Tuesday, 30 October 2012

TV leaders’ debates in 2015? They shouldn’t have a choice

In a week where we had the final US presidential debate, attention has switched to our own leaders’ debates and the possibility of them being replicated in the run-up to the next general election in 2015. After the novelty and intrigue of the three we were treated to in 2010, one might have been forgiven for thinking that they had now become part of the political furniture. Were it so simple.

The first signs of grumbling and discontent have emerged. Primarily it seems from the Conservatives. There is a view, amongst the grassroots anyway, that the 2010 debates harmed David Cameron and denied his party a parliamentary majority. Because the odds on him securing one this time around look slim, to say the least, why risk further damaging the party?

For now, this appears to be the main stumbling block. Added to this comes questions about the number of debates that should take place, and the format that should be adopted. For anyone who dragged themselves out of bed at 2am on a working night to watch all three presidential debates (guilty!), the idea that the UK may now bin them doesn’t go down too well.

Whatever the reservations and logistical complexities, the public are entitled to see debates return in two and a half years. In fact, I’d go further and argue that the leaders and the parties should no longer have any say. They should be guaranteed in every general election cycle. Pressure from the media, on all sides of the divide, would be a useful first step in making this happen.
Much of the criticism points to the fact that they risk presidentialising our system. Which betrays the reality. Our system is already presidential whether we agree, or like it, or not. What else towers over the party conference season if not the leader’s speech? It is the main attraction. Without it, the level of interest would be substantially less. You certainly wouldn’t expect such a strong media presence. Prime Minister’s Questions? The rough and tumble of adversarial politics, with the PM at the centre and a chance for the leader of the opposition to look, and sound, prime ministerial. The sparring between the PM and his opposite number makes the headlines, provides the talking points.

It is because Ed Miliband’s approval ratings fail to match his party’s that Labour still have much convincing to do. David Cameron almost single-handedly rebranded his party, however superficially, giving them the opportunity to govern once again. It is his falling ratings that most concern the Tory faithful. The media spotlight fixes endlessly on the party leader, sometimes to the detriment of all else.  
It is unsurprising to note the positive noises coming from Ed Miliband’s team who seem confident that he’ll embrace and relish a TV debate tussle. There has long been the view that Miliband thrives in the town-hall style format, enjoying the audience interaction. One school of thought has it that his impressive hustings performance before becoming Labour leader played a major role in his victory.

The Lib Dems are presented with an altogether different dilemma. In 2010, Nick Clegg blossomed, becoming as close to a political god as one could get on these shores, and yet his commanding and polished debating skills failed to translate into extra seats in the Commons. After everything, the Lib Dems had fewer MPs than before. In terms of who stands to benefit the most, it may be that Nick Clegg uses it as a chance to very publically rehabilitate himself. If he has stood down before then, a Vince Cable or a Tim Farron would crave such a chance to put distance between themselves and the Conservatives. This could be their party’s best hope of avoiding an electoral meltdown and salvaging something from their time in government.
The electorate are more volatile than ever before. With UKIP flirting with third place in the polls, its leader, Nigel Farage, could not unreasonably suggest that he share a platform with the other party leaders.

Yes, there are issues to be settled, with the format, I believe, top of them. The 2010 debates were formulaic and sterile, with audience members asking general and unimaginative questions, without the opportunity to respond to answers. This needs to be changed, as does plonking the leaders rigidly behind lecterns. A town-hall style format would inject verve and movement and a bit of razzmatazz into proceedings.
What we mustn’t allow to happen is for the public to be fobbed off with self-interested excuses as to why we won’t be getting TV debates before the next election. Anything which grabs our attention and provides discussion about politics can only be a good thing. Given the apathy (or should that read ‘loathing’?) that currently stalks our political landscape, our leaders can’t afford to be picky.  
This article was first published by Independent Voices on Tuesday 30th October 2012

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Eight observations from the final presidential debate

1. President Obama and Mitt Romney have essentially the same foreign policy. The difference is that Obama is a lot more articulate in outlining his. Where he sounded assured and confident and erudite, Romney resorted to language and a tone that would have made George W. Bush proud. His strategy is to “go after the bad guys.”
No doubt many Americans would lap up this talk, but it made him sound amateurish and cowboy-like. Then again, we already had a cowboy in office for a full eight years.

2. Dividing lines were hard to spot. Romney would have imposed sanctions on Iran even earlier. He wants to make them tighter. He’s still banging on about formally labelling China a currency manipulator. He wants to arm the Syrian rebels, if he can actually identify them. As he acknowledged, they’re a disparate bunch. Obama pretty much wants the same, except he’s hesitant about fully arming people who may 20 years in the future use these arms to attack America. It seems some lessons have been learned. Both were gushing in their unstinting and unconditional support for Israel, come what May.

3. Romney cleverly used America’s economic struggles at home with a perceived weakness abroad. High unemployment and record debt undermined America’s standing in the eyes of the world, went Romney’s line. This was his strongest point of the evening.

4. Obama failed to adequately respond to Romney’s accusation that soon after taking office, Obama had embarked on an ‘apology tour.’ In other words, by visiting several Muslim countries, trying to rebuild bridges, win back trust, he was apologising for America’s greatness and making it look weak. Obama should have been more forceful in explaining why this tour was necessary.

5. Discussion often got diverted back to domestic issues, in particular the economy, putting Romney on safer terrain. He regurgitated his five point plan to get American back on track and attacked Obama’s economic record. Obama used this as a chance to lay out his vision on education and belittle Romney’s plan as tried, tested and failed: ‘W.Bush Mark II.” It is this part of the debate that probably got voters’ attention.

6. The format of the second debate looks and feels a lot better. It gives proceedings energy and movement. But last night’s was preferable to the one in Denver - rigidly stuck behind lecterns - with the candidates so close they were almost touching. 

7. This debate will change virtually nothing. Out of all the debates, this one will have minimal impact. Expect polls to barely budge. The first put Romney firmly back in the game, or at least competitive again. The second saw a rejuvenated Obama come out firing and helped stem the loss of support. Last night’s debate may as well not have happened. Why? Foreign Policy is way down on American voters’ priorities. Not just outside the top three, but near the bottom. According to a series of Reuters/Ipsos polls carried out since January, only two per cent of likely voters put “war/foreign conflicts,” and “terrorism/terrorist attacks” as their number one concern. This figure has never even breached the figure of five per cent.

8. Taking this into account, one could reasonable argue why even bother devoting a whole debate to foreign policy? Because Americans want to feel safe. This is a nation riddled with paranoia. Perception matters as much at home as it does abroad. As does trust. Obama did a fine job presenting himself as Americans’ commander-in-chief. Romney did a good job reducing foreign policy to simplistic quips. It didn’t make him sound presidential. It made him sound out of his depth. What Obama would call his ‘credibility problem.’

This comment piece was first published on Shifting Grounds on Tuesday 23rd October 2012

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Ten observations from the second presidential debate

1.      Unlike the first debate, this one was worth staying up for. A good array of audience questions, well moderated, with follow up questions, ensured we got a proper contest rather than the drab affair in Denver. Although as an unashamed Obama supporter anything would have been better than two weeks ago.

 I also really liked the format and the setting. The audience wrapped around the two men making it seem intimate but almost simultaneously claustrophobic. Something similar should be tried in Britain at the next general election, assuming all three party leaders agree to them again. In my opinion, they shouldn’t have any choice.

2.     These men really don’t appear to like one another. Lots of finger-jabbing and pointing and dismissive glances. At one point Romney treated the president with a curt: “you’ll get your moment in a minute. I’m speaking.”

3.      Mitt Romney made a strong start but, unlike the Denver debate, faded. He ran out of puff about 40-50 minutes in and sounded repetitive, often failing to answer questions directly, instead using it to lay out his grand economic plan whilst trashing Obama’s record.

4.      Romney was at his best, his most commanding, his most polished, when talking about the economy. He attacked the rising deficit, the unemployment figures, especially amongst women, and what he sees as policies which are crippling not healing the economy.

5.       Obama couldn’t have been any worse than the first debate. Luckily for his supporters he wasn’t. In fact he raised his game as much as his aides had been briefing he would. He made a slow start but quickly got into his stride giving a terrific response to the second question on energy and what had been achieved in four years, and what would still be achieved with a heavy focus on renewables. Romney’s insistence that America drill and drill like never before, would have made even the softest of environmentalists weep.

6.      Both men gave weak answers to the question on gun control. It doesn’t matter how many times you hear it, but to listen to the right to bear arms being defended makes the average Brit/European despair. Even after Obama had described the number of times he’s had to console grieving school shooting victims’ families, better enforcement of the current law was his only solution. That’s all. Guns, God and cars. The untouchables of American politics.

7.      Romney’s “binders full of women” comment was unfortunate and clumsy but hardly catastrophic. We’ve all heard far worse. Romney’s said far worse. By his gaffe-prone standards this was lame stuff.

8.      The Libya question and the reaction to the killing of the US ambassador and other Americans in Benghazi showed us Obama at his strongest and most statesmanlike. It also demonstrated how being tough on national security is a must almost from day one for a Democratic president. For a Republican, this is a given. Romney’s accusation that Obama failed to treat the attack as a terrorist one (as opposed to being part of the protests for the anti Muslim film) and then spent several days back on the campaign trail was met with an angry response. Not only did Romney have his facts wrong, as the debate moderator pointed out (a convention breaker? Not the done thing at these debates I imagine), but Obama didn’t take too kindly to the charge that he had handled this badly and insensitively.

My own view is that the Obama camp treating the incident as “an act of terror” before waiting a couple of weeks to actually confirm this, strengthens not weakens his response. What’s wrong with waiting until all the facts are fully known? Isn’t this the correct and most appropriate thing to do before jumping in all guns blazing?

9.       President Obama was consistent throughout in his view that the wealthiest should pay the most in taxes, a point he hammered home time and again. Romney reiterated his opposition to such a stance. A clear dividing line laid out once again in full view of the public’s gaze.

10.  Romney knows he doesn’t have the personality, the charisma, or charm of Obama. Even those who disagree with Obama’s policies prefer him as a person. The final question, and my personal favourite, asked of both men: “What do you believe is the biggest misperception that the American people have about you as a man and a candidate?” Apart from spelling out how much he cares for all Americans (i.e. not the 47% he dismissed), Romney brushed the question aside and used it as another chance to say what he’d do if he became president, and what Obama has failed to do. Obama’s reply was quite interesting, focusing on what he sees as the misunderstanding that people have of him that the government can do everything, including creating jobs.  He also, much to the delight of his base no doubt and what he failed to mention in Denver, used this as his opportunity to ram Romney’s 47% comment back down his throat.

Instant polls called the debate for Obama. From what I saw I would have given it 55-45 in Obama’s favour.  Will it reverse the tide of support for Romney? Possibly. Does it strengthen Romney? Unlikely, but neither does it weaken him much. Will this performance please Obama’s base? Definitely.

But I can’t see much change in the polling. With so many polls released and so many presenting such conflicting pictures it’s hard to know what to believe. I think the most sensible conclusion, and one other commentators have been pushing for weeks, is that the debates won’t change an awful lot. Most voters have already made up their minds. Romney’s surge has come too late in the day. The Obama team have run a campaign as rigorous and as organised as four years ago targeting key swing voters a lot earlier, and in greater numbers, than Romney. My prediction of several months still stands: Obama to win by three points.
This article was jointly published by Speaker's Chair and Shifting Grounds on Wednesday 17th October 2012

Friday, 12 October 2012

Cameron the ‘optimist’ never more out of touch

Depressing. That’s how I found David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party faithful yesterday. An odd word to use you might think, considering this was a speech peppered with references to Britain’s ‘can do’ attitude, to its greatness, and in its ability to overcome adversity and deliver.  A speech which smothered up reality in a warm coat of positivity.

A speech which followed a pattern of recent Cameron conference speeches. Last year he divided society into optimists and pessimists. Indeed he’s made a political career out of this. The latter, in his view, are those that hold everyone back, resist change, oppose for the sake of it. What he referred to this year, lifted right out of Little Britain, as the ‘yes-but-no people.’ Whereas the former embrace a challenge, invite change, and want to work together in order to achieve it.
It's what The Guardian’s John Harris called at the time: "breezy optimism in the political bubble," versus "fear and loathing on Britain's streets," illustrating that "...the disconnect between politicians and the public has never been greater.”

And it’s a very clever, very shrewd tactic to employ. The sunny Cameron shines through, bulldozing his way through all the naysayers and doom-mongers. The PM’s advisers have evidently paid attention to all those American focus groups who say that the public like their leaders upbeat rather than dour and miserable.  
In fact, both Cameron’s and Boris Johnson’s speeches were very ‘American dream’ like. This is a nation where anything is possible, what Cameron called ‘the best country in the world.’ But, behind the endless positivity, and the view that good times are just around the corner, belies a PM wedded to divide and rule. The deservers and the undeservers. Those at the bottom stare down the barrel: 23 applicants for every job, the rise in part time, temporary work, hiding what the raw stats fail to show. The safety net, needed now more than ever, being ripped apart with every new cut.

The attack on housing benefits, on unfairness and injustice, gobbled up the welfare section, with a focus on families claiming tens of thousands of pounds to ‘live in homes that hard-working people could never afford themselves.’ Yet in London, a focus for tabloid ire, official figures show that just 139 families received over £50,000 in rent a year out of 800,000 benefit claimants. Or a microscopic 0.02% of the total. Only 4% received more than £20,000 a year.
If this is ‘the modern compassionate Conservative Party,’ take me back to the good old days.

Whilst we have those at the top of the tree sitting pretty, rewarded with tax cuts, with the backlash against doing down the financial industry in full swing. Bashing bankers? We hadn’t even got started, some could reasonably point out.
So what do we have in Cameron’s Britain? We have the ‘strivers’ and the aspirants. We are the ‘aspiration nation.’ Sounds like something straight out of a motivational handbook. Labour wants a One Nation Economy, the Conservatives an Aspiration Economy. Not the party of the better off, the Conservatives are the party of the ‘want to be better-off.’

The ‘Big Society,’ - the good in theory but out of step with current reality vision that just won’t go away - made another appearance.
One had to admire the chutzpah with which Cameron could claim his party were still the true guardians of the NHS and keep a straight face.

To all those staunchly opposed to the arms trade, such as myself, there was an unapologetic nod to the defence industry and the battle to win contracts. Grubby deals with shady regimes are us.
And what is the glue that keeps everything together? What gives this country its common purpose? Bringing down the deficit at all costs. Deficit reduction has become the new war on terror: loaded with fear and hyperbole:

“We haven’t forgotten who spent our golden legacy, who sold our gold …who busted our banks, who smothered our businesses … who wracked up our debts, who wrecked our economy …who ruined our reputation, who risked our future.”
We must therefore “sink or swim. Do or decline.” In this global race, in order to remain relevant, Britain must keep looking forward. There’s no room for the cynics. All must be swept away in a tide of boundless optimism.

For Labour, two traps have been set. The first concerns the economy. “The damage was worse than we thought, and it's taking longer than we hoped” claimed Cameron. It goes without saying that the state of the economy will still be the burning issue come 2015, but the Conservatives seem determined to peddle the lie that overspending, and not the global financial crash, got Britain into the mess the Tories are tidying up. And it’s a line that sticks, in particular with around a third of voters still happy to pin the blame on Labour’s so-called financial mismanagement.
Welfare reform is the second test. As Liam Byrne, a cabinet member in the previous administration, remarked at a fringe event last week, “Labour has to win on welfare.” Yesterday, Cameron told his party:

“For years people said benefits are out of control and there’s nothing you can do about it. Well, because of our welfare cap, no family will be getting more in benefits than the average family earns.”
Most of the country would have been nodding their heads in agreement.

Labour also has to decide if it is still in favour of academies, which it created, or against. David Cameron has stolen a march and spoke proudly as if it were the Conservatives who first came up with the idea, such has been Labour’s recent ambivalence to them, perceived or otherwise.
What we heard yesterday was a false optimism. An optimism that says that if you work hard enough, play by the rules, all will be fine. It’s simplicity divorced from reality. During a recession what people want is a government that will help them, protect them, but most of all, empathises. Where were the policy announcements to do just this? There weren’t any. There was nothing the average voter could take away from this speech that would make their lives easier. Yes, we live in tough economic times. But, if all there is is austerity, where’s the optimism?

This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on Friday 12th October 2012

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

From the Fringe: The Times, polling, and Labour’s challenge

We have swing voters. We also have swing newspapers, of which The Times is one example. Whether they’re an accurate barometer of public opinion – do they move with the mood of voters or the other way round – is disputed. Either way, The Times is moderate enough, and less tribal, to be taken seriously.

At a fringe event on “Labour and the voters,” chaired by the paper’s editor, James Harding, a panel including Times writer Philip Collins, director of the polling firm Populus, Rick Nye, and Liam Byrne, cabinet member during Labour’s time in office, weighed in to that overcrowded debate: what does Labour have to do to get back into power?
Summed up thus: the party must show it is serious about cutting, that it won’t overspend again, has a plausible plan for job creation, and a leader who the public can see as their PM. Tick all these boxes and prepare for government.

As far as Collins is concerned, there are grounds for optimism. The Labour brand is in decent shape and the party hasn’t descended into factional fighting. The public are starting to listen to the opposition. The key question is what is the function and purpose of a Labour party without funds? Collins also pointed out that despite a double dip recession and missed deficit reduction targets, the approval ratings of the two Eds have remained relatively static in over a year and a half, locked around 32%.
According to Populus’s latest figures, the parties have reverted to type. The Tories trusted most to deal with immigration, crime, and welfare abuse, the so-called ‘hard’ subjects. Labour dominant on the softies of looking after the NHS - by a whopping 32 points – and improving standards in schools.

It also seems to be accepted wisdom that Labour’s lead, be it 10 or 15 points, is fragile. And this will remain so until a significant number are able to view Ed Miliband as a future PM. Certainly a majority.
For Liam Byrne, Labour has to ‘win on welfare’, with three challenges it must address: first, youth unemployment, with 40% under 25s without work. Second, a fierce and uncompromising attack on Conservative cuts which have targeted the most vulnerable. The party has ‘crossed the line on compassion,’ according to Byrne. Third, dragging social security into the 21st century and getting an extra one million women into work which would in turn bring in an additional £4.5bn in tax receipts.

When drawn on an outcome for the next general election, and despite Labour’s poll lead, Rick Nye came down on the side of there being another hung parliament with Labour as the biggest party. Findings from Populus see evidence of a ‘spiral of silence’ of support for the Tories. Part of Cameron’s success lay in making it okay to admit to being a Tory voter again. Some of these voters have gone back underground. Nye also believes there is a substantial minority still in favour of Plan A, and yet to forgive Labour’s profligacy.
As this was an event co-hosted by The Times it seems only right to end with a look at its Monday editorial. It is this fundamental point that Labour must grapple with over the next 12 months:

“Mr Miliband would make a foolish mistake if he were to rest on the laurels of opinion poll leads that have been consistently more than 10 percentage points. The feeling persists, in the absence of a clear prospectus from Labour, that this lead is a soft indication of the failings of the coalition rather than a hard index of Labour popularity.” 

This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on Tuesday 2nd October 2012