Sunday, November 27, 2011

Rebranding ain't gonna fix this, Nick.

According to the Mail, Clegg has called in the rebranding experts to advise on how to make the party more popular.
Leaked documents reveal that the Deputy Prime Minister has admitted that voters have no idea what his party stands for.
And he apparently thinks that this is a bad thing, rather than a core part of the party's strategy thus far. Both Labour and the Conservatives have fairly clearly defined identities and a related tribal following, both of which the Liberal Democrats. This has allowed them to plough a peculiar furrow unencumbered with baggage, which has manifested itself in a peculiar brand of oppositional opportunism - taking a position in opposition to whichever party is in power and squeezing either the Labour or Tory vote into backing the Liberal Democrat candidate as the 'least worst' option to keep out the other side. While this proved very effective in building a good base of elected councillors and MPs, it was dependent upon the party being the 'safe' option and either being unable to make decisions that offended voters or to be able to blame others for them. Once you are a party of national government, then that option is no longer available to you. 

He appears to have hired proper snake-oil salesmen too. 

the ‘brand advisers’ hired by the Lib Dems have advised Mr Clegg to aim for a less principled approach towards political campaigning. They suggested that once a ‘strategic, long-term brand model’ for the party had been devised, MPs should discover ‘shorter-term themes, straplines and soundbites’ to ‘support short-term political expediency’. A presentation was illustrated by a diagram showing four different ‘audiences’, each of which should be given a different version of the ‘message’.
Anyone who has ever looked at the Liberal Democrats knows that this is exactly the model that they have employed over the years - delivering a message that the audience wants to hear and changing it to suit local conditions, even if that means delivering diametrically-opposed campaigns in different wards. The brand consultants have repackaged existing Liberal Democrat techniques and sold them straight back to the party. That's a kind of genius, really. 

The problem that Clegg has is not that voters have no idea what the party stands for, but that many voters have now seen the party defined by their role in government and don't like how it turned out. Enough voters have a pretty clearly negative image of the party to render the brand toxic in their eyes - they don't have the brand loyalty. Referring voters back to the ending of slavery when the main issue in people's minds is the economy also indicates just how far away from reality Clegg is.

History teaches us that parties can only decontaminate their images once they are out of power. It took Labour over a decade to become a credible alternative choice to the Tories following 1979 and roughly the same timeframe for the Tories to clean up their public image - although their current performance is putting that transformation to the sword. History also shows that changing image also requires changing those who deliver the message - including the leader, which is why defeated Prime Ministers resign as party leader. If Clegg believes that he can reimage the party whilst he remains leader and the party remains in government, he's either going to be the first man to achieve it or he's deluded beyond comprehension.  

I know where my money goes. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The myth of restrictive employment law

We've been told that employers want to hire, but are put off by restrictive employment legislation and the constant threat of tribunals. Oddly, when Vince Cable asked Britain's small businesses what was holding them back, just 6% cited employment legislation as an obstruction to hiring and this doesn't surprise me at all. I've worked for some very large British companies and for some small ones and whenever I've been involved with recruitment - and I have hired over 200 people in my career - we've discussed business needs and costs, but I have never, ever worried about whether we could get rid of the new employee. Indeed, I call as a witness, the noble Lord Heseltine, speaking on the Politics Show on Sunday 20th. 
"When you start talking about enabling people to sack people.... the sort of companies I understand don't sit there saying 'We've got to be able to get rid of people, so therefore we mustn't invest - the risks are too high.' If you're really an enterprising business, you invest because you think it is going to be a success. You might have to readjust, but you can do that"
Businesses hire because they need people to drive themselves forward and to grow. 

Vince has already promised to roll back the unfair dismissal eligibility to two years, just as it was in 1999 - as if that held growth back over subsequent years. It may be that this is simply a performance to allow the Liberal Democrats to demonstrate that they are restraining the worst excesses of the Conservative Party, but perhaps that is the best case scenario. 

It doesn't even make economic sense - a cowed workforce, scared for their jobs are hardly likely to consider moving house or buying the big ticket items that the economy needs us to buy. This is not a recipe for growth, nor will it create jobs. It will simply make more people unemployed and that is bad for those individuals, their families, their communities and our country. We can't afford these changes. 

If you have to get rid of an employee - and sometimes, that is the right thing to do - there is a process to ensure that you do it fairly and properly, in line with natural justice. It doesn't strike me as unreasonable to treat your colleagues as human beings, rather than as mechanistic resources. In fact, it seems to me to be the ethical and progressive way to behave. Look at the German model - their economy has done rather well, despite protection for employees and even the presence of employees on corporate remuneration committees.  

Show me the evidence that winding back our employment protection - protection that is hardly amongst the most stringent in the world - will generate growth or that employers are crying out for change and I might listen. Only might. 

To close, another reminder of the nous demonstrated by that renowned left-wing firebrand, Lord Heseltine. 
"you want to be very careful in political terms that you don't get the reputation that all you are trying to do is to make life rougher and tougher for large numbers of people who, in the end, you want to vote for you."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Hemming vs Hemming

The other interesting event actually occurred before the broadcast began, as a minor domestic disagreement broke out between John Hemming and his estranged wife Christine. As the crew were checking for levels and getting the audience used to blokes wandering around with microphones on poles, Christine raised her hand - for she was in the audience, a couple of rows in front of John. She introduced herself only as Christine, surviving after redundancy on jobseeker's allowance of £67 a week and that she used to have a weekly bill of £100 a week at Tesco (which explains how John used to claim £400 a month for food on parliamentary expenses). At that, John raised his hand and the microphone was ceremonially presented to him, for him to point out that the woman who had just spoken was his wife and that she also received £500 a week from him (any money paid for the support of children is exempt from JSA calculations, benefits fact fans). He also said that he wasn't going to be 'stunted' by the BBC - an accusation that Stephen Nolan fiercely denied. John then went and had a chat with the producer in a quiet corner and the producer then had a similar quiet chat with Christine. I don't know what was said, but she didn't attempt to take any further part in the debate, although she did stay for most of the evening. Not sure we've heard the last of her. 

Poverty Debate

Sunday's Radio 5 Live poverty debate with Stephen Nolan was an interesting way of spending late Sunday evening and early Monday morning. It all started when Edwina Currie, who has never been afraid to speak whatever enters her mind, said on an earlier Stephen Nolan show that she didn't believe that we have people in this country who can't find money for food. Unsurprisingly, this led to an outcry and this debate was the outcome and I managed to secure a ticket. For three hours, the evidence was piled up in front of Edwina - Patricia, who runs one of the expanding number of Trussell Trust food banks; Nigel, who is opening a food bank in Sparkbrook; a CAB volunteer who knows that there will be a queue outside the office first thing on Monday and that it will include people who have to try to cope on just £5 a week for food; the eloquent community worker from Coventry who works with people who are on the very margin of society; Louise, who has to rely on family members to help buy food for her baby; or the elderly lady who is facing up to a £100 cut in her winter fuel allowance to pay for the electric heating in her poorly-insulated flat. For three hours, people bore witness to the troubles afflicting people who are clinging on to what passes for an existence in this country and for three hours, Edwina denied it all with a disregard for basic humanity not granted to many.
She has form, of course. Many years ago, as a government minister, she attended a meeting at my old university, when she was asked from the floor what she felt about the old people who would surely die during the difficult winter ahead. Her response was brutally simple 'We've all got to go sometime, dear.' Unsurprising for someone who felt that the best advice for the elderly at risk of hypothermia was to "wear woolly hats and long johns."
Her expertise doesn't just cover poverty, of course. She is an expert on HIV transmission "Good Christian people who wouldn't dream of misbehaving will not catch AIDS"  and on cervical cancer "Nuns don't get it, virgins don't get it" - a comment that was actually cited as a reason why some women did not attend for a potentially life-saving smear test, for fear of being marked as promiscuous and, of course, she was the woman who nearly closed down the British egg industry and saw 2 million hens slaughtered as a result.
As I said, form as long as your arm.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Quinn Wins

Thursday saw the conclusion of the late-autumn by-election campaign in Sparkbrook and a good solid win for Labour's Victoria Quinn and her team. There was a good solid Labour presence on the ground, a stark contrast to the limited Lib Dem presence and the gaggles of Respect members hanging around the polling stations.

The by-election was caused by the resignation of sitting Respect councillor Salma Yaqoub due to ill health and actually called by a couple of Green supporters.

Labour -   3932
Respect -  2301
Lib Dem -   395
Green -       179
Con -          133

Comparing that to the May results, that actually works out to a simple Butler swing of 6.25% from Respect to Labour. The other three parties' vote share has hardly shifted (for the anoraks, the Lib Dems and the Tories dropped by less than a percentage point and the Greens' shifted up by just under half a percentage point. It also gives Victoria a fairly thumping majority of 1631 - actually increasing Tony Kennedy's solid 969 in May. Turnout was - unsurprisingly for a grey, occasionally drizzly day in November - down from the 44% in May, although 33% turnout is quite respectable for a council by-election and higher than some of the turnouts in May.

As always, by-elections are singular beasts and this one can only be used to draw some conclusions about the likely future of Respect as a party grouping on Birmingham City Council and the future isn't a bright one. On this form, Respect will go from having three councillors at the start of May 2011 to having no councillors at all after next May's elections. The loss of Salma from active politics has hurt them badly and not even a flying visit from George Galloway could save them. Out on the ground on Thursday, I even ran into one of their former key workers who had come home to Labour after being disappointed by the failure of Respect to deliver on their grand promises for Sparkbrook.

That leaves Labour with 57 councillors (excluding the Lord Mayor) and one step closer to a majority next May.