Monday, 13 August 2012

Prime Minister Johnson?

Even before the closing ceremony had finished, there had been much talk of what shape or form the  Olympic legacy may take.  There is, without question, a renewed sense of national self-confidence and a groundswell of united pride, the like of which hasn't been seen since the Thatcher government successfully liberated the Falkland Islands in 1982.   The general election of 1983 returned the Conservatives to power so ardently that a shakey Mrs Thatcher became the Iron Lady and received a mandate for change which eventually led to the socio-economic reforms which inexorably altered the nature of the UK's economy for good. Together with Charles and Diana's Royal wedding of the previous year, Thatcher's government presided over a period of renewed national fervor and converted this into stunning electoral gains.

Cameron's leadership thus far, like Thatcher's first two years, has been marked by critical voices from within his own party.  Uncertainty over his particularly cuddly brand of Conservatism has actually grown rather than died away since the 2010 General Election.  His marriage to Clegg's Liberal Democrats was a necessary union which brought his party to power but has since served to further accentuated his liberal leanings and consequently only brought further discord within the party.  Although William and Kate's marriage and the Queen's Jubilee combine to become roughly comparable in scale to the royal wedding of 1981, it has been the Olympics rather than the intervention in Libya which has been Cameron's latter day Falklands in terms of effect on the public mood.  However, Cameron's reticence to attend events down at Eton Dorny for fear of being seen near his own school, coupled with his increasingly overshadowed attendances at other events have left the Prime Minister very much a mere passenger on board the Boris train.  While Thatcher's great rival Michael Hesseltine was thrust into the background during the Falklands, Cameron's Hesseltine, Boris Johnson, has been brought to the fore.  The blonde bombshell's already high profile has gone from strength to strength during the games.  His unscripted 'Boris moments' such as the delicious moment when he was left dangling from a zip wire in the Olympic park stand anathema to Cameron's over-polished stage-managed appearances which were splashed around anywhere near a successful British athlete.

For many, despite their shared education and socio-economic backgrounds, Boris is the more approachable figure.  His ascerbic wit, shoddy dress sense and ridiculous hair provide the kind of brand identity that Cameron could only dream of.  His gaffe-prone public appearances conspire to inspire his audiences rather than concern them.  But there's more to Boris Johnson than just his humorous appeal; it's not just his public image that people love, rather that he is a successful leader:  he has delivered.  In the public's eye he is unquestionably the Commander-in-chief of London and the London Olympics and his performance in this regard has been exemplary.  When the dust settles, Johnson's electoral 'bounce' may be so strong that not even he will be able to stop it.  He is to the London Olympics as Thatcher was to the Falklands and Cameron hasn't so much as had a look-in.

It is difficult to see what could possibly propel Cameron to such heights in the electorate's regard.  As discord over the EU, the financial crisis, swinging cuts and Cameron's inability to understand that liberals will never vote for him (and Conservatives might stop doing so) continues to grow  then the party may well look for new leadership.  Johnson's unashamed Etonianism will appeal to the small 'c' conservative core of the Party in addition to the rest of the country's new found love of the man.  In answer to the articles chief question, it may just be that whether Mr Johnson wants it or not, his inexorable rise might take him to the very top and inherit the Conservative Party leadership.  He has become Cameron's Hesseltine, the de-facto stalking horse for any leadership contest of the future. That said, he would first need to be an MP or a member of the 'other place' in order to become PM and for that, he would need a constituency that would vote for him as well as a sitting MP prepared to stand aside and force a bi-election.
Thus, Boris for PM? Maybe, one day, but not yet.  First, Cameron would need to be pushed out and a constituency seat must become available.


Sunday, 22 July 2012

Re-branding; UKIP to the next level

A year ago I met with a senior member of UKIP at his home office.  For much of my time with him, the MEP in question seemed concerned that I was a member of the tabloid press.  This concern actually bordered on paranoia.  It was clear; he felt that the press was out against UKIP and that the press was to be feared.  In the light of the News Corp scenario (which occurred after my meeting with said UKIP MEP) I can see why he was concerned.  The British Press has for years taken sides, made figures of fun out of those politicians that it dislikes and generally spun stories in both positive and negative ways in order to gain influence, sell papers or both.  

However, the British media's focus on UKIP seems to be softening.  No longer the hard lens of scrutiny aimed at poking fun, UKIP is now viewed through a wide angle which landscapes the larger political picture, and crucially mainstream parties.  This is good for UKIP; the more it is framed in the same painting as the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberals, the more legitimacy it will gain.  And legitimacy is the key to acceptance, acceptance the answer to why UKIP performs so under-whelmingly at General Elections compared to their relative success in the Euros. In short, UKIP stands ready to scoop up the disfranchised, but it also needs to go further; it needs to offer credibility, brand image and aspiration. 

So, it's clear that if UKIP are to make further electoral inroads towards mainstream domestic politics then they must step up a gear.  There are several factors which look as if inadequately addressed might scupper their recent rise.  These comprise a triumvirate of issues which are as follows: 

i)  Appalling brand image
ii) Poor media relations
iii) Decentralised party structure

All three major parties have addressed these issues long ago, and UKIP need to follow suit.  After all, if you want to beat them; become them.

Therefore, this article suggests some basic ideas for UKIP which address the concerns listed above in order.  

i) Get rid of the child-like purple and yellow colour scheme and cartoon pound font.  Whilst these colours are complementary, they also wouldn't look out of place sat in patchwork together on a child's duvet cover.  However, they are unique and do separate the party from the blue of the Conservatives and the red of Labour.  Thus, swap yellow for the gold of a genuine Pound coin and deepen the purple to a maroon made from the red and blue of the Union flag.  Isn't that what it's all about?  People have gone to their deaths to defend these colours, and therefor they are incredibly powerful and have the weight and feel of history behind them.  Adopting the prestige of patriotism is an incredibly powerful and emotive thing.  With reference to the gold, I'm not talking shiny, tacky 'bling' gold, but the deep rich gold of a 10 year old, well thumbed, good old fashioned quid.  
Further, step-up the pictoral rhetoric.  The imperial lion and the green and pleasant lands of Great Britain of old are both free to good home and are presently unused by any of the mainstreamers.  Tapping into these iconic images not only lends credence but also furthers the motion of UKIP as the party of Britain.  Further, there is a current fashion trend for 'Keep Calm and Carry On' posters.  They are everywhere, in all incarnations.  UKIP need to get hold of this ready-made brand distribution, hook in to the image in their own way.  In short, take ownership of a vacant possession.  'Keep Calm and Vote UKIP' or 'Keep Calm and Leave the EU' spring to mind.  
Finally, UKIP needs to change it's name.  There are some unsavoury if entirely unjustified brand blurring with the BNP.  This needs to end.  We are in the United Kingdom and we wouldn't be considering voting UKIP if we didn't know you were a party.  Thus,
"INDEPENDENCE" is a solid, no nonsense alternative name which maintains the positive elements of UKIP and throws of the cumbersome abbreviation.  

ii) The spotlight on Alistair Campbell and more recently Andy Coulson has shown two things.  
Firstly, that each of the major parties understand the need for strong media relations.  
Secondly, that the concept of a former tabloid editor as a 'spin doctor' is a tainted one.  But this reveals an opportunity.  As the old media platforms of television, radio and the printed press begin to fade, and the new media of Twitter, Facebook and other web-based two-way content gains greater influence, the new Coulson or Campbell ought to be a social networking specialist.  The 'Facebook election' of Obama in 2008 and the recent 'Arab Spring' has revealed that only social media has the power to rival the Murdoch/BBC two party old-media monopoly.  The internet is a powerful and influential place which is yet to be adequately leveraged by any of the domestic 'big three' parties.  Hire some recent graduates who really understand this genre, go viral, understand that ideas spread through internet social networks in the same way as contagious disease spreads through populations, and take advantage of the current reticence of the mainstreamers to marry Murdoch. 

iii) UKIP operates an almost federal party structure based loosely along the regions of the UK as seen from Brussels.  This is a good tactic at Euro Election level, but falls short for domestic purposes. A central office will permit Farage to control his almost wayward MEPS and candidates, and assist in maintaining a whip and a party line which can be more efficiently controlled and disseminated across media platforms.

At it's heart, this article believes that UKIP, or 'INDEPENDENCE' as I'd suggest it should re-brand, is knocking on the mainstream's door.  Working and Middle Class families up and down the UK are disenfranchised with the usual options and are looking for a viable alternative.  On the policy front, UKIP provide this.  Support for Grammar Schools, a withdrawal from the embattled EU, reducing the deficit, patriotism and old fashioned values help form an attractive solid core of policy which will continue to garner more and more support.  However, a poor media image and a weak brand is holding the party back from achieving the respectability, no, the desirability it needs to succeed. 

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Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Guild elections, the Kremlin & Vegetarian Sandwiches

This piece was originally written for the Aber Courier for last week’s Election Special.  However, the Courier didn’t have the balls to publish it, so here it is in full for all to read and share:

Guild elections, the Kremlin & Vegetarian Sandwiches

The sharp-eyed reader may have noticed that last week played host to the annual Guild Election beauty contest.  Being asked to write an article on the elections for The Courier really whet my appetite; finally, a chance to get stuck into a left wing institution in general (the NUS) and to wax lyrical about all that’s wrong with our Guild specifically. In-fact it didn’t turn out that way; what started out as a cognitive explosion of passionate ideas decrying the inherent left-wing bias of the Union movement, soon turned to utter boredom, complete disillusionment and finally, an unrelenting, grinding paralysis of apathy. 

With some positions uncontested and most others fought-over by candidates promising near identical manifestoes focusing on issues lifted straight from the script of an edition of children’s TV programme Newsround, there was barely a recycled sheet of A4 paper to separate them. Indeed, if you had an hour of your life to waste last week, then you may have watched some of the campaign videos or read some of the campaign posters. If you survived the mind numbing resultant coma, you’ll have noted how incredibly formulaic and ‘samey’ they all seemed. Most listed either housing or mental health as the primary plank of their manifesto (wonder why?), reinforced by several secondary Lizo Mzimba-inspired pledges concerning the environment, fair trade coffee and the world changing notion of talking to estate agents on your behalf. The battle of mindless mundane mediocrity was on. A sort of general malaise set in. Voters turned off. Some dribbled. Probably.

Despite a decidedly unethical attempt by one candidate to defame the good character of the incumbent Guild President by leaking a non-story to the national press, none of the candidates really managed to grab any headlines. Indeed, no amount of distinctly unsustainable, unethical A4 paper plastered all over campus will ever make up for the lack of genuine excitement or buzz that an engaging election should create among the student body. This is partly because none of the candidates actually got to grips with the fact that it is not the source of our coffee but the serious lack of quality Union facilities that students really care about. To admit this, would be to confess the perpetual failure of the Guild to keep pace with the needs of the modern Aberystwyth student, a failing that those standing for re-election are at least partly culpable for. This of course is with the exception of Meakin’s excellent work attracting Starbucks to the Union. But one such initiative is not enough, and the Guild’s services will appear even less satisfying with fees set to rise to £9,000 per annum from September. Students who pay more will expect more. Indeed, far too many manifestos forwarded empty hyperbole which didn’t actually mean anything at all and served only to underline the broad feeling that there was no single candidate in any position really capable of thinking of (let alone delivering) the kind of ‘outside the box’ solutions required to drag the Guild kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. Most students care little about whether we are recycling our ethically sourced eco-friendly fair trade coffee cups or not when the facilities in which we spend our time fall so far short of even the most basic expectations. This dissonance between what the students really wanted, and what the candidates actually promised, was the true unspoken cause of such enormous voter apathy at the heart of this election. 

The Guild is in-fact distanced by a yawning chasm from the actual student body.  Distanced that is, in geographical, ideational and relational terms.  Most of us know there’re some offices at the back of the Underground somewhere, but the vast majority of students never venture past the pasties and toilets into the Kremlinesque maze of closed doors and peeling paint where the Guild’s elected officials are caged.  Instead, for many students, the only part of the Guild that we’re aware of or actually visit are the commercial enterprises; the disappointing offerings presented by the Union bars and the Union Shop when we’re up on campus for lectures or seminars. For the rest of the time, around two thirds of students live at the end of a very tiring and very tall hill; at the bottom of which is a bustling town offering shops with pricing and quality as their core values, not high minded (and high priced) principals of ethics and sustainability as might be found in the Union facilities. The town pubs, bars and clubs offer drinks at half of the price of the Union, and in an environment which is twice as appealing.  The real problem with the Guild is that it’s been losing money for years, partly due to a lack of imagination or innovation.  Consequently, there’s no money to change anything, and there’s no money because nobody goes, and nobody hoes because nothing changes.  However, something has got to change before the whole system follows the Soviet Union and grinds to a juddering financial halt.  Wat students and the Guild really need are experienced people who are not just willing but capable of working with University staff to draw-up a student-focused yet equitable, financially-sustainable plan to ensure the Guild’s long-term survival.  This probably doesn’t involve higher wages for Union staff and more vegetarian sandwich options as promised by one successful candidate.

Broad student apathy was a direct result of a lack of such commercially capable candidates.  No one candidate suggested that the Guild buy a bar in town (why not Yoko’s?) and generate revenue from that. Nobody suggested turning the Penglais Union into a daytime Starbucks serving a noisy ‘group study’ area in order to restore the library to silent working only and generate revenues for the Union. Not one put forward a plan to recover the Hugh Owen for the studious and generate much needed revenue for the Union for all of our benefit.  Not one manifesto suggested any real understanding of financial management or presented any economic model at all for that matter. None pointed out that only after generating real revenue could the Guild offer, and deliver any real change or improvements for and on behalf of students. After studying all of the election manifestos (yawn), it’s obvious that none of the candidates had either the vision to imagine or the experience to implement real changes on such a vast but necessary scale. 

So, having established that the manifesto pledges weren’t worth the paper that Lizo’s guiding hand wrote them on (think of all those poor trees) who were the Guild Elections actually for, or rather who do they benefit? Well, the answer is pretty obvious I’m afraid; despite the promises, it is not the student body en-masse, definitely not me and definitely not you. The successful candidates have won some CV points in the form of an impressive sounding title and as an added bonus, the Sabbatical Officers get to stay in Aber for another year, paid for by you (despite your Union losing tens of thousands of pounds each year). And this is the final point. Welcome to local politics, rule number one; it’s not about your needs, it’s about the politicians’. Next time you cast a vote, pause and question who that vote really benefits; you or the candidate? 
I’ll leave you with Jeremy Paxman: “You cannot trust a word any politician says and if you shake hands with them, you ought to count your fingers afterwards. They are not the people you would want your son or daughter to marry”.

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