Wilf Weeks, Chairman of Weber Shandwick European Public Affairs, gives his views on the General Election campaign so far. As an advisor to Conservative leader Ted Health during the 1974 hung parliament, Wilf holds a valuable insight should such an outcome materialise in 2010.
As an aside, I was thinking over the weekend how the public clamour for a particular style of leadership has gone full circle over 13 years. In 1997, Labour seized upon people’s fatigue from having a serious, policy-heavy grey-man of a leader with little charisma – enter Tony Blair.
Next, the public tired of the smiling, well-spun, squeaky clean approach of Blair and reverted to a serious, straightforward and somewhat grey-man option – enter Gordon Brown.
Now, taking into account that Nick Clegg will not be Prime Minister, we have Cameron trying to play the Blair card but with an austere side, while Brown is unashamedly championing the grey-man image, albeit with a more than slightly eerie grin thrown into the mix.
A couple of interesting interviews in the press this morning worth noting. The first is with Gordon Brown in The Independent in which he appeals for a “progressive alliance” of natural Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters to join forces to keep the Conservatives out of power. In the interview Brown says he wants a “new politics” and argued that the Conservatives offered merely “a change of personnel and a return to the old politics”, while Labour was “serious” about revamping the UK’s electoral system.
As an aside, the idea of a “progressive alliance” was something on the minds of some in the Labour Party before the election was called. Writing in The Guardian back in February of this year, Peter Hain called for such a progressive alliance of Liberal and Labour voters. He urged those individuals who found themselves in marginal constituencies to vote Labour – even if in their hearts they were Liberal Democrats – in order to defeat the Conservatives. Whilst Hain said that “I am not asking them to sign up to Labour’s entire record” he argued that if this did not happen, then “there is a real danger of letting the Tories in through the back door.” Strangely enough, the conclusion Hain reached was that if this new “progressive alliance” was formed then “Britain’s natural anti-Tory majority can take charge.” An anti-Tory majority, not a Labour one. Interesting.
Anyway, back to today. The placement of the interview in The Independent and this type of rhetoric is a clear strategic move designed to target Liberal Democrat voters and the often more liberal-thinking readership of the paper. Some might call it desperate; others may see this as the clearest indication yet that Gordon Brown has come to some inner peace and realised that the unpredicted rise of Nick Clegg in the polls following the first debate may mean that his best chance of holding onto power is by being the largest party in a hung parliament.
But this may have been Brown’s position for some time now. In the run up to this election, Brown has been asked on numerous occasions what he thought the result would be. Many times his answer has not been an outright declaration of victory, but rather a more cautious approach along the lines of “the people will decide the outcome of this election.” Brown has undoubted political ability and has long been seen as one of the most strategically minded politicians in the Labour Party – he did after all run a number of past election campaigns for Labour. Do you think it is possible that he foresaw this situation even before he called the election, realising that his best hope of keeping hold of the keys to Number 10 was the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats?
The second interesting interview is with Nick Clegg in The Daily Telegraph where he has labelled Gordon Brown as “a desperate politician” and indicated that he might find it difficult to do a deal with Brown in the event of a hung parliament. He also delivered a rebuttal to those arguing that there is little difference between the Liberal Democrats and Labour: “Do I think Labour delivered fairness? No. They are clutching at straws.”
Clegg’s comments serve a number of strategic purposes. Firstly, he needs to find a way to distance himself from Gordon Brown ahead of the second debate. The number of times during the first debate that Brown sought to say in one way or another that he agreed with Clegg was a clear strategic move by Brown to align himself with the Liberal Democrats and peel away some of their potential support. If Clegg is to build on the momentum he developed coming out of a successful first debate and grow his party’s support base then he needs to demonstrate a clear dividing line (or lines) between the two parties.
The second strategic aspect to his comments could be Nick Clegg taking a more long-term approach. Only the most eternally optimistic Liberal Democrat supporter must think that Clegg has a chance of becoming the next Prime Minister. Let’s be very clear: he doesn’t and Clegg knows this. The best hope for the Liberal Democrats is that they do well enough in order to be the kingmakers in the next Parliament. Should they find themselves in this situation, then surely the Liberal Democrats will want to be in the strongest negotiating position possible. In order to do this all the soundings Nick Clegg makes between now and the election must be about how difficult his party would find it to align itself with either the Conservative or, more likely, with Labour. Make the parties desperate for the Liberal Democrats support. And then you are in much better position to place certain conditions on your support.
At the start of the election many political commentators were sceptical of the impact of the leaders’ debates. The first one blew the race wide open and re-framed the entire election campaign forcing all the parties to re-evaluate their strategic approaches. We wait what the second debate has in store!
I attended an event in Oval this morning which though originally billed as one talking about the role of small businesses, ended up being an opportunity for David Cameron to set out his idea of a ‘Big Society’ – a society based on responsibility and respect as opposed to Labour’s ‘Big State’ built on paternalism and waste. All very well. Lovely to hear about how we are going to be taking care of each other and all, but I am still going to take a bit of convincing before I jump on board the Cameron bandwagon (if at all). As an aside, upon arrival at the event this morning I was asked if I wanted to be one of the people standing behind Cameron as he was speaking. I guess I should have known; I am after all (relatively) young, but most importantly of all, a visually modern orthodox Jew. I politely refused, and judging by the other individuals who ended up standing there like leading party activists, I made the right decision. Nothing like a bit of racial and ethnic profiling on a Monday morning!
Anyway, what I found very interesting about the event was a clear change in the Conservative leader’s rhetoric. In the past few weeks the challenge has appeared to be how many times Cameron has used the word CHANGE in his sentences, statements and pamphlets. This morning, the buzzword was most definitely DECISIVE. If Cameron said it once, he said it a thousand times. Decisive leadership. Decisive change (maybe change hasn’t made its final appearance just yet). Decisive this, decisive that. Apparently – according to Cameron (and he may be right) – the only way Britain can achieve the change it needs is a (most likely decisive) vote for the Conservatives on 6th May. Any other vote, and you will wake up on 7th May with exactly the same thing you went to bed with on the 6th May – my wife may, or may not, be pleased. An indecisive (nice mixing up of words there, Dave) government, constant haggling and negotiations, and a bleak future for the British (presumably Small) society.
I got the distinct feeling from the event of a Conservative Party who is a little bit scared. Leading in the polls for so many months, one could ask if a bit of complacency had set in. The strategy of making this election a choice between David Cameron (change and the future) versus Gordon Brown (status quo and the past), is all of a sudden looking a bit naive. Neglecting Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats may have seemed like a smart move when the election first kicked off, but after Clegg’s performance in the first debate last Thursday and the resulting boost his party has seen in the polls (can you believe the YouGov/Sun poll today: LD – 33%, Cons – 32%, Lab – 26%) one can afford to ignore the Liberal Democrats no more.
I highly doubt that these will be the final polling figures we see on 6th May, but the race is certainly more interesting – and involves more players – now than it has been to date. The Conservatives have realised that all it takes is for the Liberal Democrats to increase their share of the vote by a couple of percent in order to deny the Tories the outright majority they so desperately crave. The decisive shift in Conservative strategy is palpable; whether it produces the decisive results the Tories would like remains open to question. The ‘Big Society’ may still be some way off.
As the man with the least to lose, it had been widely predicted that Clegg would be the main benefactor of last night’s debate. But, as it turns out, this was not just a win, this was an absolute triumph of the underdog.
Just looking at the polling today, Populus had almost twice as many people saying Clegg won than his two competitors combined. The figures are remarkable. Asking who won the debate, Populus gave 61% to Clegg, 22% to Cameron and 17% to Brown. Meanwhile, Clegg now has incredible momentum, and his confidence was apparent as the Sky News team followed him to his first engagement this morning. His activists are inspired and he has been noticed by the public; a powerful combination.
However, I don’t think anyone should be surprised that Clegg did so well. Over the last 18 months, there has been a clear trend developing where even the most mainstream Britons are treating anything remotely establishment with increasing disdain.
No doubt a hangover from the financial crisis and expenses scandal, the best example of this trend outside of politics was when X-Factor winner Joe McEldery was gazumped in his quest for Christmas number one by heavy metal rock band Rage Against the Machine. A fitting tribute to their name, Rage launched a campaign to see Simon Cowell’s empire of manufactured one-hit wonders finally overthrown by an enlightened public. The fact that people were willing to heed this call to arms in their millions was symptomatic of a British public fed up with the establishment.
So as the era of banker excess comes to an end, after implicated MPs resigned in large numbers following the expenses scandal, and after poor Joe McEldery failed to become Christmas number one like every X-Factor winner before him, Nick Clegg is just the public’s next antiestablishment hero. And he knows it. His message was clear that the “Labservatives” are the old and the Lib Dems are something new. This is exactly what a frustrated public wants and his message worked.
However, whether Clegg can turn the public’s temporary bout of iconoclasm into actual votes remains to be seen. I imagine looking fresh and new to a public who have never really seen you before is much easier than getting them to vote for your candidates.
Time for my shameful secret then – I initially thought that Cameron had edged last night’s debate, by a nose.
Why? Well in truth I didn’t think anyone really “won”. All three leaders were disappointing: Cameron looked extremely nervous and stuck very much to the script; Brown struggled to shake off the “you’ve had 13 years” attack.
Clegg? Well what do you say about Clegg? I must admit I have never really been convinced, having had the benefit of weekly PMQs on which to base my judgement. He seems to have more of the air of a GP than a political leader. But surely in a debate organised for the people’s benefit, it is the public who decides this, and they have overwhelmingly spoken in favour of the Liberal Democrat leader.
Why? I think its demonstrative of the public’s complete disenchantment with mainstream politics. Clegg played his cards very cleverly, making sure he grouped Brown and Cameron into the “old-style” political system and drawing clear lines between the Liberal Democrats and the Red-Blue block on areas such as expenses and the tax system. He also attempted to be the voice of the audience, chipping in with lines such as “the more these two argue, the more they sound the same” and making sure to tell questioners “I want what you want”. Many will have got their first real glimpse of Clegg since his accession to leader in 2007, and it seems they, unlike me, liked what they saw.
But actually, I’d seen this tactic somewhere before. In 2008, during the London Mayoral elections, Liberal Democrat candidate Brian Paddick also played the “us and them” card. But this backfired as he was overshadowed by two far stronger personalities in Ken and Boris. This time round, I don’t think any of the three are real personalities in the way, for example, Mandelson, Hague or Cable are. Thus Clegg, to his credit, stood his ground and was able to project his popular message effectively.
So kudos to Clegg, the two front-runners spent too long jostling each other, and failed to notice the dark horse surging through on the inside rail. But as William Hague said, (when noticeably better than his leader in the debate’s post-mortem discussion on ITV) this victory will surely swing the spotlight firmly onto the Liberal Democrats’ policies, which up until now have not been scrutinised to the extent of the two main parties’.
Doubts in my mind still remain that Clegg has been able to promise a far more attractive, yet far less realistic manifesto, in the belief it will not be held to account through outright power, but may serve to increase the Liberal Democrats’ presence in the Commons.
One thing’s for sure though, this previously unknown quantity from the yellow corner has just stepped up to the political heavyweight grade, and Nick Clegg’s gloves are now well and truly off.
I watched the first leaders debate this evening. And whilst politcal junkies like myself found it to be an interesting 90 minutes, my wife actually admitted that her levels of boredom were significantly higher than when I watch games of football. I will remind her of this during the World Cup in a few months time…
So who won? Well I always thought that providing he didn’t make any gaffs and no one else landed any knock out punches (and neither happened) then Nick Clegg was always going to be the man with the most to win from this first debate. And I think I was right. After all, he finally had a level playing field with the two main parties – something the Liberal Democrats don’t usually get during a normal General Election campaign. That was a clear victory in itself.
Clegg had one mission throughout the whole debate – demonstrate to watching voters that there was a third party involved in this election. That they had a choice, and he continuously sought to reinforce an ‘us versus them’ mentality throughout the debate. Clegg played the role of the outsider, the person and party seemingly prepared to stand up for the genuine concerns of the public. He even wore a light colour suit as opposed to the more traditional dark colour suits worn by his opponents to emphasise this change. (Obviously it was my wife who noticed that!) For the most part, I think he did quite well.
For David Cameron, expectation was sky high heading into the contest. An undoubtedly highly effective communicator, his answers were the slickest of the three, though often at times a bit too slick as has been a recurring criticism. Though he answered effectively, he did appear to have one default position for whenever he found himself on uncomfotable ground. For example, when attacked by Gordon Brown over his lack of a firm commitment to increase spending on the police, Cameron sought to reverse the attack on the Government, asking why they had not done anything in the past 13 years to sort out the problems the country faces. An effective rebuttal which served to reinforce his party’s overall message of change versus more of the same, and one which was used a number of times throughout the debate.
Another tactic effectively deployed by Cameron was his personalisation of issues in order to relate to his audience. He had an emotive story or anecdote for every issue, and you could tell he had been coached for the debate by American political consultants. One particular story caught my eye. When talking about crime, he told a story of one convict who had been released early from prison and proceeded to burgle and set fire to a house. A child died as a result of the fumes produced by the fire. This highly emotive story reminded me of a similar story used as part of a political advert during the 1988 US presidential campaign in support of George H. W. Bush when he was running against the Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. The story involved a man called Willie Horton who had been released early from prison by Dukakis but who had gone on to re-offend and commit rape. Worth reading up on if you have a spare couple of minutes. It became a defining moment in the campaign that year.
So what of Gordon Brown? Well, though often too wordy in his responses for the most part he did ok. No major gaffs; no knock out punches. However he did manage to land a couple of good shots. His attack on Conservative plans to remove £6 billion from the economy this coming year, together with the way he explained Labour’s plans to cut the budget deficit, were for the most part effective. Brown also managed to put Cameron on the spot when it came to the issue of secure police funding in particular. And though dial-test polling during the debates noted a more muted response to him overall, he clearly scored a couple of good hits here.
But he also needs to control himself a bit more. You have to remember that the cameras are always trained on you (whether you are the one answering the question or not) and the clock is always ticking. Too often he found himself running out of time to give a full answer or being cut off by the excellent moderator Alastair Stewart. Too often he allowed himself to give a little smirk at a Cameron or Clegg response. There have been times – for example in the recent Obama – McCain presidential debates – when such reactions have been picked up by the media and run as news stories within themselves.
And he also needs to work on his jokes. Using humour in a debate situation is a difficult judgement call to make. Succeed – as Regan did when he highlighted his opponent Walter Mondale’s youth and inexperience during the 1984 presidential debate – and it can work enormously in your favour. Fall flat and you look silly and at times unstatesman-like. There were a couple of occasions when Brown sought to use amusing lines to attack Cameron (“You can’t airbrush your policies like you can airbrush your posters”, “This is not Question Time David, its Answer Time”, or the reference to the X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent in his closing remarks) sometimes with more success than others. It is just something to be wary of. Gordon Brown is undoubtedly a serious, weighty, highly intelligent politician. We are in serious times and the country is looking for a serious politician. So unless you have an absolutely cracking joke, Gordon Brown should stick to what he does best – debating the facts and policies not attempting forced humour.
Overall then, good night for Clegg, solid night for Cameron and Brown.
So this week has seen the three main parties launch their manifestos for this year’s election.
Let’s face it though; these hardly had the entire country on the edge of their seats. Viewing figures for each are unlikely to have passed the hundreds of thousands. Tonight’s fist Leaders’ debate, however, is expected to draw in a crowd of something around ten million viewers.
So what does that tell us? To me, it’s that those suggesting that UK politics is becoming more and more presidential are probably right. As a (relatively) young person closely involved with the political arena, I struggle at the best of times to see how the differences between each party’s policy pledges will have any real effect on my life one way or another. So for me, and I am sure I am not alone here, there needs to be another element on which to judge.
Ask most people of my age what you would associate with New Labour, and you would not expect to hear “the third way”, but rather “Tony Blair”. Equally, ask people at this election why they will not vote for Labour this year, and I would imagine most responses will address having had enough of Gordon Brown. Ask why they would not vote for the Conservatives, and Cameron’s lack of experience is likely to be the most popular answer.
It seems that the cult of the personality is alive and well in British politics, fuelled further by this year’s Leaders debates. We remember, in 1997, John Major’s “grey-man” appearance versus the bright-young-thing image of Blair. Cameron is trying to reignite this contest, but may lack the X-factor. These Leaders Debate may go a long way to determine whether that is the case.
Back to the question in the title of this post then. We often hear in the media, and indeed from politicians themselves, that parliament is “toothless”, dominated by the executive and failing to attract the best candidates for the job.
If we establish that we do have a Presidential system here already, and we feel our legislature is toothless, would it be such a bad idea to consider making that ultimate constitutional change? A directly elected Prime Minister, sitting outside parliament, would leave the legislature free to perform its function as a check on the executive far more effectively. This would also solve the threats of uncertainty and inaction which the spectre of a hung parliament is currently bringing to the markets, consumer confidence, and sterling. As an aside, it could encourage non-career politicians to enter the fray, perhaps with slightly more life experience, and that can be no bad thing.
Weber Shandwick’s Chief Digital Strategist, James Warren interviews Colin Byrne and Tara Hamilton-Miller on the first week of the 2010 General Election campaign. The pair discuss this week’s election campaign highlights and provide their predictions on what the campaign focus will be for the week ahead.
Even the most casual observer couldn’t have missed the launch of the 2010 election campaign in Cornwall.
The A30, that county artery, is a streak of orange ‘Liberal Democrats’ winning here signs. The Tories only start to get a look in once you hit Devon, a number of landowners giving over their rangey fields to whopping ‘Vote for Change’ signs.
There’s a whiff of separatism about the Lib Dems’ defence of the South West. Andrew George, sitting candidate in St Ives, is ‘Standing up for Cornwall’. With its assisted area status and reliance on tourism and public money to prop up its very low GDP, Cornwall will feel the pain of fiscal austerity sharply. It’s a thought that will make the Cornish nervous about voting for change.