All quiet at Westminster: time for a non-futile gesture?

April 27, 2007

hitlerwarn.pngThe political scene in the Westminster village has gone rather quiet ahead of next week’s regional and local elections. Might this be a good time for a non-futile gesture of political leadership?

In contrast to the excitement across the channel, there seems to be a dip in energy from the normally exuberant posse of our own much-loved political journalists. Perhaps they are preparing for next week’s regional elections without the sniff for any juicy story.

From a Westminster perspective, Scotland is a long way away, Northern Ireland has become temporarily a surprise-free zone politically, Wales is closer but even less likely to provide much in the way of an ephemeral headline nationally (i.e. in the media located mostly close to the dominant London hub).

Tony Blair has lingered so long after announcing his eventual departure that his remaining weeks as PM are long even in politics. Gordon Brown is concerning himself with more Prime Ministerial matters. These are no longer reported as stories of his departing from his brief as Chancellor of the Exchequer. No-one really wants to take on Gordon in a leadership fight to replace Tony. The newest boy David Miliband has convinced even the press that ‘I am not standing’ actually means just that.

End of a leadership honeymoon

David Cameron is no longer a new figure offering surprises to observer, followers, or opponents. His presentation of a young and reforming leader is consistent, but no longer newsworthy. His leadership honeymoon is drawing to a close. He resists offering specific stories around policy promises, as these may offer hostages to future fortune, something he has made clear will not happen. This is an interesting and calculated leadership decision. Appearing to do nothing, can be as tough as acting decisively (when is decisiveness little more than a nervous twitch?). It is a decision which can hardly have been taken lightly, and sustained, without him coming under pressure from those disposed to take more direct action. It must be irksome to have to face continued assertions that the Cameron brand of Conservatism is more than a bit policy-lite.

Time for a non-futile gesture?

If I understand the military principle, surprise is an excellent factor in a successful attack. It’s certainly a good strategic principle for chess players.

As this seems to be a rather quiet time politically, in the United Kingdom, might it not be the precise time for an unexpected political move? Such an attack might be carefully planned or opportunistic. The opportunistic action is more likely under hard-to-predict and turbulent circumstances such as the heat of battle. Even then, I suspect that the successful leader has fought the battle a thousand times, and draws on a rich set of stored mental frames of maps.

In quiet times, there is maybe more to lose, and less chances of initiating a successful political maneuver or tour de force.

There is never a good time for a futile gesture. But is this a good time for a non-futile gesture? I rest my case. But I’m not holding my breath.


Creative Leadership: Ahmadinejad 1 British all-stars 0

April 16, 2007

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The people have spoken. And they don’t like the decision to permit fifteen members of HM navy to be paid for stories of their mystery tour in Iran. But in the wider scheme of things the story reveals a lack of creativity from British political and military figures. This contrasts with the theatrical but effective performance from President Ahmadinejad of Iran

‘OK I made a mistake. It’s all my fault. I’ll resign. I’ll fall on my sword’

A state of near hysteria is reached in the political climate in the UK following the release this week of fifteen sailors from their unexpected visit to Iran. Under such conditions, groupthink favors a search for a scapegoat over more productive efforts.

In rapid time, the scapegoat was found in the shape of Defense Secretary Des Browne. And so it came to pass that he faces a very public trial in the House of Commons on Monday. Support from his own party will be calculatedly luke-warm. Attacks on Tony Blair and Gordon brown will be largely neutralized. I suggest that the episode has revealed a sad lack of creative leadership from the British side.

Too much like Chicken Little?

A few months ago an American economist suggested that the European view on climate change and global warming was too much like Chicken Little. We tended to dash around, crying out that the sky was falling in. I didn’t agree with that.

Chicken Little showed signs of clinical hysteria. The European stance on global warming seems more an understandable anxiety that there are too many in the global hen house in a state of denial.

But in this case, it is a bit more like Chicken Little, but with more and more creatures raising the alar, with little substantive cause.

“It’s a calamity” cried chicken Cameron.
“It’s a shambles” chirped chicken Chris Huhne.
“He’s made a terrible mistake” crowed chicken Simon Hughes
“Where was he when he should have been making a statement? ” piped up Portillo
“Heads must roll” chorused another group of chickens on the Downing Street squawk-line.

Creative Leadership

Creative leadership involves processes of thinking and acting in ways that are both effective and relatively unexpected. The process may be temporarily restricted to a bounded view of what is effective, excluding considerations of moral intent or action. If we accept such restrictions, there is no doubt that President Ahmadinejad (perhaps representing a wider group of Iranian leaders) demonstrated creative leadership, and no-one particularly did on the British side.

So should heads roll?

Beats me. Public opinion seems to be in line with politicians in outrage and lust for a victim. If Browne is humiliated, it is how our democracy works. We get the leaders we deserve, and can sometimes sooner than later dispose of leaders we feel have let us down.

How creative thinking might refocus attention

My preference is to work harder to find more imaginative and beneficial ideas. A well-established principle is to search widely and chose wisely. For example, the focus of political attention last week was essentially ‘How to get the sailors back safely with out major concessions’. The focus was on negotiation where negotiation was difficult. It seemed rather sensible.

This week the focus seems to have been ‘how to punish whoever allowed the sailors to sell their stories’. I would like to have seen more attention paid other ‘How to’ challenges:

How to change operational procedures so this sort of thing is less likely to happen again ..
and
How to communicate what has happened, effectively and without upsetting people.

Other suggestions please to the Admiralty and No 10 Downing Street …

It’s not all black farce

The developing story of the release of the sailors and marines was interwoven with other events with more tragic overtones. There were fatalities to British troops in the middle east on the very day of the release. There was more fatalities when two helicopters collided earlier today (Sunday April 15th 2007).

These are the events that we expect our politicians to be dealing with. Don’t we? We will hear predictable and widely shared expressions of regret and condolences for the families of the dead servicemen. I will watch for evidence of some creative leadership from the British political all-stars as the battle enters another phase in the House of Commons this week.


The Budget, and the Battle: Which leader will create the more powerful myth?

March 22, 2007

Gordon Brown’s eleventh budget has been widely assumed to be his last, and an opportunity to indicate his credentials as a future Prime Minister. Its presentation permits a comparison of the leadership images or myths which he and David Cameron are concerned to project.

Gordon Brown makes his eleventh Budget speech. The prelude had been inauspicious. The Turnbull story has persisted, mainly as evidence corroborating Brown’s image as an arrogant control freak. A few journalists suggested that the story might be taken as more positive for Brown, and evidence of a leader unprepared to suffer fools gladly.

I listened to the budget speech while driving from a late-morning meeting. Brown constructs speeches like the Germans build luxury cars and compose classical Operas. The products are impressively. Purposively designed, and fit for purpose. This one was no exception.

A leitmotif recurred by way of ‘then and now’ theme, ‘then, being was 1997 when the Conservatives were last in power.. ‘now after nearly ten years of economic success under New Labour’. This device was interspersed with a more complex yet related theme around ‘past present and future’ conditions.

The delivery was in an appropriately major key. The effect was that of a series of percussion blows.

The speech was well up the scale on information, and down on rhetorical flourishes. It put each of its items in that ‘then and now context’: inflation then, inflation now: investment then, investment now, unemployment then, and so on. Current Conservative counter-proposals were swatted aside, as a sorrowful head teacher might summarize and correct errors encountered while assessing homework assignments.

The speech appeared to be reaching its predestined conclusion. Maybe some listeners were waiting for the unexpected. The Chancellor has been known to conjure up a surprise. He had me fooled, at least. As he was appearing to beat out the appropriate magisterial last few chords, he produced a startling finale. Perhaps I had bought too much into the stereotype of the humorless Chancellor. Even as he was signaling the end of his last speech, literally gathering together his folio of notes, he added a coda:

To reward work, to ensure working families are better off, and to make the tax system fairer, I will from next April cut the basic rate of income tax from 22p down to 20p. The lowest basic rate for 75 years.

Cut basic tax! Surprise and delight on the Labour benches. Mr Brown had stolen the clothes that Conservative traditionalists worried that David Cameron had discarded.

Later, I caught up on the spectacular visual impact the ending produced on the House. David Cameron takes the floor. Despite valiant efforts, he was unable to build on the weapons provide the previous day by Lord Turnbull’s reported remarks. Just you wait, he seemed to be saying, you and your gang will get it for your sneaky ways. You’ll see. If not now, after School is over.

His sallies sounded even less effective as he redirected them towards more junior members of the Government team, such as the even younger Boy David, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. David Miliband winced as if embarrassed by such an expression of poor form. Why pick on the first-formers? [You can see David Miliband’s youthful features on his very own blog, which he seems to have built using his very own pocket money].

I have scanned newspaper headlines, followed the debate conducted in political blogs, and listened to a fair sample of callers to phone-in broadcasts. The Basic rate cut does grab headlines, with appropriate contextualization. Right-leaning papers echo the Conservatives (‘It’s a con … all smoke and mirrors’). The Guardian, the paper that has been reporting Gordon Brown’s unpopularity in predictive polls in recent months, is warm in its praise.

The Institute of Fiscal studies considers that around 20% of families will lose out, spread rather widely across the spectrum of incomes. Bloggers and callers to phone-in programmes have tended to be driven by motives of disappointment. I’d estimate that more than 80% of responses have come from those unhappy with what they have received (or not received) from the Chancellor.

Real biz or showbiz?

The Game’s afoot. The Boy David suffers a setback, as his opponent girds himself not so much in the armor of righteousness as in the magical powers of transmogrification and cross-dressing. But this is no more than a skirmish.
Maybe it indicates the perils of charismatic leadership. David Cameron has been relying very much on a high-profile leadership style. The credibility of his messages is very much bound up in the credibility of his public image. This makes a delicious contrast with Gordon Brown’s style. If that’s not enough interest, we will from time to time be surprised by behaviours when one or the other moves outside the simplified stereotypes we might hold of them.

Which myths will matter more?

According to leadership theorists, the budget presentations are opportunities for leaders to consolidate the story they wish to be remembered by. This is a partly deliberate process of myth-making.

Until now, Gordon Brown has operated strictly in the mode of the rational manager par excellence. In contrast, David Cameron has been energetic in presenting himself as a Charismatic leader. But success and power can result in even rational managers acquiring the mystique of charisma. If David seems to tick the boxes for one kind of charismatic, Gordon may tick the boxes for another. One typology (by Will McWhinny) would probably locate David as an idealistic or prophetic entrepreneur such as Anita Roddick. And Gordon would be closer to rational geek as wunderkind such as Bill Gates.

So there we have it. The battle will be between the leadership appeal of an Anita Roddick, or a Bill Gates. But if this were to become a party game, would we necessarily place them at the head of the Conservative and Labour parties? And who would be better placed to attract the voters?


Cameron faces Clones syndrome

March 11, 2007

Polls remain promising for opposition leader David Cameron. Despite a political wobble this week, he seems to be succeeding in weakening the Conservative reputation as the nasty party. His shifts towards ground previously occupied by New Labour appear to have been shrewdly chosen. But they may yet have the unavoidable consequence of reminding the electorate of Tony Blair and his charismatic early days in power. Cameron may yet become a victim of Clones syndrome.

This week David Cameron acted swiftly to dismiss Shadow homeland security spokesman Patrick Mercer after remarks about ethnic minority soldiers. Patrick Mercer’s career as a serving officer was put under scrutiny. It was revealed as exemplary. Black soldiers who served under him came forward to reject any accusations of the officer having displayed racist behaviors.

David Cameron came as much under the spotlight as did Patrick Mercer. Political allies insisted that Cameron had no option but (‘regretfully’) to dismiss Mr Mercer. According to the BBC, Mercer had been reported as saying that

he had met “a lot” of “idle and useless” ethnic minority soldiers who used racism as a “cover”. The former officer also told the Times that being called a “black bastard” was a normal part of Army life .. Mr Cameron had made his position clear: “The comments made by Patrick Mercer are completely unacceptable and I regret that they were made … We should not tolerate racism in the Army or in any walk of life …I was completely shocked when I read the remarks of Patrick Mercer.”

The dismissal polarized opinion within the Conservative party. Some echoed the popularist sentiment that it was another example of political correctness gone mad. Others accepted that their leader had no choice. However honorable his record, the remarks, if left uncensored, could too easily suggest to the electorate that the Conservatives remained the nasty party.

This is subtle stuff indeed

This is subtle stuff indeed. I’m not sure that Cameron was forced to act in the way he did. If so, he is already a victim of ‘events, dear boy, events’. More significant is the sense made of the situation among political commentators. By and large they agree that he has to deal with leadership dilemmas by careful attention to their second-level consequences. I have no problem with this line of reasoning.

Another point made this week also seems pertinent to the dilemmas of David Cameron in the specific context of Tony Blair’s departure from power. I have called it Clones syndrome.

Clones syndrome

Among those second-level consequences are some which have been expressed from time to time. That David Cameron has studied, learned from, and rather admired Tony Blair’s transformation of old labour. Just as Blair studied, learned from, and rather admired Margaret Thatcher.

Whenever David Cameron acts in ways similar to those espoused by Tony Blair, he will be open to the accusation of copying him. Opponents will be quick to label him no more than a Blair clone. It will not matter that the actions are similar because there are a limited number of non-stupid actions to take.

Actions that can be interpreted as good for the media will be presumed to be taken for that reason alone. My Cameron appears to be strongly commited to moving the party to a greener position. Demonstrating it through hugging a Husky will never be a complete PR success.

I’m not sure of all the implications of this. It will be interesting to see how they emerge in the months to come.


A rough guide to reading Leadership polls

February 21, 2007

The latest leadership poll in Britain signals good news for the Conservatives, and bad news for the present Government. But how good, and how significant are the results? A simple three-step process is suggested which will help readers to take a more informed view of what such polling results might mean.

According to The Guardian newspaper, the conservatives are the strongest they have been in the polls for 12 years. The BBC examined the poll data and concluded that support for Labour under Gordon Brown could drop to 29%, while the Tories led by David Cameron would attract 42%.

Good news indeed for David. The article, by Julian Glover continues the regular monthly polls by the Guardian conducted by polling experts ICM. I tried to assess the significance of the results, and quickly hit several complications. The BBC news was particularly unhelpful. It plucked out a few elements of the Guardian poll, but in a way that left me searching for pen and paper to make sense of the information.

An hour, and a few sheets of crumpled notepaper later, and I had arrived at some interesting conclusions. I realized that it was not the first time I had been forced to work out things in this way from newspaper reports of polling results.

Here is a rough and ready guide that might help anyone who is not already familiar with the terrible beauty of statistical analysis. It is based on not much more than a respect for numbers (numeracy).

How to read opinion polls

Step 1 Stick as closely as possible to the data and decide what the numbers are telling you. You may have to re-organize the data for this.
Step 2 See what conclusions are being drawn in the news story
Step 3 Ask what gaps are there between the data and the conclusions.

The three-step process applied

In practice, news stories tend to rush you on to step 2, then perhaps provide some help with Step 1, and avoid much mention of Step 3. The BBC report illustrates the point:

Support for Labour under Gordon Brown could drop to 29%, while the Tories led by David Cameron would attract 42%, an opinion poll suggests. With Mr Brown expected to take over as PM, the ICM/Guardian phone poll asked 1,000 adults at the weekend which party – with a named leader – they preferred. The same question a month ago suggested Labour under Brown would gain 31% and Conservatives under Cameron 39%. The Lib Dems under Sir Menzies Campbell dropped to 17% from 19% a month ago. When asked about voting intentions – regardless of leaders – the poll suggests 40% of respondents supported the Conservatives, up three points on January. Support for Labour was static on 31%, and the Liberal Democrats lost 4 points to drop to 19%.

All clear? Not unless you can think in more dimensions than I can. It’s actually clearer if you draw very crude graphs. Then you see he complications arising because the pollsters have been measuring voting intentions in two ways: mentioning, and not mentioning the leaders of the parties.

Even without graphs, if you put the data into a table you will see that the data reveals a swing to the conservatives (39% to 42% with mention of David Cameron, 37% to 40% without mention).

In rather similar way there is a swing away from the Liberal Democrats (19% to 17% with mention of Ming Campbell, 23% to 19% without mention). The labour figures are harder to interpret. They indicate a swing away only when Gordon is mentioned (31% to 29%, static at 31% without mention of Gordon).

This gives us the basis of our Step one. The data says there is a slight shift to the conservatives, a slight switch away from the Lib Dems, a slight switch away from labour if Gordon Brown is introduced into the questioning.

Step 2: The conclusions drawn are that the conservatives are the strongest they have been in the polls for 12 years (The Guardian claim), and that support for Labour under Gordon Brown could drop to 29%, while the Tories led by David Cameron would attract 42% (BBC interpretation of the Guardian poll).

Step 3: Well, actually there are various assumptions which are glossed over in the claims in Step 2. Sticking strictly to the data, we cannot project what support will be for the parties, with or without David, Gordon and Ming built in.

Nor can we speculate what difference their presence or absence is likely to make on voting day. These are among the real-life complications which make back-projection for twelve years inadequate for projection one or two years ahead.

I’m inclined to see what happens when we have a few more months of data. (Plea to The Guardian / ICM: please can you keep the ‘with and without’ questions to help us work out what is happening, using our three-step system).


Gun crisis: Disentangling the political rhetoric

February 18, 2007

Three teenagers were shot to death this week in London. Politicians have pronounced on the violence and apparent pointlessness of their fate, an emerging gun-culture, alienation, and single parenting, laced with more than a hint of racialism against young black culture. To what extent can we disentangle the calculated and contrived from the compassionate?

Under these circumstances, Politicians find it all to easy to express a view, although fully aware of the minefield they are treading. Proposals will be labelled as primarily gesture politics. Grand visions will have to be backed-up with evidence of thought-through first-steps.

The case illustrates the dilemmas of political leadership. Politicians in power are in the position of being able to announce those specific new and promising first steps. Although this is the case for Tony Blair, anything radically new in what he suggests will be challenged by many in the media with the automatic reaction – why did it take his Government so long to get there?

David Cameron, in contrast, does not have to deal with that particular form of cyncial challenge to new ideas. He may even be able to offer novelty which as long as it has plausibility, will not be tested in the near future. He can justify why the ideas have not been previously policy for his party. He is still (just about) in a leadership honeymoon period (weighing up his overall treatment from the media). However, he still faces dilemmas. There is still the objection that he is operating from the luxury of not having to put his ideas to the test. And he has been careful not to commit his party too closely to specific policy statements, avoiding political hostages to fortune.

What did the leaders do, how did they do?

The early front-runner was David Cameron. His analysis was unusual for a traditional Conservative politician. However, Mr Cameron has been diligent in demonstrating that he is no traditional Tory. His reaction focussed on cultural deprivation as a deep-rooted and significant factor that needed to be addressed. The position would have been ‘nothing new there, then’ if offered by a traditional labour (or contemporary Liberal democratic politician).

John Reid as Home Secretary was at first more occupied with advancing the progress towards the provision of two new prisons. He turned his attention to the teenage deaths after David Cameron. His remedy, suitably tough was to reveal Government plans offering a review of gun laws and toughening them where necessary.

Tony Blair was curiously slower in response, but toward the weekend seemed to have reclaimed Dr Reid’s story for himself, in a TV interview, and a story that had been trailed to appear in The Sunday Times newspaper.

In ‘response’ to the yet-to-be-published statement, Sir Menzies Campbell broadly warned that there could be no quick-fix (sounding disdainful of rhetorical gestures on such a matter), but offering no ideas of long term alternative.

The political cross-dressing continues

Tony Blair has been consistent in his repositioning of New Labour on tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. It is now commonplace to attribute the phrasing as a gift to Tony from Gordon when they were somewhat closer buddies. His approach is thus incremental (tougher laws for younger people). Dr Reid, in that respect is also close to this aspect of New Labour orthodoxy temperamentally. David Cameron is also consistent in repositioning New Torydom with considerable invasions of regions of social policies held firmly by Old Labour. Overall, both Blair and Cameron were consistent in their enthusiasm for political cross-dressing, shocking some of their previous supporters in the interests of change. Which leaves Sir Menzies Campbell with the unenviable task of pointing only to the truism that quickfixes do not work.

Winners and losers?

I’m not sure I can find any winners from the political offerings discussed. The proposals remain less than convincing that swift and effective changes are about to begin in the interests of vulnerable groups of young people in the inner cities of London, Mmanchester and elsewhere. The leaders we elected are delivering the leadership the rest of us deserve. Perhaps, as a message from Tim suggested in response to an earlier Blog, Gordon Brown might have some personal conslation in keeping out of the battle.


Stand up if you love your Football (stadium)

February 3, 2007

David Cameron risks turning all-seated stadia into a political football in England. This news comes in a week of violence for Italian Football. Football violence in England has arguably been controlled partly because political leaders have, until now, avoiding making it a party-political issue.

Overnight, news of violence in Italian football. A policeman dies in the rioting. A gloomy picture in Italy comes to more international attention. My mind goes back to the football scene in England in the 1980s. Images from Manchester can serve as typifying the wider national scene.

Piccadilly Station guarded by highly visible police and horses, each cohort in battle gear. Convoys of truculent visiting supporters semi-controlled by police and Alsatian (German Shepherd) dogs. Dogs and refugees snarl at each other as the ragged column makes its way to Manchester City’s stadium on Maine road. The scenes are somewhat more localized ,and perhaps therefore apparently more intense, than those replicated the week before and the week afterwards on the routes to Old Trafford on the Red side of the City..

Today, The old Maine Road stadium is part of football history. Last week, police horses still made their majestic and caparisoned way from their Chorlton barracks through Stretford to Manchester United’s match at Old Trafford. But to attack a police horse is no longer a mark of tribal honour and a gesture against all things Mancunian. Something happened over a couple of decades in the heartland of English football culture. Dreadful tragedies led to a range of improved policing strategies, and all-seater stadia.

Keeping politics out of social change

It seems to me that there has been changes that have met with the approval of the majority of fans as well as the wider public. Also, the changes have largely avoided being caught up in political battles. Political leadership has succeeded by avoiding the temptation to make political capital out of the matter.

Which is what may be changing. This week David Cameron signals a willingness to revisit the matter of all seater stadia in time for the forthcoming political battles, AB (After Blair). There may well be political mileage in raising the issue as an alliance can certainly identified among those with libertarian values and popularist sentiment for the good old times. Even in Old Trafford, that near-gentrified Theatre of Dreams, groups of fans regularly carry out their acts of ritualistic defiance by ‘standing up against sitting down’.

There may still be lessons to be learned for Italian football from what happened in England over the last few decades. And maybe lessons for England football and politics for the future, from the scenes in Italy last night.