Tuesday, February 26, 2008


The Two Messages Brian Paddick Needs To Get Across

Brian Paddick is an outstanding candidate. It’s difficult to imagine a better Liberal Democrat contender for Mayor of London – a conviction Liberal, a former high-profile, high-ranking police officer, and a very nice bloke. If you want a Lib Dem with mass appeal and who could absolutely do the job, he’s the one. But in a fiercely-fought race for the biggest directly-elected job in Britain, that’s not enough. The media, Labour and the Tories, and sheer inertia all paint the fight as ‘Ken vs Boris’. To avoid that squeeze, Brian must get two messages across, one of which is particularly difficult.

The Easy Message: Brian Can Do The Job

Brian’s biggest message is the one that comes across less through anything that he says than just through his personal story – what the old Liberal Democrat slogan would call “A record of action, a promise of more,” and what his campaign astutely pinpoints as Serious About London. That slogan also gives the happy additional implications that, as someone with an outstanding record of public service getting things done for Londoners, Brian is a serious challenger to Mr Livingstone; and that Mr Johnson just isn’t serious about anything.

Listening to Brian’s TV appearances – and his TV and newspaper coverage has already been far above what any other Liberal Democrat might expect, reaching out way beyond the usual Lib Dem vote – and looking at Brian’s website and leaflets, Brian’s personal story is very much to the fore, as it should be. Lib Dems are often queasy about ‘presidential politics’, about putting too much power in the hands of one individual rather than letting many voices be heard, and that’s quite right; but though we wouldn’t start from here, while there are directly elected Mayors under the typically control-freak, top-down system Labour devised, we have to find the most effective way to fight the system we’ve got (just as we don’t like first past the post but have got an awful lot better in the last two decades at winning under it). And with the London Mayor having executive power over eight million people, it’s a comparable job with the presidency of a small country. There might be an altogether different election taking place if power lay in the Assembly, but it doesn’t. This is an election for a person, and thank goodness we’ve got an appropriate person for it.

If you look at Brian’s latest leaflet, his record calls up two powerful secondary messages, ‘trust’ and ‘tough on crime’. Trust is a rare commodity in politicians; crime is an issue on which it’s difficult to sound both Liberal and populist. Both are powerful messages that he can pound home because of who he is and what he’s done.

Now, all political messaging is a bit crude compared with the people or subjects the message is about. I got to know Brian a bit while he was running for the Liberal Democrat nomination last Autumn, and some things don’t come across on TV or in his campaign publicity. Anyone who’s seen him at a meeting in person will have been enthused by his sense of humour, his ideas, his passion; anyone who’s studied his record as a police officer will know that his intelligent, innovative, Liberal style not only worked in driving down crime, but is flattened out of the picture in a simplistic ‘tough on crime’ sell. And of course it’s true that the campaign concentrating so much on one issue leaves Brian open to unfair criticism as a ‘one-trick pony’ from opponents pointedly ignoring the rest of his programme. But taking all of this main message together, there’s no doubt it’s very powerful: by virtue of who he is, people see Brian as strong on a major issue and know that he can do the job.

The Difficult Message: You Can Vote For Brian and Not Let [Whichever You Hate Most] In

As an individual, then, Brian is a very strong candidate. He appeals to Londoners way past the ‘average’ Liberal Democrat candidate. However, there’s another message he needs to get across, and it’s the one where great Lib Dem candidates so often come unstuck. Worse, to get the message across means getting people to understand something that has three of the biggest drawbacks to any political message: it runs against what people generally think is true; it seems an esoteric piece of political nerdery; and it’s boring. This means it needs a lot of work to make it palatable. The second message is that people can vote for Brian because he’s the best candidate without fear of letting someone else in. This is a far trickier one to get across, and one I’ve not seen tackled head-on so far by his campaign. Well, I think it needs to rush up the pecking order, because otherwise people will vote negatively and Brian – like so many excellent Lib Dems before him – is likely to get squeezed.

Polling so far has been very limited regarding the London campaign. One poll last year sampled fewer than 300 Londoners – far fewer than any reputable poll would quote to avoid error – but put Mr Livingstone a little ahead of Mr Johnson, with Brian far behind. A poll by Pink News last week was similarly questionable but much more hopeful, making it a fight between Brian and Mr Livingstone with Brian coming out narrowly on top. Another recent poll (by the Evening Standard?) suggested that half of Londoners would be willing to vote for Brian. Obviously, the poll that has got all the attention is the one fitting into the pre-formed media conception that it will be a dreary Labour-Tory fight, but that says more about the people reporting than the reliability of the polling.

The truth is, no-one knows how the votes will split in May, and no-one has yet attempted to form a reliable indication. Despite that, Brian starts at a disadvantage – the disadvantage of inertia and received opinion. The media report a ‘Ken and Boris’ fight for several reasons: many are partisan and simply fall along Labour or Tory lines; many are more excited by two larger-than-life, scandal-ridden caricatures than who looking at who might do a good job, the politics of light entertainment over substance; many are simply too lazy to see beyond the two-party box they’ve always been stuck in. They are fed by Labour and the Tories, each of whom is desperate to keep the perception of a two-party fight. Mr Johnson’s campaign can’t win, but obviously needs to keep their man seen as the challenger to avoid disintegration. Mr Livingstone’s campaign is very happy with a maverick Tory as his main opponent, because he knows that however high the Tory vote might inflate, it will never be high enough to beat him, and that once the second vote comes in, the vast majority of people who backed any other candidate will prefer a bullying liar to a certifiable disaster and hand victory to Mr Livingstone. Mr Livingstone, simply, wants only to fight Mr Johnson because he knows Mr Johnson will lose.

The Labour Party’s most powerful weapon against the Liberal Democrats is not hope, but fear. After eight years of Mr Livingstone’s London, and his hand in running the city going back a full quarter of a century, no-one believes he’s going to make anything better. He’s had his chance; he might have claimed to be the anti-establishment candidate when standing the first time as a fake independent, and Londoners might have been happy to give him a chance to ‘make right’ Mrs Thatcher’s crushing of London democracy, but he’s now been the establishment for a good many years. He still loves to fight old battles against Mrs Thatcher, but when some voters going to the polls this May were born mere months before she left office, it’s time to demand more from a Mayor than an ’80s tribute band.

With Mr Livingstone a shop-soiled bully who’s run so low on ideas that he has screaming fits against anyone who questions him, it’s no wonder that he’s the Labour Party’s greatest living exponent of the election pitch against Liberal Democrats who’d do a better job which I’ve previously characterised as ‘We’re s**t, and we know we are, but, oooooh! The Tories! Scary!’ The last General Election: Mr Livingstone talked up the Tories to frighten disillusioned former Labour supporters back ‘home’. The last Mayoral election: Mr Livingstone talked up the Tories to frighten disillusioned former Labour supporters back ‘home’. The Brent by-election: Mr Livingstone talked up the Tories to frighten disillusioned former Labour supporters back ‘home’. You’d think even the laziest journo would have spotted the pattern by now, especially when the Tories followed Mr Livingstone’s completely truthful and not at all tactical predictions and romped to victory in the 2005 General Election (er, in which the Tories got fewer than 200 seats), the 2004 Mayoral election (er, in which Mr Livingstone beat the Tory first by 7% and then by 9% on the final count) and of course Brent East (er, in which the Tories trailed a very distant third, with Sarah Teather still the Liberal Democrat MP to this day).

Electoral history, too, suggests that Brian will have a hard time beating the squeeze, and not just electoral history in London Mayoral elections. It’s a bit of a simplification but still generally true that, the bigger the constituency, the worse Lib Dems do (bigger in terms of population; we dominate the map of Scotland through huge rural seats that vote for us). We do best in local elections, quite a bit less well in general elections, and worse still in Euro-elections. Part of that is to do with policy issues, but so few people know anything about our mountains of policy that it’s blindingly obvious the main problem is electoral credibility. The media, Labour and the Tories and received wisdom always say we can’t win. Among the relatively small number of people in a ward, it’s relatively easy to contact people, build support and foster a sense that we can win, then do so. A Parliamentary constituency is that much larger, and so it’s that much more difficult to persuade people they’re not wasting their vote. A Euro-constituency is much larger still. Across a city of eight million people in 32 boroughs, the big problem is persuading people who would quite like Brian to be Mayor that they won’t waste their vote if they use it on him.

I believe Brian would be a superb Mayor. I admire his record in working with people and tackling crime. I trust his judgement in getting things done. But I also want Mr Livingstone out of office – although he achieved quite a bit to start with, he’s long since run out of ideas, he lies shamelessly, he employs crooks, he sucks up to the establishment of which he’s a key part, and most of all he’s a bullying egomaniac who puts the Labour Party ahead of Londoners and Ken Livingstone ahead of the Labour Party. So part of the reason I support Brian, not the main part by any means but still a persuasive one, is the negative feeling that Brian is the only person who can defeat Mr Livingstone. And this is clearly a motivation recognised by Brian and his campaign team – I’ve seen him use that line in interviews.

The trouble is, at the moment no-one but political junkies like me will believe it. As I said above, it runs against what people generally think is true, when they’ve all been told it’s just ‘Ken vs Boris’. So I don’t think it’s any use Brian coming out with the statement that only he can beat Mr Livingstone from a standing start. There are some counter-intuitive statements that make people sit up and pay attention, but this is one of those counter-intuitive statements that make people think ‘he’s just telling porkies’ and switch off. This message needs serious re-focusing to get across, because it’s really the secondary message once people have already understood something else that, at the moment, they simply don’t. And the reason why it’s so urgent to work on how to get people to understand how Brian could beat Mr Livingstone is that we have only two months to communicate something that seems to most people, as I said above, both an esoteric piece of political nerdery and very boring to boot.

Fortunately, and however tedious a piece of political trivia it may seem, there is a way to counter the Labour-Tory squeeze for London Mayor. Though lazy journalists and calculatingly dishonest politicians do nothing to inform the public, this election is not decided by the same first past the post system that Londoners use for their MPs and councillors. Instead, everyone has two votes for Mayor, so that if your first choice doesn’t make it, your second choice might.

When the vote’s counted, if your top choice isn’t in the top two, they look at your second choice. If that one’s in the top two, your vote just gets added to their stack.

Now, most very politically aware people know this. The trouble is, that’s a tiny fraction of the population; most people decide they have better things to do. But it’s the proof that when Mr Livingstone tells Londoners that if they vote for Brian, Mr Johnson will get in, he knows he’s lying through his teeth. The only reason why Brian should get the traditional ‘squeeze’ is inertia – and Labour and the Tories are very happy to have it that way. But what the Liberal Democrats in London need to get across is that you can vote for Brian first, and then – if he were to come third – their second vote can go to stop Mr Johnson, or Mr Livingstone, whichever they find more terrifying.

Either way, what Brian’s campaign desperately needs people to understand, and can’t start early enough on persuading Londoners, is that you can vote for hope first and let your back-up vote be about fear without any danger that you will ‘let in’ your least favourite candidate. And if Londoners get to understand that truth, then Brian’s big advantage starts to work: that all the evidence (from previous London Mayoral elections, from the Pink poll which actually bothered to use the system) is that people give their second preferences strongly to the Liberal Democrat candidate. So, if Brian can avoid that squeeze and get into one of the top two places, he’s very highly probable to get a lot more transferred vote than Mr Livingstone will (and far more than Mr Johnson could), and that means he’s the only candidate who, in that final run-off, could actually beat Mr Livingstone. But it’s no use just jumping straight to that point before people understand how the system enables that to happen.

I don’t know the best way to get this across, but I do know that unless Brian’s campaign cracks it and repeats the message again and again until everyone knows it, he will be squeezed by two dishonest campaigns that want to pretend they’re the only game in town because the other is too appalling to bear. I know plenty of Londoners who think Brian would do the best job and speaks the most sense, but are simply too worried that Mr Johnson would be a disaster / that Mr Livingstone is a disaster and feel they have to vote against someone rather than for the person they want. They really don’t – but, just as much as Brian has to establish himself as the best candidate (and is doing so), those are the people Brian has to reach.

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Have to say I agree... there are plenty of people out there, less nerdy than us, who aren't interested in the electoral system but would understand it. Yes, it needs to be done succinctly, before they fall asleep, but it could be done.

And, yes, it goes against lots of campaigning 'rules' to say these sorts of things. But *not* saying them hasn't worked in the past, so why not give it a shot?
Thanks, Matt! Yes, conventional Lib Dem wisdom is that confronting the ‘wasted vote’ argument doesn’t work. But in an electoral system where for once it really isn’t a wasted vote, it seems daft to pretend we’re still fighting to hold our heads above water in first past the post. Brian has a real chance.
Thanks, Millennium!

And, Matt, having thought a bit further… It strikes me that the reason Brian says ‘I’m the only one who can beat Ken’ is because it sounds more stirring than ‘If you vote for me, I might just do it; but just in case you vote for me and I still come third, don’t worry, you haven’t blown it’. The trouble is, I think the vast majority of Londoners just dismiss ‘I’m the only one who can beat Ken’ as empty rhetoric – even though it’s true – and it less makes Brian sound ‘strong’ than eats away at his ‘trust’.

Whereas ‘If you vote for me, I might just do it; but just in case you vote for me and I still come third, don’t worry, you haven’t blown it’ is less macho, but people might believe it.
So what's the narrative?
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