Monday, 23 March 2015

‘Politics as theatre for ugly people?’: electoral democracy and the seven-ring circus of the leaders’ television debate

After months of public wrangling, behind the scenes manoeuvring and electoral calculation (with the odd principled defence of free speech and public service broadcasting) we finally have a line up for the 2015 election debates.

There will be a seven-way debate on April 2 featuring David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage, Natalie Bennett, Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood. This will see seven trained political actors each trying to outdo one another. Then, after the performance, we will be treated to a forensic media analysis of winners and losers, further feeding the tendency to portray the election as a horse race.

While having such a large number of participants is common in other countries, such as Denmark or Finland (or indeed in the US primaries), it is completely new territory for the UK. The inclusion of seven leaders shows how party politics is changing and how this election has the potential to end the dominance of the two-party system. It could usher in an era of coalition government as the norm, not the exception. 

**But apart from the schadenfreude and sheer entertainment value of seeing a well-seasoned leader wrong-footed or a decent joke from an unlikely source, does this debate enhance or ill-serve our democratic political system?  While it may tell the viewing public some more about the personalities of the people involved, will such a debate deepen citizens’ political knowledge? Would the latter be better served by two sets of debates – one between the two largest parties and a second between the remaining 5 (or 6 if we include the DUP)?   **

All political debate is a balance of theatre and rational calculation. The ancient Greeks saw politics as based on ideas but also saw debate as relating to the intimate connection between rhetoric, drama, personality and persuasion.

The considerable furore that has surrounded these debate shows just how important personality, image and soundbite are in British electoral politics. A clever pre-prepared one-liner delivered at the opportune time could not only win the debate but lead in the newspaper headlines the next morning.

And of course that’s precisely what all seven leaders will be thinking about between now and April 2. They will be preparing their lines, statistics, rhetorical strategies. They will be planning what to wear, deciding whether to smile and trying to rein in facial tics.

Such televised debates have long been part of the drama of political elections, adding proof, if that were needed of politics being theatre for ugly people.   Whether it’s the well-known and often referenced televised debate between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960 (where Nixon appeared ill, his 5 o’clock shadow contrasting badly with the shiny, youthful health of Kennedy).  Or the 1987 Finish general election, when the sweater-clad Pekka Haavisto from the Green Party stood out from the sea of other party leaders clad in dark suits and gained positive media coverage and votes as a result. 

The latter raises an interesting prospective for the participants, especially the smaller party leaders. That is, with such a large number of participants there will be the temptation to do, wear or say something that will grab attention in such a crowded context?  While Nigel Farage's USP would put him in pole position to adopt this tactic, and Natalie Bennett's recent media meltdowns have shown her how not to perform, we might also witness Ed Miliband or David Cameron doing something unexpected.  This will be less a 'debate' than 'Britain's got political talent'.  

However, while there is the chance of impressing and winning over undecided voters, this is the exception not the norm.  Televised debates do not generally lead to people changing their minds or voting intentions - rather they serve to reinforce existing perceptions and shore up the 'core vote'. 

Elections are one of the longest and toughest interview processes you can think of, and televised debates are connected to other parts of the interview like a candidate knocking on your door and looking for your vote.  Unlike the face-to-face exchange however, the televised debate is one way and scripted (after all it is a piece of theatre).  While it makes for good political drama (though we should not expect anything approaching Borgen or House of Cards) and can engage voters in the election, it does reinforce a focus on personality not policy.  Voters can be lost not because of their negative assessment of a party's policy proposal, but through its leader stumbling over their words or forgetting their lines.  And politics itself can become a turn off for viewers if participants simply shout and talk past one another. And at that point citizens are not just interviewing candidates for high political office, but reviewers of their dramatic performance. 

Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Green Party in Northern Ireland has reacted with shock and anger to a new Housing Executive report highlighting the scandal of poorly insulated homes.
North Down Green Party Councillor Professor John Barry said: “This is one of the most shocking reports I have read.  
“It documents the shameful reality of thousands of people living in sub-standard housing across Northern Ireland.  
“The report found that only 9% of the houses surveyed were of an adequate thermal standard, which means the vast majority of Housing Executive properties are ‘hard to heat’ homes.  
“This explains why people are in fuel poverty, since they have to spend more and more of their money on trying to heat their home, much of the heat escaping from the house.  
Hard earned income is literally going up in smoke
“It also explains why so many Housing Executive tenants have health problems that are directly related to living in sub-standard housing.  
“This report gives a telling insight into why Northern Ireland has the highest proportion of people living in fuel poverty in the UK. 
“That’s why the Green Party has continually and consistently pushed to move away from expensive, imported fossil fuels towards combination of improved energy efficiency and increased generation from local, renewable energy sources, as the way to tackle fuel poverty.   
“We argued for a ‘Green New Deal’ (GND) back in 2008 as a way of dealing with hard to heat homes.
“If the GND had have been adopted by the Executive we could have reduced fuel poverty and tackled the health-related problems of hard to heat homes while providing employment opportunities in insulating our social housing stock.  
“But we now see the outcomes of the Executive’s decision not to support a Green New Deal program.  
“What is even more shocking is the fact that the Housing Executive has not published any recommendations from the report. 
“Normally with such reports, problems are identified and a series of recommendations made about how to solve them but this report does not have these.
“While the Housing Executive is not to blame for the poor quality of insulation, most of which was done in the 1980s, they have a responsibility and a duty of care for addressing and solving this legacy issue now.  
“As the report states: “The level of poorly insulated homes is extremely concerning and has major social implications in terms of energy costs, health, social and environmental issues. It serves no purpose within this report to try to apportion blame for this phenomenon but to realise the issue is real and present and needs attention for those suffering in certain homes.”
“I call upon the Housing Executive to clarify why the report was published without the recommendations. 
“This report is in line with other reports from the University of Ulster and the insulation industry about the dangerous levels of sub-standard housing in Northern Ireland in terms of thermal efficiency and heat retention.  
“Urgent action is needed now by the Housing Executive and the Department for Social Development to ensure thousands of people are no longer forced to live in sub-standard housing, getting them deeper into fuel poverty and causing ill health.
“This report is a wake-up call to the Housing Executive, the Northern Ireland Executive in general and the new Minister for Social Development.
“Why are so many of our citizens living in sub-standard housing?  
“This is a disgrace in the 21st century and a modern scandal.”
42% of people in Northern Ireland, as compared with 15% in England live in fuel poverty, meaning they spend more than 10% of their income heating their home to an acceptable level.
The report verifies that the sample size of 206 houses is statistically robust to take the sample as a broad indicator of the state of cavity wall insulation across the entire NI Housing Executive stock of 89,000 houses.  The report states: ‘the Project Advisory Group agreed that it (206 houses) still provided a statistically sound sample which would provide a broad indication of the quality of cavity wall insulation in Housing Executive properties.”
For further information contact: 
Green Party in Northern Ireland Press Officer Joanna Braniff

T: 028 90521141

M: 0780 8862141

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Don't believe sceptics, we need climate action now Belfast Telegraph, Tuesday 2nd April 2014

SOME people bring joy wherever they go, some ... whenever they go. And I know which of these relates to climate sceptics and deniers, who have for years successfully managed to delay action on climate change.If the world doesn't cut the pollution of heat-trapping gases, the already noticeable harms of climate change could spiral "out of control", Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warned this week.As the authors of the IPCC's latest report put it, starkly: "It is a call for action". The Obama White House also says it is taking this new report as a call for action, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying, "The costs of inaction are catastrophic."
This report tells us that we have two clear choices: cut carbon emissions now, move to decarbonise our economies and invest in adaptation to a climate-changed world and have a world that has challenging and just barely manageable risks; or do nothing and face a world of devastating and unmanageable risks for millions of people.However, the report also makes it clear that we still have time to act. And action is the key issue. We can limit climate instability and adapt to some of the changes we see now, but without immediate and specific action, we are in danger of going far beyond the limits of adaptation.In other words, you fix the roof when it's sunny, when you have time – not when it starts rain heavily.In the end, the only question that matters is: what are we going to do about it?
Perhaps this is one way to think about how to deal with climate sceptics. Put aside their scientific counterclaims and let's focus on their politics.So what are the politics behind climate denial?
Well, it turns out to be a rather potent brand of populist, right-wing conservatism, in which climate science and climate politics are part of a 'left-wing' conspiracy, or justification for greater state 'interference' with personal freedoms.This turns out to be largely a defence of the free market, of unfettered capitalism, as can easily be seen by the right-wing credentials of well-known climate sceptics, such as Nigel Lawson, Bernard Monckton, or, more locally, former DUP minister Sammy Wilson, not one of whom has expertise in climate science, curiously enough, but are masters in the art of public rhetoric.
Or from the contagion of well-funded right-wing 'think tanks', whose main job is to produce 'junk science' and provide media-friendly climate denial positions and speakers.The political conservatism underpinning climate sceptics and deniers means that no amount of scientific facts, no increase in the number of scientists who agree that human beings burning fossil fuels are the main cause of climate change, will change their minds.
On the one hand, it is not so much to climate science that deniers reject, but the political and economic implications of action to adapt to a climate-changed world and action to reduce the causes of climate change. Namely, that we cannot continue to allow the unfettered free market to fry the planet, nor rampant consumerism to dominate our view of a decent human life.
On the other hand – and this seems to be the case from studies in America and Australia – for many climate sceptics "climate change" is not about the climate at all, but a cypher for a whole host of attitudes and policies that are objectionable from a conservative point of view.These include – take your pick – the growing secularisation of society, marriage for gay people and demands for greater equality, including gender equality.Social science research tells us climate scepticism is rooted in people's core values and world views.
In short, people who believe in the fiction of the "invisible hand of the free market" are unlikely to be persuaded by ever more compelling scientific facts and peer-reviewed research.They simply do not care about the science. Thinking even more scientific certainty will make them change their minds and get out of the way for those of us who wish to tackle the problem and secure a habitable planet for the future is like being in a foreign country and naively thinking speaking English in a louder voice will make you understood.
The issue is the politics and action of what we do in response to climate change and this means more politics and ethics – not necessarily more science. Or, at least, we cannot continue the naive and dangerous strategy of relying on science alone to somehow do the heavy lifting of what is essentially a political struggle; a hearts and minds struggle between reactionary and progressive visions of the future.That's why one of the better reactions to Monday's report was from US Secretary of State Kerry: "Let's make our political system wake up and let's make the world respond."When it comes to climate change scepticism, it's the politics, stupid.
The latest IPCC report is a call to ignore those voices urging inaction, or fiddling while the planet burns.