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Pause, hesitate, consider: the Europe comms conundrum

If any campaign was in dire need of communications support at the moment it is the one to keep Britain inside the European Union.  In fact, there is no campaign.  Just a series of political heavyweights from yesteryear pointing out that leaving the EU would be unthinkable, or so their friends tell them.  Most compelling of these voices is Tony Blair who published this heartfelt piece yesterday.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the argument, and believe me I am surrounded by Conservatives who believe that Brexit is not only inevitable, but a fitting final tribute to the Lady, there is a massive communications problem for pro-EU people.  I’m sure there are some out there… Hello?

The problems are these:  the campaign has no current spokespeople or figureheads from this generation.  The campaign is being fought in traditional media.  The MEPs who have the most to tell us are relatively distant figures, not (except on the anti side) public figures and are only really known inside their parties.

Their websites are preachy, odd, dull or crackers.  Some find it hard to articulate the big picture about why Britain’s membership of the EU is in the national interest and why, above all we must stay and negotiate.   The best is Claude Moraes, who does a huge amount to scare the crap out of Constituency Labour Parties in his London patch.  But the follow up support he needs from activists just isn’t there.

So what is to be done? How do you create a positive campaign on the EU that tweaks at the British concern that, while being out and done with the whole sorry mess is good, there is just something on the edge of our perception that says: “hang on… is this really sensible?”  A campaign that calms the Bulldog down, chucks it a (small) bone and tells it to get back in its bed.

From a comms perspective there are a couple of clear routes.  The Grandee route is defunct.  As much as I love him there is no way Peter Mandelson is going to win this one this time round, although he does have a role in causing the public to pause, hesitate, consider.

Mainstream media has a clear view.  The case for “out” is exciting and compelling.  The case for “in” is dull and sensible.  No help there.  But there is a clear feeling in the City and in corporate Britain that we absolutely must stay in and that it is vital to the UK’s future national interest.

So how about this. A not slick, not expensive social media campaign that starts now and builds support slowly, person by person.  A campaign that shows bit by bit the tangible benefits we see.  The campaign would bypass traditional media until it became big enough to demand coverage in its own right, rather than simply through assertion.  And above all the campaign would need to show, on the ground, at a community level, why membership of this big, alien family is so important to us as individuals and as a society.

Social media and conversation is the best possible route to this debate, and the only way for rational engagement on the issue.

The tricky third year

Yesterday battered, weathered and forlorn, but “with a full tank of gas” (the good stuff too), the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister took to their lecterns in Number 10 to present their mid-term review. Because of fixed term parliaments we can expect more of these business-style reports. Voters as shareholders. Ugh!

David Cameron and Nick Clegg still look uneasy together. You hardly ever see them together on screen, although as part of the Quad they evidently get on and work well together. But on screen – holding the history of their parties on their shoulders they just look incongruous. It always feels to me that the country almost thinks “I wish we’d properly decided.” But that’s probably just my prejudices coming through.

The mid-term review plays back the Coalition’s story so far – sprinkled with a goodly amount of propaganda to really needle the Labour reader. I imagine the authors chuckling to themselves as they say for the tenth time “the deficit was spiralling out of control”. Blood pressure spike for Mr Balls!

Especially when you recall Labour’s manifesto pledge to have the deficit down by £34bn by this stage of the Parliament. Mr Osborne seems pleased with £25bn.

Anyway – in short – it’s not a rip-roaring read, but is a good place for PRs to see exactly what floats this government’s boat and where it sees its success. It’s a little show of ankle on the inner workings so worth mulling over a flat white.

What’s clear is that there’s been a lot of prep. Police Commissioners now in place, investment in infrastructure projects delivered, more money to drive regional growth, legislation coming forward on banking.

The universal credit is about to bite. GP commissioning is being established and the pupil premium is now being rolled out.

Prep, prep, prep. The problem for this coalition is that change is unlikely to be felt until well into the next term. So as the wheels of government grind slowly into action the vacuum is filled by pressure groups and the media speculating on how the policies will turn out. All very frustrating for a government which, in its beginnings wanted “sunshine to rule the day”.

So expect delivery to be the watchword in 2013. It’s going to be a difficult, sober year for the coalition.

Corby Blimey

First came Barack Obama. Now attention turns to Andy Sawford who contests the Corby and East Northants constituency on Thursday 15th November.   Andy’s campaign is the start of a very large number of byelections all of which appear to be winnable for the Labour Party.  On 22nd November Lucy Powell, former Ed Miliband Chief of Staff,  is fighting for Manchester Central,  Stephen Doughty, head of Oxfam Wales, is having a crack at Cardiff South and Penarth.

Then on (phew!) 29th November, Steve Reed is going all out in Croydon North and in Middlesbrough Andy McDonald, a local solicitor,  is contesting the seat left vacant by the death of Stuart Bell.  Sarah Champion will be fighting for Labour in Rotherham, after Denis McShane’s ejection from the party.

These by-elections have been triggered either by candidates for the new Police Commissioner roles stepping down as MPs, by weird and flamboyant departures from Parliament, or by the sad and sudden deaths of long standing MPs.

Labour must win all of them – largely because the majority are existing Labour seats.  But by-elections are fickle things and local issues play very significantly.   You only have to look at the list of candidates standing to see that many view it as an opportunity for self promotion and raising the profile of a pet issue – worth the cost of their deposit. I’m looking at you Mr Mozzarella.

But the most significant contest is Corby.   Sawford needs to reclaim this seat for Labour from Louise Mensch, whose departure to the Big Apple has upset a large number of her constituents.   Turnout will be key in this bellwether seat – Labour is leaving nothing to chance, every MP and big hitter has been up there tramping the seats with their candidate who has run a long, focused campaign on hospital cuts and economic growth.

Thursday’s the day and fires the start gun on the political season which could usher in a sense of renewed confidence in the Parliamentary Labour Party and its leadership.

Obama’s challenge

The weather is one thing, but for US citizens another hurricane is about to hit.  We’re in the last two weeks of campaigning for this most pivotal of presidential races and it is looking painfully close.   Last week I was in the US with a big group of Labour activists campaigning for President Obama in Ohio.

We were in Cleveland, working with the Obama for America campaign team, knocking on doors in practically every social demographic in the State. Between us we knocked on about 10,000 doors and spoke to thousands of people about their voting intentions, and their lives. We all came away with a strong sense of how this campaign was running and being run, and also how vitally important the national mood is in this election.

There is no other circumstance I can conceive of, where on a rainy dark evening, I’d be knocking doors in a deprived suburb of Cleveland squinting at my clipboard with a torch and marking down derelict houses where voters had been living last time round.   Many people in these areas were African American, solid Obama supporters, but clearly had very little interaction with politics and politicians.  What came across loud and clear was that this demographic is spoken to very rarely about their needs and their vision for America.  More often than not the conversation turned to what Governor Romney would take away from them, not what Obama would do.  It felt reactive – not necessarily a positive choice.

The whole team loved canvassing these areas.  We got hooted at, and a great energetic thumbs up response to being in their neighbourhood.  When they found out we were British we got into some hilarious exchanges.  The kids said ” hey are you from Harry Potter?”   Kind of…

Suburban communities are so segregated.  Where we got concerned for Obama was in the white blue collar areas.  Lovely housing – so much so that you couldn’t really hazard a guess at income levels, but little things gave it away.  Speaking to some voters you quickly realised that many were holding down several jobs, and that they were in pernicious negative equity.   In these areas support for Obama was much more patchy.   There is a sense that he hasn’t delivered at all and that there is no forward plan.  Romney’s five point plan was resonating in some areas – not because it was a good plan, but because it was a plan.  Performance in the first debate was also critical to many blue collar voters – Obama’s lacklustre performance in the first debate seemed to clarify views on him.  Slightly aloof and out of touch.   But the second debate softened this sentiment.  I was surprised at how fired up people were about Libya and foreign policy issues – that very rarely comes up on a UK doorstep.

We saw Bill Clinton at a campaign rally and his line “I’m a jobs guy” just nailed the issue in this election in four words.  He’s such a class act – the master and so loved by the Democrats.  He was putting in the hard yards at the Democratic Convention and his messaging has played really well throughout this election campaign.

The hardened campaigners in the group left Ohio nervous and fretful.  If you had to peg it to a UK election experience you’d go with 2010.  People wouldn’t talk to you – if they did they were massively pro, or against, but there was a big big group in the middle who were just not going to say how they’d jump.  That sentiment is reflected in Ohio polling – one day it’s Obama, another it’s Romney.    As Clinton says “Ohio is always a dogfight” and that is going to be true this time round.   It’s a divided state, fractured in some respects, and it’s going to need some strong campaigning in the last few days to get the Obama messages across.

What’s critical is giving hope to blue collar workers and a machine like focus on getting out promises on November 6th.  I can’t call it – I have a feeling in the pit of my stomach, but I hope beyond all else that Obama can edge it in Ohio.  He needs to if he’s going to win this thing.

Flat at conferences…

Everyone at every single party conference this year has used the same word: flat.  I think that really just reflects the inevitable mid-term blues affecting each party in different ways.  At the Lib Dem conference we saw creditable speeches from politicians like Nick Clegg and Vince Cable who were trying to manage a depressed party and prove that they still had enough answers to prevent electoral annihilation.

At Labour “one nation” was born which, if it did nothing else, provided a way for New, Blue and Old Labour types to realign and begin the process of talking to each other again.  It was a signal moment for party rather than country and very important.

And here at the Conservative conference we have sober speeches for serious times.  Which is why Boris is receiving such adulation because he offers a little colour in a sea of stony faced grimness.

The Tories know how to party and it’s always been annoying that this conference comes last just when your liver is teetering on the edge of oblivion.  But even here there is a curious mixture of a party out of love with its leader but not sure either whether to even think abut change. The fabulous Populus events at all three conferences have been fascinating and Rick Nye is clearly a polling god – but for the Conservatives he bought very unnerving news.  All the polls show that voters prefer Labour on the issues but that they prefer Cameron as leader.

That schizophrenia runs right through the party here. You can sense it – are we right, are we wrong? Are we well led?  The real answers just aren’t obvious.  Anyway I’m off to re-inflate my flat and confused liver.

Corby’s too tight to Menschn

Events dear boy, events.  Never have the words of Harold MacMillan rung so true than for one Andy Sawford who, while staring out of a gite window in a rainswept Normandy (not the south of France – note Guido), got a text from Labour’s high command to say that his moment had come.  In November he will be Labour’s candidate in the Corby by-election in a fight that will establish Labour’s electoral credentials as the party moves towards the next election.

I should declare an interest.  Andy is a good friend of mine and someone who, as his friends and colleagues will attest to, has always been destined for Parliament.  He would never say that, but I can: he is in it for the long haul, and he’s in it to change lives.   There’s something about a good MP or prospective MP.  They’ll be hilarious, witty, intelligent and personable.  They’ll get on with people at all stations in life and be able to relate to them.  They’ll have a good story to tell.

Andy does all these things – but I have also seen in him a discomfort with Westminster Village bubble banter – he puts up with it, but he’ll pull away from the pure politics.  His heart is clearly in Corby.   Frankly the man would not commute from London back there every evening if he didn’t love the place.  All those political skills, his ability to craft a clear message and his street fighter instincts will be on show over the next few months in a very public battle.

And what a fight it will be.  The Conservatives will now need to cast round for a strong candidate to take him on.  Louise Mensch, the cause of all this mayhem, has a small majority and there has been speculation for a long time that she might not fight the seat.  No-one expected her to go this early, but her new US business ventures in social media may have hastened her departure.   She also made an error in publicly asking David Cameron for a ministerial role – no Prime Minister likes to feel bounced into a promotion and she signally failed to achieve one.  Her role on the CMS committee will be her crowning glory, where together with Tom Watson, she asked some effective questions of the Murdoch family.

By-elections are tricky things.  Voters like a sprinkle of personality in their Parliamentarians.  But they also like their MPs to bang the drum hard for their patch.  The Tories will struggle to find another Mensch – but perhaps that’s a good thing.  Ultimately this fight will take place on local issues, and it will be passion, energy and getting the vote out that will win the day.

Making Progress

Lord Mandelson sticks to the hull of the Labour Party like some kind of majestic coral and the spirit of New Labour lives on with him. Last night I was at a terrific Progress event, where Lord M was guest of honour, which thumbed a collective nose at the serried ranks of trade union leaders who seem hell bent on shutting the organisation down.

Quite why is beyond most Progress members. And, from Lord Mandelson’s perspective, most trade unionists are equally as bewildered. Only a few months back most of the trade unions were happy to sponsor, support and contribute to Progress events, so one can only assume the sudden sea-change is entirely politically motivated. What was clear from last night was that Progress people were relieved to be supported by Labour’s leadership team. The trade union threat, to effectively ban the organisation, appears to have receded for now.

Mandelson roved wide over Labour’s current policy and was particularly interesting about the return of Tony Blair to UK politics: “inevitable” and “he never really went away”. Quite how he will make a return is not yet clear, but the former Prime Minister is clearly looking for opportunities to get stuck in on the right issues. That went down very well with the Progress crowd.

Mandelson also spoke at some length about the movement towards an “in/out” referendum and said that Labour should embrace the approach, but only if it was a considered debate and not a knee jerk reaction to shore up the right against UKIP. He said that most of the major political issues that the EU had been created for (national conflicts and the cold war) were no longer relevant. What was vital now was the EU’s power in the world as a political and trading bloc – and for the UK to give that up would be a mistake.

On the coalition he said that both the Lib Dems and Conservatives now had nothing to agree on. There is now no programme for government, he pointed out and said he was seeing far less dissent on the Labour side. Of course with Peter Mandelson, with politics right in the blood, you always get a new perspective. He pointed out that, even in 1945, when Mandelson’s grandfather Herbert Morrison, was working on the post war welfare state, the far left disagreed with him. Morrison even moved from a safe Labour to a Tory held seat, to prove that the voters wanted his vision (which they duly did).

So finally Mandelson is not harking back to New Labour – he wants a new model fit for now.  But what he really thinks is that the approach of the current leadership, come the election in 2015 will not be that far removed from the way things were handled in 1997.

So – Progress is in fine form, floating above an internecine war. We’ll see what happens next in this story at Party Conference.

Labour of love

All politicians get lovesick. They so do! And we’ve all been there. Look at the evidence. They spend years flirting with the objects of their desire, the voters. They engage in constant communication, eye contact, kissing (babies) and working out the little nuances that make the punters happy. Passionate feelings build up, as does a desire to make a real difference in their lives.

So much love and desire which culminates, sometimes as a massive surprise on election day, when the voters return that love and for a few hours MPs are in the heart of a beautiful swirling maelstrom of passion, desire, endorphins and joy. The voters have planted that first electoral kiss, responded to their candidate’s efforts and, surely… SURELY those feelings will only grow…

Well no. As the days turn into months those fickle voters move on with their lives: they don’t return your messages, they find other passions. And all you can do is try to get their attention all over again.  Break out the newsletters comrades…

Which is very long way of saying: I feel sorry for the Labour front bench at the moment. Because not only have they got to maintain and enthuse their own voters, but they have to begin to get the country to love the Labour Party again.

Ed Miliband has taken a very slow burn approach to rekindling this love affair, and the mini-reshuffle that happened a few weeks ago seemed like another unremarked step on the way.

Jon Cruddas, in his new role as the party’s policy supremo, does not look like an obvious Cupid figure, but look closer. Cruddas has great intellect, and is respected across most wings of the party. His time in Number 10 under Blair reassures the progressive right. His decision to step back from that role and his union links reassure the left. His ability to engage white working class voters in Dagenham speaks to Blue Labour. His intellectual understanding of Labour’s history and his focus on practical solutions to tough problems reassures the pragmatic old right. What he now needs to do is coalesce all of that and come up with some radical, exciting, interesting policy ideas that will excite the rest of the country.

There is high hope that Labour MPs will be getting a large shipment of Cruddas flavoured love hearts soon. Labour heartland voters will like them… but Cruddas needs a few flavours that will love up voters in the South and East too.

The new spin…

Coalition is compromise. But the number of pirouettes and shimmies undertaken by David Cameron and his senior ministers over the last few months has been amazing to behold.

What particularly strikes someone who’s starting to describe himself as “seasoned” is that the Conservatives used to be an absolute iron fist of a political party. A machine that set its course and ploughed through any opposition no matter how vociferous.

Perhaps it’s an indication of our changed, softer society that Margaret Thatcher’s determination over the miners’ strike or her folly over the Poll Tax, seems somehow out of place. And yet, during the Labour adminstration there were only u-turns when the Party was humiliated – a particular example being the 75p pension increase. Everyone quickly realised that while that worked on paper it didn’t work when splashed across the papers.

But Iraq. Public sector pensions. Minimum Wage. Mice didn’t get at these policies. Labour toughed it out.

Now I know a big majority can help with that – but is the coalition really so fragile that so much compromise is so necessary.

Ministers say that this is a new way of governing; a frank exchange of views in the Quad. But it’s starting to look flaky. The trick has to be to convince the country that far from being weak government by consensus takes much more skill than the iron fist. That should come across more often and more loudly.

So… given the Queen’s Speech last week, which Bills are likely to spin round.

There are two and a half really tough measures in this QS. The half is the Public Sector Pensions Bill. There is going to be loads of overt loud and fairly obvious campaigning on this issue. The unions are already out in force, co-ordinated and ready. But unions aren’t really such a problem for the Coalition which seems quite happy to ignore them. But there will be a lot of heat around that issue.

The other Pensions Bill in the mix changes the retirement age. Tinkering with the pension system evokes massive anger. That is Steve Webb’s Bill – it’s his passion and his driving force. Getting a fair state pension has driven his politics throughout his career and this is his one shot at getting it right I suspect. Lib Dems will be exercised about this Bill and pensioner groups will be out in force.

The other major sticking point for the government has to be the Lords Reform Bill. The country appears to be bored by constitutional reform. But the Lib Dems need it to happen now, well clear of any run up to significant elections. Tory apathy and Labour’s accuracy at spotting dividing lines in the coalition could well scupper this Bill. Not to mention feet-dragging in the Upper House. The only way to get this through will be via the Parliament Act which will delay things further.

I suspect that there could be some difficulties on the European Union Bill too – amendments galore from the Tory Right, which will at least highlight the party’s mind on the subject.

This is a pretty tough Queen’s Speech with some hard battles for a Government still not quite on its game.  Much more chat on the inner workings of the Quad is needed if the public is going to see the tough deals being done.

Ice Ice David…

Aciiiiiid! Yes kids we’re back in the early 90s this week. An embattled government. Leadership looking weak to wobbly on the political Beaufort scale, a number of “bastards” from the Tory Right emerging and some very wide pinstriped suits on the box giving it all that.

Nadine Dorries – the latter day Teresa Gorman. Who’d have thought it?

I’m slightly concerned that Harry Enfield might revive a very sad Stavros… Loadsamoney probably still works too.

Anyhow – as I said here (yes see me talk and move!) this is going to be a critical political week both for the government and the opposition. Thursday and Friday are going to be very rough for the PM as Andy Coulson and Rebecca Brooks give evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. Speculation on the circuit is that Brooks’ testimony is difficult – particularly in terms of the proximity and frequency of contact. The facts remain to be seen, but the Government’s relief at convincing Leveson that they should get to see the evidence up front was palpable last week.

Tomorrow is the Queen’s Speech – the first in 18 months. That’s going to give us our first look at the Coalition Agreement 2.0 and will inevitably provoke speculation that Lib Dem input has been watered down as the Conservatives demand a Rightward Ho! shift.

Finally, Ed Miliband needs to find some more shine. Party staffers know they had a good week last week. But they also think this was midterm protest writ large. Ed punched hardest on the NHS where it seems the electorate is in tune with Labour thinking. But the suspicion is that on every other issue at present, the electorate is far to the right of the coalition – let alone the Labour Party. How the Party draws up an uncomfortable narrative on immigration and crime, or indeed on Europe is the next challenge. With Ken Livingstone out of the picture there is also some time for a new generation of London leadership to emerge.

Anyway – I’m just nipping off for a rave with some travellers.

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