More evil than you thought

comeyI

I’ve worked with politicians and public servants in the past, so it’s no surprise that politics is a dirty business.  But I’m continually staggered by quite how low politicians can stoop.  And it’s not just the politicians themselves.

Allow me to introduce James Comey.  Not previously a household name in Britain, he’s Director of the FBI.  Surely beyond the backbiting day-to-day nastiness of politics.  No, far from it.  Comey has taken the extraordinary step of actively intervening in the US Presidential election to try to scupper Hillary Clinton’s campaign.  This breaks a longstanding convention that supposedly neutral public servants don’t make provocative interventions close to the election.  Comey’s intervention was 11 days away from polling day.  He wrote to Congress announcing an investigation into emails which might or might not be related to the investigation they conducted into her own emails, while she was in office some years ago.  An investigation which deemed she was careless, but guilty of nothing wrong.  And let’s put this in context – if she were  guilty of the worst accusations, it would be a trivial procedural matter by any sane standards.

But in politics where there’s dirt…..

 

 

 

 

Passport to Lunacy

I’m writing this in the final days of the build up to the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.

“with so few weeks to go before the vote, I believe that the negativity, the bickering, the foul-mouthing, and particularly the wholesale abuse of facts by both sides have seen off most of our attempts to make the vote interesting”.  So said Jon Snow, the veteran Channel 4 news presenter.

This can be mostly explained by the way the debate has been hijacked by the various campaigns to be the next leader of the Conservative Party.  What a shame someone has to win that particular race.  The players are all so impossible to like.  More of that, perhaps, another time.

For my part, the idea of leaving the EU makes as much sense as arguments for Cornwall becoming independent from England.  Maybe less.

Or indeed, for our older listeners, it’s about as sensible as the idea behind the classic Ealing Comedy ‘Passport to Pimlico’ in which, as I recall, the London borough declares itself part of Burgundy by some ancient charter, and therefore not responsible to  Westminster. The script was written by Thomas Clarke, who had a reputation for developing absurd ideas to their likely conclusion.

-Passport_to_Pimlico_film

Bizarrely the film was inspired by real life events – the maternity ward of Ottawa Civic Hospital was temporarily declared extraterritorial by the Canadian government so that, when Princess Margriet of the Netherlands was born there, she would not lose her right to the throne.

I simply can’t understand how anyone could seriously consider Brexit a good idea, except perhaps as a source of entertaining literary and film ideas for future writers.  Ahh, now I get it.

‘If You Can’t Say Something Good About Someone, Sit Right Here by Me’

The line is attributed to Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt.  How very approriate.

I was remindeed of it today, as I read an article by Benedict Pringle in Campaign about negative advertising in political campaigns (is there any other kind?)  He draws attention to the way Zac Goldsmith has been criticised for his negative approach in the campaign to become London Mayor.  The winner, Sadiq Kahn had an unusually positive story to tell – essentially his biography; a rags-to-riches story of the son of a Pakistani bus driver who made good.

Pringle reckons negative campaigns have three arguments in their favour:

  1. People remember negatives better than positives
  2. Negative stories are more believable when it comes to politicians
  3. Negative stories are more likely to be passed on, generating extra reach

I don’t particularly disagree with any of this but it seems a bit strange to be justifying negative campaigning in this way when it is very much the default option.  I can hardly think of any well-known political campaigns that haven’t railed against something or set out to scare the bejesus out of us in the event the other side should get in.

PocketMilliband2

The last British general election provides a classic case.  The polls were neck and neck and the Conservatives had been employing a scattergun approach, until they seized upon a winning tactic – namely frightening us with the prospect that a Labour win would bring effective power to the Scottish Nationalists (SNP).  The rationale was that in a hung parliament (which we all expected) the SNP would inevitably forge a partnership with Labour and hold the balance of power.  Despite both Labour and the SNP declaring they had no intention of forging any such alliance, it worked a treat and the Conservatives won.

Positive campaigns like that of Khan are few and far between.  The upcoming US Presidential race is likely to be particularly dirty.  But that is the norm.

This gives me another opportunity to remind you of the Daddy of them all:

Nixon

 

“Don’t let it be him”

Brand

Haven’t had a rant about evil British politicians for ages, but today I’m annoyed.

A while ago Russell Brandt (of all people) sprang into the headlines for urging people not to vote.  He was an unlikely political champion but this was rather the point – people were increasingly disillusioned with the political elite after generations of scandals, excess, self-interest and general cynicism.

I found the whole thing depressing.  I have always voted (even though it was usually futile).  I wanted politics to matter to people.  I even did a degree in Politics.  Brandt’s call to no arms seemed, along with the popularity of UKIP and BREXIT, to represent the widespread rejection of the very people who should be making things better, but who are commonly seen to be making things worse.  While they line their own pockets.

Could it get any worse?  Sadly yes.  When I worked in the energy business, it rapidly became apparent that public policy simply wasn’t addressing any of the issues of the day. Two huge issues faced the energy policymakers over the last twenty years.  How to replace the energy generation which is due for decommissioning and how to shift from coal-dominated power generation to a more sustainable mix.  Neither was addressed, even though everyone in the industry knew the issues.  In the meantime the political rhetoric (remember “the greenest government ever”?) simply misled us.

Now I work in healthcare and tragically the same seems to be true.  The pronouncements of policy makers (“economies from efficiency savings”? What again?) bear no relation to what we hear from the professionals in the NHS.  There’s either a kind of mass denial going on or a deep dishonesty.  And as for the posturing around the Junior Doctors’ dispute, I’m afraid truth was the first casualty.

The issue du jour, as I write, is the Panama papers.  The wealthy are avoiding tax by hiding their assets in tax havens – didn’t we already know this?  In the wake of Starbucksgate and Amazongate and (insert your own tax-avoiding multinational-gate here…) the UK Government promised to lead the charge against tax havens.  Now it seems they had their own trust funds in Panama all along.  Dust off that old photo of the Bullingdon Club, with Cameron, Osborne and Boris looking like posh twats.

Sadly, in those policy areas I know a bit about – and some I don’t – I see those charged with making it work simply ignoring the issues and fighting their own turf battles.  Should I assume that the same is true in every other policy area?

The only thing more depressing than the sheer hypocrisy of this is the fact that we’re only learning about it because of the PR tactics of their political opponents in the BREXIT campaign.

It made me think of the advertising campaign for the Camelot lottery.  We see common hate figures like Katy Bigot-whatsername and Laurence Llewelin-Flounce-a-lot and we’re urged to play the lottery – so they won’t win.  “Don’t let it be him”.  Weird but memorable.

I want someone to do some proper politics, please don’t let it be Brandt.

But, much as I want to dismiss Russell Brandt and the others who are asking us to reject our political leaders, tragically they do have a point.  This is how Jeremy Corbyn won the support of millions of disillusioned voters who want Labour to be the answer.

 

I wish. But sadly I don’t think it’s likely to be him, either.

jezza

Climate Who?

Where is climate change in the UK general election campaign, as it enters its latter stages? Apart from occasional mentions by Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, our greatest collective threat is conspicuous by its absence.

According to The Guardian, Climate change is not so much the elephant in the room, it’s the elephant in the cellar, stuffed as far away as possible from the debate and ignored by the politicians and the pundits who follow their every  soundbite.

A new brand of politics?

Brand

Has our disillusionment with politics reached a new low (or should that be high)?

That’s what many people believe.  The voting evidence certainly supports it.

Electoral turnout in the UK has been on a downward trend since 1950, when 84 per cent of the population turned out to vote. In 2010 it was 65 per cent – and only 44 per cent of those aged 18-24.  Meanwhile membership of the mainstream parties has collapsed.

The more enlightened analysis explains the growth of UKIP – and to a lesser extent the Greens – as fuelled by disillusionment with the political elite (think MP’s expenses, phone tapping, police selling stories to journalists) rather than by the immigration or any other policy issue.

There’s broader evidence too.   Deference for a whole range of traditional institutions has been in long term decline – the monarchy, corporations, broadcasters, the media and so on.  The Internet has empowered people to take all manner of things into their own hands.  In a world where we can all do everything for ourselves, experts are no longer important.

Inevitably, it’s not quite that simple.  National issues, the traditional political discourse around the economy and so on – these are no longer the things people care about.  And it certainly seems we’ve had our fill of politicians and senior public servants.

But there’s plenty that does get people exercised.  There’s plenty of engagement in single issues and local movements.  People still take to the streets to protest about fracking or the colour of Cardiff City’s kit.  The Scottish referendum was a great example.  There were lots of scenes on the news of young people out on the streets campaigning and of others making their arguments one way or the other.

So it isn’t so much that people are disillusioned with politics.  Maybe with politicians.  Not issues – but they are different ones.

It’s a strange world where comedian and actor, Russell Brand has become a figurehead for a new age of politics.  What does it say when a comedian leads a political party in the Italian general election and Al Murray, The Pub Landlord, is standing for parliament against Nigel Farage?  It’s no joke.  But it sure is different.

Some of my best friends are UKIP voters

Dan

In ‘Thinking Fast and slow’ Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman identifies two modes of thinking.  System one is the intuitive, cave-man thinking, which evolved over millions of years.  It works fast, based on experience and survival instincts. It’s deeply ingrained.  It’s biology.  Being scared of the dark is system 1.  System two is the kind of cognitive, intelligent discourse, which we use to deliberate and debate.  It’s slow but sometimes clever. We think we use this all the time, but actually we mostly use it to post-rationalise decisions and opinions we made in System 1 mode.  Writing essays is System 2.  Mental maths is probably System 1.

Lots of examples and experiments illustrate this.  Economics and marketing are full of cases where System 1 looks and feels like system 2.  Our supposed utility-maximising behaviour doesn’t really maximise utility at all.  It’s also supported by modern neuroscience (e.g. brain scanning).  Sophisticated deliberation and language activity is located in the frontal lobes while gut-feel responses are seen at the top of the spinal column – some call it the reptilian brain because it’s to do with lower order transactions we share with lower mammals.

There are some nice analogies.  Rory Sutherland (former President of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising) likens it to a man riding an elephant.  The man (System 2) thinks he’s in control, but actually the elephant (System 1) decides where he wants to go.  System 1 is like the screen of a PC – what we see on the surface – while System 2 is the working memory behind it.

Kahneman explains how most of our immediate opinions are gut-feel system 1, not considered thought system 2.  “If we think we have reasons for what we believe, that’s often a mistake.” He explains.

The politics of immigration are a perfect example of System 1 masquerading as System 2.  Everyone has their opinion but it almost certainly came before the facts.  Hence the YouGov poll in the spring, in which people said they’re worried about benefits tourism (people think 25% of immigrants are claimants), even though benefit tourism is almost non-existent (real figure 3%).  Who knows any of these data?  Virtually nobody – but we still hold the opinions.

UKIP takes most of its support from the right of the Tory party and disproportionately from working class conservatives.  Why?  Probably because they are the people who feel threatened by an influx of competitors for jobs (threatened feels like a System 1 response).

I spoke the other day to some friends who are planning to vote UKIP in the Euro elections.  They started off talking about jobs and houses and the health service.  They said we simply can’t support the number of people coming into the country.  But when asked, they didn’t actually know any of these numbers – not even whether it was in the thousands or in the millions. Separately, also recounted how they feel uncomfortable if they get on a bus where large numbers of people are speaking foreign languages.  Now we’re getting somewhere (no pun intended).  Nigel Farage effectively did the same thing at the weekend, when he let slip that he’d be unhappy if Romanians moved in next door.  Doh.

It’s not about the numbers.  It’s not about facts at all.  Unfortunately that means supporting the far right is a bit nearer to (let’s call it “low level”) racism than we’d like to admit.  I imagine lots of similar conversations were going on in Germany in the late 1920s