Polling flashback: Remembering RFK
It was 45 years ago this week that Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Although there is no way to tell how the presidential election would have played out had Kennedy lived, we decided to look back what the polling showed, and how the assassination resonated in the public’s mind.
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The appointment of the Dagenham and Rainham MP, Jon Cruddas, to head up Labour’s policy review has caused some excitement across the commentariat. [click here, and here.]
Mr Cruddas used to be pigeon-holed, inaccurately, as a tribune of Labour’s “old left”. More recently, he’s attracted interest as an architect of “Blue Labour” and a champion of the white working class, too long forgotten, the story goes, by the north London elites. Otherwise, Cruddas is best known for his tough local battles with the BNP.
What I find really interesting about Jon Cruddas is that he may get what political narratives – the basis of successful political communications- are all about.
Just before taking up his new role, Cruddas spoke at the UEA on “The Good Society”. Here’s one of the more acute observations about his own approach to politics:
What interests me is not policy as such; rather the search for political sentiment, voice and language; of general definition within a national story. Less The Spirit Level, more What is England.
The point was taken up last week by Nicholas Watt in The Guardian:
Shadow ministers will soon learn by heart a key Cruddas mantra: that policy is not about lists. “Policy is about illustrations of a deeper story, the establishment of a deeper sentiment which Labour had and it lost,” is how one figure describes the Cruddas approach …
… Neal Lawson, who has worked closely with Cruddas in the left-of-centre Compass group, says: “Jon has a grasp of an emotive, some would say romantic, human sense of politics – not a dry, arid, mechanical approach. His speeches are poetic and beautifully constructed with stories.
“So why give him a dry policy thing? Because he will make it come alive. He will give some kind of narrative and framework on which we can eventually hang dusty policy. It will be within the context of a sweeping history. He will take us from Aristotle through to Ruskin, William Morris up to early Blair, and tell us a story about all of that in a way very few politicians can.”
On Tuesday, the Daily Telegraph’s Mary Riddell was even more effusive:
… Mr Cruddas is one of the few politicians who can read the country’s mood. Voters hold self-serving politicians in contempt, and so does he. As he said recently: “Politics is more about emotion than programme.” . . .
… Mr Cruddas’s purview goes beyond specific policies. A conservative who despises neo-liberalism, he has challenged the idea that this is a Tory nation presided over by a Tory government and a Tory God. Labour, in his view, is the rightful curator of Britain’s countryside, its heritage, its institutions and its hopes …
Dan Hodges, the self-described “Blairite cuckoo in the Miliband nest” has warned that all this may be a little premature: Cruddas is no policy geek and has an instinctive political caution, he says.
Fair enough, and, it must be said, party policy reviews can go awry They can get bogged down in details, unjoined-up enthusiasms and missed deadlines. They can trigger internal rows and bust-ups. They can be meat and drink for your opponents. One or two shonky brushstrokes can spoil the whole picture. It’s all very well to offer a big picture, but it may be the wrong big picture.
And yet, policy reviews can also deliver, once all the shouting, posturing and finger painting for adults are over. The overhaul of Labour policy that Tony Blair initiated in the mid 1990s, part of a much larger “modernisation” of the party’s messaging and narrative, is a good example.
With that in mind, we should look past the policies to the narrative, and how Cruddas might construct it.
Fewer lists … fewer programmes … more romance … more emotion … engaging with the nation’s history, heritage and symbols … and above all, telling stories that create a sense of country and the vision of a new nation for the future.
No other politician, no other party is doing much of that.
What, their opponents should be asking themselves, if this intriguing mix works out for Labour and provides the party with a compelling narrative? What if enough of Cruddas’s political poetry finally seeps into the public’s consciousness, and helps make Labour more popular?
Jon Cruddas is another political storyteller to watch.
Today, ComRes has published a new poll showing Conservative Boris Johnson 8 points ahead of Labour’s Ken Livingstone in the race to be London’s Mayor. After YouGov showed them running neck and neck at the start of the week, UK Polling Report suggests that the overall picture is a small lead for Johnson.
The result seems extraordinary, given Labour’s strong polling in the capital and the pile-up of political problems now engulfing the Conservative-led government.
If Johnson makes it over the line, he’ll prove that one theory of American presidential elections has crossed the Atlantic: Bugs Bunny always beats Daffy Duck. The journalist and commentator Jeff Greenfield has explained it like this:
Bugs and Daffy represent polar opposites in how to deal with the world. Bugs is at ease, laid back, secure, confident. His lidded eyes and sly smile suggest a sense that he knows the way things work. He’s onto the cons of his adversaries. Sometimes he is glimpsed with his elbow on the fireplace mantel of his remarkably well-appointed lair, clad in a smoking jacket. (Jones once said Cary Grant was his inspiration for Bugs. Today it would be George Clooney.) Bugs never raises his voice, never flails at his opponents or at the world. He is rarely an aggressor. When he is pushed too far and must respond, he borrows a quip from Groucho Marx: “Of course, you realize this means war.” And then, whether his foe is hapless hunter Elmer Fudd, varmint-shooting Yosemite Sam, or a raging bull, Bugs always prevails.
Daffy Duck, by contrast, is ever at war with a hostile world. He fumes, he clenches his fists, his eyes bulge, and his entire body tenses with fury. His response to bad news is a sibilant sneer (“Thanks for the sour persimmons, cousin!”). Daffy is constantly frustrated, sometimes by outside forces, sometimes by his own overwrought response to them.
In every modern presidential election in which the candidates have personified a clear choice between Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, Bugs has prevailed.
I never had much time for Bugs or Daffy, but Greenfield has a point. He cites Kennedy vs. Nixon in 1960, Reagan vs. Carter in 1980, even George W. Bush vs. Al Gore in 2000 (though, as I always feel obliged to remind people, Gore got more votes). Then there’s Barack Obama vs. Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries, followed by Obama vs. McCain in the general election.
The infamous tiff in the lift aside, Boris is playing Bugs in this cartoon-like campaign, with Ken as his Daffy. (Click here, and here) London voters seem prepared to put aside party labels, and downplay some key personal attributes to vote for the candidate they like most. For instance, according to YouGov this week, Ken had a 22-point lead over Boris for being “in touch with the needs of ordinary people”. But when it came to who was the most charismatic candidate, Boris was 35 points ahead.
The migration to the UK of Greenfield’s theory should not come as too much of a surprise. After all, it’s a well-worn cliché that elections for London mayor are personalised, celebrity contests, more like American presidential races than a noble contest of ideas between parties of the left and right.
But British general elections are getting more “presidential”. And Bugs keeps beating Daffy: Tony Blair defeated Michael Howard in 2005 and, even if he did not win the 2010 general election, David Cameron prevailed over Gordon Brown.
Footnote: It should be obvious from my profile whom I will be voting for, as first preference. Ken was my second preference vote in 2000, 2004 and 2008. I haven’t yet decided who will be this time.
Let’s forget Bradford West, just for a moment, and assume that it’s an out-of-the ordinary and unique constituency, a one-off result for a one off politician, as the BBC’s Nick Robinson says.
Shouldn’t the Liberal Democrats be enjoying a new wave of popularity?
After all, our ministers didn’t look silly this week over Cornish pasties or the fuel tanker dispute.
More seriously, lifting the personal allowance and the higher level of stamp duty for people buying properties over £2m were significant Budget victories for the party.
In the first line of the 2010 manifesto the party pledged to raise the personal allowance to £10,000 to remove low-income workers from paying tax. This is now on course to be delivered a year before the next general election in 2015.
The move vindicated Nick Clegg’s decision to set out his big negotiating demand for the Budget in public.
Now for the bad news. The public still do not see the increased personal allowance as a Lib Dem policy. The Populus post-Budget survey, published this week, found that only 23% of voters thought that the Lib Dems deserved most credit for the change. 19% gave the Coalition most credit and 16% said the Conservatives deserved most credit. 22% said “none of them”. Voters have still not heard Nick’s political story behind the Budget, proving how the Lib Dems made a difference.
Moreover, Populus found a net plus-10% of respondents agreeing that “increasing the tax-free allowance before people start paying income tax will make little or no difference to me”. Voters have not heard a story of the policy, which would show how real peoples’ lives will be better as a result of the increased personal allowance.
Meanwhile, the story of the party – the Lib Dems’ brand narrative, the sum total of all the stories – remains negative. According to Populus, the Lib Dems now have the least positive scores for competence, having the best leaders, having clear ideas and being united and the second lowest scores for being honest and “sharing my values”. The figures have changed little since last autumn, when the Populus eve of conference survey showed the brand image continuing to bottom out.
It looks like the higher tax threshold was drowned out by the abolition of the 50p tax rate, the “granny tax” and the prevailing narrative that the Budget did not go do down well with the public, who saw it as mostly unfair. More worrying, these findings show just how hard it is for the Lib Dems to campaign for party policies from within the Coalition.
Yet the party can’t afford and shouldn’t give up on trying to build its own brand. The question is what kind of brand, and how to do it. Nick Clegg wants the Lib Dems to be seen as more competent economic managers than Labour and fairer and more compassionate than the Tories. It’s clear from other Populus figures published this week which of these themes works best for the party.
On party attributes, the Lib Dems’ best score was on “being for ordinary people”, with net agreement of minus 2%, way ahead of the Conservatives (minus 35%) but well behind Labour (+18%). This used to be the party’s strongest suit, and voters may be prepared to give us the benefit of the doubt.
Otherwise, the Lib Dems fared lead least poorly as the party voters trust to “cut the deficit without hurting the most vulnerable” (just 2% behind the Tories) and to “look after the NHS” (just 2% behind the Tories). (Note, however, that Labour had a decisive lead in both these areas.)
The Lib Dems’ worst ratings were as the party trusted to “help business to recover and grow”, “steer the economy through difficult times” and “get a grip on crime and disorder”.
Crucially, the job of reviving the Lib Dem brand won’t be achieved in a few weeks. This is going to be at least a three year campaign, which won’t succeed unless the entire party is involved. But listing policies (like this) and providing vignettes (like this) simply aren’t working. We have to start telling stories to voters about the positive difference Lib Dems in government are making - assuming, of course, that the public wants to listen at all.
Budget Day. This morning’s Guardian reports:
Wealthy individuals are to face a rise in stamp duty on properties worth more than £2m, as George Osborne helps fund a demand from Nick Clegg to remove taxation altogether from 2 million of Britain’s lowest paid workers over the course of this parliament.
In a victory for the Liberal Democrats, who have reluctantly accepted abolition of the 50p top rate of tax, the chancellor will announce in the budget that stamp duty is to be raised from 5% to 7% on properties worth more than £2m.
The rise will help the chancellor raise an extra £2.2bn to meet the Lib Dem target of raising the personal income tax allowance to £10,000 from 2014, a year earlier than planned.
Clegg, who persuaded Osborne last year to meet this target by 2015, irritated some Tories in February by calling on the chancellor to go “further and faster”.
It’s now widely agreed that if the Liberal Democrats are to have any chance of avoiding a total debacle at the next general election, we need to do a better job of differentiating ourselves from the Tories, come out from under the coalition brand and show how Lib Dems in government make a difference. In opposition, the party built, partly lost and then rebuilt a brand: the decent party, who stood up for “ordinary people not the best off”. But this narrative has steadily faded since the coalition government was formed. Nick Clegg and colleagues need to revive it.
Both the rise in stamp duty and the rise in personal income tax allowance are hard won, key totems for the Liberal Democrats. But their well “trailed” mentions in today’s Guardian and FT don’t mean the party’s political problems are over, far from it.
As the veteran US Democratic political consultants James Carville and Paul Begala once said:
“Facts tell, but stories sell … If you’re not communicating in stories, you’re not communicating.”
Nick Clegg and his colleagues will need to quickly get across three connected types of story.
The story of the process. Okay, that’s a bit dry, maybe it’s the story of the politics. At its most simple, this story tells how Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander (the heroes) set upon George Osborne (the villain) and persuaded / forced him to bring forward Budget measures to “help the millions and not the millions”, as he had planned. The Lib Dems have to brand “our” policies in the Budget. The Guardian story quoted above is a very good start, but stories over recent weeks about Lib Dem splits over the “tycoon tax” and disappointment over the 50p tax rate being scrapped may have muddied the message. And watch for counter stories in the media about “the policies that George Osborne planned to do anyway”. This morning, the Spectator Coffee House blog foreshadows “a Budget by and for the Coalition”.
The story of the policy, which shows how real peoples’ lives will be better off as a result of the Liberal Democrats’ Budget victories. Just mentioning the policy is never enough. Moreover, yesterday’s ICM poll suggested that the public are quite indifferent to lifting the personal allowance and Labour and others will charge that it’s not really a policy for the poorest. This video from the White House, with President Obama asking people“what does $40 mean to you?” contains the kind of story that’s needed. (Maybe Tim Farron and Jo Swinson e-mailed me to ask what I’d do with an extra £60 a month because they were planning a Lib Dem version?) Most importantly, we don’t need more lists of policies or more vignettes.
The story of the party, the “big story”,explaining who the Liberal Democrats are, what the party is about and what the public “gets” by letting them have a chance in government. This one takes longer to tell, and it’s really the sum total of the other stories. In his spring conference speech, Nick Clegg set out the story he would like the public to hear:
The Liberal Democrats are once again a truly national party of government. The only party of the centre ground, not of the left or right, of north or south, rich or poor but doing the right thing for the whole nation …
… A one nation party of the radical centre, representing all regions and nations. Seeing not what divides us - but what unites us. Sound on the economy, passionate about fairness: doing the right thing and battling vested interests. Challenging the status quo.
But will the voters see it that way? Will the Budget prove to be a help or a hindrance?
And in the wake of the Health and Social Care Bill, however, Labour are out for blood and the forthcoming local election campaign will show their mettle at spinning counter-stories.
I think it’ll be clear within a few days whether the first two stories have got up. The state of the party’s brand won’t be clear until usual the round of pre-autumn conference polls have been published. But the heat is on.
At last November’s general election, the New Zealand Labour Party received its lowest share of the vote (27.5 per cent) since 1928.
After the wipeout, with John Key’s National-led government riding high, Labour MPs elected a new leader, David Shearer, who had been in Parliament just over two years. The other contender had baggage, but Shearer’s real attractiveness lay with his newness, his firm positioning in the middle of the road, his laid back style and his authenticity. This time, Labour wanted a “real person” at the helm, rather than another technocrat.
It all sounded so familiar. My erstwhile comrades had found their own version of John Key, the banker who went and made squillions in Singapore and London, and then went home to become prime minister, after just six years (two terms) in Parliament.
The sympathetic commentary picked up on David Shearer’s unusual and inspiring “back story”: his time overseas in international development and humanitarian work. Some of the best tellings are here, here, here and here. His backers came up with this strapline (which is, by the way, a kind of story):
John Key went overseas and made $50 million, David Shearer went overseas and saved 50 million lives.
Shearer and his campaign team told with great skill a story of the politician. This establishes the politician’s or leader’s right to be heard, as well as his or her credibility and sense of authenticity. Two of the best examples I have seen were also given by near-unknowns: Arkansas governor Bill Clinton’s famous “Man from Hope” campaign spot from 1992 and the speech by an aspiring US senator called Barack Obama to the Democratic National Convention in 2004.
Of course, neither Clinton nor Obama stopped there. They both won the presidency by telling compelling stories that demonstrated how the Democratic Party was now relevant to the needs and expectations of the electorate.
And they both told stories about the country – spelling out where they believed the United States had been, what was right and what was wrong, and where it should go next. (Obama was my political storyteller of the year in 2008 - click here.)
This is not some American hocus pocus. Remember Tony Blair’s speeches about a “new, modern Britain” and “a young country”.
Back in 1984, David Lange defeated Sir Robert Muldoon with a promise to “bring New Zealand together”. Lange’s government went on to unleash an historic whirlwind of economic change, reducing state involvement in the economy and delivering greater efficiency. In his first three years as prime minister, Lange talked New Zealanders through real, fundamental change with an inclusive message, and rhetoric that projected his personality and sense of fun. Lange embodied his words. (1) He was the first Labour prime minister since 1946 to lead his government to re-election.
And in 1999, Helen Clark took Labour back into power with her promises to restore trust and transparency in government. They were part of her narrative that a “correction” was needed in New Zealand’s economic and social course, after fifteen years of neoliberal dominance. She was re-elected twice.
In 2012, David Shearer needs his own “story of the country”. This week, he started to build it, with a speech called “a new New Zealand”, about a revitalised, clever economy and first-class education system. He may have been a bit light on policy, but the speech was a good case study in how to tell a “time for a change” story. Shearer followed the three steps in Stephen Denning’s language of leadership. (2)
First, he got people’s attention, using one of Denning’s suggested devices, a striking metaphor:
You may know that P.T. Barnum was the man who founded the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
He was a showman, he was a businessman, he was a scam artist.
Early in his career, he created an exhibit called The Happy Family.
It had just one cage, and in that cage there was a lion, a tiger, a panther, and a baby lamb.
It was a huge hit.
People would line up to see it.
And as it grew more and more popular, the newspapers would ask him what his plans were for this amazing display.
He said to them: “It’ll probably become a permanent feature - but only if the supply of lambs holds out.”
In any sense you want to put it, literal or figurative, that’s how we’re running things in New Zealand.
We’re going to keep on doing things the way we are … for as long as the supply of lambs holds out.
We’re going to go right on relying on property market bubbles and a small basket of primary produce exports to earn our living and we’re going to go on borrowing money to pay for a standard of living we can’t afford.
We owe too much. We all know that.
We earn too little. We all know that too.
Far too many of our eggs are in the one basket
Second, Shearer tried to stimulate a desire for change in his audience. I spotted three of Denning’s devices. There was a “springboard story”, in the example of how Finland took bold economic decisions twenty years ago, and is now doing better than New Zealand.
There was a trigger to a common memory story.
We were talking about making changes even before Britain joined the common market in the early 70s.
We’ve talked about added value, lamb-burgers, Knowledge Waves, and NZ Inc, and yet somehow success is still just over the horizon.
People have grown tired of hearing about it. Many of them are sceptical it’ll ever happen.
At a certain point, you have to stop talking about what you’re going to do, and start doing it.
And there was a metaphor that worked – the education “marathon”.
Third, Shearer reinforced his message with reasons. This was, admittedly, the weakest part of the story, but he outlined some specific education reforms, and said, albeit briefly, how they would work.
Don’t get me wrong. One clever speech won’t make David Shearer the prime minister. Labour’s new policy package needs to be fleshed out and deepened, which is easier said than done, and the counter stories to his “new New Zealand” are already being launched. (Here’s a good example) Shearer will need to tell more stories, with more colour and more emotional cues, the symbols and the metaphors need building and polishing. There’s a long. long way to go in this marathon. My point is that David Shearer showed this week that he understands what telling a vision story is all about.
There is a more immediate challenge. Shearer’s story of the politician is up (now to tell it to the voters) and the story of the country is under construction. One narrative is still missing: “the story of the party” – the disrupter showing prospective Labour voters that David Shearer will make the party hear them. A drastic example was Tony Blair’s exhortation to the British Labour Party to ditch the Clause IV commitment to nationalisation , along with other policy shibboleths. In 1992 and after, Bill Clinton made sure that middle America saw him as a “New Democrat”, with his “opportunity, responsibility” rhetoric and “new choices rooted in old values”, that broke with party orthodoxy.
I wonder if this is where David Shearer will come unstuck.
(1) Jon Johansson, Two Titans – Muldoon, Lange and Leadership (Dunmore Publishing, 2005) pp. 210-212
(2) Stephen Denning, The Secret Language of Leadership (John Wiley & Sons, 2007)
How can we explain the decline in public concern about climate change over the past four years?
A new study of over thirty years of public opinion data about the environment and global warming, by Lile Scruggs and Salil Benegal of the University of Connecticut, puts it down to economic insecurity caused by the Great Recession.
The alternative explanations focus on partisan politicization (in the US), biased or waning media coverage and fluctuations in short-term weather conditions. But none of these appears to drive public opinion in anything like the same way as economic worries.
I was especially interested in their examination of European countries, using the results from Eurobarometer surveys.
… [Among] European countries there is a very strong association between increases in unemployment rates and increases in sceptical opinion. A one point increase in national unemployment is associated with a 2.5 point decline in the percentage saying that warming is a serious issue, and almost a one point increase in the percentage of the country saying that warming is exaggerated or saying that it is simultaneously not serious, exaggerated, and not due to CO2 emissions. We do not find a strong association with unemployment and the percentage of people who say that carbon dioxide has a marginal impact on climate change, though the estimated effect is in the expected direction. These regression results suggest that a shift in the national unemployment rate from 5 to 9% in Europe (approximately the increase in unemployment in the United States during the time period) reduces the percentage of people reporting that global warming is a very serious problem by about 10 points.
In summary, the effects of the Great Recession on public opinion about climate change were very similar in European countries and the United States. All European countries experienced declining public opinion about warming as the Great Recession has developed, and those that fared the worst economically tended to see the largest declines in opinion.
In their conclusion, the authors suggest that climate change opinion will rebound as the economy, and more specifically the job situation, improves. They add:
Both would obviously improve more quickly if planetary stewardship can become a catalyst for economic recovery and transformation, and not instinctively seen as a barrier to that goal.
As well as pushing for “green growth”, Scruggs and Benegal caution against letting environmental policy wait for public demand. They show that in the United States, some major green policy innovations have taken place in tough economic times, most notably the 1970s. It’s harder to prove a similar pattern in EU or UK environmental policy, but in the early 1990s (a recession), the scene was set for some important UK measures, for instance, the landfill tax and participation in the Kyoto Protocol. And the years since 2008, when the global financial crisis hit, have not been dull on the environmental policy front.
Interestingly, the authors use the example of the Reagan Administration in the early 1980s to show that the public may not accept efforts to cut back environmental policy in a recession.
The administration of the day may have misinterpreted low public support for progressive environmental policy as a permanent change rather than a temporary response to economic conditions.
That has some relevance for the UK today. For instance, public concern about climate change increased during 2011 and most people think that action is needed to address climate change, but don’t believe that enough is being done. George Osborne take note.