC bias: It's an unbalanced view of 'balance'" was able to draw on a transcript I'd made of a dodgy report made by Smith 18 months ago when the Cabinet minister whose position was under threat because of the News Corp bid for BSkyB was Vince Cable rather than Jeremy Hunt.

I had thought the post was a fairly unique focus on the substance of the row rather than the froth, and a bit of form on Norman Smith. But it received just 53 pageviews. Meanwhile my post from December 2010 "BBC journalist gets Cable the wrong way round" got an extra 79 views this month, making 186 views altogether.

I'm clearly no journalist then!

Liberal Democrats

Two of my LibDem posts attracted some interest:

"The LibDem local election campaign was not LibDem, local or a campaign" (96 pageviews) was certainly negative, but I make no apologies. The signs do not look good that the national party has learned from the mistakes of the 2010 General Election campaign or the 2011 AV referendum.

"What do Liberal Democrats want?" (224) was my attempt to provide a positive way forward in terms of political narrative. LibDem blogger Andrew Emmerson said some very nice things about this post, and brought it to the attention of the party's President, which undoubtedly led to such high readership. It's the 8th most read post on the blog. Sadly no placing in the Lib Dem Golden Dozen!
Incidentally, I don't want to give the impression that LibDem campaign staff have an easy task: in another post I drew attention to the huge communications challenges (61) facing the LibDems at the next General Election.

Other politics

I had a first go at mapping out the Political Narrative Battlegrounds for 2015 (80) for the Conservatives, Labour and LibDems. I have a lousy reputation for crystal ball gazing, so it'll be useful to look at this post again in a year or two.

Continuing the development of my "Evil Liberal Masterplan" (perhaps "Localism-Plus" is a more saleable name!), I explained "How to get growth" by fostering more local decision-making about big developments and public services. I genuinely think this is an original contribution to the debate, even if perhaps unlikely to happen. But sadly this post got just 39 pageviews, despite my increasingly desperate attempts to plug it on Twitter. Just a bad title I suppose.

So I was convinced the title of the tongue-in-cheek "Why Scottish independence will lead to a new Dark Ages" would have outraged Scots beating a path to my door. But again, just 40 pageviews. Oh well...


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

It's not BBC bias: It's an unbalanced view of "balance"

The Government's Director of Communications, Craig Oliver, has been complaining about biased reporting by the BBC's Norman Smith. The report was about the Culture Secretary's precarious position in relation to the News Corp bid for BSkyB. Craig Oliver's complaint has remarkable similarities with objections I made 18 months ago about how Norman Smith reported the Business Secretary's position in relation to the same bid.

In the previous incident, the transcript of Norman Smith's report for BBC Radio 4's PM programme shows that Smith effectively gave his own personal opinion that Vince Cable should resign. He asserted that Cable's position as Business Secretary was "fatally compromised".

Making such an assertion is not Smith's job, I argued. He's not a columnist. He's not a politician. He's not a player.

Smith could have said that The Opposition was calling for Cable's resignation. He could have said that a key question under discussion was whether Cable's position as Business Secretary was fatally compromised. He could have said that his Government sources were sceptical that Cable could survive. But Smith didn't do that. He asserted that Cable's position as Business Secretary was in fact fatally compromised. This exceeds Smith's role.

Smith saw himself as providing balance by saying "there would be huge reluctance to see [Cable] go". This does not provide balance, because it does not offer an alternative view to Smith's assertion that Cable's position as Business Secretary was fatally compromised.

“Balance” would have been to quote those saying that Cable hadn't compromised his position, or that Cable's words were private and taken out of context, or that Cable needed to recuse himself from the decision. Now Smith might not agree with these views, but Smith's view isn't important.

Smith portrays the balance as between Cable being fatally compromised and it being politically damaging for Cable to go. But actually the balance is between Cable being fatally compromised, AND NOT.

In the same report Smith also asserted that a Government press conference was a “charade”. Again, this was The Opposition's view. It wasn't the Government's view, and it wasn't Smith's role to declare that it was (even if it was).

Smith's understanding of the notion of "balance" is wrong.

In the most recent case, raised by Craig Oliver, Smith asserts that the "Prime Minister having his name in the same headline as the Murdochs is a problem". Just as in the Cable case above, Smith accepts The Opposition's argument and dismisses the Government's argument.

And again, Smith might or might not be right. That's not the point. The point is that a BBC correspondent has a duty to report the facts and provide insightful analysis, rather than to take one side or another. Smith seems to view "balance" as a requirement on him, as a BBC correspondent, to weigh up fairly who is right. I.e. in this instance: is the Prime Minister damaged by his association with the Murdochs? But such judgements are not Smith's job. His job is to present the arguments and counter-arguments as fairly as possible.

Now I'm no cheerleader for government directors of communication, nor of the Prime Minister, let alone Jeremy Hunt or Rupert Murdoch. And I'm certainly not one of the "The BBC is full of biased Guardianistas" brigade. I have good friends in the BBC, and I've had very few good things to say about Cameron or Hunt or Murdoch. But it seems to me that Norman Smith has a mistaken view of impartiality.

In the video Oliver gives another example of Smith picking a side. Smith asserts that Jeremy Hunt's memo to the Prime Minister in favour of the News Corp bid for BSkyB (a memo sent before Hunt took up a quasi-judicial role in the matter), constituted "making representations". The implication is that Hunt lied to Parliament.

This might be right. There are plenty of respectable commentators saying just that. And the Opposition is saying that. But there is an alternative view, expressed very clearly by the Government, that Hunt's memo was to the Prime Minister, not to the person making the decision at the time (Vince Cable), and that this memo was deemed by senior civil servants as constituting no bar to Hunt taking over responsibility for the decision.

Once again, Smith sees "balance" as weighing up whether the Government is right or the Opposition is right. And he comes down in favour of the Opposition. Smith thinks it's balance if he makes an (honest) attempt at a personal judgement about who's right, without bias or prejudice. But that's not balance. "Balance" in this instance would be explaining the Government view, explaining the Opposition view, indicating some of the unanswered questions, and giving an insight into what key players are saying about the relevant merits of these views.

Now is Smith's view of balance shared by his editors? Does it represent the official policy of the BBC? Because if it is, then we have a serious matter on our hands. It would mean that BBC News is redefining its view of impartiality.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Why Scottish independence will lead to a new Dark Ages

The argument that Scottish independence will lead to a new Dark Ages depends on four propositions:

1. Scottish independence means that Britain's nuclear deterrent will need to be relocated to Devonport.

The UK's current nuclear weapon capabilities depend on four Vanguard-class submarines based at Faslane in Argyll and Bute, and on the ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads stored nearby at Coulport.

Local political opposition to locating the nuclear deterrent in Wales or Northern Ireland means that a base will have to be found in England.

Devonport, in Plymouth, is the largest naval base in Western Europe and is the sole nuclear repair and refuelling facility for the Royal Navy. Even then, extensive work will need to be carried out to make Devonport suitable as a base for the submarines.

2. Devon achieving nuclear capability will lead inexorably to Cornwall developing its own independent nuclear deterrent.

It is inconceivable that Cornwall would sit idly by, while Devon flexed its nuclear muscles, itching to blow Truro to kingdom come. That Cornwall is oppressed by English rule is bad enough, but for Devon to possess weapons of mass destruction would be seen in Cornwall as a deadly threat to the peace and stability of the region, if not the world.

A devastating nuclear attack by Devon on Brittany, Cornwall's strategic celtic ally, could be over within less than 40 seconds.

The realm that produced notables such as Captain William Bligh, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Rick Stein and Rory McGrath would not hesitate to summon up its brightest and best to create the weaponry necessary to deter the Devonshire aggressors.

3. Then all hell breaks loose.

If the Cornish get nuclear weapons, we're all done for. That Pasty Tax is out, for a start. Bitter rivalries over the order of jam and cream on scones will then turn into an all-out South West civil war. Meanwhile, aggressive exports of clotted cream and Cornish fudge will quickly clog the arteries and rot the teeth of the decadent English middle classes.

With Cornish military power in the ascendant, radioactive piskies will multiply and infest the whole mainland. Roaming bands of tin miners will terrorise the land, so stern and taciturn they reduce the gruffest Yorkshiremen and hardest Geordies to girlish simpering. Wreckers, pirates and zombie-like surf dudes will cause devastation along the coasts of the British Isles. Jamaica Inn morality will rule.

4. The Greater Cornish Empire rises.

A resurgent Mebyon Kernow seizes power, claiming that only they can return order. They are sustained by vicious elderly watercolour artists brandishing brushes and a distracted air, and wearing black shirts (well, black with a white cross in the middle, and more like smocks than shirts really).

They are led by a newly awoken man called Arthur Pendragon, who promises to unite the celtic diaspora and drive the perfidious Saxons into the sea. He ruthlessly deploys massed ranks of harpists, bagpipers, and richly timbred choirs to great military success across the British Isles.

From then on, it's a few simple steps to the abolition of paper in favour of celtic stone; the replacement of the internet and telephones with signal fires; the reworking of medicine and dentistry in line with an all-encompassing philosophy of "It's just a scratch. Just leave it."; the rejection of roads as "Roman rubbish"; the eradication of weird foreign foods such as potatoes, tomatoes and rice; and feudalism.

So be careful what you wish for, Scots. You cry, Gibson-like, for freedom now. But you may end up annexed by a Greater Cornish Empire. "Onen hag oll" (One and All) will ring out from Land's End to John o' Groats.

Think carefully before you vote "Yes" to Scottish independence.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

How to get growth

National governments are rightly focused on reducing the deficits that are causing massive threats to their economies. But the resulting austerity leaves little scope for schemes to stimulate economic growth. And growth would increase tax revenues, thus helping to eliminate the deficits and reduce debts. So what's to be done?

Socialists believe that more can be spent on stimulating growth, while maintaining spending on public services, by taxing the rich more. Deficit hawks believe less should be spent on public services and on growth schemes, while increasing taxes across the board. Neo-classical liberals also believe in spending less, but that reducing taxes can stimulate growth.

I don't know that any of these views are right. I'm not an economist, and the arguments on all sides fail to convince. But who knows?

However, in the UK I think there's something that might help, whatever your economic view: empowering local engines for growth.

Different parts of the country should be able to take advantage of their own particular local strengths to encourage growth. This requires central government loosening its fevered grip just a little on taxation and expenditure, and letting strong councils take advantage of local conditions.

I want to draw attention to two important aspects of this form of localism: (i) local decision-making about big developments; and (ii) local decision-making about public services.

Local decision-making about big developments

Developments can get stalled at an early stage by emotionally charged battles between enthusiastic proponents of stimulus schemes (house-building, wind farms, engineering projects, and the like) and wary residents fighting damage to their neighbourhoods.

Both sides think the system is weighted against them. The reality is that if local people rather than ministers are the ultimate arbiter of proposals, proposals will have to be designed to unarguably benefit local communities rather than to align with well-meaning but amorphous national policies.

This is not simply a case of transferring decision-making from ministers to councillors. Councillors do need to play an important role in this: referring back proposals that clearly contribute insufficiently; ensuring stakeholders are involved in the discussions; commissioning research comparing alternative options; and proposing conditions such as a local tax, an inspection regime, modified plans or new community facilities. But local electronic plebiscites make the final decision.

Good developments are more likely to succeed quickly under this form of localism, because developers will need to design proposals that make it easy for locals to judge that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. And bad developments will no longer be able to rely on multiple appeals, inattentive councillors, vague planning policies and ministers with nothing to lose in the locality.

At the same time, developers will not be faced with the knee-jerk local opposition that comes from justified scepticism and sense of powerlessness about the planning system. Constructive engagement is more likely.

Local decision-making about public services

A second way in which local engines for growth can be enabled is through liberalising public services.

Rather than the State controlling public services centrally, like some totalitarian regime, councils would be free to pursue their own preferred ways of delivering particular services, whether that's in-house, through contracts with companies, or in conjunction with other organisations or councils. At the same time, power to vary taxes enables those with different ideas about what works to put those ideas to the test.

Those councils that want to stop the cuts get to stop the cuts, but they will need to borrow the money or raise taxes. Those councils that want a balanced budget will be able to cut spending and increase taxes. Those councils that want to reduce taxes get to do that. But more importantly, councils are free to decide on the priorities for schools, hospitals, police, post offices and so on that make sense for local people, taking account of local needs and opportunities.

Through this encouragement of innovation, the country does not put all its eggs in one basket, but is able to pilot different ways of stimulating growth and dealing with debt, within broad but sensible constraints set by central government.

What works in one part of the country does not automatically work elsewhere, but by evaluating the factors affecting success in every part of the country, the Government will see good ideas being taken up across the country, and bad ideas being quietly dropped with no loss of face to central government.

More autonomy allows ideas to be put to the test. Of course it's true that councils might choose to go for the monorail rather than more frequent buses; they might choose to build the casino rather than the theatre; the nuclear power station rather than the wind farm. But councils must be allowed to make mistakes, so long as there is complete transparency and accountability to local voters.

Why won't this happen?

This "localism-plus" means that good developments are more likely to succeed quickly, and that public services can innovate under democratic local control rather than stagnate under monolithic central control. These are strong engines for growth.

I've outlined the key objections to this proposal. But the main reason this kind of thing is unlikely to happen is not because of potential costs, uncertainties or fragmentation; nor even (at a philosophical level) fears of privatisation or of localism. It is that battle-lines are already being drawn for the next election, and that for all but a few liberal-minded politicians, the dream of enforcing one's own prescription for success across the whole country overrides all other considerations.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Why the lack of film blogging?

When I looked back recently on reaching 100 blogposts, I was surprised to note that I almost never blog about films. "Surprised" because, although I doubt I've seen many more films than average, I do love watching films and talking about films and hearing recommendations for good films to see.

So why is it that I don't seem to be able to write about films then?

Thinking hard about this, I've reached the conclusion that a big problem is:
  • If the film is really good, and it stays with me, I never feel I've got the writing skills to do justice to it.
  • If the film is really bad, I feel embarrassed for having watched it, and just want to forget about it.
  • If the film is somewhere in the middle, I find it hard to get motivated to write about it.

Another problem is what to write about. Let me explain.

I've mentioned previously that I hate having my enjoyment of a film spoiled by reviews that destroy elements of surprise or that tell me what's good or bad about the film in advance, thus shaping how I see the film. At the same time, how can I tell what films to watch? And once I've seen a film, where do I go to read interesting thoughts about it?

What I need doesn't seem to be available in the mainstream media. Typically we are provided with clever-clever reviews that show off the reviewers' knowledge, give away half the plot, and set up filters for my viewing that I don't want. I need sufficient information to help me decide whether I'm likely to find this worth seeing, and absolutely no more. I don't need the reviewers' know-it-all gloss on exactly why the film is good or bad, or exactly how it resonated with their personal experience and aesthetic (or didn't), or how it taps into the Zeitgeist, or what it says about the personalities or careers of the director and the actors, or whatever.

Once I've seen a film, though, all that kind of thing is grist to the mill. Except... after I've seen the film, these kinds of reviews are intrinsically inadequate: they inevitably contain as much chaff as grain because they have to avoid giving away too much of what happens to the characters. So before the film these reviews contain too much information, and after the film they fail to engage properly with the film as a whole, because of the need to be coy about giving away the ending.

So I think I'm wanting there to be short previews for those who haven't seen the film, and reviews for those who have. And those are the things that I would like to be able to write.

But again my skills are lacking.

Firstly, I find writing previews a challenge because I never feel very confident about delineating the kind of audience attributes that determine whether or not they might like the film. Good film critics are able to do this entertainingly and (for most people) accurately.

Secondly, I find writing reviews a challenge because I have a problem with exploring the mechanics of film-making. Anything that diminishes the suspension of disbelief seems to somehow reduce the film for me. That's clearly not true of very many people. The private lives of the actors; the quality of the plot, characters and dialogue; the intentions of the director; the skills of the cinematographer, the editor, the composer, the designers, etc. are often clearly fascinating, and for me too. But while many people's enjoyment is firmly enhanced by the "behind-the-scenes" story, by "the making of", by the rumours, triumphs, failures and career trajectories, I seem to get less pleasure from the film itself the more I know about the film-making.

This is in no way a criticism of film-makers. I love what they do, and I am fascinated about the choices and skills involved. But I am saying there is a failing in me: I should be able to maintain my enthusiasm for a film while also pursuing my interest in how it was made. But I don't seem to be able to do that.

Knowing how the Hurt Locker was made, for example, increases my admiration for the film-makers, and for the film too; but it decreases my engagement with the film. I have to pay attention to actors not people, dialogue not what I'm hearing, camera angles not what I'm seeing. Some people can pay attention to both process and product. I can't.

So this is why last year I resolved to avoid reading or hearing interviews with actors, directors or writers, and to refuse to watch behind-the-scenes clips. And this is also why I've been trying to steer away from discussing the film-making of films that I really like.

However, even with these strictures, I have found it difficult to finish reviews. I was strongly motivated to review Spielberg's Adventures of Tintin because I wanted to try to capture exactly how a film that had everything going for it turned out to be so unsatisfying for me. And with The Prestige I wanted to solve a tricky puzzle about the plot. But beyond that, I've not managed to click "submit" on any other film reviews.

And yet I do want to try to provide the kinds of reviews that I would like to read.

Maybe it's time to take a different tack. Perhaps a Twitter-style restriction - no more than five sentences, for example - might help me to preview and review.

We'll see...


Monday, May 14, 2012

What do Liberal Democrats want?

If you believe The Telegraph, the LibDems are bleeding heart, immigrant-loving, EU fifth columnists desperate to promote a fraudulent green gravy-train. (Ewww... green gravy). And if you believe The Guardian, the LibDems are basically Tories, but worse than Tories because they take votes that are Labour's by right.

Whereas if, like most people, you maintain a healthy scepticism towards all newspapers and political parties, you might well have a view of LibDems as well-meaning but easily used do-gooders who get a bee in the bonnet about "civil liberties" and tie themselves in knots over tuition fees and NHS reform.

It's easy to get a rough-and-ready handle on what Conservatives want (strong businesses, strong law-and-order, traditional values, that kind of thing) and everyone knows that Labour is about strong public services and jobs for all. But what do Liberal Democrats want?

There are three senses in which that's a very easy question to answer. But one sense in which a sharper answer is needed.

Let's go back to first principles. (Bear with me: it gets a little less Janet-and-John by the end!)

1. Values and aims

Firstly, the values and aims of the LibDems are beautifully set out in the preamble to the constitution, which begins...
"The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives."
It's worth reading the whole of the preamble if you don't already know it. It's only about 800 words. If you want to understand what LibDems want, there's rarely a LibDem who doesn't wholeheartedly support almost all of this.

You might object that we don't always live up to these ideals. But politics is the art of the possible, and letting the perfect be the enemy of the good ends up helping no-one. (Enough clich├ęs already! Ed.) You might also agree in general with the principle of compromise, while at the same time disagreeing with particular instances of compromise (the 2012 Health and Social Care Act springs to mind). But that doesn't change the ideal.

Nevertheless, values and aims don't automatically predicate policies. You only need to look at New Labour's enthusiasm for the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) or the Conservative Party's official position on marriage equality.

So values and aims are important, but not enough: we also need to look at the policies...

2. The Manifestos

The second way in which "What do Liberal Democrats want?" is an easy question to answer is that almost every election (local, general, whatever) generates some kind of manifesto that sets out specific proposals, often costed, focused on the perceived problems that concern the particular voters in that election.

For example, the 2010 General Election Manifesto (pdf) emphasised...
  • raising the personal income tax allowance to £10k, funded by closing loopholes used by the wealthy and polluters;
  • targeting more money at schools with poorer children;
  • creating jobs by investing in green infrastructure;
  • and increasing democracy by giving voters a power of recall, a fair voting system and an elected second chamber.
These policies clearly aimed to address the values and aims referenced earlier.

You might object that certain policies at various times were wrong; or that different LibDems reaching different conclusions about what's needed in different parts of the country somehow amounts to hypocrisy; or that deviating from the manifesto because of changed circumstances is no different from lying. But none of that invalidates manifestos as an answer to the question of what LibDems want.

Nevertheless, manifestos don't infallibly determine what happens in practice. New problems arise; policies turn out to have unintended consequences; circumstances change; disagreements occur; and (of course) coalitions mean that compromise is essential.

So manifestos are important, but not enough: we also need to look at what LibDems do in practice...

3. What LibDems do

All over the country, Liberal Democrat councillors work hard at improving life for local people; Liberal Democrat MPs and peers work hard to channel legislation and Government actions in the direction of LibDem values and aims; and Liberal Democrat MEPs do likewise in relation to EU legislation.

Now, you might object that some of these people do not work hard, and some fail to live up to LibDem values and ideals. You might think that councillors, MPs and MPs from other parties are just as hard working or make better decisions. But generally you can see what LibDems want from what they do. Well, to some extent...

For example, it's pretty clear that a government can do very little to improve the lot of the citizens if the country is bankrupt. Whatever the lazy nonsense sometimes talked about "just being in it for the ministerial cars", LibDems formed a coalition with Conservatives in order to sort out the economic crisis threatening the country. We did this knowing perfectly well how it would damage the party's popularity.

At the same time, LibDems in the Coalition have also helped...
  • shift taxes from low and middle earners onto the richest
  • get extra money to schools to help poorer children
  • create more new apprenticeships than Britain has ever had before
  • create the world's first Green Investment Bank
  • restore the link between pensions and earnings
  • set-up proper regulation of the banks
  • restore many of the civil liberties thrown away by the previous government
  • increase social housing for the first time in 30 years
  • halt the previous government's post office closures
You can see from this list the kinds of things that LibDems want.

On the other hand, LibDem parliamentarians have also found themselves having to vote for things that jar very hard against LibDem values, aims and manifestos: increasing tuition fees; cutting the top rate of tax; the 2012 Welfare Reform Act; and the 2012 Health and Social Care Act. And the lack of Government action in support of green growth must be very frustrating for them. The reality. though, is that Conservative MPs outnumber LibDem MPs five to one. So this kind of trade-off is inevitable. It's great to have achieved so much with so few MPs.

Thus you can't always tell what LibDems want from individual votes: you have to look at the package as a whole. And it's not just the things in the "good list" above that show what LibDems want; it's also the things that the Conservatives weren't able to do because they were blocked by the LibDems. It's blindingly obvious to everyone apart from the extremes of left and right that the Government is a better government for having LibDems in it.

Is this when the English subjunctive finally died?

Nevertheless, the question "What do Liberal Democrats want?" is not about what is being done now, but about how things might be different in the future. And this leads to the fourth type of answer to the question.

4. Frames

Much of the 2010 manifesto is already being implemented by the Coalition, so the priorities for the 2015 manifesto will be an important indicator of what LibDems want.

It's likely that the number one priority for the next parliament will be something like "Ensure the deficit is sorted". That doesn't really set the LibDems apart. All the parties want to do that, while doing as much as possible to promote growth and protect public services and the most vulnerable in society, although there are obviously detailed disagreements about the best way to do that.

Parties don't publish manifestos far in advance, because the situation will have changed by the time of election, because good ideas will get nicked by opponents (which is fine if you're a protest party; but not if you want to be in government), and because it gives opponents plenty of time to spread misinformation about the proposals.

So, you might say, let's just wait for the LibDems' 2015 manifesto, just like we have to wait for the Conservative and Labour manifestos.

Except that doesn't cut it. And here's why...

We know that the disparate collection of policies in the Conservative manifesto will have as a loose unifying theme that rough-and-ready conception mentioned earlier: strong businesses, strong law-and-order, traditional values, that kind of thing. OK, you might formulate this conception differently from me; or point out that Conservative touchstones evolve over time; and different leaders stress their own particular takes on the party philosophy. But everyone knows in advance roughly what sort of buttons the manifesto is going to push.

Similarly for Labour's manifesto. You know it's going to bash the Coalition's handling of the economic crisis in many ways, and there will be a whole host of commitments; but the manifesto will have as its central theme the impact of the cuts on the vulnerable, on public services and on jobs. Ignoring the details, everyone knows in advance what Labour is roughly about.

However, the LibDems lack a widely-held rough-and-ready public conception. I suspect that for many voters, the LibDems used to be "the party in the middle which you vote for if you can't stand either of the other two" but devolution and being in government mean that this framing of the party doesn't work well any more.

A variety of attempts have been made to help the public get a handle on what the LibDems are about, using as few words as possible: freedom; fairness; freedom and fairness; freedom, fairness and opportunity; some combination of freedom, fairness, opportunity, ruthless efficiency, sustainability, etc. But when the mainstream political debate is framed so often in terms of dichotomies between left and right, it is difficult to find simple formulations that work in every policy area.

It's instructive to consider how the 2010 manifesto's priorities have fared, not so much as policies but as LibDem frames: "Fair taxes that put money back in your pocket", "A fair chance for every child", "A fair future, creating jobs by making Britain greener", and "A fair deal for you from politicians".

Yet again, I don't think LibDems have ended up at in 2012 successfully owning "fairness" as an overarching frame, largely because all politicians are in favour of fairness; it's the particular prioritisation of instances of unfairness as deserving of action that distinguishes the LibDems. So "fairness" is too general. I also think "A fair deal for you from politicians" ended up destroyed by breaking the promise of "no more broken promises"; and "fair votes" was scuppered by the AV referendum. And while "fair taxes" does have some purchase (i.e. LibDems are about raising the income tax allowance; the Conservatives are about lowering the top rate of income tax), Labour now has a powerful array of frames (Granny Tax, Pasty Tax, Charity Tax, Church Tax, etc.) to undermine "fair taxes". At the same time, the Pupil Premium has been widely praised, but is now, for poorer children, about mitigating the cuts to education spending rather than providing new help. Meanwhile, the "green route out of recession" (which I really liked as a frame at the last election) has been scuppered by the animosity of George Osborne and others in the Conservative Party who believe there is a choice between being green and a strong economy.

So the LibDems urgently need new, positive ways to frame its concerns, as part of a strong narrative that builds to the 2015 manifesto.


I've argued for a 2015 LibDem narrative along the lines of...
"In 2010 we put aside our differences with the Conservatives, to get the economy back on track, after Gordon Brown and Ed Balls screwed up. The most vulnerable in society would have suffered even more without the steps we took. Now we must act to prevent that crisis happening again. We must stimulate real growth, not fake bubbles. We want to create sustainable jobs. We want to make those with power accountable. We want to devolve power to democratic councils, which will stimulate enterprise and innovative public services. And we want to protect household bills and business costs from the consequences of fossil fuel dependence."

What frames help trigger this narrative?
  • The crisis was made worse by New Labour: the key mistakes were overspending at the wrong moment in the economic cycle, and reducing regulation of the banks. (Against the "It was a global crisis; nothing Labour could have done" frame.)
  • We put political differences aside for the good of the country, knowing there would be a cost in popularity. (Against the "Propping up the Tories" frame.)
  • We stopped worse things happening: Cutting spending wasn't pleasant, but without our help, the country (and the most vulnerable in particular) would have suffered even more from New Labour's deficit. We should be proud of the Pupil Premium, the apprenticeships, the pensions link to earnings, the civil liberties saved, and the new social housing.
  • Now we must act to prevent that crisis happening again: This is the key problem a responsible government must address. (Sidestepping the unwinnable arguments between the Conservatives and Labour about how fast the deficit reduction should have been, and whether more could have been done to promote growth.)
  • In particular...
    • We want to create sustainable jobs: We must not rely again on property bubbles, excessive debts and polluting technologies.
    • We want to make the powerful accountable, whether that's bankers, energy companies, hospital chiefs, ministers, or those with vast unearned wealth.
    • We want to devolve power to democratic councils, which will stimulate enterprise and innovative public services: setting public services free can revitalise our counties and cities. The Government needs to support the evaluation of innovative pilots.
    • We want to protect households and businesses from the consequences of fossil fuel dependence. (Moving on from the stalled "We must take action on climate change" frame, to achieve the same ends.)
These frames help to construct a characterisation of LibDems as moderates, driven by the real problems that face the country, rather than by ideology; looking for "what works", rather than relying on dogma; and making sure that those with power and authority are held accountable.

In contrast, (correctly) labelling achievements and proposals as "liberal" activates the pleasure centres of the LibDem activist brain, but it does very little to help the general public to make sense of the LibDem agenda as a whole. Ensuring that the public gets an accurate conception of what LibDems want is not easy when the core media narratives about politics are the tussles between more spending and less spending, between private enterprise and public services, between being "tough" and doing nothing, and between being "sensible" and being "incompetent". It's tedious, over-simplified political discourse; but it shows few signs of changing.

So, to sum up, what do LibDems want? My answer is:
Actually LibDems want pretty much what mainstream Conservative and Labour folk want: We want great public services and thriving businesses. But we also want to stop Labour's economic crisis happening again. That means creating sustainable jobs; making the powerful accountable; devolving power in order to stimulate enterprise and innovation; and protecting households and businesses from the consequences of fossil fuel dependence.
And then of course, this needs to be backed up with creative, costed, well thought-through policies to achieve these goals...


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Communication difficulties for the LibDems

Simon Rix has a good opinion piece over at Lib Dem Voice about the Liberal Democrats' difficulties in government. He argues that "whilst it's way too early to say our time in government has been a failure, it's not too early to say our communications have failed to hit the mark."
yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap
by Neil Wykes (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
He urges...
  • We must start rebutting all significant attacks on us, quickly and effectively.
  • We must be much more persuasive with our communications, by testing different ways of communicating our ideas.
  • We must do much better in projecting our messages, including being open and clear about where we disagree with the Conservatives.
As I wrote in a comment on the article, I think this is very sensible and timely advice.

However I have a few problems with Simon's point that...
"our polling… only dropped to the low teens when the narrative of 'Lib Dem broken promises' got traction in the autumn of 2010. The lesson from this is that pretending we agree with 100% of government policy is bad communications and counter productive."
Firstly, the challenge for effective communications is worse than having to counter "LibDem broken promises".

Without getting into too much detail on old arguments, it's clear that going back on individual signed personal pledges appeared to many of the public as worse than going back on manifesto commitments, regardless of the rights or wrongs of tuition fee policy. This fed into Labour's "LibDems are propping up Tories to get ministerial cars" charge. What made this even worse was that HQ had made "No more broken promises" as the central theme of the election campaign. It wasn't just breaking a promise; it was breaking a promise to end broken promises.

I'm not saying it's impossible, but even world-leading communication geniuses would struggle to come back from that one, whatever the quality of rebuttal, persuasion and projection of new policies.

Secondly, I'm not sure that the public believe we are "pretending we agree with 100% of government policy". Obviously collective Cabinet responsibility means it is more difficult to shout about clear dividing lines; but actually I think Nick, Vince and other ministers have done a good job in making clear many differences in priority and emphasis; and Tim Farron, Simon Hughes, Adrian Sanders, Andrew George and other backbenchers are making good use of their greater freedom to assert disagreements. I suspect the perception problem is less about pretending to agree and more about failing to stop Conservative proposals; and such a perception is simply an inevitable consequence of coalition.

Thirdly, an alternative lesson that might be drawn from the tuition fees episode is how it actually reinforces Simon's "rebut, persuade, project" points very well. LibDem ministers did a poor job at rebutting wild claims about what was being proposed; they failed to persuade the public about either the necessity of the tuition fee hike or the merits of the new fees system; and they decided not to project a vision for what a future LibDem-led government might want to do about this issue.

And similar considerations apply to the AV referendum, the Welfare Reform Act and the Health and Social Care Act.

The question then is not just about policy; but also how to get better at rebutting, persuading and projecting.

See also:

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Political Narrative Battlegrounds for 2015 (the May 2012 Crystal Ball)

It's obviously far too early to be predicting the narrative battlegrounds on which the expected 2015 general election will be fought. So here goes...!

I think it's plausible that both the Coalition parties will have a similar top-level narrative:
The economy is on the right path again, but the task is not finished.
The country was in a terrible state five years ago. Britain was being dragged down by a dreadful deficit. The banks had got away with massive profligacy because of an unhealthy bonus culture. There was no money left to secure the future of our vital public services.
So when we took charge, we stopped the rot of Labour overspending, we clamped down on the banks, and we reduced taxes for hard-working people. Tackling the deficit needed tough, unpopular decisions. The country would be far worse off if we hadn't taken those  decisions.
Now, we need to finish the job. Get Britain working again. Use the solid foundations we have put in place to build a strong and lasting prosperity. Labour would put the recovery at risk. But we can make Britain the envy of the world once again.

Labour, of course, will be saying the opposite:
This incompetent government has unnecessarily damaged Britain's public services and created mass unemployment; if you let them get back in, they will slash-and-burn all that we hold dear.
Five years ago, the world was faced with an unprecedented international economic crisis, caused by bankers who only cared about their bonuses. But the Labour Government led the way in preventing a global meltdown, and put Britain on the path to recovery.
But this Tory-led government dealt with the world economic crisis in the worst possible way. It cut spending too far, too fast. It created an entirely unnecessary double-dip recession. Britain would have recovered years ago, if it hadn't been for this mismanagement. The Tories cut taxes for their rich cronies, while the rest of the country suffered unemployment and cuts to schools, hospitals and other public services. Trebling tuition fees. The Granny Tax. The Pasty Tax. Picking on the disabled. Privatising the NHS. The Liberals were complicit in all this.
Now, what about the next five years? The Tories don't believe in public services. They want to cut and cut until there's nothing left. Don't let them finish the job.
This is over-simplifying things a bit, but then political narratives need to be simple.

But come down a level of abstraction, and the narratives are murkier at this stage in the parliament.


The Conservative Party is torn between, on the one hand, traditional fiscal prudence (reducing government over-spending, and slightly increasing taxes to pay off debt); and, on the other hand, free-market libertarianism that says that a radical pruning of the state can set wealth creators free and thus benefit everyone. Critics say that belt tightening can slide into stagnation and diminished public services. Meanwhile, radical pruning is a gamble that might result in mass unemployment and inadequate safety nets for the most vulnerable.

It could change, but currently the prudence chaps dominate the pruning brigade.

The likely Conservative narratives, one level down, would therefore be along the lines of:
After the turmoil of the Labour years, the firm grip of the Conservative-led Government was absolutely the right thing for the country. Now we need stability and steady growth. We need to nurture the recovery; we mustn't imperil it again with Labour's wild spending.
We've put the economy on a firm footing, so now it's time for us to sort out other socialist legacies: Fight back against the EU's invasion into our affairs. End profligate subsidies for inefficient energy generation. Reduce taxes on enterprise and hard work. Cut bureaucracy in social services. Allow museums and hospitals to charge foreign visitors. Renew Trident. Fund our armed forces properly. Give schools back the right to select pupils... etc. etc.


Meanwhile Labour is torn between, on the one hand, the New Labour vision that public services deliver targets best when they are given as much freedom as possible from state regulation and are funded by partnerships with the private sector; and, on the other hand, the socialist ideal of the state looking after everyone in society, and spending money to keep the economy going. But critics say that New Labourism helped to create a situation in which irresponsible banks plunged the country into economic crisis; and in which hospitals and schools ended up lacking democratic accountability for their decisions. And the socialist ideal can easily slip, they say, into spending beyond our means and into weakening enterprise by sucking more and more of the nation's wealth into central government.

It's not clear to me how this tussle between New Labourism and neo-socialism will play out. Ed Balls was thoroughly implicated in New Labourism but Ed Miliband is (probably rightly) keeping his policy options open for now. My guess is that nearer the election there will be some kind of public catharsis: "It was Gordon Brown who wanted PFI. And the CBI was pushing for less regulation. We've learned from those mistakes."

It will be tempting, I think, to just stay on the attack:
Inhumane cuts. Ideological economics. Out of touch. Incompetent. etc. etc.
But journalists will press for firm plans, and the public don't like politicians who are resolutely negative without getting into detail about how they would do things differently. So a possible positive Labour narrative, one level down, would be:
We need government to offer alternative models to uncaring capitalism: Address our housing crisis using cooperative and mutual models. Give tax breaks to businesses that fund apprenticeships. Give energy consumers, hospital patients and parents the power to call managers to account. etc. etc.

Liberal Democrats

The LibDems have a number of narratives that don't offer alternative futures to each other, but compete for attention. For example, one narrative is about being in coalition in the first place:
The national interest demanded we help repair the economy while doing our damnedest to protect public services. We sacrificed our popularity to help the country overcome Labour's economic crisis.
A parallel narrative is a defence of the things the Conservatives were able to do because the LibDems weren't sitting on the Opposition benches:
Would you have wanted an unfettered Conservative Government? Or right-wing Conservatives in league with the New Labour zealots who got us into this mess? We helped tame the worst excesses of the Right, although you have to box clever when your Coalition partner is five times the size of you.
There's an obvious risk of a LibDem general election campaign consisting entirely of re-runs of the arguments about tuition fees, the Welfare Reform Act, the Health and Social Care Act, the so-called Granny Tax, etc.: the arguments that failed to convince the first time round.

Another narrative is:
Look at all the liberal stuff we managed to deliver, despite our under-representation in Parliament: shifting taxes from low and middle earners to the richest; getting extra money to schools to help poorer children; creating more new apprenticeships than Britain has ever had before; creating the world's first Green Investment Bank; restoring the link between pensions and earnings; setting up proper regulation of the banks; restoring many of the civil liberties thrown away by Labour; increasing social housing for the first time in 30 years; halting Labour's post office closures; and so on.
Unfortunately lists don't make for great narratives. It's also not easy to explain concisely what makes this good stuff "liberal" in the same way that Conservatives and Labour stances are easily grasped.

All of these LibDem narratives are also too rooted in the past: they don't impel you through to an obvious LibDem future. I'm sure the manifesto will be packed full of good ideas, costed and crafted as usual. But, again as usual, it will somehow lack a coherent narrative to string it together. Some random slogan combining "free", "fair" and "opportunity" won't cut it.

Another problem with these LibDem narratives is that they don't offer congruencies with both possible future coalition partners.

An alternative plan might be to piggy-back on a less antagonistic version of the first half of the Conservatives' message...
After the turmoil of the economic crisis, it was absolutely right for the Conservatives and LibDems to come together for the good of the country. Now we need stability and steady growth. We need to nurture the recovery.
... and then build a distinctively LibDem narrative:
We've got the economy under control, but what's to stop the crisis happening again? If big business is unaccountable to its employees, customers and shareholders, it will simply repeat the same risky behaviour. Meanwhile, if public services and quangos are unaccountable to the people they are supposed to serve, their spending of your taxes will again rocket out of control. We need to encourage  democratic principles and innovative models of mutualism and cooperatives, and not just unconvincing "consultations". We need to navigate a narrow path between cold hard capitalism on one side, and overweight statism on the other.
And we also need to make central government more accountable by devolving more powers to our cities and counties to kickstart local economies, to sort out endemic housing issues, to take advantage of green opportunities, to support your hospitals and schools...
And most importantly, if we don't take greater action on climate change fast, the global economy will be threatened by a crisis that will make the last few years pale into insignificance. We need a massive programme to build more renewable energy capacity; to increase home insulation; to encourage businesses that tackle their carbon pollution responsibly; and to enhance the Green Investment Bank. These measures will help prevent climate change wrecking our economy, but they will also help stimulate our industry and create jobs right now.

Concluding remarks

Crystal ball gazing is a notoriously unreliable practice in politics. And I have a lousy reputation for accuracy. But although the details may change rapidly, I suspect that many of the overriding concerns of Conservatives, Labour folk and LibDems are quite slow to change.

Narratives need to capture those concerns, to fix in voters' minds afresh what these parties stand for.

And narrative building takes years.


  • The three battle pictures [1, 2, 3] are by Flickr user Dave Pearson, and are CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
  • The cats were adapted by me from Microsoft Clip Art [license terms]

Friday, May 4, 2012

Exeter Elections, May 2012 - Post hoc analysis

Labour's win in this election was well deserved (results here). They had a strong message of anger about Government cuts, a positive local manifesto, friendly and committed candidates and activists who engaged strongly both online and on the streets, and a well-managed campaign.

Personally, I would rather the council had remained in minority control, but that was never a likely outcome, given that only two seats were needed for Labour to win majority control.

Whether this control will be maintained once the Labour council has to begin cutting services is not clear. However, they will be able to push the message that the cuts are being imposed by the government.

As elsewhere in the country, the Liberal Democrats did badly. On the other hand, their results were much the same as in the last two local elections in Exeter. The seats lost this year were won at the height of Labour's unpopularity in 2008. So a bad result, but not entirely unexpected.

I have made my own criticisms of the LibDems' local election strategy. National Labour strategists were able to offer a strong message for local parties to take forward. National LibDem strategists failed to do so. However, you could argue that the LibDems would have done badly whatever the strategy: the mid-terms of a government engaged in austerity measures are never likely to be pretty.

Locally, it is easy to say that there should have been a LibDem manifesto, more engagement online and in St. David's and Pennsylvania, and a stronger squeeze on the Conservatives and UKIP in Alphington. But the LibDems do not have the resources of Labour or the Conservatives; and many LibDem supporters who might naturally step up to help are finding it extremely difficult to cope with the change from the LibDems' traditional oppositional, protest politics to being on the receiving end of anger against the Government.

A LibDem resurgence and a higher turnout would leave Labour vulnerable in Alphington, St. David's, St. James and St. Thomas, and would leave the Conservatives vulnerable in Pennsylvania. i.e. the wards of the five remaining LibDem councillors. Conversely, unless this resurgence occurs, there's a chance of being wiped out.

Although there was no net change in the number of Conservative councillors, there are danger signs for the Conservatives, whose vote has been declining in recent years. On the other hand, the result in Pennsylvania, winning the seat from the LibDems, shows that active campaigning can yield results. Nevertheless, overall, the vibrant Conservative campaigning shown at the General Election has not been sustained. Their manifesto will have struck a chord with many, but those same people are also likely to be attracted to UKIP, and that is a potentially huge problem in several close wards. In the near future the Conservatives will likely be targeting Cowick, Heavitree, Pennsylvania, Pinhoe and Polsloe.

For all parties, the low turnout is disturbing. Encouraging greater engagement has to be a priority. Admittedly the strong student vote that was much in evidence at the General Election is harder to captivate in local elections; but younger voters more generally also need to be persuaded of the importance of political engagement. More initiatives like that of the Bike Shed Theatre hustings would be very welcome.

The headline though is that Exeter looks to Labour to steer the city through troubled times. There is no doubt they represent the most dynamic local team. The biggest danger will be losing touch with the concerns of ordinary folk. So well done. Good luck. And keep in touch...

Update 10 May 2012

Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw has a good article in today's Express & Echo with his thoughts on the local election results. He also mentions recent major events for Exeter, including last week's visit by the Queen, the 70th anniversary of the worst night of the Exeter Blitz, and the University joining the elite Russell Group of universities. And he concludes with an excellent point about local democratic accountability.

The LibDem local election campaign was not LibDem, local or a campaign

NB I wrote this post a month ago, but decided not to publish it before the local elections, to avoid undermining candidates.

What are the LibDems campaigning for in the local elections?

The party website highlights the following key points...
  • A £3.5bn tax cut for working people
  • Biggest single ever uplift in tax threshold
  • 21 million people getting an extra £220 tax cut
Are these three different things or different facets of the same thing? Not sure. Either way, they're not a campaign.

OK, maybe the party website is still trying to promote the Budget rather than looking ahead to the local elections.

So let's turn to Andrew Stunell MP, Communities Minister and Chair of the Liberal Democrats Local Election Campaign Team.

Andrew tells us that the Liberal Democrat local election campaign has already launched. Oh well.

According to Andrew, the big messages are:

1. Your local record of service
"all year round, not just at election time. Lib Dem councillors across the country work hard for local people. We listen to our communities and try to give them a voice in decisions made that affect them. In power we work to protect the services people most value, and to protect the most vulnerable in society."
2. Putting more money back in the pockets of hardworking people
"On the local front, this year every single Lib Dem-run council has frozen their council tax bills... Nationally, from this Friday, Liberal Democrats will deliver another £130 income tax cut to every basic rate taxpayer. That's 25 million people getting a tax cut and 1 million people lifted out of paying Income Tax altogether thanks to us. ... The second year of record rises to Pensions, with pensioners set to benefit from a rise of £5.30 a week this year, on top of the £4.50 rise last year."
3. Making the rich pay

Including increased capital gains tax, an annual banker’s levy, VAT on private jets, caps on tax reliefs and an extra £900m to tackle tax evasion.

4. The Pupil Premium

An extra £1.25bn, targeted at the most disadvantaged pupils.

5. Encouraging employment
"We’re creating jobs, and supporting young people in the difficult path back into work by driving a record expansion of apprenticeships to over half a million, and the Youth Contract, announced yesterday, designed to get over 400,000 young people earning or learning."
6. Giving power to communities
"... we’re giving real power and control back to local areas, particularly over planning... Planning is set to become a bottom-up community-driven process, not the top-down imposition it’s been for far too long."

What's wrong with that?

(i) It's not a campaign

So this, all of this, is about actions that have already been taken or that are already underway. There's no sense of actually campaigning to do something.

Maybe that's not entirely fair: More of this kind of thing is implicitly the pitch. But it's very implicit.

And, again to be fair, there is an invitation:
"Lib Dems across the country should be getting out on the doorstep and canvassing their communities to see what they want in their local plan. What kind of development do they want to see and where? It’s a huge campaigning opportunity for the party, and is just the kind of 'community politics' we’ve championed for decades."
But asking people on the doorstop what they want is not much use in this election if you're not explicitly proposing to do it. Or proposing anything.

This is not a campaign.

(ii) It's not about local issues

The first message is effectively "Fill in your local stuff here". The rest of the messages are entirely about things the Government has done: the Budget, the Pupil Premium, the Youth Contract, the Localism Act. There's nothing about what councils want to do in relation to social housing, energy efficiency, energy generation, recycling, transport, education, health, fire, police...

To be fair, it's often been remarked that maybe the concept of a "national" local campaign doesn't make sense. The whole point of localism is that different areas need different things, and it shouldn't be up to a central authority to dictate what those things are. Far from being a single national campaign, this is 184 separate local campaigns. In which case, a key point to get across is exactly what it is that makes Liberal Democrat councils distinctive. And that's the third big failing.

(iii) There's no Liberal Democrat narrative

Let's look at the overarching message for these elections: effectively We've done good stuff.

In relation to "your local record of service", I'm unconvinced that Liberal Democrat councillors are automatically harder working or wiser than other councillors; and I'm sure all candidates say they care about protecting the vulnerable. But I do think that giving people "a voice in decisions made that affect them" is a distinctive aspect of Liberal Democrat philosophy.

And nationally, I happen to agree that it is good stuff, although even that is being questioned by respected organisations such the IFS. And let's leave aside for the moment the desperate need for an explicit liberal narrative linking all this good stuff together.

But shouting about good stuff that's happened can trigger people to recall the bad stuff (the voters' cost-benefit calculation). They will be prompted by Labour to remember...
  • tuition fees (not just breaking a promise but breaking a promise to end broken promises);
  • the new sickness benefit tests and the Welfare Reform Bill (appearing to penalise the vulnerable)
  • the Health and Social Care Bill (appearing to muck up the NHS)
  • the alleged Granny Tax, Pasty Tax, and Tory tax cuts for the richest
So how does the "campaign" deal with these claims? It doesn't. And, after all, you wouldn't expect politicians to emphasise opponents' talking points. But Tories have a powerful narrative that explains these actions (Cutting a bloated state and encouraging private enterprise). Liberal Democrats at best would be offering a response along the lines of It's not as bad as it would be if we weren't in Government and There are some good things in these measures and The bad things aren't as bad as Labour says. There's no powerful counter-narrative.

As an aside, I'd also question how likely it is that on-the-ground activists will be passionately motivated to celebrate the good stuff, when memories are still raw about...
  • the dismal AV campaign (ending chances of electoral reform for a generation);
  • the ludicrously poorly thought-out and explained Welfare Reform Bill;
  • the universally acknowledged turd-fest that was the passage of the Health and Social Care Bill;
  • and now the way in which the leadership seemed cluelessly oblivious to how the Government's surveillance proposals ran completely counter to fundamental Liberal Democrat principles.

(iv) It's counter to the key narrative of the Coalition

More even than not being a campaign, not being about local councils and not having a Liberal Democrat narrative, though, the message being pumped out now by every LibDem politician, activist, website and leaflet is essentially: Unless you're rich, we're giving you more money.

What the arsing hell does this You've never had it so good complacency do to the core justification for being in the Coalition in the first place? The key narrative is that Liberal Democrats accepted the offer of coalition so as to sort out the national economic crisis. Nowhere, NOWHERE, in any of this local messaging is it clearly explained why giving people more money helps this core mission of the Coalition.

I can imagine a number of ways in which this is the case, but I'll be damned if I can find it given equal prominence with all the "putting more money back in the pockets of hardworking people" messages.

So, to sum up...

(i) It's not a campaign.

(ii) It's not about local issues.

(iii) It doesn't have a LibDem narrative.

(iv) It serves to undermine the rationale for LibDems being in government in the first place.
Please feel free to tell me it's actually a brilliant LibDem local election campaign.

Exeter Elections, May 2012 - the results

So, the results are in. Labour has won overall control of Exeter City Council.

The council is now:
  • Labour: 24
  • Conservative: 11
  • Liberal Democrats: 5

Net results

Of the 14 seats being contested, Labour won 10, the Conservatives won 4, the LibDems none.

When those seats were contested in 2008, Labour won 3, the Conservatives 4, the LibDems 6 and the Liberals 1. Two of those LibDem councillors subsequently defected to Labour, and the longstanding Liberal councillor retired.

So overall:
  • Labour are up 5 on the status quo (gaining 3 from the LibDems, 2 from the Conservatives)
  • the Conservatives are no change overall (gaining one from the LibDems, one from the Liberals, but losing 2 to Labour)
  • the LibDems are down 4 (losing 3 to Labour, 1 to the Conservatives)
  • the Liberals are down 1

Image: Exeter count by BBC News

Significant vote shares

The best result for the Greens was in St. David's, with 20% of the vote, achieving third place, and pushing the Conservatives into last place. The Greens also pushed the Conservatives into last place in St. David's and St. Thomas.And the Greens pushed the LibDems into last place in Exwick, Newtown, Polsloe, Priory, St. Leonard's and Topsham. Overall, the Greens got 8% of the vote, much the same as in 2011 and 2010, but up from 3% in 2008 when these particular council seats were contested.

The best result for UKIP was in Whipton Barton, with 17% of the vote. UKIP also achieved third place in Exwick, Pinhoe, and St. Thomas. St. Thomas was rather astonishing in that the Conservatives came last, below both UKIP and the Greens. (Thanks to Cllr Paul Bull for drawing my attention to that remarkable result!) Overall, UKIP got 6% of the vote, which is the highest vote share it has achieved in Exeter.

The LibDems got 14% of the vote overall, about the same as in 2011 and 2010, but down from 27% in 2008 when these particular council seats were contested. The LibDems were unable to poll above a third of the vote in any ward (the highest was 34%, in St. Thomas). The LibDems saw a decrease in share of 14% in St. David's and 13% in Pennsylvania.

The Conservatives received 27% of the vote, down from 32% in 2011, 33% in 2010, and 35% in 2008 when these particular council seats were contested. The largest share was 60% in Topsham. The worst result was 6% in St. Thomas.

Labour achieved 44% of the vote overall, up from 38% in 2011 and 2010, and up from 27% in 2008 when these particular council seats were contested. The largest share was 69% in Newtown. This is an increase in share of 20% from when elections were last held in Newtown, in 2010.

Individual ward results

Alphington: Labour gain from the LibDems, with councillor Vanessa Newcombe losing her seat, and Rob Crew joining the council. Labour benefited from a split in the opposition vote: Lab 37%, LibDem 27%, Con 19%, UKIP 12%, Green 6%. A similar result occurred in Alphington in 2011.

Exwick: Labour hold (Adrian Hannaford won the seat for the LibDems in 2008 but subsequently defected to Labour), with Ollie Pearson joining the council. Labour won with 54% of the vote, so the split between the Conservatives (18%) and UKIP (13%) did not affect the result. UKIP did not stand a candidate in this ward in 2011; the effect of doing so was to take vote share from both Conservatives and LibDems. The turnout was low (28%).

Newtown: Labour hold (Richard Branston), with 69% of the vote. This is an increase of 20% from when elections were last held in Newtown, in 2010. Out of an electorate of almost 4000, just 45 people voted for the LibDem candidate in this ward, the lowest polling of any candidate in these elections.

Pennsylvania: Conservative gain from the Liberal Democrats, by just 21 votes. Jake Donovan joins the council. LibDem Sheila Hobden, who won this ward by 5% in 2008, stood down at this election. However the election in this ward in May 2010 (at the same time as the General Election) had seen a comfortable LibDem majority over the Conservatives, so this result was a slight surprise. The turnout was high for this election (41%) so perhaps there is more going on here.

Pinhoe: Labour gain from the Conservatives, with Simon Bowkett joining the council. The result the last time there was an election in this ward (2010) was very close: Labour won by just 4 votes. This time the majority was 280 votes (13% of the votes cast). UKIP gained 11%, up from 5% in 2010. The turnout was the highest for these elections (43%).

Polsloe: Labour gain from the Conservatives, with councillor James Taghdissian losing his seat, and Rachel Lyons joining the council. This wasn't entirely expected. The Conservatives got 46% in this ward in 2010 and 44% in 2008. The vote of 31% this time shows a larger drop than typical in this election, suggesting there is more going on here.

Priory: Labour hold (Marcel Choules), with 54% of the vote. The Conservatives were second with 20% and the "Your Decision" candidate third on 16%. Labour has won comfortably here in the last three elections.

St. David's: A surprise Labour gain from the LibDems, with councillor Philip Brock losing his seat by just 32 votes, and Sarah Laws joining the council. Labour had not expected to win here and had not campaigned strongly in this ward. Philip Brock is also the Devon County Councillor for the electoral division of St. David's and St. James. The Conservatives were beaten into last place in St. David's by the Greens. The turnout was low (27%), and Labour won with just 34% of the vote: the LibDems got 31%, the Greens 20% and Conservatives 15%. However, the LibDems got 45% here in 2010 and 53% in 2008 when Philip Brock was elected.

St. James: Labour gain from the Liberal Democrats, with Keith Owen joining the council. Keith got 33% when he stood in St. James in 2011, and 45% this time, reflecting movement away from the Coalition parties. The LibDem candidate (who got 30%) also suffered from being new to Exeter and not living or working in the ward. On the other hand, it is likely that that 30% includes a high number of traditional Conservative voters. The turnout was the lowest of these elections (23%).

St. Leonard's: Conservative hold (Norman Shiel). Cllr Paul Bull has pointed out that if UKIP had stood a candidate in this ward this time, St. Leonard's might well have been another Labour gain, despite it being a safe Conservative seat in 2008. The Conservatives got 44%, to Labour's 38%. The Greens got 13%. This ward is the flipside of St. James: it is likely that that 44% includes a high number of traditional LibDem voters.

St. Loye's: Conservative gain from the Liberals, with Andrew Leadbetter joining the city council (he is already Devon County Councillor for the electoral division of St. Loye's and Topsham. Longstanding Liberal councillor Joan Morrish had retired before the election. The Liberals being an anti-EU party, it is likely that a UKIP candidate would have split the Conservative vote, leading to a Labour win. The turnout was low (27%).

St. Thomas: Labour hold. Rob Hannaford won the seat for the LibDems in 2008 but subsequently defected to Labour. He has now held the seat for Labour, with a vote of 47%, to the LibDems' 34%. This election was hard fought, with the LibDems putting out 8 leaflets, and many Labour activists on the ground. The Conservatives came fifth in St. Thomas, beaten by both UKIP and the Greens, suggesting a major squeeze. The LibDem leader won here in 2011 with 40% of the vote, to Labour's 36%.

Topsham: Conservative hold (Margaret Baldwin), with 60% of the vote. The LibDem vote has steadily declined here over the years, as Labour has risen.

Whipton Barton: Labour hold (Tony Wardle), with the largest majority of the elections (767 votes). The opposition was split evenly between Conservatives and UKIP, but their combined total would still have failed to beat Labour. Tony's vote share rose from 39% in 2008 to 57% this year.


Overall turnout was 33.6%. The highest turnout was in Pinhoe (43.3%), the lowest in St. James (23.3%). The 2011 turnout was 42.6%. The 2010 turnout was 28.4%.

Further analysis

I've blogged my reflections on what these results mean in a subsequent post.