Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Boys and their Toys: Political campaigns eternal search for the magic bullet

In the classic 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy’s dog, Toto is able to run around and help Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man (the Lion broke down and bailed out a window, missing the discovery) unveil The Wizard of Oz as the man behind the curtain.

Following the huge, overwhelming success of the 2008 Presidential election campaign of Barack Obama, there is an absolute rush throughout much of the political world to emulate the on-line organizing success of this brilliant, historical campaign that raised $500m from over three million supporters.

In the State of California, early contenders in the 2010 Governor’s race are already building and using on-line tools and social networking to create a feeling of linkage and “product” (candidate) identification with the on-line work of the Obama Campaign Team.

Right on cue, then, Blue State Digital - the company that managed Obama’s online campaign - is opening a UKLondon. Their aim is simple: to convince organisations that bottom-up, emancipatory online campaigning is a ‘crucial political tool’ that is part of a fundraising and communications strategy. With my barackobama.com as a case study, one imagines that they won’t be struggling for business when it appears that the UK Government’s door (to name but one) appears wide open to new initiatives and measures to re-connect with the electorate. office in

Notwithstanding this, we feel compelled to provide a note of caution. The revolution in on-line campaigning is no panacea. Certainly, the widespread excitement about the possibility of increasing voter interest and participation in all political campaigns and elections is welcome; particularly if Britain is going to engage with the apathetic and disillusioned.

Yet the nature of politics, and arguably what U.S. voters wanted in the candidate they were going to select, had nothing to do with Facebook, Twitter and e-mail networks and fundraising. It was the message and the messenger, stupid.

The toys, these new electronic campaign vehicles, are just that – they are toys, the vehicles which campaigns, candidates and parties can communicate, broadcast and establish networks for the message and the messenger.

At the end of the day, it was not about the tools, the toys and the campaign consultants behind the curtain, no matter how important they were. The message and the messenger remain the bread and butter – the entire point – of what a political campaign should be, which brings us neatly back to the U.K.

It is clear, as Thomas Gensemer has pointed out, that the way British political parties are embracing new media is flawed. “They have focused too much on gimmicks and what they can sell to the press," he asserts. No doubt they will improve. In fact we are already seeing a tech savvy Conservative party doing just that.

But will they be brave enough to utilise new media and revolutionize grass-roots politics? After all such extensive democratic renewal is now taking place in the U.S. Only last week, Organizing for America prompted everyday Americans to have ‘house parties’ to discuss and encourage others to support the financial stimulus bill.

How successful these parties were, in many ways, are irrelevant. Here is a way not only to renew our fractured democracy and bring new blood into grassroots politics, but create collective consciousness and much needed social inclusion in our communities.

New media, or a cup of tea anyone?

Chuck Dalldorf, CSPP Blogger
Barry McCulloch, CSPP Policy Officer

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Changing Personnel and Tactics

The Budget drama is but a distant memory. The curtain has closed on our annual dose of political entertainment (notably no Budget Oscars have been issued - suggestions in the comment box please). But this week has been anything but an anti-climax. Sure we didn’t get anywhere near the excitement of the First Minister contemplating the ‘nuclear option’, but we came close.

The week began with a Sunday Herald survey which found that support for Scottish independence had increased to 38% (up three percent) while opposition had dropped three percent to 40%. Prior to the poll the conventional view among many Nationalists was that support for independence would decrease at worst; stabilize at best. After all an economic union is better protection against a global recession (depression?) or maybe not…

Such orthodoxy, however, has been demolished by the poll. It suggests that resentment continues to grow north of the border over the UK Government’s handling of the economy and Holyrood’s inability to pursue a distinctive economic policy.

Notwithstanding this it is prudent not to read too much into the poll. First, it only asked 971 adults; a small sample which doesn’t reflect the views of the population. And second, it was taken after the Greens, Lib Dems and Labour voted down the Government’s Budget Bill last month. A YouGov poll in the Sunday Times suggested that after this vote Alex Salmond’s approval rating stood at +11 while opposition leaders ranged from -17 to -25.

A few days ago a much anticipated Ministerial reshuffle took place, Salmond’s first since coming into power almost two years ago. Claiming that they had been ‘no failures’, this move was designed to ‘bring in fresh talent and experience’ said the FM.

- Out goes Minister for Communities and Sport Stewart Maxwell who is replaced by Alex Neill as Minister for Housing and Communities. Shona Robson has now Sport added to her Ministerial portfolio.

- Out goes Minister for Schools and Skills Maureen Watt who is replaced by Keith Brown.

- Out goes Minister for Culture and External Affairs Linda Fabiani who is replaced by Mike Russell. Note this Minister now also has responsibility for the Constitution.

- Lastly Roseanna Cunningham takes over from Mike Russell as Minister for Environment.

Last but by no means least, the man sometimes referred to as the 'Minister for Everything', John Swinney, announced in a parliamentary debate on Local Govt Finance that the Government will ‘not introduce legislation to abolish the unfair council tax and replace it with a [LIT] until after the election in 2011’.

Call it a policy u-turn or prudence, the opposition parties rejoiced as did the Business Community (they may even have smiled though in a depression, I mean recession, such cheek movements break social etiquette). The Cabinet Sec meanwhile took the progressive tax high-ground by reiterating the Govts’ desire for a fairer tax system and announced that a further £70m will be provided for 2010-11 to ensure council tax is frozen.

The response to the 'abolition of the abolition' of the Council Tax has been fairly predictable, as intimated above. Both the media and opposition uttered oft-cited comments in response to the 'U-turn'. For the press it makes easy copy, but for politicians it's a zero end game given all parties propensity to do a 180 when faced with the practicalities of making difficult change happen.

Our advice to all is to familiarise oneself with America's favourite poem - Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken - and seek to make all the difference.

Off to watch the Gladiators do battle in FMQ’s.

Click here to watch Gordon Brewer interview John Swinnney.

P.s. not mentioning the tragic death of Bashir Ahmad was a deliberate omission. It was highly inappropriate to note this in a post which began with the term ‘political entertainment’. See Ross’ comments below.

Bashir Ahmad MSP

The Centre was deeply saddened to hear of the untimely death of Bashir Ahmad MSP. Our thoughts are with his loved ones.

There is a moving tribute section on the SNP website. It demonstrates quite clearly the depth of sadness his tragic death has caused.


Ross Martin
CSPP Policy Director