Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Vote Rantzen?

Esther Rantzen has decided to contest Luton South at the next election despite being quoted on the BBC as saying:

"Political experts have told me I would be crazy to stand, that I haven't a hope in hell, that it will lead to humiliation and embarrassment on my part..."

Are these experts right? One of the secondary but intriguing features of recent elections has been the return of "independent" MPs. Since 1945, independents and even small-party MPs have hardly flourished. Yet since 1997 we have seen Martin Bell elected as an independent, Richard Taylor for Health Concern (2001 and 2005), and George Galloway for Respect (2005). Add to this the way the share of the vote for "others" keeps creeping up year on year and the grip of the "big three" parties on Westminster politics looks like it is weakening.

Well, perhaps. Certainly the smaller parties have learned to target their meagre resources and use a presence in local government as a base to challenge for Westminster seats.

But the prospects for genuine independents are much less promising. For each one who has succeeded in recent years, dozens stand and get nowhere. Success depends on a combination of three factors:

1) A strong local issue: the proposed closure of Kidderminster Hospital kick-started Health Concern, while the Iraq War played out strongly in Bow in 2001 and Neil Hamilton's decision to run again in Tatton despite being mired in scandal helped galvanise opposition there.

2) An effective electoral machine: this was crucial for Galloway in 2001, while having local councillors helped Dr Taylor retain Wyre Valley in 2001. And John Sweeney's excellent book on the Tatton election shows how hard it was for Bell's campaign to gain traction, and how critical the influx of supporters (not all with the presence of David Soul) was to building momentum and credibility.

3) A free run: probably the most critical factor is having one or more of the main parties standing aside. Bell and Taylor both gained enormously from this.

Using this score-card, the Rantzen campaign does indeed look doomed. The current MP Margaret Moran has already announced she will not stand again, so MPs' expenses will not have the same local dimension as at Tatton. She has no effective machine in place - no website, for example, to turn the interest surrounding her announcement into support or donations. And there is little prospect of any other party standing aside.

But Ms Rantzen says she is "fascinated by politics", which is reason enough to have a go.

Monday, 27 July 2009

I'm Unpopular. Vote for Me!

I've just been writing a chapter for a book on British Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition, and I wanted to see whether unpopular Prime Ministers (or even Opposition Leaders) could win a General Election.

Looking at polling data going back to before the 1959 General Election (thanks to Gallup and MORI for these), for 8 of the 13 General Elections the incumbent Prime Minister had a negative approval rating (over a six month period immediately before the election). On three occassions the PM lost the election (Wilson, 1970; Heath, Feb 1974; and Callaghan, 1979). But four times, the PM retained office (Thatcher in 1983 and 1987 and Blair in 2001 and 2005). The explanation for three of these four victories was that the incumbent PM, despite being unpopular, was more popular than the challenging Leader of the Opposition.

2005 was an exceptional election. Tony Blair's average net approval rating (-26) was lower than that for Michael Howard (-20). Suggesting that in that election, the voters based their decision on more than just their ratings of the party leaders.

Is this comfort for Gordon Brown? In the first half of 2009, Brown's average net approval rating was -33; substantially below that for David Cameron (+14) - indeed Cameron is the most popular Tory Opposition Leader since Ted Heath in the 1960s.

The bad news for Brown and Labour is that not only is their leader behind the Conservative alternative, but the gap between them is huge. At 47 points, there have only been two General Elections since 1959 where there has been anything like this gap - in 1997 (Blair's lead over Major was 73 points) and in 1983 (Thatcher's lead over Foot was 49 points).

Of course, the next six months might see a turnaround for the fortunes of the present PM, but time is running out for what at the moment looks like another a sign that a landslide election is on the cards...

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Carry on in Cardiff...

BBC Radio Wales interview this morning, ahead of the Cabinet’s latest (I think sixth) meeting outside London – this time in Cardiff. As I said on radio it’s a good idea that the Cabinet do get around the country (why would anyone be against it?), but I doubt it will have much impact on what people think of the present Government. Also interesting discussion about whether Labour will reap any political benefits from the economic recovery, assuming there is one and the public feels it before the next election. I’m sceptical, but more on that in another post…

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Microsoft - Love It or Hate It?

So Microsoft is top of the annual Superbrand list for 2009. It's no surprise that the company should have very high recognition. The survey uses YouGov's online panel, and anyone with a computer either uses Microsoft or has gone with rivals like Apple that define themselves against Microsoft. Presumably those whose PCs had frozen, crashed or been taken over by malware weren't able to complete the survey.

But there's a lot more to the survey than just who is, or is not, No 1. The richness lies in the detail: that the biggest consumer brand in the public sector after the BBC is Ordnance Survey; or that a very twenty-first century visitor attraction like the Eden Centre can be a bigger brand that Schweppes, dating back to the Eighteenth; or that Top Trumps are the fastest-rising toy or game brand. But as in all ranking surveys, there has to be a note of caution unless and until full data tables and methodology are published.

Apple, if you want to know, was No 9.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Communications in the Financial Crisis

Just back from Berlin where I was giving a presentation to Finance Ministry officials, senior advisers and academics from around Europe, hosted by Das Progressive Zentrum and the German Ministry of Finance. The full presentation is here. The key point for government communicators was to be realistic about what could be achieved, the need to move on from talking about the financial crisis to the economic one, and how - even if you get the policy right and the communications works - it doesn't guarantee a political upside for the incumbent.

This slide makes the point. Being seen to screw up on the economy can lose you an election; and even if you are able to turn things round, it's likely you won't get the credit. Economic optimism is rising, but confidence in Gordon Brown as PM is heading south.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

If only all countries could be like...Costa Rica

The New Economics Foundation has just published an update of its Happy Planet Index and top of the 146 countries covered is Costa Rica. A stable democracy with no army and a comprehensive welfare state, Costa Rica scores highly on the length and quality of life of its citizens. It also does so with around half the environmental impact per person of the United States. In others words, Costa Rica is far more efficient at turning resources into human happiness than the UK or US (at 74 and 114 respectively).

NEF's index is part of the wider debate on quality of life indicators which politicians such as David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy have shown interest in. Such an indicator would give a much broader base for shaping and evaluating policy and a valuable alternative to GDP as the prime target for policy-makers - though as it would involve the UK immediately dropping dozens of places down the world's league table, there's little prospect of such a change happening anytime soon.

The study is based on existing data and NEF's costs are only in analysis and interpretation: in other words, it is in itself a good example of efficiency in turning resources into benefits.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Lord Adonis' New Employees

By taking over National Express's East Coast rail franchise, the Department for Transport is adding another 3,000 or so to the state's head-count. As well as reigniting the 'public versus private' debate, it also raises interesting questions about employee engagement. The idea of serving the public can be highly motivating in areas such as health or education: why not on the railways?

When the same thing happened to Connex in 2003, the resulting state-owned firm, South East Trains, was often cited as one of the best-performing train operators (particularly by anti- privatisation campaigners). As usual, it isn't easy to identify how much was due to employee motivation and how much to other factors - in this case, anything from new trains to leafs on the line.

But the National Passenger Survey does give some clues. One question in particular - overall satisfaction with the helpfulness and attitude of staff on trains - may reveal how motivated staff feel. Between Spring 2004 and Spring 2005, satisfaction for all train companies rose by 8 points from 54% to 62% while the results for South East Trains rose twice as fast - from 35% to 51%.

After the transfer to private-sector GOVIA in April 2006, the results for South East Trains stall, then decline. By the Spring 2009 the level of satisfaction with the helpfulness and attitude of staff on Southeastern had fallen to 39%, compared with 51% for comparable train companies.

Is this evidence of public ownership inspiring heroic staff performance? Only a specific study could answer that. For now, it may be safer to conclude that good management can improve customer service in both public and private settings.

Though would customers of Northern Rock agree?