Pages

Sunday, 24 July 2016

‘Conservative Party Future?’ Party disunity, the media and the EU Referendum

© 2016 Asian Business Publications Ltd
There were two clear sides of the 2016 EU Referendum: Leave versus Remain.

Each campaign was constituted by activists from across political divides.

However, the media largely seemed to fixate on the intra party (internal) dynamics of the British Conservative Party.

The media framed much of the EUref narrative around Conservative Party disunity, which was often portrayed as a ‘blue on blue’ civil war.

At times, this was to such an extent that the campaign appeared to be a largely Tory affair. For example, two days before the referendum, the BBC’s Daily Politics show placed significant emphasis on a segment entitled ‘Conservative Party Future?’.

This seemingly dominant theme in the media’s referendum narrative, was indeed part of a diverse mix of coverage relating to the EUref. However, at times, across the three main UK news broadcasting networks, BBC, ITN and Sky, the internal dynamics and the speculative future of the Conservative Party seemed to take a higher position in the media agenda than perhaps it ought.

This feeds into the wider normative question about what role the media should play in election campaigns and referenda. It seems pertinent to ask whether the more speculative aspects of the campaign are even necessary?

This post aims to argue that the media should focus on providing more quality factual information and expert analysis; and resist the allure of sensationalised politics and speculation, because it can often be misguided and misleading.

In the context of Conservative unity post-EUref, this article also aims to demonstrate how scholarly insights, which offer deeper understandings of political parties, could help guide media narratives in more appropriate directions.

In recent years, media speculation during campaign periods has been driven by misleading polls. The UK’s 2015 General Election is an example of where the media tended to frame its discourse around red herrings and distractions that were not necessarily rooted in accurate information.

In general, the 2015 polls suggested that Britain would vote for another coalition government. Therefore, the media narrative largely centred on what a coalition partnership might look like; and took a light approach to representing and analysing party manifestos.

However, the 2015 election outcome of a decisive Tory majority demonstrates that the media were overly guided by misleading polls that resulted in misguided coverage and agendas.

Similarly, in the 2016 EUref, the polls generally and incorrectly predicted a Remain vote. Therefore, the media tended to focus on a narrative about what happens to a deeply divided Conservative Party post-EUref, which was set within the assumption that there would be a continuance of the status quo – yet again, a misguided frame and context.

On 23 June, 2016, the UK voted to Leave the EU. Following the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron, the media focus shifted sharply away from Conservative Party disunity to a more credible narrative of ‘meltdown’ in the British Labour Party; and a disunited Britain, which was based on the actual EUref results that highlighted contrasting outcomes in different regions of the UK.

Aside from misleading polls, why were the media’s pre-EUref assumptions about divisions in the Conservative Party so misguided? And how can scholarly insights provide more credible bases for the contexts in which the media root their assumptions?

This post can merely touch on and present these questions for deeper and further scholarly work.

But one possible approach to improving journalistic understandings of political contexts would be for the media to consult more closely with scholars of political parties. For example, when questioning the survival of the Conservative Party, it ought to be placed in the context of its 350+ year history as the oldest extant, and arguably most successful, political party in Western democracy.

Among politics scholars, the party is known for its pragmatism and ability to adapt, change and endure through wider social, political and cultural changes. Historian Richard Cockett likens the Conservative Party to a ‘Darwinian’ organism that utilises the characteristic of adaptability to ensure its own survival.

Across its long history, the party’s central characteristic of pragmatism has tended to trump ideological party divides and encourage a display of party unity, which is a factor that political scholars generally recognise to be key in strengthening parties’ parliamentary election chances.

In contrast, the Labour Party, which historically tends to be more characterised by a commitment to its ideologies, is comparatively less inclined to take pragmatic steps to preserve party unity.

The aftermath of the EUref is one such example.

Cameron’s pragmatic post-EU resignation led to at least the appearance of a rebound in Conservative Party unity. In terms of the post-EUref media narrative, the blue on blue civil war evaporated and was replaced with a more accurate portrayal of the divisions in the Labour Party, under Jeremy Corbyn.

Labour’s fractures are being driven by much wider and deeper ideological divisions than those in the Conservative Party, which has been historically focused on Britain’s membership to the EU, as a single issue.

Therefore, it could be argued that the British media’s pre-EUref speculation and analysis would have been better placed if focused on the future of the Labour Party rather than that of the Conservatives.

Certainly, greater balance in terms of the political narratives portrayed by the media seems an appropriate course to take in future referenda and election campaigns. Speculative viewpoints should constitute minor aspects of a mix of coverage. Indeed, they offer valuable perspectives when tempered as part of a well-informed debate, amid quality information.

However, speculative discourse can play an unhelpful and misleading role when it comes to dominate wider campaign narratives. In referenda and election campaigns, the central role of the media ought to be to facilitate the electorate’s access to quality information and expert analyses.

Stronger relationships and knowledge exchange activities between media practitioners, academics and experts during campaign periods could contribute to more credible coverage of politics in Britain.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Workshop - Human Rights and Media: Reflections for Policy Makers, NGOs and Journalists


                         

 

Glasgow Human Rights Network and Policy Scotland Present:

 

Workshop:

Human Rights and Media: Reflections for Policy Makers, NGOs and Journalists

 

18th April 2016, 9:30am to 5pm

Hugh Fraser Seminar Room, Wolfson Building, University of Glasgow


This workshop and roundtable event brings together academics and professionals engaged in human rights related work to exchange thoughts on the role of media in human rights debates.

 

What to expect:

  • Leading speakers with insights in key human rights debates:

    1. EU Refugee Crisis and Media
    2. LGBT+ Human Rights and Media
    3. Women’s Rights and Media
    4. Racism, Politics and Media

  • Two open roundtable debates

Speakers:

  1. Dr Emma Briant, Lecturer in Journalism Studies, University of Sheffield
  2. David Torrance, author, broadcaster and Columnist for The Herald newspaper, Scotland
  3. Rachel Krys, Communications Director, Equally Ours, London
  4. Dr Mari K. Niemi, senior researcher, freelance journalist, Academic of the Year (2015 Finland), University of Turku

Tickets are free, but spaces are limited and offered on a first come first serve basis. Lunch will be provided. The event is supported by Glasgow Knowledge Exchange funds and the Glasgow Human Rights Network.

 

Register via EventBrite:


 

For more information contact co-convenors:

Dr Anthony Ridge-Newman: anthony.ridge-newman@glasgow.ac.uk




Participant Information:

Speaker presentations will guide four focused debates. These will be developed further via two additional roundtable sessions. The proceedings will be used to inform two main outputs: (a) a policy brief; and (b) a media tool kit. The oral contributions used to inform outputs will be anonymised. It is intended for all discourse to be recorded on a Dictaphone, which will be transcribed and used to generate these and other outputs, e.g. blog posts. Outputs will be disseminated publicly, online and beyond. Participation in the above workshop proceedings will be considered as the participant’s agreement and informed consent.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Thoughts on 'Corbyn-mania'

© wn.com
What are some of the potential factors that have driven 'Corbyn-mania'? 

There seems to be a yearning among the British electorate for a personality change in politics. People seem rather fed up of the same old spindoctored elites controlling things in Westminster. This sounds a bit like Scottish National Party (SNP) rhetoric. (I can hear Nicola Sturgeon's voice in my head as I write.) But it is not just rhetoric.

Voting patterns show that large numbers of people in Britain do want change. Many more people are voting for charismatic anti-Westminster establishment type leaders, e.g. the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP. Voters do not seem to know exactly what policy changes they want, but it would seem they want leadership that inspires them - with fresh approaches and ideas. Many Britons are becoming tired and distrusting of gloss-driven politicians who grew out of the fertile soils of Westminster Village. They yearn for a different type of earthiness altogether - demonstrable passion, integrity, down-to-earth personality and conversational interaction (e.g. engagement on Twitter). The populist-leadership phenomena we are witnessing is not that much to do with being left or right (what exactly does that mean and who does it represent these days anyway?). It is not all that much to do with policy change either. It seems to be more about a change of character and a desire for fresh approaches to leadership.

The Corbyn surge is a vote against the stage-managed politics of the last 18+ years. Corbyn now has his own style of celebrity. That very British attraction to a lovable underdog can do this sort of thing (think Eddie 'The Eagle' Edwards (1988 Olympic British Skier)). In addition to Corbyn, there are a bunch of other political characters the electorate are quite taken with. In addition to the aforementioned Sturgeon and Farage, Boris Johnson, the Tory Mayor of London, has a surprisingly wide appeal, largely because of his characteristically rambunctious personality.

Personality is becoming a large part of British politics and you have to have the likability factor to successfully lead a party in 2015. Johnson can make people smile and command an audience. Corbyn has quite a different style of course, but he has captured the imagination of a new generation, because in a democracy every new generation wants and needs something to fight against if they feel life could be better.

Naturally, 'the left' like to blame the Tories for things when the Tories are in power (and often when they are not in power) - and vice versa, 'the right' often take the same approach to Labour. The newer generation of New Labour leadership candidates did not really appear all that different to the Tory front bench in terms of their entrenched establishment approach. Corbyn symbolises a significant change in personality and style from the tops of both of the recent Labour and Conservative parties. Furthermore, the media like a good story. They have gladly reported the Corbyn-mania phenomenon and helped it along with greater impetus.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Big Brother 2015’s Tory Prime Minister Hopeful and Inverted Celebrity Politics in Britain

Written for the Political Studies Association (PSA) - click here for the original post

Duncan C CC BY-NC-ND
The votes are in, the votes have been counted, and the winner of this year’s second ‘Big’ election has been announced. However, this time the Tory Number 10 hopeful finds himself in second place. Big Brother 2015’s finale, aired on Channel 5 on 16th July, saw Conservative councillor Joel Williams voted runner-up out of 18 candidates. The 19 year old is thought to be the youngest councillor in Wales and has been candidly forthright about his ambitions to one day run the country as Prime Minister.

Since Big Brother UK launched in 2000, British media has been increasingly characterized by reality television and celebrity culture. The expansion of the internet, the impact of Twitter on civic engagement and political debate, and the convergence of mass communication technologies have all contributed to new interactive environments in which relatively unknown individuals can, and do, compete with established public elites for airtime, headlines and digital followers. This trend has been symbolic of wider social, cultural and technological change in the new millennium. Notably, political actors and the cultures in which they operate have responded to these wider changes.

As a number of high profile cases have demonstrated, parliamentarians in the 2000s have gambled with their political reputations and careers by taking to the dance floor on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing (including former Tory MP Ann Widdecombe); braving the jungle on ITV’s I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! (as Conservative MP Nadine Dorries did) and spilling all in the diary room on Celebrity Big Brother (remember former Labour and, later, Respect Party MP George Galloway?).

Such cases have attracted scholarly interest in an area of study that has become known as ‘celebrity politics’. Mark Wheeler has brought together many of the diverse strands relating to the phenomenon of celebrity politics in a holistic framework that also places developments in British political culture within wider historic and global contexts. The US has well-established traditions of integrating its political and media cultures. Hollywood has long been a place in which US political debate has been challenged and generated. It has also trained a number of its prominent stars in the art of stagecraft, which, subsequently, unwittingly prepared them to take a turn on the political stage - notably the former Republican Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger; and Republican US President Ronald Reagan. Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, it would appear that on both sides of the Atlantic the relationship between celebrity and political progression, and vice versa, is quite significant within the sphere of Anglo-American conservatism. Indeed, this raises the question of why? Especially when the arts and media world is often thought to be, perhaps incorrectly, as the comfortably fitting domain of the left.

It seems there are two key differences between the UK and US cases. Firstly, the phenomenon of celebrity politics in Britain seems to be a much more recent trend. It is almost unthinkable that the relative Tory-stuffiness, which was characteristic of 1980s British politics, could have allowed for a Reagan-like figure, with a background in theatre and/or film, to rise to the leadership of the Conservative Party. That said, Thatcher did herself possess an undeniable star quality and arguably became a global celebrity in her own right. Few British prime ministers have been the focus of Oscar winning cinema.

Secondly, and most significantly, is the directional flow in the relationship between politics and celebrity (or celebrity and politics). In the above cases, the American individuals went from media personalities to prominent politicians. The British cases are inverted in comparison, because their transition was the opposite way around. Glenda Jackson went from being a fairly well known serious-actress to becoming a Labour MP. But, arguably, her national profile gradually dropped while in Parliament. TV actor Adam Ricketts and TV presenter Dr David Bull are both examples of celebrity Tory candidates who never made it to Parliament. Therefore, is politician-to-celebrity a fixed directional trend in British politics? Or, in this age of an increasingly dynamic culture of celebrity politics, will the future hold some surprises? Councillor Williams of Big Brother 2015 certainly hopes so.

While in the Big Brother House, the second-place contestant, who has also worked as a secretary for Craig Williams, the Conservative MP for Cardiff North, became known for his dance moves, namely the ‘slut drop’. Could there be a future-Britain that is so free from snobbish judgement and tabloid meddling that a black-tie wearing and slut-dropping Big Brother contestant might rise to lead the country as a Conservative PM? Rylan Clark, Channel 5’s presenter of Big Brother’s Bit on the Side (BBBOTS), believes so saying that he ‘genuinely’ thinks Councillor Williams will one day hold the keys to Number 10.

Former Big Brother winner Brian Belo described his cameo return to the house this year as being ‘…like living with a prepubescent David Cameron on the warpath.’ In contrast, the British public were quite taken with Councillor Williams, voting him into second place ahead of many other highly charismatic and popular housemates. It could be a while before we witness a Big Brother contestant leading the Conservative Party, because Williams intends to hold a career in law before attempting to enter Parliament. But, for now, it seems interesting to point out that a milestone has been reached in Britain’s cultural development - one in which a 19 year old man from South Wales, with genuine aspirations to hold the highest office of state, feels free enough to openly display his life (and dance moves) to the world through the medium of reality television.

Anthony Ridge-Newman lecturers in Politics, Communication and Democracy in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow. He tweets @RidgeNewman.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

American Civil Rights, Christianity and Channel 4’s Ku Klux Klan Documentary: #InsideTheKKK

© Metro/Channel4/Barcroft 
#InsideTheKKK Documentary
Rarely have I felt more compelled to blog than today. Last night’s Channel 4 documentary Inside the Ku Klux Klan ‪#‎InsideTheKKK was a disturbing contemporary view of an organisation I naively thought was a thing of the past. Apparently, these so called 'Christians' still burn crosses, wear intimidating costumes, display guns in an antagonistic manner, think white people are superior to other races and plot to kill.

The documentary showed that three prison workers, who are thought to be part of a KKK group, were arrested in April 2015 for allegedly plotting to kill a black prison inmate. Many participating in the programme demonstrated that they believed the white man to be superior. They proudly used words like ‘white power’ and actions like left-handed Nazi-style salutes. A number of KKK members showed-off their guns, with children nearby, some of whom were themselves in possession of firearms, and warned black people to beware.

Part of the film was given to presenting the narrative of the murder of a black man in June 1998, which resulted in two of the three convicted men being sentenced to death. The attending police Sherriff told how the victim was dragged to his death after he was tied to the back of a truck by these suspected KKK members.

Debate
Since it was aired, I have spent some time debating the broadcast with others on social media. Some felt sympathetic to the KKK because of the apparent poverty, both economic and educational, within the KKK community. I would not wish poverty on any person. However, I feel that there can be little justification for being part of a group that symbolises racial hatred and has a long and significant history of murder. Attaching oneself to a group with that kind of image and reputation only perpetuates the evil of the past and keeps it alive.

The film maker caught out the participants on a number of occasions and demonstrated that the KKK were attempting to show a cuddlier face for the cameras - as a positive PR exercise. We only saw the surface. There would be those that did not participate in the filming. Are their views likely to be more or less extreme?

Christianity
Lack of education cannot be used to justify being part of something which today is more than widely accepted to be unacceptable - and in some cases abhorrent. Furthermore, the KKK’s use of the media, both new and traditional, as shown in the film, demonstrates that at least certain members of the KKK hold a higher level of intelligence, public awareness and aptitude for organisational sophistication. Therefore, I would question to what extent they are lesser-educated and argue that using Christianity as a front to hide their true agenda is manipulative and sinister.

I looked at one of their websites last night. The home page declares that the KKK is: ‘Bringing a Message of Hope and Deliverance to White Christian America! A Message of Love NOT Hate!’ If the KKK wants to change its image from an organisation of racial hatred to one that loves all, then why not completely rebrand or, in other words, start a new group with no links to the symbols of their past hatred? It is simply because their racism and hatred is now more hidden than before. If one reads a little deeper, the KKK message becomes clearer. Their message of love only seems to extend as far as the people with whom they share skin tone.

Phrases like ‘White Christian America’ and their link to ‘White Pride TV’ says it all. Christ's central message was about love and equality. Not raising up one group or persons above any other. Terms like ‘white power’ and ‘White Christian America’ are loaded with a separatist agenda. This is driven by hate not love. As a Christian, I believe that all people are equal and deserving of God's grace. Therefore, we are all deserving of the same human rights and freedoms. The KKK’s views, beliefs and actions do not fit that kind of Christian approach. They have more in common with other extremists and terror related groups than with contemporary Christianity. If these extremist groups had their way, they would raise up one group and subordinate others.

And that old saying has some truth here - evil can and will persist if good people stand by and do or say nothing. Last night, the British Twitter-sphere largely denounced the things that the KKK symbolise, which gives me hope. But the America that helped the Allies fight the Nazis has a less consistent history when it comes to tackling such things within its own borders.

America and Civil Rights
The KKK has a lineage that is rooted in a past in which thousands of black people were murdered at the hands of KKK members. The KKK has taken freedoms and liberties away from people going about their everyday lives. No other human being should have a right to take away the human rights of another without due process of the law – and then only if it is legally and morally justifiable. In legal terms, that should be certainly the case in America – a country that was pretty much founded on the principles of the Magna Carta and has a bill of rights as part of its constitution.

However, generations of black Americans were enslaved. After they were emancipated by civil war, in many parts of the US they were treated as second class human beings. Many were murdered and their civil rights and freedoms restricted. They largely fought peacefully for those rights. Peaceful protest won their freedoms in the end. But it was only after white people stood shoulder to shoulder with black people that the media and the US Government took the protests seriously.

Today, some white people in America may have justified concerns about crime, law, order and gang culture. But much of that stems from the history of minorities in America being treated as second class and held back from fulfilling their potential. Black America has a distinct history of poverty and poor access to education. This is where white people have largely had the advantage and still do.

The two historic case studies of black and white people in America are different. There are poor and less educated people in both groups. But that is not the point. The point is that it is black people in America that are on a journey of healing from the ills that some large collectives of white people perpetrated in the past.

White Americans do not have a comparable history in America. The British taxed them without representation in Parliament, but did not enslave them. White Americans fought for their own liberties against the British. But through slavery, and later segregation, many white Americans persisted to rob many black people of the liberties that white people had enjoyed since America’s independence. (Albeit a tradition they inherited from the British.)

Crime in America is sometimes used by groups like the KKK to justify the exertion of ‘white power’. Crime committed by black Americans today is not the same as white people enslaving black people in the past. Therefore, there can and should be better cultural understanding for the black community and how the imagery and symbolism of groups like the KKK can impact.

In recent times, the music of Bob Marley has been a uniting force for black people in Baltimore, who are once again concerned for their civil rights in America. Some claim that there have been more black people killed by police of late than died in the attack on the Twin Towers. This is not happening to white people.

White Americans whose ancestors have not been persecuted and subjugated are going to struggle to truly understand what that means and how it feels. Many white people in America do feel shame and guilt, but that is a different thing. It leads to different outcomes. It often leads to actions that help make amends.

Some young black people might feel angered by their history. But is being confronted with the symbolism of the KKK going to do much to bring healing and forgiveness?

Conclusions
If the KKK are truly an organisation of ‘Love NOT Hate’, then they should actually demonstrate care about the impact that their symbolism and history has had on black people and their communities.

The KKK exist as an organised group because they care only for their own 'white power' interests and not for the equality of all, which is a central Christian belief. Black people are still fighting for equality and civil rights, even with a president of African American heritage in the White House.

KKK members have been partly responsible, historically, for treating black people in a manner that has left deep scars on America. Final healing and forgiveness will not come if deluded white people flounce around with guns and wear white pointy hats, claiming white power.

In this millennium, that sort of behaviour simply cannot be justified - period. It never could before, but we are all more culturally, politically and socially aware these days. Therefore, we should condemn racism in all its forms and all its guises - no matter how cuddly it is trying to portray itself to global media.

Last night's documentary helps elucidate that these things are unfortunately not a thing of the past. It also helps us reflect on our own lives and our own prejudices - and nudges us to work towards changing those as well as condemning the undoubtedly wrongful missions of groups like the KKK.

One has to balance the principle of all people being equal against the context of a certain people's collective history. In America, the balance is currently in the process of being redressed, which takes time. The KKK are growing because there are some white people that take issue with America becoming a more equal place.

It is about choice. These KKK individuals have freely chosen to align themselves with a group known for a history of hate. If they wanted to do the Christian thing and love their black neighbours, they would simply do as Jesus commanded. You can feel part of a community by going to church. The KKK is something entirely different. It is not Christian, it is not about love, and its agenda is not good.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Celebrating the Spirit of Magna Carta 800 Years On: Human Rights, Runnymede Tories and Beyond

Tomb of King John I - Worcester Cathedral
© Dr AST Ridge-Newman
‘Men in our kingdom shall have and keep all these liberties, rights and concessions… for ever.’ (Magna Carta – Clause 63)

It is 800 years since King John I (1166-1216) begrudgingly set his seal to Magna Carta (Great Charter) at Runnymede, 15 June 1215, which, following a baronial rebellion, executed the principle that no one is above the law – not even the king. Since then, the charter has represented the principles of equality, liberty and justice. Although in itself it did not provide rights for all, Magna Carta has come to symbolise freedom under law and impact across the world in countries like America, Australia, China, India and Mexico.

In 1620, the Pilgrim Fathers carried copies of Magna Carta from England on their voyage to the New World. William Penn (1644-1718), English Quaker and founder of the Province of Pennsylvania, published the charter and encouraged readers to ‘take up the good example of our ancestors’. In the 1780s, Magna Carta influenced the Founding Fathers of the United States in the development of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, especially observed in the Fifth Amendment: ‘No person shall be… deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law’.

King Charles I did not learn the lessons of English history and his attempt to rule as absolute monarch resulted in civil war, Parliamentarian victory, abolition of the monarchy and resurgence for the principles set out in Magna Carta. Following the Restoration, further tussles between Parliament and Monarchy led to the Bill of Rights 1689, which set out the rights of Parliament and the powers of the Monarch. Magna Carta was the foundation of habeas corpus, which was later enacted in the Habeas Corpus Act 1679 – making it illegal to detain a person without due cause, thus safeguarding individual liberty.

Magna Carta has been used in campaigns to emancipate, liberate and free peoples from oppression and inequalities. In the 19th century, British parliamentarian William Wilberforce and US President Abraham Lincoln used Magna Carta in their campaigns for the abolishment of slavery. In the 20th century, Nancy Astor, Britain’s first woman Member of Parliament, used Magna Carta in the campaign to extend voting rights to all men and women irrespective of class.

Historic global figures like Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid revolutionary and former South African president; and Mahatma Gandhi, who stood up to Britain, the world’s largest empire, in leading the campaign for Indian Independence, have cited the principles of Magna Carta in their crusades for freedom. In Gandhi’s case, he used the symbolism of Magna Carta as a peaceful weapon in his fight against the country of the charter’s origin. Before independence, the Americans also employed the symbolism of Magna Carta in order to send a message to the British. 

In 1775, shortly before the Revolutionary War, in which the 13 British American Colonies claimed independence from Great Britain (largely because of imposed taxation without representation in the British Parliament), a 3-shilling bank note, ‘issued in defence of America Liberty’, featured Magna Carta. Magna Carta is depicted on the doors of the US Supreme Court and the pulpit of Washington National Cathedral. In 1948, the UN General Assembly, Paris, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt, first person to chair the Commission on Human Rights, called it ‘the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere.’ It was the American commitment to the legacy of Magna Carta that led to its memorial being erected at Cooper’s Hill, Runnymede, 1957. It was the American Bar Association that made the most significant contribution to the creation of the memorial. 

In 2011, US President Barak Obama said:

‘It was the English who first spelled out the rights and liberties of man in the Magna Carta.’

As the first American president of African descent, Obama is himself historically symbolic in being the head of state of a country in which, just 50 years ago, black people had restricted rights, including inequities in voting rights, and experienced significant day to day discrimination from their white countrymen. Today, in Obama’s America, the freedoms, rights and recognitions in law for same-sex couples to marry have been hard fought on both sides of the debate.

Over its 800 year history, where there has been discrimination, injustice and subjugation, the spirit of Magna Carta has simultaneously provided a symbol of hope for the oppressed and a sobering smack in the face for the oppressors. Americans might refer to the latter as ‘a wakeup call’. The weight of Magna Carta’s legacy is powerful and a great example of a positive English contribution to the world. Therefore, it is right that we celebrate it. 

But does Magna Carta, or rather the spirit of Magna Carta, hold any relevance in contemporary Britain? Ironically, as we celebrate eight centuries since John I unknowingly performed an act that would go on to have great global significance, Human Rights in Britain has come into question.

David Cameron, UK Prime Minister, has charged Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Justice, with the task of drawing up a new ‘British Bill of Rights’, which is intended to replace the Human Rights Act 1998. The current Act of 1998, was a New Labour project under Tony Blair, former Prime Minister, which enshrines in UK law the principles of the post-WWII European Convention on Human Rights that is enforced by the European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg, France. Groups like Liberty, led by Shami Chakrabarti, are campaigning against the repeal of the Act.

Since 2005, the Conservative Party has been troubled by the ways in which the Human Rights Act has been seemingly misused in some cases.

A number of Conservatives are torn. The Government plans seem to invoke strong feelings about two Conservative agendas simultaneously: (1) the campaign for the sovereignty of the British Parliament and courts, over those on the continent (i.e. British freedom from European interference); and (2) the maintenance of and fight for individual liberty and protection in the form of fundamental rights and freedoms from governments abusing and interfering in the daily lives of law abiding British people. Many contemporary British Conservatives would support both principles, but it is a difficult balancing act for this Government to get right and get through Parliament.

This has created powerful debates both inside and outside of Parliament and within the Conservative Party. Those in the Conservative Party who oppose Cameron’s plan to scrap the Human Rights Act have been dubbed the ‘Runnymede Tories’. However, as Daniel Hannan rightly points out, there is already an official group of the Runnymede Conservatives, who form an overwhelming majority on Runnymede Borough Council. They are certainly not defined by their views on the Government’s Human Rights policy. (I have a first-hand perspective on this being a former councillor for Virginia Water on Runnymede Borough Council. (For more information, there is a chapter on the Runnymede & Weybridge Conservatives in my book: ‘Cameron’s Conservatives and the Internet’.))

Human Rights is an important issue and should indeed be addressed in line with the spirit of Magna Carta. Although there are legitimate questions about the Government’s Human Rights policy, for some it might seem unfitting to politicise Magna Carta celebrations and/or miss-label the Runnymede Tories. (The Runnymede Conservatives have much more to do with celebrating 800 years of Magna Carta than Human Rights policy.) That said, the fact that these debates are current in contemporary Britain means that the spirit of Magna Carta remains extant to this day. Moreover, is there any better way of celebrating its eighth centenary than putting the principles of the Great Charter to use in the campaign to maintain and secure the rights, liberties and freedoms of ordinary people in Britain and beyond?

‘Maintain justice, and do what is right.’ (Isaiah 56:1)

Sources: British Library and Worcester Cathedral

Notes
As a Briton who has spent a lot of time in the United States, I feel a strong connection to the upcoming Magna Carta celebrations. Furthermore, Worcester Cathedral, my former place of worship is where John I is interred. My home City of Worcester is where The Battle of Worcester (1651) saw the Parliamentarians win the Civil War over the Royalists. Notwithstanding the fact that I have lived in Egham, a short walk from the Magna Carta Memorial and served the people of Runnymede as a politician, I conducted my doctoral research at Royal Holloway, University of London. The college itself is very close to the Magna Carta Memorial. In partnership with Runnymede Borough Council, American Bar Association and Magna Carta Trust, Royal Holloway College will be playing a significant role in the celebrations, as will the local Runnymede & Weybridge Conservative Association – the official Runnymede Tories.


‘Give justice to the weak and the orphaned; maintain the right of the lowly and destitute.’ (Psalm 82:3)

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

UKIP Facebooking the Tories in General Election 2015

The rise of populist parties has played a significant role in public discourse in the run-up to General Election 2015 (GE2015). Fuelled by misleading polls, the GE2015 campaign narrative focused on coalition politics; and predictions about the impact that parties like the UK Independence Party (UKIP) could have on post-election negotiations.

In 2010, the presence of the smaller parties was more muted and less pronounced. In the run-up to GE2015, UKIP appeared to be capitalizing on the splintering of disaffected Conservative Party participants and supporters. This phenomenon was being exhibited online in interesting and observable ways, especially in Facebook networks.

Facebook functionality is rooted in connecting ‘friends’ in its online venue. The social network actively and prominently promotes ‘friend suggestions’ to its users. This has little to do with whether one user knows another in the offline world. It has much more to do with the number of mutual Facebook friends two users might share.

In political Facebook networks, it has become increasingly likely that Facebook friends either will have had their first meeting online rather than offline; or not met in the offline world whatsoever. In 2008, it was more likely to be the reverse. The Conservatives have been actively growing political networks on Facebook since that time (Ridge-Newman 2014).

The manner in which Facebook connects people is highly useful for political networking. Political participants are increasingly using their Facebook profile photo to symbolize their association with a particular party or cause.

The more one’s friend networks grow within the Facebook community of a political party, the more Facebook will suggest friends from that political network to the Facebook user. The party symbols displayed on profiles makes it easy for the user to identify potential new Facebook friends associated with their party’s political network.

Between 2010 and 2015, Tory participants in the larger political networks on Facebook might have observed more and more of their once Tory-affiliated friends decorating their social media pages with the purple and gold branding of UKIP, often with prominent displays (profile and cover photos) of UKIP symbolism – especially the pound sterling sign (£) and images of Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader in GE2015.

Moreover, in the run-up to GE2015, Conservative Facebookers experienced an increasing frequency of friend requests from participants exhibiting prominent UKIP symbols on their profiles. Therefore, a number of questions arise from this observation. For example, was there a UKIP strategy to target Tory participants, or other political participants, in social networks; or did this behaviour develop organically at UKIP’s online grassroots? Furthermore, what impact did UKIP’s social media activity have on the significant national GE2015 vote for UKIP?

Although the British electorate voted decisively for a majority Conservative government,
UKIP increased its share of the national vote by 9.5%, with 3.9 million votes and 12.6% vote share.

This significant support for UKIP resulted in one UKIP Member of Parliament (MP), Douglas Carswell, being returned to the House of Commons. In contrast, 56 Scottish National Party (SNP) MPs were elected with 1.5 million votes and 4.7% vote share.

In researching this article, it would appear that some Ukippers have been left feeling bruised and disheartened by their GE2015 outcome. It has led some to call for electoral reform and others to seek a route back to the Conservative Party.

One informant explained that there are those in UKIP who feel they would like to ‘return home’ to the Tory fold. However, they fear they are now viewed as offensive and discriminatory individuals, and feel, therefore, that they would not be accepted as Tories by existing Tory participants.

Facebook activity has demonstrated that there is a reasonably strong familial relationship between UKIP and the Tories in social networks. Therefore, Facebook might act as an online bridge, providing a route back for some Ukippers (those that were once disaffected Tories) and facilitate their subtle reintegration into the Conservative fold – especially if David Cameron’s delivery of an EU Referendum results in increasing political redundancy for UKIP.


(This is part of the UK Election Analysis Report 2015 CLICK HERE to view in full.)

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Why were the polls so flawed in General Election 2015?

© The Mirror
Criticisms of the pollsters’ efforts in predicting the outcome of the General Election 2015 (GE2015) came flooding in from all directions when the actual results showed that months of opinion polls had not been representative of the UK vote.

Predicting elections is a complex practice because it involves an understanding and factoring of a range of dynamic variables. Writing for The Conversion, Leighton Vaughan Williams offers one perspective and claims that, if in doubt, following the bookies’ analyses, rather than opinion polls, is a sure bet.

My fieldwork in the Bath, Birmingham Northfield, Cheltenham, Clwyd South, Vale of Clwyd, and Worcester constituencies did not correlate with the opinion polls. Therefore, I distrusted the polls from the outset.

In July 2014, I had a conversation with a fellow academic, Giacomo Benedetto, about the relevance of canvassing. We discussed how in the run-up to 2010, voting intentions seemed looser and more dynamic than in previous elections, with swathes of voters being undecided until the latter stages of the campaign. We questioned whether the art of political canvassing is dead.

Fieldwork in run-up to 2015 has confirmed a persistent trend in large numbers of voters being reluctant to commit decisively on the doorstep to a voting intention. This is a change in voter behaviour that has been reported widely by party activists. It has been accompanied by a trend of increasing voter turnout. Therefore, contrary to popular belief, UK democracy is alive and well, but it is shifting to be more discerning.

The pollsters have not understood the significance of the undecidedness factor of the electorate. Anyone canvassing in the field in both this and the last election will recognise the growing significance of the undecideds and the dynamic nature of changing voting intentions. Polling needs to adapt in line with this change in voter behaviour. 

Shy voters are also a factor, which in itself seems related to changes in voter behaviour and their undecidedness. Pollsters need to innovate in terms of their approaches and methods, which need to catch up with contemporary trends.

The changes in voter behaviour could relate to a combination of greater open-mindedness; reluctance to commit; and a desire to not fully make up their mind until they have had time to sit, read, think and analyse all the relevant information available to them. 

People feel busier than times gone by. There is now greater voter choice and the electorate is becoming increasingly educated. These factors are bound to have an impact on the approaches voters take to deciding where to place their vote.

There seems to be an increasing erosion of tribal, historic and family voting loyalties. Voters do not want to commit themselves until the last moment, often not even admitting to themselves how they want to vote when even perhaps deep down they and their subconscious have a good idea.

Postal vote registration is increasing at each election. Therefore, it is something political parties should consider more deeply in terms of strategy.

In politics, nothing is written in stone (perhaps someone should have mentioned that to Ed Miliband. The Labour Party might have saved some limestone). 

British politics is in a dynamic state of flux. The pollsters need to catch up. 

The beauty of democracy is its unpredictability and the power of the people to issue unexpected change.

First-past-the-post voting anomaly in General Election 2015

© The Mirror
General Election 2015 was predicted to be the election that saw the growth of newer political parties like Ukip in the House of Commons.

However, it rather more highlighted an anomaly in the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system.

Ukip achieved nearly 4 million votes, which equated to just one seat in the House of Commons. In contrast, the SNP achieved 1.5 million votes, which resulted in 56 Westminster parliamentary seats.

After Britain voted a resounding No to AV in the 2011 referendum, this 2015 election result has led to renewed calls for voting reform, with many favouring proportional representation (PR), which is currently used in the UK to elect Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

The problem with PR is that it can lead to perpetual coalitions, seen in other European political systems, and the rise of all sorts of smaller parties, including those like the BNP.

It also means there is no direct voting for a constituency member and it makes it very difficult to vote them out.

It puts the power in the hands of the parties. They rank the candidates in order of priority and it is therefore less democratic.

It is also a complicated system that few will want to spend the time getting to understand.

Alternative voting systems have been used by parties in candidate selections. Party members tend to dislike them, because they can lead to peculiar outcomes.

The complex voting calculations are put in the hands of others and, as a candidate, it is difficult to verify if they are correct.

Humans make mistakes and sometimes invent ways to manipulate results.

FPTP is the simplest and easiest to verify for accuracy, because even the lay person can keep an eye on things at the count and all parties can be included in that process without too arduous a process.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Highlights from the #BBCQT Leaders' Question Time



Telegraph YouTube highlights from the #BBCQT Leaders' Question Time - 30 April 2015

Excellent format - widely praised and thought to be superior to the leaders' debates

Cameron generally considered to have come out on top

Thursday, 23 April 2015

#GE2015 - UK General Election 2015 and New Political Communication: Preliminary Thoughts



© Xpolode
Twitter: @RidgeNewman
http://www.ridge-newman.com/

Early on in the 2015 General Election cycle, the Tories publicised a MyConservatives revamp, but completely dropped it (very quietly). They have tried also to bury evidence of WebCameron and its output altogether. This raises the question of whether internet innovation in politics is primarily a tool for opposition parties, rather than parties in government. The jury is still out on that and it remains a question requiring deeper analysis over time. The advent of coalition politics at Westminster has complicated this question further with the definition of the government party(ies) and opposition party(ies) being rather more cloudy than before.

However, further to my recent book: ‘Cameron’s Conservatives and the Internet: Change, Culture and Cyber Toryism’ (Ridge-Newman 2014) one question I have been asked, and feel able to shed some light on, is how the 2010 General Election e-campaign (#GE2010) compares to that in 2015 (#GE2015).

Firstly, the use of social media seems to have become more normalised as (1) a standard way of organising campaign events; and (2) having a shop front for local campaigns. Some candidates have begun investing their campaign funds in targeted Facebook advertising.

Candidates are reporting that this has helped to (1) raise their profile in their constituency campaigns; and (2) improve interactivity with potential constituents. This is something that wasn't being done so much in 2010.

Moreover, candidates seem more generally aware of the role of social media in their campaigns, especially Facebook and Twitter. In #GE2010, these practices were evolving through a learning and copying culture at the grassroots. Therefore, it is now less evolutionary in its user culture and more standardised in terms of practice. In a democracy and media sense, the use of Facebook and Twitter has now reached a maturity that has facilitated and shaped the ways in which the campaigns are informed and mediated.

The rise of the populist parties is significant in #GE2015. Their impact was more muted and less pronounced in #GE2010. Ukip in particular, but also parties like the BNP and EDL, appear to be targeting Tories on Facebook, friending them and then linking them to their online propaganda, which tends to be highly visual and low on text. EDL social media participants tend to use symbols of Englishness, e.g. St George and the flag. Ukip are decorating their social media pages with purple and gold branding with often prominent displays (profile and cover photos) of the pound sign | ‘£’ and images of the Ukip leader Nigel Farage.

The Conservatives, Labour and Ukip have used an inbound marketing technique, which, to date, has been more commonly associated with marketing practices in the commercial sectors. In order to gain access to these parties’ main websites, the individual is presented with a landing page. At first glance, it would appear that in order to gain access one should submit an email address and other personal data, like, for example, a postcode. Armed with this data, the parties are likely to directly target and market the individual in the run-up to the election using the submitted personal details (primarily an email address); and the parties’ internal CRM systems and market automation tools (MATs), like, for example, Marketo and HubSpot. The hyperlinks allowing the individual to bypass this step is discreet and hidden. However, with a bit of searching it is possible to access these websites without providing personal data.

These parties have taken a significant step forward in their approaches towards more standardised commercial marketing practices. In comparison, it would appear that the BNP, Greens, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and SNP have either not considered/been in a position to use this technique or deemed it to be unhelpful to their campaign efforts.

At present, the sense that I get is that #GE2010 was more experimental and organic, but in #GE2015 there seems a greater confidence across the parties to use online techniques in more aggressive and targeted ways, with fewer attempts at gimmickry.

The Tories have extensively expanded their use of email. It is more personalised and integrated with a range of other online campaign mechanisms for telephone canvassing and signing up to campaigns.

But it raises the question about digital overload. How are ordinary members and activists responding to this approach?

Votesource is an new cloud-based and networked database, commissioned and implemented by CCHQ; and developed by the people who built Merlin and Blue Chip (the two technological predecessors to Votesource). However, it was rolled-out very late in the day (two months before the election). There have been user interface issues, including crashing, poor user connectivity and slowness in inputting and accessing data. Many of the aging people in the party have found it challenging to adapt to, especially with a lack of effective training.

Technology is only as good as the capabilities of the people who design it and the people who use it. As in #GE2010, there appears to be still a significant technological and age divide in the Tory Party. The more techno-savvy individuals are young, but they are largely used for their muscle on the ground to deliver leaflets etc.

Although Votesource, as a cloud-based version of Merlin, is a technological step forward in terms of remote access, the party is poorly organised when it comes to implementing their databases in good time and training users to interface with them effectively.

Therefore, the activists and members who are expected to use the technology, tend to get irritated and demotivated. I have called this a latent culture of grumpiness in local Conservative Associations, which appears to stem from imposed and poorly organised initiatives by the central party. This grumpiness has become a constituent feature of the Cyber Toryism of #GE2015. #GE2010 Cyber Toryism was much more rooted in technological enthusiasm and innovation at both the top and bottom of the Conservative Party.