» ed miliband ¦ What You Can Get Away With

To the real victor, the front page spoils.

To the real victor, the front page spoils.

In no particular order:

The real winners last night were Jeremy Paxman and Channel 4. Given the chance to do what he does best and forensically interview leading politicians, Paxman was at his best. Both times, it felt a shame that the interview had to come to an end when it did: Cameron’s because he was on the defensive and clearly wanted it over, Miliband’s because he’d come to life and was clearly ready for more.

Kay Burley was as terrible as you’d expect. Fawning over Cameron, then continually interjecting and interrupting when Miliband was on, she was poor as a moderator, and helped the sections with the audience feel very much like filler sections in between the two Paxman interviews.

No one won, but Miliband didn’t need to. The Tory message has been that Ed Miliband is barely capable of tying his own shoelaces while David Cameron is the strong and capable leader capable of negotiating our relationship with the EU. Neither of those look like good arguments after last night, and the danger of setting such low expectations for Miliband is that it’s very easy for him to overcome them.

‘Cameron scared of debates’ is still a story. One of the messages being repeated in a lot of the morning reporting is people asking why they couldn’t have a head to head debate, or wouldn’t it be good to see them having a head to head debate. Agreeing to some debates means people are still asking why he didn’t agree to the full set of them.

We need more in depth interviews in the campaign. The Paxman sections were the most interesting part of last night, and needed to be longer, and some of the more interesting political moments of the last few years have come in proper interviews – James O’Brien and Nigel Farage, Eddie Mair and Boris Johnson, for instance – and the campaign would benefit from a lot more of these and a lot less photo ops and press conferences. A tough, forensic interview of a senior politician, going on for half an hour or more, is a pretty rare event nowadays, and last night showed it could be much more effective than another Q&A with an audience.

Will the story of the election now be Cameron vs Miliband? Last night framed the election as two-way fight between them, and the post-debate coverage is barely mentioning the other parties. Will this framing persist and keep portraying the election as between the two big parties – and will this effect the polls? – or will the start of the campaign and next week’s seven-way debate open it all up again?

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So, we had some news last night that Ed Miliband wants to bring in rules to organise and regulate General Election leaders’ debates. For the avoidance of doubt, here’s what the article says:

The Observer has learnt that a Labour government, in a significant constitutional move, would put the requirement to stage “fair and impartial leaders’ debates” on a statutory footing. The new system would work on similar lines to the current rules for planning the number, length and timing of party political broadcasts, under which parties are consulted but not given the power to stop them happening. This could be done by establishing the body which negotiates the terms of debates as a trust in statute with responsibility for determining the dates, format, volume and attendees.

Now, you may agree or disagree on whether we should have leaders’ debates, but I think the proposal is quite clear. It’s not proposing to compel anyone to attend – just as the current system doesn’t compel anyone to submit party political broadcasts – merely proposing an independent body (likely the Electoral Commission) oversee the format and organisation of debates.

Having read the article that seems pretty obvious to me, but maybe my reading comprehension skills are of an advanced level, because that understanding seems to be beyond some people:


Yes, this is a man who is paid to interpret and comment on the news completely failing to understand a simple proposal. ‘Compel’ (along wih ‘force’, ‘order’ and other similar words) isn’t anywhere in the proposal or the article, which makes me wonder just where he might have found it from, and if his editors ought to be having a word.

Of course, I could be misunderstanding things myself and mistaking an overpromoted Tory shill who’ll happily manipulate any piece of news to fit his preconceived ideas and propaganda aims for a serious and objective columnist. But then I might end up calling for my own law that stops columnists pretending that pushing their own agenda is somehow objective.

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letbartletOne thought that struck me while reading this Guardian piece on Ed Miliband was that it must be tough to be really into snooker when you’re a politician. The World Championship takes place at the same time every year – the two weeks leading up to the May day Bank Holiday – that the electoral calendar decrees as a politician’s busiest time in the run up to elections on the first Thursday in May. It’s very hard to find the time to sit down and watch a match from the Crucible when there are interviews to be given, photo opportunities to attend, doors to knock on and leaflets to deliver. Maybe the attachment comes from the occasional years when elections precede the bank holiday weekend, when he could relax post-election and take the weekend off.

The main thing I took from it, though, is that Ed Miliband comes across quite well in it, not the freakish wonk-monster incapable of basic human interaction that we’re often presented in the media. Oddly, it turns out that when people take hundreds of photos of you doing regular things, in some of them you’ll look quite odd, and if those are the only ones of you they show, people will think you’re weird.

The problem is that Labour went for him because he looked like a different kind of leader, a change from the Blair/Cameron style, but now thye keep trying to force him into that same mould when it clearly doesn’t fit him well. Making him give ‘big speeches’ and make grand declarations doesn’t work. It’s not his great strength, and it’s not going to magically become his strength in the next two months.

Of course, I’m not going to be voting Labour in May (the conditions for me to even consider doing that are a long list starting with a Tony Blair in handcuffs in The Hague) but I do want to see elections conducted between politicians playing to their different strengths, not all trying to do the same thing in the same way wearing the same suits and using the same words. Why not just let Ed be Ed? As one of the people in that article puts it:

that’s how he strikes me now – as a thoughtful politician who seems to be avoiding a lot of the Punch and Judy of politics. He’s trying to represent the country with well-thought-out views and policies, which don’t always sound as burningly radical as people might like, but he seems to be being true to himself. He’s always made it clear he’s not going to be a dazzling performer.

Don’t send out the Miliband trying to make big speeches full of ready-crafted soundbites and little in the way of detail, send out the one who’s willing and ready to show off his intelligence, who’ll spend time with people talking to them, not at them. Use the few remaining PMQs to actually ask challenging policy questions of the Prime Minister rather than turning them into a slanging and shouting match. Maybe even send him out in something other than a suit and tie from time to time, as he seems much more relaxed that way.

Above all, don’t try and make him be something he’s not. They’re trying to conform to a media template of what a political leader should be, but the media have already decided he won’t fit that, and trying harder won’t change their minds. Give them the reality instead, and let Ed be Ed for a change.

Labour annual conference 2014During his speech yesterday, Ed Miliband made lots of references to problems with our political system.

she thinks politics is rubbish. And let’s not pretend we don’t hear that a lot on the doorstep…
Our politics doesn’t listen…
And to cap it all, in our politics, it’s a few who have the access while everyone else is locked out…
People think politics is more and more a game and that all we’re in it for is ourselves…
You know people think Westminster politics is out of touch, irrelevant and often disconnected from their lives…
We don’t just need to restore people’s faith in the future with this economic and social plan we need to change the way politics works in this country.
In this day and age, when people are so cynical about politics.

So, Ed thinks there are problems with our politics, that people are cynical about it and it’s all a game. So how did he choose to start his speech?

Friends, it is great to be with you in Manchester. A fantastic city. A city with a great Labour council leading the way. And a city that after this year’s local elections, is not just a Tory-free zone but a Liberal Democrat free zone as well.

He could have used that to praise some of the achievements of Manchester council, to tell us what its done for its residents. In a speech that was going to talk about reform, he could have used it as an example of what councils could achieve now, even when they’re hamstrung by the current system, and imagine what they might do if they were set free. It could have been a great way to illustrate the potential power of devolution and regionalism.

Instead, he chose to appeal to Labour tribalism and make a virtue out of the fact that Manchester is now effectively a one-party state. There are 96 members of Manchester City Council, of which 95 are Labour councillors and the other one is an ex-Labour councillor who now sits as an independent. This is all, of course, thanks to the wonders of our electoral system which means Manchester isn’t a fluke, but a regular occurence. There are councils all over England and Wales where one party has an absurd level of dominance and huge swathes of voters aren’t represented.

Is he against politics as a game, or is he fine with that game as long as Labour are winning? Is he happy for whole swathes of people to be locked out of power and not listened to? Are the Labour Party in this for proper change, or just in it for themselves? In short, does Ed Miliband really want a different kind of politics, or just a slightly tweaked version of our current kind?

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Yesterday’s Guardian had a very interesting interview with Arnie Graf, a veteran community organiser from Chicago who Ed Miliband brought in to advise on how to change the way the Labour Party works to make it more effective. Graf produced a report with various recommendations on how to improve the way the party works, but his recommendations appear to have stalled somewhere in the party machinery – which is perhaps not surprising, given how critical he is of it. This perspective on it from Mark Ferguson at Labour List is an introduction to the way some Labour people see it.

Now it would be easy to write a post here about what this shows us about the Labour party, but reading about Graf’s suggestions in the Guardian piece, I found that they resonated with my experience of the Liberal Democrats (and I suspect other people in other parties may find the same too). We obviously don’t have the full report, but there are four principal ideas expressed in the article that we would do well to consider in the light of our own experience:

First, there was a need to deal with what Graf describes as the party’s “bureaucratic rather than a relational culture”. A new member coming into their first meeting should expect more than bureaucracy and hierarchy. They should be welcomed into a group that offered trusted, working relationships and interesting political discussions.

Second, the party had to stop treating members as drones rather than leaders. Many of the party members Graf visited in the regions seemed to think that if there were genuine leaders in the party, they were all in London. Most orders came from the capital. It was in London that the leaflets were designed, the timetables set and the marching orders given.

Thirdly, the party was too closed: Labour gatherings were often suspicious of outsiders, particularly people who were Labour sympathisers but not prepared to be members. It seemed hard for newcomers to break in.

Finally, the party offered little inspiration to its members. Graf blew open a complacent consensus that branch meetings had to be boring. He could see that they could offer more, and dared them to be so: “We grow up and get meaning from relationships … politics should provide that.”

While the structure and culture of the two parties is different, I think there’s something in all four of those points that Liberal Democrats should consider. We all want to get more people involved in the party, but what can we offer them to get them there? A chance to sit in a draughty room discussing the minutes of the next meeting, before being given a bunch of leaflets to deliver? If someone was interested in the party and wanted to find out more about what we do, would they feel welcomed at a meeting? More to the point, would we actually be able to offer them anything interesting to do? (And no, for most people delivering leaflets is not interesting)

The problem we face is that as a party, in many cases we’ve come to see campaigning as an end in itself. (See for instance this LDV article, where getting people out to campaign for PCC elections is seen as an unambiguously good thing, but it’s a common theme) It’s where Liberator’s description of the party as a ‘leaflet delivery cult’ comes from, which is true despite the fact that no one I’ve ever encountered in any party got into politics because they really love delivering leaflets.

The problem all parties have is that a lot of our ideas about how politics work in Britain are based on parties with mass membership and strong links into the local community. It’s not just about delivering leaflets, but knowing the people around you and what they think to feed that into the process. Somewhere along the line, we’ve lost that, and we’ve lost that wider engagement which has led to all parties becoming odd clubs where the like minded spend time together. While party membership was never quite as common here as registering as Democrat or Republican is in the US, it was a lot more common. (As an aside, how much did party membership cost in the 50s and 60s before the decline started?)

If we’re going to survive and thrive as a party – especially in a post-coalition world – then we have to start questioning how we’re going to do it, and why we’re doing it in the first place. Even if it’s bogged down in bureaucracy, Graf’s work shows that Labour are properly thinking about this problem, and we should be too.

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So what… [fill in blank here] – Fleet Street Fox compares the media coverage of two stories involving fifteen year old girls.
The Wormhole Water Wheel – I’m simultaneously amused and scared by the idea of Lawrence Miles inventing a perpetual motion machine.
Clegg’s Cornish pasty conference speech – Very good critique by Dan Falchikov. “Clegg’s view is still there are votes to be gained by being ‘a party of government’ – despite the idea being tested to destruction by the last two and half years of coalition.”
Village changes mind – Jamie Kenny is short but to the point on Ed Miliband’s speech.
Membership renewal, or not – Alex Marsh on why he’s decided to remain in the Liberal Democrats and fight against any rightward shift.

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And who can tell me which TV series that was the original title for?

Tunisia: Lessons of Authoritarian Collapse – Interesting article at the Carnegie Endowment website on historical precedents for the sudden ending of authoritarian governments
Tunisia’ Jasmine Revolution – More information on the events, and some regional context, from Mona Eltahawy at the Washington Post
Looking under the street lamp again – As well as writing good books, Charles Stross somehow finds the time to write interesting and thought-provoking blog posts too. This one is about how we identify the causes of a failure and go about preventing a re-occurrence, with some interestingly counter-intuitive points contained within.
Ed Miliband wants me to show courage – Mark Valladares responds to the Labour leader.
Things Real People Don’t Say About Advertising – and if you think they do, there’s no hope for you.

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