Friday, April 30, 2010

The Veil of Spin - Final Debates Verdict

The debate was a curiously uninteresting affair. Actually, all three have been, with the exception of realising, in the first one, that there was a third contender. None of the candidates has bombed, even Gordon Brown has performed pretty well to expectations. They have all managed to say remarkably little, but finesse it as if they are giving us reams of detailed wisdom. They have rehearsed extraordinarily well and shown us that they can make ponderous statements, use the names of audience questioners, and help their policy defences along with a few homely anecdotes. They have neither made any serious gaffes (as ever, the campaign trail itself has provided the opportunity for that) nor shown any sparkling charisma. I watched last night's debate at the Tory Chairman's 'Watch Party' at Conservative HQ, which at least managed to give it a slightly pantomime atmosphere (Come on everyone, boo when Brown speaks, or jeer when Clegg does his 'there you go again' stunt; cheer David Cameron....), but even so, there were long stretches of boredom. It's come to something when you're looking forward to Eric Pickles' end of debate speech!
The debates have changed the British election in one sense only - it has allowed the third party to be a realistic contender alongside the other two, at least in terms of public perception, although the election system itself is hardly going to allow a breakthrough. Otherwise, smooth and professional as they've been, they have somehow failed to rise to the occasion and shown us a rather anodyne aspect of British electioneering. This is what you get when parties become so scared of showing their real face that they retreat behind the safe but uninteresting veil of spin. That is probably why the Gillian Duffy affair, or Cameron's encounter with the father of a disabled son, sparked so much interest - they allowed a human element to creep into the dreary roboticism of modern political campaigning.
Politicians don't have to be dull to be successful. Look at Boris Johnson, who would have made any of the debates a far more watchable and engaging programme. The problem is that all of the leaders have allowed themselves to exhibit passion or anger as rehearsed emotions, rather than running with the flow of discussion and policy in a genuinely personal way. Of course, one problem of the debates is that the ordinary voter, in the form of the audience, has been rigorously suppressed, and this would have been one sure way of injecting a bit of energy and surprise into the proceedings.
The debate idea has, of course, been borrowed from the US, who run a significantly different election system, where those watching the debates actually have a chance to vote for one of the participants, in a way that none of us do (well, unless we live in Witney, Sheffield Hallam or Kirkcaldy of course, when we can choose one of them). One thing that could be usefully dropped is the idea of 'spin alley', where reporter talks unto spin doctor, and no illumination whatsoever is forthcoming. I don't really understand the reason for spin alley, except as a confirmation of the monumental laziness and dullness of the average political journalist. Can they not produce their own unadulterated analysis of the debate they've just been watching? Why does a reporter from a newspaper or one of the broadcast networks really need to ask Alastair Campbell immediately after the debate whose won? Are they seriously expecting him to say David Cameron? One of the friends I was with last night quickly read down the list of post-debate reactions, and it sounded something like "Ed Balls says Brown won it; Osborne says Cameron won it; Ashdown says Clegg won it...." A really worthwhile exercise from journos and politicos alike. Why there have to be so many journalists there in the first place is a mystery - do they lack television facilities in the studio?

So we're through the television stuff and into the final week, and with the polls showing a remarkable consistency, we're either waiting for some game-changing event on the campaign trail next week, or face the excitement of a genuinely unpredictable, probably minority parliament. Anything to make the debates seem worthwhile.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sky News' Role in Bigot Gate

Apparently it was Sky News who released the 'bigot' tapes. Now remind me, isn't Sky owned by that chap who is desperate for the Tories to win.....?

UPDATE: Bruiser Prescott's in no doubt that this is all part of a Murdoch conspiracy - his blogpost is published in the Guardian, where he condemns Sky News for broadcasting Gordon Brown's comments in the first place. Fraser Nelson of the Spectator meanwhile give s ten reasons why this is bad news for Brown - just ten?!

Brown and the Bigot

If Obama is the real-life continuation of the West Wing, Gordon Brown is determined to be the same for The Thick of It! You couldn't make it up, and Armando Ianucci must be gnashing his teeth that he didn't think of a scene like this for his notorious sitcom, but Gordon Brown, who has been kept safely away from voters as much as possible, has just had a nightmare afternoon following a meeting with a Labour voting pensioner who wanted to raise issues with him. With his radio mike still attached, he gets into his car after the encounter and describes the meeting as a 'disaster', going on to say that the voter - Mrs. Gillian Duffy - was a 'bigoted' woman. The BBC website carries the video footage of his initial encounter with her, where he was polite and interested, then the footage and sound of him letting off steam in the car, then there is him being confronted with the replaying of his comments on the Jeremy Vine Show. He is having a thoroughly wretched time, and I have some sympathy for the fact that his private conversation was unchivalrously relayed to the whole world. He has subsequently been back to Rochdale and spent 40 minutes at Mrs. Duffy's house, apologising. Poor Mrs. Duffy has been inadvertantly in the eye of a real media storm - a further video shows her being pursued and questioned intensively by the assembled media hordes.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

AS Mock Test Assistance

For the L6th students at SGS doing a mock test on Unit 2 this afternoon, some useful quick revision links:

On the judiciary, go to this piece on tutor2u; it references an excellent article on the judicial changes in the Guardian here.

On the executive, a reminder that Andrew Rawnsley's recent revelations give a good insight into the way the executive works, its problems, and Gordon Brown's specific approach to governing. A collection of the tutor2u articles on the executive, with some excellent links to wider reading keeping students right up to date, is here.

PR, Changing Governments and Hung Parliaments

With the debate over PR gaining added immediacy given the strong likelihood of a hung parliament, there has been more thorough coverage of this issue in the media and on the blogs than ever before. The Fabian society's Next Left blog has a detailed examination of David Cameron's claim that PR will make it more difficult for governments to be thrown out by the public. Some excellent material for AS students to use in exams as well, although be wary of too many non-British comparative samples.

Over on the Spectator blog, meanwhile, Alex Massie considers the Conservative hysteria about hung parliaments, and suggests that to say that are a disaster is poppycock. He concludes:

But the Tories' arguments - or at least the ones they are choosing to deploy - suggest that calamity is the inevitable consequence of a hung parliament and/or proportional representation. This, unfortunately, is poppycock.

I'd like David Cameron to be the next Prime Minister but I'd prefer it if he became so without insulting everyone's intelligence along the way.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition Will Never Happen

Nick Clegg's comments to Andrew Marr referred to the impossibility of a party that garnered only third place in vote terms being able to hold on to No.10. In effect, they could be in a coalition, but not holding the lead position. This, of course, leaves the door open to a Lib-Lab coalition in which Clegg will be Prime Minister, with Labour, perhaps under a hastily elected new leader, having the subordinate role. What is extremely unlikely is the chance of a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. Neither party leader could deliver their parties, whose respective grassroots, supported by significant numbers of their elected representatives, viscerally loathe each other. The Tory Party actually thinks Cameron is already too liberal - put him with a genuine liberal, and they would probably stage a coup to oust him.

Will Straw, on Left Foot Forward, in a post that is pretty on the nail about this, considers Nick Clegg as a Ramsay Macdonald, but his analogy is flawed. It is Cameron who would be expelled from his party if he considered holding power with the Liberals - not Nick Clegg. That's how progressive the Tories are!


If the economy is without question the biggest substantive issue of this election, then electoral reform could be the biggest strategic issue. It is the present system that is still delivering significant numbers of seats to the third placed party, and which threatens to deprive either possible winner (Conservatives, still the favourite, or the resurgent but stabilising Lib Dems) of a governing majority. And Nick Clegg has managed to set the PR hare running with his comments that he wouldn't deal with a third-placed Gordon Brown, whatever the number of his seats. These comments have set David Cameron and the Conservatives spinning furiously about PR - no, they absolutely wouldn't accept it, says Cameron, but maybe a referendum is not out of the question? Iain Duncan Smith on the Today programme has already indicated the sort of pressures Cameron will be under if he even looks at the possibility of a deal with the Lib Dems, where PR would be the first issue on the table. Cameron may be ready to deal, but is he ready for the rebellion in his own party if he does?

Sun Fury At Lib Dem Porn Policy

The Sun, in its usual breathless fashion, has reported the concern of the posters on the website 'mumsnet' about Lib Dem plans to lower the age at which people can watch or star in porn films from 18 to 16. It's always great when the Sun gets one of its bouts of morality - what's the betting that the age of their already teenage page 3 models goes down a bit further as soon as this legislation is through the gate?! Mumsnet, incidentally, is beginning to be the online version of the 'Daily Mail', or the 'Jeremy Vine Show'.......

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Historian's Tragedy

There is a self-destructiveness at the heart of man which is evidenced in both large ways and small, individual actions. Historians should be better than most in capturing this blackness at the heart of our existence, but for all that they are hardly immune from it themselves. I was, to be honest, gutted to hear of the extraordinary online and legal shenanigans of one of my favourite historians, Orlando Figes. Figes has managed to shed more light on the hidden world of communist Russia than most others writing today, and in a compelling, literary fashion that compels admiration. His unfolding of the Russian Revolution, in his book "A People's Tragedy" is as gripping as history can be, illuminated by extraordinarily detailed insights into the lives of all sorts of people who lived through those murderous times. Nearly any other history of that event seems, by comparison, rather grey and uninteresting, and often superficial. Then there's "The Whisperers", his chilling survey of the lives of Stalin's forgotten citizens - a masterpiece of historical research and, once again, an amazing read.
So how utterly tragic to find that this brilliant man has also sown the seeds of his own destruction with some petty, vindictive reviews written anonymously on Amazon. And then compounded the error by using legal force to try and prevent anyone getting at the truth of their true authorship, then sheltering behind his wife's apparent willingness to take the fall for him before finally admitting to the truth today.

The story of Figes and the anonymous reviews is a bizarre one, although it sheds a light on the very competitive, often bitchy world of academia. Historians may write books for the general public, but their eye is firmly on the reactions of their fellow academics. The academic world has long been full of people of extraordinary intelligence capable of the most petty slights. There are few top academics who do not believe that theirs is the only true, honest and acceptable interpretation in their field of study, and everyone else is frankly a charlatan. It has always been thus. Figes' comments are not, in themselves, any more damning than the comments made on a regular basis by academics about each other. But their anonymity, and his dissimulation about their authorship, has elevated them into something much worse than the sum of their content.
In one of his anonymous Amazon reviews, Figes described fellow historian Robert Service's history of communism, "Comrades" as "awful" and "curiously dull". I have to say he is not far wrong in the latter comment. It is a masterly work (it is not "awful" by a long chalk) but there is no doubt that Service lacks Figes' own ability to add colour, dash and excitement to his narratives. Their lecturing styles are not dissimilar - Service is worthy but a little somnolent, while Figes is enthusiastic, engaging, and monumentally sure of himself. But Figes did not need to make any remark about Service's work at all. He outsells the Oxford professor considerably, so what on earth was he up to? This splat in academia has opened a wide window on the wasps' nest of academia, and the behaviour of Professor Figes in particular, with Robert Service (in a rather staccato, diary-like account) writing in the Observer today; another historian trashed by Figes, Rachel Polonsky, giving her account in the Mail on Sunday; and the Independent of Sunday reporting other examples of Figes' attitude to fellow historians, and his apparently liberal approach to quoting their writings!

Orlando Figes is on 'sick leave' from his berth at Birkbeck College. It's difficult to see how he can re-emerge as a credible figure from this dismal affair. How and why he went down this bizarre route is inexplicable. But for all this, for all the hammering his reputation now has for all time, his books remain brilliant, colourful renderings of extraordinary events. It's just a pity that he failed to draw the most personal lessons about the frailties of human behaviour.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Newspapers' Own Goal?

The Thursday print media saw a variety of extraordinary headlines about insignificant events concerning Nick Clegg. It is not only unlikely that these 'stories' will have had any impact on people's voting intentions, but they may in fact back-fire on the newspapers themselves. After all, should Nick Clegg gain a position of power in the next administration, the print media will find itself on the outside, and even more alarmingly for them the real powerlessness of the newspapers will have been starkly revealed.

The Guardian carries two columns of interest in this regard - Alexander Chancellor condemns yesterday's stories, and former Sun editor David Yelland considers the impact on a locked-out media elite, notably Rupert Murdoch.

Debate Verdict

More substance, more fluid dynamics but no game-changer, is the overall verdict. Clegg and Cameron came out evens on the whole, with Brown once again proving that debating is clearly not his medium. It looks as if it was the all important first debate that effectively 'loaded' the election, and so long as none of the leaders make major slips (which, last night, they didn't) it will be the momentum from last week that is most likely to inform the election result.

It is interesting that despite the more 'substantial' nature of the debate, much media commentary remains focused on style, and one of the impacts of the debate has been to skew the election period away from policy issues. The daily 'policy debate', that used to be announced at the news conferences, has been rather swamped by a persistent going over of the television debate analysis.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Media Attack Clegg Shock

The right-wing media have been so successful in undermining David Cameron's new, modernising conservatism that they are now confronting the possibility of a Liberal Democrat power bid. So the likes of the Mail, the Sun and the Torygraph have rapidly rediscovered their Conservative roots, and are doing what they know best - smearing the opponents. And the man in their sights is, of course, the new challenger for the 'change' mantle, Nick Clegg. Politics Home collates today's various front page attacks here, together with blogger comments - conservative blogger Iain Dale, for example, condemns the strategy. All of the stories seem to be pretty thin, and may well backfire on the papers and the Tory party that they are now desperate to support. Best story is the Daily Mail's - the paper that was not noted in the 1930s for its strenuous anti-Nazi stance, are accusing Clegg of a "Nazi Slur" on the distinctly lame evidence of a speech he made while an MEP.

"Gay Sex Is As Dangerous As joining the Army" - Tory Frontbencher

There is an almost religious determination at Conservative HQ to focus the election firmly on David Cameron, and if anyone wants to question that strategy they need only refer to the activities and comments of Mr. Cameron's putative future ministers amongst the Conservative ranks. Take Dr. Julian Lewis, the New Forest MP, for example.

In an observation to sixth formers, made at a local college in his constituency, Dr. Lewis made a comparison about gay activity that remains a little, shall we say, opaque. When the comments were first reported, I must have mis-heard, for I thought he had said something along the lines of "dead military personnel can't contract AIDS" which, whilst somewhat gratuitous, is undeniably true. Turns out that what Dr. Lewis was actually saying was that gay sex and frontline militray activity were equally dangerous activities, and that is why he didn't vote for the reduction of the age of gay consent to 16. Not quite sure how our men on the Afghanistan front-line are going to take to having their daily life-threatening missions compared to a bout of gay sex, but there we go. Dr. Lewis, of course, is one of David Cameron's shadow defence spokesmen. Which must be a real help to everyone concerned. Fortunately, Dr. Lewis' expertise is not about to be deployed in any strategic sense to the Afghan conflict - no, his remit is the far less controversial one of nuclear weapons.

The Conservatives - a nice change!

UPDATE: The Independent reports a penitent Dr. Lewis as saying that he did not intend to make the 'preposterous suggestion' that gay sex was as dangerous as fighting on the front line, but to point out that unprotected gay sex carried clear physical dangers.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Clegg's Brown Aversion

I wonder if this morning's Telegraph interview with Nick Clegg will change the dynamics of tomorrow evening's debate?

Labour have spent much time since last Thursday trying to explain how little distance there is between them and the Liberal Democrats, in the hope of squeezing out the Conservatives. There was nothing more embarrassing from last week's debate than Gordon Brown's own, regular, plaintive cries of "I agree with Nick" (a slogan that has been quickly printed on stickers and T-shirts by the Lib Dem high command). But, of course, the more Gordon Brown 'agrees' with Nick, the less chance there is of Mr. Clegg looking like a genuine change candidate. If the effect of voting for him is simply going to give Mr. Brown another five years in power, well then even the British electorate might start to ask whether that would be such a great reward for putting a tick next to Mr. Clegg's candidates on May 6th.

The Telegraph interview suggests that Clegg is very aware of this danger. He is surprisingly stark in his hostility towards Gordon Brown, who he describes as a 'desperate politician', and one that he simply 'doesn't believe'. Indeed, his frustration with Brown was apparent even in that infamous debate.

As the Lib Dem surge continues, the political debate continues to run along the lines of who will do deals with whom come May 7th. (policy seems to have been squeezed out). This is starting to cause ructions in the Lib Dem camp, where it is believed that Vince Cable, himself an ex-Labourite, would prefer to deal with the Labour Party, while Clegg and the reformist 'Orange Bookers' amongst the Lib Dems are more inclined - though marginally - to try and find a modus operandi with the Conservatives. It may not be much to the Liberals' advantage to have this horse-trading paraded in public, even as they soar to top spots in an increasing number of polls. Labour, meanwhile, although enjoying the discomfiture being experienced by the once leading Tories, must be concerned that even in an electoral system which is significantly weighted in their favour, they may get to a point in the polls low enough to reduce even their formidable block of potential seats. This remains one of the most febrile elections of modern times.

More on the Sutton Race

Courtesy of Iain Dale's blog listings, I see that someone called "Anna Raccoon" has been investigating the way the local Sutton Guardian has been reporting the local election race, particularly a rather racy - and, it turns out, inaccurate - description of the Libertarian candidate in Sutton and Cheam.

The Boris View

I'm late with this, but for those who like the Boris Johnson approach to politics, here is his column from last week on the Clegg Effect. Best quote is this, concerning his view of Clegg's performance in the debate:

He [Clegg] was by far the worst, with many of his answers seeming to be semi-masticated versions of something Cameron had already said. And so you can imagine my amazement when those polls started to come in, and the news that the punters overwhelmingly scored it for Cleggie. It was one of those times when there seems to be only one solution to the problems of British politics, and that is to dissolve the electorate and summon a new one.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Yellow Peril Creeps On!

David Cameron ditched his original Party Political Broadcast to do a straight-to-camera piece, with appropriate flashbacks. It is clear that the Tories are developing a Cameron strategy to try and outflank 'Cleggmania', still believing - probably correctly - that he remains the strongest part of the Conservative brand. Four polls tonight put Labour in third place; three of them have the Conservatives ahead of the Lib Dems and one has the Lib Dems ahead - the highest margin for the Tories is 4%, so they're all very tight.

The Evening Standard has some specific London polling evidence here, suggesting amongst other things that Zac Goldsmith, the high profile Richmond candidate, will fail to take the seat from LibDem MP Susan Kramer. Conservative Home meanwhile has a piece on the Sutton election, from a local Tory councillor; plenty of anti-Lib Dem Council material, but relatively little substantive evidence to suggest whether or not the Conservatives really do have a chance of taking Sutton and Cheam off Paul Burstow.

And, just when Nick Clegg must have thought it couldn't get any better, along comes Lord Tebbit to remind us why the Tories were booted out in the first place, with a fine piece of anti-Clegg invective!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Locking Murdoch Out

One positive spin on the present polling - from former Sun editor David Yelland, as reported by the BBC:

"If Clegg's Lib Dems held the balance of power it would be the first time in Rupert Murdoch's life that he was locked out of British politics." So says former Sun editor David Yelland of his old boss, in the Guardian.

A Warped Electoral System

UPDATE: OK, I meant to say that the Liberals were of course in SECOND place in the post below. As has also been pointed out in the comments, a new YouGov poll for, ahem, the Sun, now puts the Liberals in first place (33%), 1 point ahead of the Tories (32% for those who are mathematically challenged). It may be too close to call at the top of the poll, but nothing is disguising Labour's third place showing (26%). Mind you, that's still probably enough to give them victory. Who needs a proper functioning democracy after all?

There has been no greater illustration of the inadequacies of the present electoral system than the projections resulting from Nick Clegg's new found fame and fortune.

As the Independent reports, a ComRes poll puts the Liberal Democrats in third place, on 29%, behind the Tories on 31% but ahead of the third-placed Labour Party on 27%. But these figures would actually make Labour the largest party in Westminster (273 seats) with the Lib Dems on only 106 seats. If the Liberals are disfavoured by the present system, so too, clearly, are the Conservatives, making their refusal to consider electoral reform all the more bizarre and even suicidal.

Also in the Independent, usefully for students, is John Rentoul's summary of the pros and cons of the different electoral systems, which also says where in the UK they operate. Does he know there's an exam coming up?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Clegg Effect

With little further development of the election campaign since Thursday, the blogosphere and the media have been able to focus on the so-called "Clegg Effect" for two days now. The general consensus is that this hurts the Tories more than Labour (as also suggested in my post below). Amongst the plethora of commentary you could look at, there is Charles Moore in the Telegraph, explaining why the Liberal surge will let Labour in again; Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian examining the effects on Labour spin-doctors of a poll that showed them coming third in the aftermath of the debate; the New Statesman's blog considers the impact of Clegg in the 'twittersphere', but suggests it is having onlya limited impact on the party as a whole; and Lib Dem blogger Mark Pack examines how the usually Tory tabloids are coping with the Liberal resurgence.

All very entertaining of course, but the fact remains that with 2 more debates and 3 weeks of campaigning still to go, anything could change. This election, for all the apparent apathy of many voters, is proving remarkably hard to call. A hung parliament is the current safe bet, but for all that he's taken a dip, I wouldn't rule out David Cameron's ability to pull his party back to a small win. It'll still take a political earthquake to turn Clegg the decent TV performer into Clegg the leader of an alternate administration, and that's what might ultimately count with those voters who do decide to turn out on May 6th.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Twits on ITV

Hilarious video excerpt from ITV's debate coverage on the Media Blog, ample evidence of the dangers of screening uncensored tweets etc.

Why Does Labour Want to Boost The Lib Dems?

One of the key Labour lines to take after last night's debate has been to agree that Nick Clegg did really well, and that Cameron did 'surprisingly' poorly. This is partly because it is virtually impossible to defend Brown's performance (although listen out for stuff like "he showed he's got substance", which is a euphemism for the fact that he is hopelessly unable to communicate with ordinary voters). It is also part of a natural Labour desire to do down their most serious rival. But could there be more to it? Could there be a good strategic reason for boosting the Lib Dems?

There is an understandable strategic explanation behind the Labour love-in with Clegg. The first one is election based, the second is a post-election assumption of a hung parliament. As regards the election, the Lib Dems actually pose a minimal threat to the Labour party. In 1997, when the Lib Dems received the parliamentary boost that they have more or less maintained in the subsequent general elections, they achieved it mainly at the expense of the Conservative Party. If they have considered that they may not experience a significant increase in the number of seats they win at this election, the Lib Dems have at least decided to put all of their effort into maintaining their current seats. This is primarily an anti-Tory effort - the more of their 1997 seats that they hold, the fewer gains will be made by the Conservatives (see the battles in Westmoreland and Lonsdale, or Sutton and Cheam, or Richmond, for example). The Lib Dems have acted as a middle class safe haven for anti-Tory voters since 1997, and they aim to continue to do so. Even many of their city seats - like Clegg's own in Sheffield - were actually gained at the expense of the Tories. The Liberals are much less effective in the 'urban poor' areas held - often on low votes - by Labour. So a good Lib Dem campaign is likely to hinder the Conservative advance, and that is an obvious benefit to Labour. Quite where the protest vote against Labour in the more deprived seats should go is another question, the answer to which is too often the BNP, but that is another issue.

The post-election strategy is, of course, to try and line the Lib Dems up as potential Labour allies in an anti-Tory parliamentary coalition in the event of a hung parliament. This represents an acceptance in the Labour Party that they are not going to win a majority themselves, despite the electoral system's inherent bias in their favour, and that their next best option is a hung parliament in which the Conservatives can be out-voted by a 'coalition of the left'. Quite how happy Nick Clegg would be to keep Labour in power is an open question, and his irritation in the debate at being called into agreement by Brown so often may be a sign of his reluctance. After all, the Lib Dems are still smarting from their recent coalitions with Labour in Scotland and Wales, which were rejected in the devolved elections. If any such alliance were even to be possible, it seems likely that the first price exacted by a resurgent Liberal party would be Gordon Brown's removal as leader. The second should certainly be electoral reform.

Where, in the meantime, does this leave David Cameron? Well, where he's always been actually. Faced with an uphill electoral struggle that requires him to gain Lib Dem as well as Labour scalps in the election. The post-election dilemma of a Conservative Party that fails to win power will, of course, be acute. Despite the anti-Tory vote heading towards the comfortable centre-left represented by the Liberals, a defeated Cameron would be likely to face short shrift from a party which would actually be determined to reassert its clear right-wing credentials. The party's right-wing leaders will not have been oblivious to the fact that Cameron scored high positives in the debate when he spoke of school discipline, a cap on immigration, and strong action on crime. This, they consider, is natural Tory territory, rather than the pro-NHS, One Nation Green agenda being pursued by Mr. Cameron.

NB: Tory blogger Iain Dale takes a different view of a possible Lib Dem resurgence, believing it could actually benefit the Conservatives.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Great Debate Verdict

The instant post-debate polls have Nick Clegg as the winner, and I surprised myself by agreeing. What has been quite interesting since the debate ended has been the Labour spin operation. Alastair Campbell on Sky was saying, with the blokey, "look I'm telling it like it is" attitude that he has tried to perfect, that Nick Clegg won the debate and that, seriously, he was surprised Cameron didn't do better. Along comes chirpy Alan Johnson on the BBC with an almost identical line - you know, Nick Clegg won, but I'm really surprised that Cameron didn't do better. Really Alan? Are you? You seriously expected David Cameron to win? And were ready to call it if he did?

Conventional wisdom beforehand had it that Clegg would benefit from these debates and that Cameron should do well in a format he often excels at. I thought Clegg would be unimpressive - his public performances to date have been wooden and unconvincing - but I have to say he got this one right. He listened to the others, looked at them when they were speaking, sounded a bit more spontaneous when replying, and he was, of course, able to rely on the Lib Dem 'outsider' status to have a pop at the other two parties which, to his credit, he did well. Yes, he was flaky on his crime policies (at student conferences these have created the most difficult questions for him in the past), and a bit too predictable in his 'plague on both your houses' stuff at times, but overall he may have usefully reminded people that the third option in this election is actually quite a credible one. The most embarrassing thing for Clegg was to have Gordon Brown so desperately court him throughout the programme. Brown could barely complete a sentence without saying "And I think Nick agrees with me", or, by way of a change, "I agree with Nick." One of the best bits of the whole 90 minutes was where even Clegg got a bit fed up with this and had to issue a corrective to Brown, reminding him that er, no actually, he didn't agree with him at all.

Gordon Brown came a wretched last in the post-programme polls, and his performance was pretty dire, but the expectations of him were so low beforehand that simply his ability to get through the debate without throwing a mike stand at someone can probably be counted a success. His attempts to smile remain horrific, and he was way behind the other two on the personal anecdote front, but then he does have problems communicating with ordinary people. He also shoe-horned in a clearly prepared 'joke' about Cameron and 'airbrushed policies', while another line he was determined to use was almost lost - 'this is answer time not question time David'. It was slightly odd to hear Alan Johnson tell us that this wasn't an arena where Brown ever does well. What - you mean communicating with the voters via the new-fangled medium of television? How very unfair of us to expect a modern political leader to be able to do that.

David Cameron didn't make any obvious gaffes, but his problem was that he didn't really gain the upper hand in this debate either. He was comfortable enough, had some decent points and tried to find ways of empathising with the ordinary viewer. These sometimes became too laboured - I forget the number of times he worked in the phrase "as the parent of children at a state school", or his personal NHS experience. I'm sure we're all very grateful that a Tory leader has finally decided to actually use the state services that everyone else is dependent upon, but I certainly hope his policy making is not going to be based purely on the experiences of his family. The real problem for Cameron, though, is to see how he can really drive further ahead. Nick Clegg actually beat him at his own game, and the next two debates are now Clegg's to lose rather than Cameron's, which may be to the eventual advantage of the Tory leader. For the moment, though, tonight is Nick Clegg's night.

Oh, and a quick word on body language. Cameron and Brown clearly loathe each other, and could barely bring themselves to look at each other when they spoke, whereas Clegg managed to look at each of them with a mixture of interest and perplexion when they spoke. It gave him another advantage, and made the other two look slightly ridiculous.

UPDATE: Jonathan Freedland agrees with me - had no idea he read my blog so quickly!!!

The Great Debate - Number 1

Well I realise it's the most important event ever to happen in any British General Election across the whole of history, but we might want to tone down our expectations of the Great Election Debate (Part 1) just a little. The much touted template for why it is so important - the inaugural US presidential tv debate between Messrs. Nixon and Kennedy - seemed to come down to the fact that Nixon wore a grey suit and sweated more than JFK. Oh, and his 5 o'clock shadow looked shifty compared to the sun-tanned Kennedy. But then, Tricky Dick Nixon looked shifty compared to a thrice-charged, money-laundering second hand car salesman who worked part-time for the mafia, so that was hardly a PR triumph.

I'm not convinced that the debate will be watched in huge numbers by a British public which simply spouts the mantra that all politicians are worthless at the moment. There will be some desperate media spinning by all three parties, to say nothing of the media's own ability to spin itself (the debates are, of course, the result of a hugely energetic campaign by the tv channels, desperate for a new election reporting angle and easy to come by video footage). But in the end, perhaps we'll simply walk away with our prejudices still intact, much as the US audience probably did with Nixon and Kennedy. Nick Clegg may surprise us with a hitherto un-noticed wit and charisma. Then again, he may not. Gordon Brown might just come across as a humorous, self-deprecating man you'd definitely want to spend time with. Then again, he may not. And there could just be a chance that David Cameron will drop his snake-oil salesman impression, but it seems unlikely.

More interestingly, perhaps David Cameron will respond to the criticism made by 58 economists today about his economic plans, or Gordon Brown explain away the poll which shows the Tories ahead in 100 key seats. Or possibly, they'll throw out the rules, and have a genuine, policy inspired debate containing rigour and illustrating their geuninely different ideological passions. Think I might just put 'West Wing' in the DVD at the ready.

Back in Westmoreland....

Where we lead, it seems, the Guardian follows! They have an entertaining report on the battle between Tim Farron (the incumbent Liberal) and Gareth McKeever (Tory challenger) in that northern English haven, Westmoreland and Lonsdale. To be fair, the Guardian reporter does appear to have made more of an effort in interviewing a wider range of people than I managed, but I'm disappointed she left Dentdale alone.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Manifesto Wars

With the Lib Dem manifesto launch this morning, all of the biggies are now out in the public domain. There is some ideological differentiation there after all - the Tories have enshrined antipathy to government expansion, and a belief in individual action, over the more centralised approach favoured by the other two parties. That apparent differentiation, however, is not quite as substantial as it may seem at first glance. Gordon Brown's manifesto included such commitments as giving parents the right to sack their headteachers (a truly terrible idea, but it's there) for instance. The Liberal Democrats are making it one of their major pledges to redistribute power "fairly among people". From the Lib Dem manifesto launch this morning, New Statesman political editor Martin Bright tweeted "So all three parties are saying: We are crap, it's over to you", which sums up the sense in which the parties are now trying to move the impetus for solutions back to "the people".

The first problem, of course, is that "the people" don't exist as some sort of helpful, collective organisation of common-minded volunteers with high political capabilities. They exist as a bunch of disparate individuals, the majority of whom have no interest in getting involved in anything beyond their own immediate lives, and who in any case are rarely equipped with the mental faculties to be so involved (television news has produced some truly wonderful vox pop replies over the last couple of days from your average member of the public - "Labour? Are them the lot that's in power now?" or "I don't do politics" for example. Facebook has provided "Nick Clegg? Is he our local MP?" from someone not living in Sheffield Hallam). The second problem is that on the biggest issue facing the country, the spiraling national debt and a plan to move us out of a deep recession, handing power to the people is hardly much of an option.

Manifestos are also far too full of hopeless jargon, intending to sound aspirational, but instead coming across as a poor substitute for specific ideas. Michael Crick identifies a classic example from the Tory manifesto which promises to "develop a measure of well-being that encapsulates the social value of state action". Nick Clegg's speech exemplified this sort of linguistic bombast this morning when he spoke of hardwiring fairness into society (What on earth is that supposed to mean in practical terms? How do you 'hardwire' anything into 'society'?), and then went on to talk of "turning anger into hope, frustration into ambition, and recession into opportunity". Well you can't argue with that can you? Sounds great, but what does it really mean?

The parties are naturally hoping their manifestos stand as a powerful and articulate expression of their highest political aspirations. The problem is, they want to avoid hard truths because the public don't actually want to hear them, and that leaves them fumbling around with sub-Obama sounding aspirations that no-one really believes in. In the end, of course, I doubt the election will be won on specific policies and promises; it will be won by the party and leader who just make us feel a little bit more comfortable and confident. That should probably give Mr. Cameron room for optimism.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Tory Launch

The Tories have a dramatic venue, but I'm not sure of their wisdom in giving so many shadow cabinet members the chance to repeat each other in very slightly different ways just prior to Cameron's main speech. I mean, did Theresa May really offer us a distincively and excitingly new dimension to the Tory manifesto? I suppose this is all in the interest of showing us that a Tory Party that has been slammed for superficiality is really a potential government of depth, but there's an element of barrel scraping too.

Manifesto Launch Venues

Both Labour and the Conservatives have chosen dramatic venues for their manifesto launches, but I wonder if we should make anything of the fact that the hospital where Gordon Brown spoke was not a hospital, and Battersea Power Station, the venue for David Cameron, is not, of course, a power station. Are these parties telling us that neither of them are what they seem??

The Liberals, meanwhile, really do have to try and get away from that awful yellow backdrop they are imposing on their daily news conferences, while dear old UKIP looked, at their manifesto launch this morning, as if they'd crammed everyone together in an upstairs pub room.

Labour's Pennines Ad and Doctor Who

I hadn't realised, when we were doing our own week-long Pennines trek, that Sean Pertwee must have been there as well, using the Dales landscape to reflect on why Labour were such a good bet for the next five years. We clearly weren't as far from the election as I thought.

Sean, of course, is the son of the late Doctor Who actor Jon Pertwee (one of the great Doctors), and the Gallifrey vote is clearly headed Labour-wards. The voice-over at the end was provided by recently retired Doctor David Tenannt, resorting to his natural Scottish. Meanwhile, the most recent episode of the seminal sci-fi series portrayed elections as a choice between protesting or forgetting. In the episode everyone chose to forget, which is presumably what Gordon Brown is hoping will happen on May 6th as well. Anyway, here's Sean, in the deep Pennines.....

A Distant Election

It's been a joy to be away in the Yorkshire Dales over the past week, with a group of sterling, genuinely good-humoured and excellent cadets. But even up there, where you could easily think the world had stopped for you, as the sun trickled across the mellow moorland in a don't care-ish sort of way, the newly declared election managed to throw its elongated, if rather lackadaisical, tentacles. The actual announcement of the election had all the surprise value of someone declaring that they could walk by placing one foot in front of another. We didn't really notice it. Later, however, rustic signs of an election began appearing, particularly the large orange triangular signs that declare the Liberals are "winning here". A subjective rather than objective assessment, I assumed.

However, as we arrived at the village of Dent, the only village in the whole of Dentdale (the Norse invaders preferred solitary homesteads you see), a lone Tory invader came daringly up to the school minibus. Where were we from, he asked (the legend "Sutton Grammar School for Boys" across both sides of the minibus cunningly avoids specific geographical placement). This is the committed Tory you see - alighting from his range-rover in plus fours, he was determined to leave no individual unturned in his canvassing quest along Dentdale. His interest slightly waned when he was told our Sutton was in London, but he did remind us that "There's an election on you know". This is how news gets passed on in the Dales. We chatted awhile, and I remarked that the incumbent Liberal for this seat (Westmoreland and Lonsdale) seemed to have some good friends amongst the farmers, if their willingness to display his large orange posters was anything to go by. "No, he is NOT liked by the farmers at all" Mr. Plus Four assured me, although the evidence for this had to be curtailed as his car was blocking someone on the narrow road outside.

The following day, at one of those leisurely stops one has in the Dales, at an isolated pub which had carelessly let its kitchen staff (the landlady's husband) go out on just the day that a horde of hungry teenagers were passing by, I was able to get a more objective view of Liberal MP Tim Farron. He's good, said the landlady, who did not appear to be of any fixed party. He gets things done. He actually writes replies to letters and seems to work hard. She didn't place a lot of credibility on the view of my Tory canvasser informant, who she knew. Tim Farron could well get back in.

Thus, a distant election seemed not so very distant after all, even if the bucolic splendour of the Dales made it seem just a little bit irrelevant.