Monday, 31 March 2014

Can negative campaigning have lasting positive effects?

Many of us profess to object to campaigns characterised by negativity, but usually expressions of such objection are to be found when our own "side"is under attack. In recent months, partly but not exclusively due to reflecting on the Scottish independence debate, I have come to question whether negative campaigns are actually as much of an affront to democracy as I've historically believed - and whether negativity can actually achieve positive results in the longer term.

Indeed, the tendency towards "positive" messages seems to fly in the face of human nature. Or, at the very least, the "British" nature - which is so often manifests itself in cynicism and the inclination to think ill of people rather than seek the good in them. Out political culture has been heavily shaped, and co-dependent upon, by such thinking. Our adversarial political system stems not from the facilitation of positive discourse, but actively perpetuates the politics of tribalism and negativity that underpin it. Even the Scottish experimentation with the "new politics" has failed, with Holyrood now reverting to type. It is the negative messages that are so often the most powerful, the most memorable and so often the most eloquent, as evidenced by the oft quoted words of many politicians. Put-downs and asides are more effective than a well-articulated political speech, however positive: Gordon Brown will forever be remembered as "Mr Bean" long after Vince Cable's progressive economic views have become of interest only to academics.

Negative campaigns are often successful campaigns. Take No2AV as a prime example: the campaign actually operated on the basis that negativity works. For all the objections of the Yes campaign, the essential truth remains that one side understood that messages do not have to be either true or positive to be believable, while the other was left complaining about tactics when licking its (largely) self-inflicted wounds. The Scottish Constitutional Convention was focused far more in rectifying the problem of the "democratic deficit" than in shaping a better Scotland, and many within it were equally motivated in curbing the influence of the SNP. Negative campaigning is a tactic hardly unknown to Liberal Democrats, who use it to sell their horse-races to local electorates; the demonisation of Tories in constituencies where "only we can beat them"has contributed to many Lib Dems successes, even if the intentional projection of ourselves as an anti-Conservative party is now creating unforeseen damage. Negativity can and does affect outcomes in a "positive" way, at least in respect to getting the desired result.

Inevitably, negativity isn't always successful. But, if used wisely, it can be an effective tool. It would appear to me somewhat hypocritical to express dismay at others using precisely the same strategies that we would use in similar circumstances. What does not appear to work, however, is cynical negativity being paraded as a "positive message" - and again No2AV had the intelligence to appreciate this. Better Together, on the other hand, appear to be completely ignorant that voters dislike dishonesty far more than they do negative messages.

That said, I have never been one to view campaigning in terms of the immediate objective. While No2AV was successful in winning a referendum, and while the Liberal Democrats have historically used negative tactics well in winning parliamentary seats from Conservatives, but winning results are not necessarily an endorsement of one's aims. Few people rejected AV because they were passionate advocates of the First Past the Post system, just as many who vote Liberal Democrat did so from neither belief in the need for a liberal society nor indeed any real identification with the party's political objectives.

Better Together must realise that, for them, the relentlessly negative approach is not working. There has been no real attempt from them to couple the negativity with the "positive vision" it professes. Their difficulty isn't that they have used overtly negative tactics, but that their entire campaign has become characterised by it while lacking the appeal to populism that is such a necessary catalyst in the triumph of negativity. The Scottish Liberal Democrats appear to recognise the limitations of Better Together's unimaginative style, with Willie Rennie urging a "sunshine strategy" and warning against complacency (while also, rightly, putting the emphasis back where it belongs - on democratic matters).

For all this, Better Together still seem well placed to win the forthcoming referendum, even if the gap is narrowing. Alex Salmond, who himself has sent out some surprisingly negative messages recently, is a believer that the "positive always wins in the end". The lessons from US elections is this is far from true, but he does have a point. Negativity is only effective if you are able to identify the right issues, if your messages are believable, if you are able to offer alternative solutions and if you have respected messengers. On all these counts, Better Together has failed - even Alistair Darling, for whom I have respect, is clearly the wrong person to lecture Scots on economic priorities. Closer to home, on each of these counts the Liberal Democrats have also struggled in the last few years, although there some cause for believing progress is being made on identifying the right issues and on the communications front.

There remains the not unlikely potential scenario whereby the negativity of Better Together will win them the battle but lose them the war. This is true of all negative campaigns, and why I maintain my opposition to negativity more generally. It is an easy tactic, often proving successful in scoring key victories, but negativity can never provide any kind of mandate. If Better Together gets the result it wants later this year it may have won the vote, but it will have failed to convince voters of the value of the British establishment. The victory would not be a public endorsement of either the UK or the campaign. There is nothing more certain to accomplish the feared "neverendum" situation than Better Together's inability to put forward its own vision, or even merely to articulate what is so good about the Union.

Negativity might serve campaigns well in terms of being decisive in determining election outcomes, but it is a limited tool. Accentuating the negative is no way to convince others to buy into one's way of thinking. Negativity cannot win hearts and minds, and it cannot empower individuals to engage constructively with the pertinent questions. Whatever short-term benefits can be reaped via negative tactics, all the evidence points to it creating longer-term difficulties and a very insecure basis for public endorsement. The fact that negativity can achieve results does not mean that the by-products are themselves either positive or desirable.

It is therefore, with some relief, that I see that the Liberal Democrats are finally going into a European parliamentary campaign with a positive message. It may win us few votes - indeed, we would all expect a decrease on 2009 - but I would rather lose being honest to who were are, standing up for what we believe, taking forward the positive message of inclusion and integration, than gaining seats through timidity and a fear of making a pro-EU stance. It may well be that Nick Clegg considers that we have nothing to lose; that there are opportunities are being the party of "in" (even if most want neither "in" nor "out", but to shake it all about). In any case, he appreciates that the real victory on Europe is to be achieved in a longer-term war, rather than in a singular election. He is daring to be positive and, while that has led to the unwise decision to take on Nigel Farage in TV debates, is looking to do what Better Together have not - appeal to the minds (if not hearts) of voters, seeking to convince them of the benefits of continued EU membership.

The difference between negative and positive approaches is the emphasis on seeking a mandate, rather than merely votes. With difficult choices ahead, the Liberal Democrats would be right to take the longer view rather than opt for the easy short-termism inherent in negative campaigning - if we are to "create a liberal society", negative messaging hardly seems an appropriate, let alone efficacious, weapon.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Former Lib Dem chief executive supports "Yes" campaign

The former chief executive of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Andy Myles, has today confirmed that he is supporting the pro-independence Yes Scotland campaign.

There are some for whom this will come as a surprise, although I am not one of them. Myles was a negotiator in the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which paved the way for devolution, and also in the coalition negotiations of 1999 and 2003. He has certainly been a key player in Scotland's recent political development. He was never, however, an instinctive devolutionist and in the last year or so it has become obvious in the many online conversations I have shared with him that he has become dissatisfied with the limitations of the constitutional status quo.

Myles' thinking is focused - as indeed I believe mine is - on achieving the best possible outcome for Scottish people. He has for many years he has thoughtfully championed the cause of a workable and pragmatic federalism but has become increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress on the future of Scotland's (and the UK's) constitutional future. While I have previously noted that "if it was a crime to be a federalist party, there wouldn't be sufficient evidence with which to convict the Lib Dems", Myles today went further, arguing that devolution has failed to "[bring] power back closer to the people...I can see no evidence that it will lead on to a modern British federation, where Scotland is a genuinely equal partner with the other parts of the UK. None of the UK parties are even talking about what I consider to be federalism. I have come to the conclusion that the best way forward is an independent Scotland within the EU."

In recent months it has become apparent to me that this thoughtful man, attempting to make sense of the various questions and issues at stake, was likely to join me in deciding to vote "yes". While I cannot profess to share his expertise on constitutional matters, I do share his passion for them - and his concern for Scottish people. I also agree wholeheartedly with his desire to live in a country with a "written, amendable constitution" and I understand why he believes that "voting Yes is the surest way of getting to this benign position".

Myles is correct in his assertion that the independence question is fundamentally a matter of democracy rather than identity. I would go further, however. It is not simply about a written constitution, however much a progressive and desirable step that would be. The question is this: will Scotland be more democratically representative as an independent nation or as part of the UK?

Will Scotland be more able to deal with the issues of poverty and deprivation, be better equipped to build a green economy, to take charge of its own political, social and economic destiny as an independent country? Roy Jenkins, one of my political heroes, once wrote: “Let us be on the side of those those who want people to be free to live their own lives, to make their own mistakes, and on the side of experiment and brightness... of fuller lives and greater freedom.” He was not directly referring to the question of Scotland's political future, but it begs the question whether "being on the side" of "fuller lives and greater freedom" might not be easier in an independent Scotland than under the status quo. Does an independent Scotland offer a more effective avenue for achieving such liberal ambitions as voting reform, increased localism, greater democratic freedoms, a more tolerant and pluralistic politics and the creation of a liberal society than does a dysfunctional Union?

Like Myles, while I remain a believer in federalism as the best possible outcome, I have concluded that it remains a most unlikely prospect. I, similarly, am not a devolutionist. In the absence of any considered and realistic proposals for federalism (and the Campbell Commission's report, while largely positive, is not it) I see the best achievable outcome as an independent Scotland. Support for independence is hardly a default position for a liberal like myself, but more of us are arriving at the conclusion that the Union in its current form is neither desirable nor sustainable, and that a little more devolution is insufficient. As Grimond once observed, "not to go far enough may be worse than going too far".

Caron Lindsay, writing about Myles' decision on Lib Dem Voice, made a welcome appeal for reason in what is becoming a toxic and polarised debate: "I hope that Andy’s decision will somehow get more liberal thinking into our discussions over the next few months. I’m not holding my breath, but I’d like us to lift our eyes from the very narrow scripts of the two official campaigns and reclaim the debate for ordinary people."

She also concedes that the "liberal Scotland where we bother about freedom and giving people opportunities in life and building a sustainable future [is] not on offer from either side." I read in that a tacit admission that Better Together's negative and highly tribalistic tactics are not to her liking, but she overlooks the reality that it's not what the "sides" promise now that matter, as if this was a General Election with fully developed manifestos, but what the potential outcomes can do for facilitating that "liberal Scotland" we both long to see.

As far as I see it, a "no" vote rules out any significant progressive change. And while a "yes" vote by no means guarantees the kind of change we want, it seems - to myself and Andy Myles at least - to be a risk worth taking. I hope others join us.

Friday, 14 March 2014

A tribute to Tony Benn

Today a legend of the political left, Tony Benn, passed away at the age of 88.

Already there have been hundreds of tributes made for the veteran politician, most of which praise him as a man of conviction, principle, honesty and as someone who cared deeply about humanity.

All this is, of course, utterly true. But there was far more to Benn than the cuddly national treasure he eventually became. He was, at his height, a hugely divisive personality, and one who prompted Harold Wilson to describe him as a man who "immatures with age". That aside from Wilson was somewhat unfair, but Benn was always best as a communicator rather than a leader.

A figurehead for the far left, in the late 1970s and early 1980s he represented much that was wrong with the Labour Party. Those who appreciate what a vital movement the Social Democratic Party was will similarly understand the problems presented by the Bennite faction within the Labour Party. Had Benn won what was probably the toughest and nastiest deputy leadership contest in Labour history, the modernising agendas of Neil Kinnock and, later, John Smith, would have (at the very least) taken much longer to materialise. The combined leadership of Michael Foot and Benn, principled as they were, would undoubtedly have led Labour further into the political wilderness.

Given this, it is ironic that Benn successfully transformed himself into the voice of authentic Labour, that he became its social conscience under the sterile and ideologically vacuous Blair years and that he became - to all intents and purposes - the human face of his party. He was always a man to speak his mind and, in the time of obsession with spin and appearance, his off-key and passionate messages resonated with a public longing for substance. It was not for nothing he received a standing ovation at Glastonbury.

I disagree a great deal with much of Benn's philosophy. This should come as no surprise, given that he was a socialist and I am a liberal. On the EU, I believe he was very wrong - even somewhat confused, as I fail to see how his anti-EU stance was compatible with his internationalism and passion for human rights. But on the major issues of the Iraq War, civil liberties and the future of the NHS he was both outspoken and broadly correct. Moreover, he was the kind of man who inspired people to get involved in politics and not - as he put it - "to wait for some nice MP to do it all for you".

I have met Tony Benn on a few occasions, most recently at the 2012 Labour conference where I was working as a photographer. He was speaking at an anti-war fringe event. In spite of his advanced years, his incredible oratorical skills were more than evident. I have said previously, and I will say it again, that listening to Tony Benn was a fascinating experience. He could be inspiring, even when the listener was in complete disagreement with the points being made. It would be impossible to sit through a Benn speech and not be impressed.

I also found him to be an extremely friendly person - at least when we talked about the issues we both cared about such as the NHS. That people were of different parties didn't seem to matter - after all, he felt he had little in common with a large section of the Labour Party.

Like Nye Bevan before him, Benn was a believer in the inevitable triumph of a scientific socialism. This naturally led to him to see the views of those he disagreed with as forensically wrong. In this sense, moreso than even Thatcher, he was the archetypal conviction politician. However, in standing up against the neo-liberal consensus, the fatuous and superficial elements of modern politics and the futility and immorality of action in Iraq Benn established himself as a voice of moral reason. He left the Commons in 2001 to "spend more time on politics" - there can be little dispute he put his time to effective use.

Whatever we may think of the socialism he espoused, there can be no doubt that on one level he was the perfect politician - caring, committed and determined to do his best for those he represented. And while there will always be those who see him as a self-promoting political maverick, we should not forget that he fought for LGBT rights and against racism a long time before there were any votes to be gained from such a stance. We need more like him.

My defining memory of Benn is of a BBC Question Time edition from 2006. Lembit Opik was also on the panel, and was effectively dismantling the flawed rationale behind Labour's misguided Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. Would Benn take the Labour Party's position? Of course he didn't, and proceeded to go further than even Opik in his denunciation of legislation that would "turn Britain into a police state". It was stirring stuff.

Remarkably for a hero of the political left, Benn was not a man to be overtaken by his own ego. He remained in the Labour Party when others of similar leanings departed, partly from loyalty but also because he recognised the party is bigger than any individual. Left-wing demagogues could learn something from his humility and his lack of the arrogance that so often characterises both modern Labour and the likes of George Galloway.

I did not know Tony Benn well but, for all our difference, he was the kind of man I wish that I did. When meeting him, it was impossible see him as anything other than committed, honest and, significantly, immensely interested in other people. He might have been difficult to agree with, but he certainly was very easy to respect.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

It's Nick v Nigel - but I'd prefer a debate

Nick Clegg: Can he convince undecideds on Europe?
In case some of you were unaware, an incredibly significant poll is to be held in a few months.

I’m not talking about the Scottish independence referendum, either.

In May the country will vote on who it wants to represent it in the European parliament. It’s going to be a tough test for the Liberal Democrats – party president Tim Farron has publicly admitted as much – and there is a possibility that our representation could be reduced to previously unthinkable levels. Here in Scotland George Lyon, a progressive voice of reason in Brussels, has his work cut out to retain his seat; elsewhere across the UK Lib Dems face challenges from Labour, a resurgent UKIP and potentially also the Green Party.

Given that, in the aftermath of recent electoral reversals, these were never going to be easy elections for our party I have been impressed by our determination to take a firmly pro-European stance. For a European federalist like me, who considers the party’s position on Europe to be a primary factor in determining my membership of it, this has been long overdue. I accept, naturally, that we have been historically the most pro-European of the three major parties but too often in the past we’ve shied away from the strong rhetoric of conviction on this issue, wilfully opting not to be too closely identified with the unpopular cause of the EU. The logic of the increasingly polarising issues of immigration and Europe demanded we tackle them directly and honestly; electoral expediency and populism demanded something different.

And so is it, I believe, a welcome development that such caution has finally been put to bed. Perhaps it is because the leadership realise that we no longer have anything to lose and may well gain from being openly pro-Europe. Perhaps it is because, unlike previous leaders, Nick Clegg is at his heart a European. Perhaps it is due more to the UKIP phenomenon and how the Lib Dems hope to counter it. Whatever the rationale behind the decision, it is overdue and welcome. Europe should be at the forefront of our thinking, our identity and our political future. The SNP also understands this, while Labour prefers to content itself watching the Tories tie themselves in knots over it.

In Scotland, the strength of the pro-EU SNP means that UKIP will inevitably be an irrelevance north of the border. Elsewhere, however, it is a different story altogether. This is a party that knows how to use both the PR system and its one star performer to its advantage, as witnessed by the considerable progress made by UKIP in recent years. That this has been tempered by revelations about the unsavoury nature of some UKIP representatives, laughably inaccurate predictions of the numbers of Bulgarian and Romanian incomers, and the inability to make the electoral breakthrough is an undeniable statement of truth; however, there can be no evading another reality – that, while hardly scaling the heights achieved by the SDP in the early 80s, UKIP support has steadily increased. Not only do they strike a populist chord on Europe and immigration, but (in the absence of another strong fourth party in England) are able to do what the Liberal Democrats once did best – appeal to the “anti-politics” vote and masquerade as an alternative to the self-serving political establishment.

On the one hand there are the Liberal Democrats: committed to federalism, human rights, a strong Europe, a realistic view of Britain’s place in the world, pluralism and co-operation. On the other is UKIP, fronted by Nigel Farage – proponents of a curious mixture of romanticised, historically inaccurate notions of British identity and dangerously right-wing policy ideas. There could not be two more diametrically opposed parties, and there could not be two more different perspectives on the question of Britain’s future in Europe.

And so, inevitably, a debate between the leaders of the Lib Dems and UKIP has been perceived to make good TV. Perhaps it will. What it almost certainly won’t be is an informed debate, with the potential to reach out to those who are undecided. It will serve the interests and agenda of Nigel Farage far more than it will those of Nick Clegg. While Clegg has recently appeared to welcome such a debate, the fact is he has overreached himself and fails to perceive that the “opportunity” is fraught with danger.

Clegg will want to take on UKIP directly.  He will seek to expose the myths, challenge the lies and suppositions, and make the case for continued British membership of the EU. He understands that if he hurts Farage, he hurts UKIP. There can be no doubting his political courage, but there remain questions surrounding his judgments. 

One problem that Nick Clegg has in this debate format is that he’s in the unfamiliar position of being cast as a figure of the establishment. That’s a challenge for any Lib Dem leader, not least one who is the prominent member of an unpopular government. This will be something that Farage will inevitably seize upon, to his advantage. Clegg now longer is seen as an “alternative”, as he was in the 2010 debates, but at best a product of the mainstream three-party political “elite” so derided by UKIP and indeed many voters.

Another problem for Clegg is likely to be in his tactics. There seems to be little doubt that he wishes to focus on the cerebral, the logical, and the intellectual case for Europe. He will no doubt come across as measured, sensible, rational and perhaps even passionate in his championing of the case for “in”. He will focus on systematically dismantling the UKIP arguments, intelligently pointing out the flaws and shortcomings in their various positions, countering myths and assumptions with factual evidence.

The difficulty with this strategy is that it assumes the most effective weapon with which to defeat UKIP is reason. Hence, Clegg is out to win minds. If, however, anything has been learned in the last year it is that UKIP has not suffered as expected when it has been shown that their leader disagrees with the manifesto, that their elected representatives include such deluded individuals as a man who believes gay people cause bad weather, that their predictions of mass immigration from Bulgaria and Romania were wildly inaccurate or that their MEPs happily collect generous expenses for the very minimum of work.  Sections of the public do not vote for them because of their well-considered, responsible policies but because Nigel Farage knows how to successfully appeal to the emotional. He appeals to more than mere logic, which is a lesser tool in winning the hearts of voters than either patriotism or personal charm – something of which he is more than aware.

This is a battle of reason versus populism and logic versus charisma. There is no obvious winner in such contests, but the picture is complicated by the fact that it is more difficult to win people over if they’re already convinced you’re dishonest. Is Clegg likely to appeal to any undecideds? Is it probable that he could convince any Euroskeptic voters that they’re wrong? If Clegg's objective is the former, then he is almost certainly the wrong person; if the latter, he is entirely deluded. Farage, on the other hand, tends to do very well in these kinds of situations and knows how to effectively reach out to voters who, in truth, don't entirely buy his political philosophy.

The televised debate is an opportunity, of course, for both Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. But there can be no denying that UKIP stands to gain the most and that they have very little to lose. Clegg, on the other hand, is risking a great deal in banking on his personal ability to deal UKIP an unlikely knockout blow.  Unfortunately for Clegg, crushing UKIP is not merely a question of destroying their arguments, but defeating their appeal and the reasons behind it.

And, ultimately, should Clegg fail in his self-appointed quest there will be far-reaching ramifications for his leadership, for our party and, potentially, for Europe. There were reasons why Cameron and Miliband refused to take part in the debate, and for once I honestly wish Clegg had followed their lead. I wish him every success, not only because I identify with his arguments, but because I fear the consequences of anything less than an inspiring and utterly convincing performance.

It not simply for these reasons I am suspicious of the televised debate. Of course Clegg v Farage is sure to make good TV. But a duel between two leaders of radically different parties is not a valid substitute for the informed public conversation that is needed on our future relationship with the EU. In focusing on personalities, the BBC has created a forum that will be good for headlines and a media obsessed with scrutinising performances, but less likely to engage with the real issue – the nature of our relationship with Europe.

This “debate” risks making the European elections a referendum on Nick Clegg . We cannot afford to lose sight of the reality that these elections are about so much more than personality and prejudice...or indeed UKIP.  There is an important debate to be had, but I doubt a polarising televised spat between an unpopular Deputy Prime Minister and an egomaniacal right-winger is the way to facilitate it.

The debate will be shown on BBC2 on Wednesday 2nd April 2014.