Thursday, 16 June 2011

AskEdM: What's wrong with Labour's PR machine(?)

I love the Labour party. Yesterday they made me laugh so much I almost did a tiny wee.

This isn't a defection post, it's a long overdue homage to the ability of the Labour party to knock its own PR stunts into a cocked hat and bring some much needed joy and schadenfreude to everyone else in the political village.

Yesterday, the much heralded hashtag #AskEdM appeared on Twitter. Billed as an intimate chat with the leader of the opposition, it was designed to offer the twitterati an opportunity to engage with the super-hip IT conscious Ed about his vision for Labour's return to power and what this country would look like under his stewardship. It didn't go down like that.

@DanBrusca: Hi Ed. As Prime Minister how would you handle the Kobayashi-Maru situation*?

[*reference to Star trek : a supposedly impossible test for cadets at Starfleet academy, only ever completed by Jim Kirk, in which they have to rescue a stranded federation ship from the Romulans.]

@FelicityParkes: Where did Ed Balls touch you? show us on the doll.

Everyone was at it.

@agcolehamilton: Ed, will there ever be a boy born who can swim faster than a shark? [apologies to Steven Merchant and Gareth from the Office]

Even my 9 month pregnant wife asked him where babies come from. It was a riot.

The questions continued to pour in, well past the point at which Ed threw in the towel with a right-on 'it's been a blast, lets do it again sometime' kind of tweet, at which point he probably wished that he'd spent the time prepping for next week's PMQs (let's face it he could use it).

Yesterday's fiasco is just further evidence as to how comprehensively the Labour spin machine has derailed since the heady days of Blair and Mandy. Yesterday's disaster is eclipsed only by the litany of PR catastrophes of the recent Scottish campaign, my own particular favourites being:

1: The sandwich shop dash. (needs no explanation)

2: The poster campaign to advertise it's horrendous knife crime policy: CARRY A KNIFE GO TO JAIL WITH LABOUR. There are lots of them there already and Jim Devine is getting your cell ready...

3: Iain Gray's assertion in the Lothian manifesto that he wanted 'a zero tolerance approach on literacy'. You know how it is, everyone has an aging aunt who gets wired into the sherry at Christmas and then starts composing Haikus, we all laugh politely, but it's wrong. Stamp literacy out, right out.

With at least 4 years between Labour and power in either Parliament then they have time to iron out the kinks in their messaging but for now, I can't wait to see what they come up with next...

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

A question of wording...

Do you think that Scottish Ministers should enter into negotiations with the UK government to set out the terms under which they might meet to discuss the terms of a discussion about giving Scotland the power to be a bit more, you know, independent?

This isn't a million miles away from what the SNP intends to ask the people of Scotland in the independence referendum that it will hold before this Parliament rises in 5 years time.

It became apparent during the election campaign that in the event of a yes vote to such a nebulous question, and once such negotiations with the mother of parliaments were concluded, the SNP would see no reason to put the outcome of those negotiations to the people in a second referendum. They contend that as with the referendum that brought about the creation of the Scottish Parliament, one vote would be mandate enough to determine Scotland's constitutional future.

Where this argument falls down is in the framing of the question. The devolution settlement referendum question was binary and left the electorate in no doubt as to what was being asked: "Do you think there should be a Scottish Parliament?", once the will of the people had been ascertained then there was a clear mandate for the creation of such an institution and therein lay the central pillar of the Scotland Act.

A question of the nature proposed by the SNP suggests the beginning of a process, where many Scots may feel that they are being asked an innocuous and unbinding question that affords them the opportunity to dip a tentative toe in the waters of nationhood, to see what an independence settlement would look like, before finally deciding if separation is for them in a second referendum to bookend the process started by the first.

SNP assertions that this would not be the case, have come as a surprise to many. If they intend to ask the people of Scotland just one question, and use the justification of the Scottish Parliamentary referendum as cover to that end, then like with the 1997 vote, the question put should be binary.

Should Scotland leave the United Kingdom and become an independent state?

Yes or No. End of.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Taken too soon. Andrew Reeves- a tribute

One of the most important voices of the Liberal Movement was silenced today.

In the small hours of 3rd June a heart attack robbed, at the brutally young age of 43, our party and our world of a campaigning Svengali, a gritty realist and one of the most genuine people I have ever met. Without Andrew Reeves in our ranks, the rebuilding of the Liberal Democrats has suddenly become that much harder.

A pioneer of the Liberal enclave of the blogsphere and twitter-feed, Andrew Reeves is one of the reasons that I and dozens of other Lib Dem activists and candidates started blogging in the first place. People might uncharitably ask if the encouragement of platoons of self indulgent hacks to take to the ether is a good thing, but any way you slice it, he helped to drag the Liberal Democrats into the 21st century. God he'd have loved the fact that he's trending 4th on twitter UK right now.

Andrew worked to cultivate an image of himself as a hard nosed no-nonsense bastard, and there were times, if, like me you came to him as a demanding whinging, prima donna candidate, he was quite happy to bring the thunder. He was however, never able to completely conceal the fluffy side of his personality. There was no subtext to Andrew, no second face and no dark side. What you saw was what you got.

2011 will now no longer be remembered by the party as a year that we got bombed into the stone age at the ballot box, but as the year we lost a friend, a campaigning thoroughbred and a lion of both Liberalism and of democracy.

Sleep well mate.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Our revolutions were never on the telly in the first place

The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be brought to you by zerox in four parts without commercial interruption,

The revolution will not be televised.

Gil Scott-Heron's dad was the first black player to sign for Celtic. Look it up. Whilst this is about the only notable connection this now sadly deceased (as of this weekend) exponent of the proto-hiphop underground Manhattan music scene had to Scotland, these lyrics could at full stretch have a message to those Parliamentarians who now find themselves on the opposition benches at Holyrood: Even if you hatch a plan for the fight back of the century, for the next 5 years it's going to be pretty chuffing hard to get anyone to write about it.

Staring down the barrel of the SNP super-majority, in mindfulness of the Soviet discipline of the SNP back benches will be daunting for every parliamentarian who doesn't sleep under the soft blanket of nationalism. All parties opposite will now have to embrace a new style of political warfare, and take such opportunities as they can to harry and challenge the SNP in any forum, presenting cogent and rational counter arguments, carefully picking battles and refraining from opposing just for opposing's sake. Persuading TV cameras or the print media to cover their guerrilla style insurgency will be a colossal undertaking.

Oddly though, for the Lib Dems this may have levelled the playing field.

If you half close your eyes and look at it in the right light, the opposition benches of the new Scottish Parliament are perfectly balanced and for the first time, Labour MSPs find themselves punching at exactly the same weight as the Lib Dems, the Tories, the Greens and Margo. In short we all command exactly the same ability to influence the legislative agenda, to amend bills and to change the narrative of the next 5 years and this amounts to precisely hee-haw.

My point is, that no matter how bad the Lib Dem result in May's election, apart from a few more appearances at First Ministers Questions we would exert as much influence in this parliament with 5 times as many MSPs as we have right now. Perversely the quick and streamlined way in which team Rennie have pulled themselves together, and got straight down to going after the SNP on issues of policy puts them at an advantage over Labour and the Tories, both of whom remain shell-shocked and effectively in neutral as they cast around their own battle-weary columns for a new Leader.

Even as recently as March, Iain Gray looked a dead-cert for Bute house and Labour could trade access and a glimpse of post election Labour controlled Scotland for column inches, similarly, the Tories could rely on the Hatty Jakes factor to pull the cameras. Being ignored is nothing new for Lib Dems in the Scottish Parliament, who have, for the past four years, operated against the back drop of media ambivalence, scorn and slight regard.

Until the others cowboy up and start making the most of what they've been left with, they leave the podium clear for the Greens, Margo and Willie Rennie's Famous Five to act, for a time at least, as the official opposition in this country.

When Labour and the Tories do find their respective voices and a blueprint for revolt against the SNP bull-dozer, the next shock to the system will come when they realise that nobody's watching.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Tales of ash and the North Atlantic

The Icelandic volcano erupted as I shook the last of my grandfather from his canister over a remote hill top in the Brecon Beacons. Strangely fitting that events in the North Atlantic should so dominate the weekend we mark his passing, as they had so dominated his life. My Grandfather was a hero in those waters.

When this nation was on its knees and in desperate need of resupply, Lieutenant commander Tony Cole-Hamilton RN stood, with a small band of naval officers and enlisted men between the U-Boat wolf packs and the convoys of American aid that would lead to the salvation of this country. One of the last surviving veterans who personally witnessed the sinking of HMS Hood by the Bismark, he would often attest that the, now infamous, four word message from HMS Prince of Wales handed to him on the bridge of the the HMS Acates, which read simply: 'Hood sunk, am retiring.' was one of the saddest moments of his entire life.

All told that war robbed him of his hearing and two siblings, his brother David a fellow naval officer aboard a destroyer torpedoed by a U-boat (he was 28) and his sister Joan, an MBE and top-flight FCO intelligence at 27 whose flight from San Fransisco to the conference at Potsdam disappeared from radar screens over the Atlantic. Their's was a generation of men and women who had to put everything on the line and did so with quiet dignity and profound resilience. But Grandpa never let the tragedy of war define him. Delighting in mirth and mischief, he was a riot.

My favourite of the many hilarious and almost certainly apocryphal tales was this one:

Before his days in the navy he owned an Otter class dinghy, he loved it very much, but had to part with it as he moved away to naval college at Dartmouth. Many years later he was on shore leave, driving through the south coast. He drove passed a house where under tarpaulin he caught a glimpse of a boat identical to the one he had owned as a boy. So struck was he by the similarity he actually pulled up, got out of the car and went into the drive, he greeted the puzzled home-owner who happened to be leaving his house to take his dog for a walk.

"Sorry to disturb you," says grandpa, "but is that an otter?"

The man looked bewildered and replied tersely,

"Good-god man, can’t you see it’s a Jack Rustle."

He would have approved of the irreverent and slightly macabre jokes at his expense this weekend concerning Grandpa's possible contribution to the mayhem caused by clouds of ash over the Atlantic.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

what's not to love about losing?

I think I’m getting the hang of losing elections.

I counted it backwards and I’m pretty sure that I’ve been running for something or managing someone else’s campaign since 2004. I’d almost forgotten what not being on a war footing felt like. Since the polls closed on the 5th of May, I’ve carried with me a sense of overwhelming liberation.

I look back on the campaign just passed I’m not really gripped by a sense of having been cheated of victory or of hard work gone to waste. Instead I find myself mired in serenity and when I think about the election I seem just to recall those little slices of campaign ephemera which when retold, I can scarcely believe myself.

Knocking something like 14,000 doors over 9 months, you see a lot of snapshots of a lot of lives:

The Spanish gentleman who answered the door in an apron and a thong and insisted on conducting our conversation while he continued his exercise routine of lunges and bending over to touch his toes (repeatedly, and at the worst possible angle);

The lady who insisted I come in and eat some of her fried tofu (which was delicious but led me to leave greasy finger prints all over my canvassing returns)

Or the woman 4 doors down from the tofu lady who was in labour (the condition, not the party) and was more than a little annoyed that I was not the duty midwife. Believe me when I tell you that, when you find yourself being asked to go look for hot water and towels your pre-prepared patter goes out the window.

It’s this interaction with humanity which makes running for elections something I know I’ll keep doing. But for now I’m going to enjoy being peacetime ACH and reacquainting myself with the non political pastimes and people of life beyond politics.

Tomorrow I head to Wales to stand upwind of my Grandfather as we scatter his ashes over the Brecon Beacons. It will be a bit of a C-H family jamboree and probably just what I need. As a brother, son, cousin and nephew (even as a husband and father) I have been pretty dreadful in recent months. My long suffering wife is used to the campaign lifestyle, but my little boy was too young to understand why I had to be absent so often. Since my apparent return to his daylight life, he has taken up residence as my shadow, my clothes are caked in three year old grime and I am teaching him to draw circles, lines and velociraptors. What’s not to love about losing elections.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

He's saved the party before, he can do it again.

A two word message was telegraphed to the fleet when Churchill was reappointed First Lord of the Admiralty:

'Winston's back'

The message came as some degree of comfort to officers and enlisted men of the Royal Navy who knew that in time of great peril you put people of experience in charge. Times such as those called for heroes who had shown their metal before, for street fighters.

Whilst parallels with Churchill are melodramatic and we don't have legions of Nazi's eyeing up our back yard as potential Lebensraum, a blitz-like mentality has taken hold in the Scottish Party.

Indeed it is widely agreed by activists and supporters that the one small piece of good news to come out of the charnel house of May 5th was the election to the Scottish Parliament of Willie Rennie.

As far as saving the party goes, the man has form. Celebrated as the architect of the crucial Christchurch By-election, Willie Rennie has slogged his guts out for the Liberal Democrats since he was recruited to the party from the unlikely breeding ground of Paisley University. He has held roles in the back room, as part of the high command, as Chief Executive and as a key figure in the early days of devolution, advising the parliamentary group and acting as a chief negotiator and strategist for the party in coalition with Labour.

Without question however his deliverance of the entire Liberal Movement through victory in Dunfermline was his and arguably the Scottish party's finest hour. Coming as it did as oil for the troubled waters of scandal, plummeting poll ratings and a fractious leadership campaign, the incredible feat of winning a by-election in Gordon Brown's back yard immediately righted the ship and silenced battalions of critics circling a struggling party that they had expected to be nothing more than political carrion within weeks.

News of his uncontested election to the leadership of the party, noon yesterday, had much the same affect as a two word telegraph might have, sent out to the remnants of the battered compliment of Scottish Liberal Democrats still barely afloat after the tempest of electoral annihilation.

'Willie's back'.