Labour’s wannabe cheerleaders fail to convince in listless Newsnight hustings

May 30, 2007

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The candidates for deputy leader of the labour party do themselves no favours with disappointing performances in a below-par antiquated and amateurish Newsnight production. Alan Johnson and Hilary Benn do their career prospects least damage. Jeremy Paxton as King Lear is irritated and irritating. A night to forget.

BBC’s Newnight proudly trailed its coup of arranging the first televised debate of the Deputy leadership contest. All six candidates accepted an invitation to appear. The format, set, performances were all pretty dreadful.

Perhaps it was always naïve of me to expect anything enlightening from this kind of speed dating, although some viewers with a taste for black comedy may have found something in the show.

The candidates were each given two minutes for an uninterrupted pitch. This ended with all six standing uncomfortably behind a set of cheap-looking lecterns arranged in a shallow arc. In the next act, Jeremy Paxton asked a series of futile questions. This was followed by the trick or treat game ‘You’ve got to answer YES or NO’ or you will be shown up as the buffoon we all know you really are’. This is usually great fun, because everyone knows that the questions can’t be answered Yes or No. So mostly, the contestants cheated and offered qualified Yes or No replies. At one stage someone answered with a firm Yes, which seemed a surprisingly adequate response.

Tiring of the lack of gratification from this extended play, Jeremy made a remarkable triple-lutz kind of technical move, announcing that he was going to ask each of them in turn a philosophical question. Through some kind act of personal psychological protection I can recall neither question nor the replies it generated. By this time Hilary Benn and Harriet Harman were draped miserably over their flimsy barriers, and Hazel Blears had almost disappeared behind hers.

Overall impact

It would have been an astonishing performance for any candidate to have risen above the nightmarish situation they found themselves in. In a briefer extract from an earlier event, Hazel Blears had seemed to be the most impressive, speaking with warmth and intelligence. These qualities were not so much on view tonight. Jon Cruddas made a reasonable case for a role in which he would gee-up the morale of party activists. Peter Hain was far too weighed down with gravitas. Harriet unconvincing.

Hilary Benn was able, from time to time, to rise above the questioning with intelligent (but not too clever) replies. I thought both he and Alan Johnson offered the promise of something authentic if they were to be elected. Johnson will eventually be able to avoid mentioning postal deliveries. Benn is well on the way to escaping from being son of a loveable but strange dad.

If only

It would have been wonderful if any candidate had found a way of stopping the performance through some act of creative destruction. That would have shown something special. Would it really have been damaging to a political career? But it was not to be. Newsnight’s curiously banal format trundled on. And, yes, maybe I should have just switched off earlier. No wonder leading politicians are reluctant to accept invitations to appear. Newsnight is likely to be a mostly Gordon-free zone over the coming months.


Harriet works on her social identity

May 24, 2007

harriet-harman.jpgIn the soporific contest for Deputy leader, Harriet Harman finds a neat way of locating her social identity. In contrast, Hilary Benn struggles with his. However, Benn appears to be a more likely winner.

The battle for Deputy leader to Gordon Brown’s Premiership has been something of a low-key affair. BBC does its best to to pimp it up. We take a social identity perspective on the contest.

John Prescott, Tony Blair’s deputy, is leaving office. In the run-up to the election of JP’s replacement, the BBC’s Nick Assinger points to bookmaker Coral’s misreading of the gender of one of the candidates

“All the money today has been for Hilary Benn to win the Deputy Leader job and we have been forced to slash her odds dramatically”, said Coral’s representative.

Her odds? Not for the first time, Hilary is presumed to be a female name. We can only speculate on any career damaging consequences of such gender rendering.

Assinger also picks up on Harriet Harman’s efforts to define herself. This is actually an interesting issue which indicates how Social Identity approach has much to offer in leadership research.

She told a campaign hustings that Gordon Brown was Radio 4 while she was Radio 2. Make what you will of that – but perhaps it’s John Humphrys to Jonathan Ross. Fit the names to the stations: Alan Johnson, working class boy made good; Peter Hain, smooth former anti-apartheid activist; Hazel Blears, pint-sized cheerleader; John Cruddas, former Blair aide turned voice of the people and Hilary Benn, “modern” son of New Labour’s bete noire.

Social identity tips for wannabe leaders

It is important for a wannabe leader such as Harriet to work at her social identity. The concept has to achieve consensus regarding its elegant appropriateness. Novelty, interest, and (trickier) authenticity are valuable ingredients. Symbolism and metaphors are well-tested rhetorical and creative devices.

Harriet seems to me to have hit on a promising approach for communicating the image that she would like to convey during her campaign. Her suggestion neatly differentiates and defines her, not only against the other candidates but also against the all-conquering Gordon Brown.

[Note for non-listeners to The Beeb: Radio 2 is a pop channel; Radio 4 is seriously elitist].

Straw polls

The contest has not been widely reported in the British news media. I have only seen one broadcast, catching a snippet from a public debate involving all six candidates. Hazel Blears came across as the only one with that little bit extra in presentation style. The other five all seemed less able (or willing) to present themselves in an engaging fashion. I suspect that her style will not be universally admired.

On reflection, the impact of Blears’ presentation, was again, like Harman’s impressive in presenting her social identity, differenting herself for her commitment to the cause and her struggle to overcome diasadvantages in early life.

What the bookies say

Most commentators had been predicting that Alan Johnson remains a front-runner in the contest. He has already succeeded in presenting his own rise from disadvantaged circumstances as an asset, and important part of his social identity. Blear’s story came across as fresh partly because it was less well-known (at least to the majority of viewers learning more about some of the candidates).

The bookmakers offer aother perspective.

According to Sporting Life [May 24th 2007]

Hilary Benn has regained favouritism for the race to become the next deputy leader of the Labour Party.

Bookmakers William Hill have cut his odds from 5/2 to 2/1, making him joint favourite with Alan Johnson, who is also a 2/1 chance.

“After drifting out in the betting immediately prior to the announcement of the six contenders for the contest, Hilary Benn is back in favour with political punters and after a string of three figure bets we have cut his odds to make him joint favourite with Alan Johnson,” said Hill’s spokesman Graham Sharpe.

Hazel Blears is the 3/1 third favourite while Jon Cruddas is available at 7/1, Harriet Harman 8/1 and Peter Hain the 16/1 outsider

Somehow I can’t see any candidate gaining much ground through a charismatic performance between now and voting time. The voting is a three-way split between MPs (including Euro MPs), Party members, and affiliated Unions. The result will be announced on June 21st, 2007.


The Strength of weak tries: The Northern Ireland deadline dance

March 26, 2007

Politicians in Northern Ireland approach the most recent deadline in the protracted peace process. The leadership battles are expected to continue up to the deadline after which the fragile power-sharing arrangement faces the threat of being dismantled, and being replaced by direct rule from Whitehall. We examine the nature of deadlines, and the limitations of coercion on leaders in apparently weak negotiating positions.

15th May last year the Stormont assembly met for the first time since its suspension in 2002. British and Irish Premiers assert that 24th November 2006 is the ultimate deadline for the politicians to agree to some format of power-sharing. Multi-party talks begin in October, (with the DUP still unwilling to meet in same room as representatives they believe to be former terrorists). Late January, Sinn Fein accepts policing arrangements (a potential sticking point for them). Elections are announced for the new assembly and these take place on 7th March 2007.

Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party emerges as the largest party, and will hold 36 of the seats under the proportional representation method in place. Sinn Fein with 28 seats. Are the Ulster Unionists with 18 seats are the next largest parties at the new assembly.

Last week, the elected members signed up for the new assembly, facing another ‘final’ deadline: Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary reminds them that the assembly will be dissolved, if the parties do not sign up to power-sharing before the March 26th deadline agreed jointly by the Governments of Great Britain and of Ireland.

Mr Paisley was reported by the BBC as saying that the election success

.. allowed him to move forward, despite the fact that he had been
“severely criticized by various people .. Some of them are my personal friends but they don’t agree with what I’ve done, [but] the electorate fortunately has agreed.. It has strengthened my hand – I can afford to go further forward now with things, because I am confident that the people are with me.”

Last Friday, Dr Paisley was seeking last-minute concessions from the British Government in advance of the 26th of March deadline. However, these introduce an economic rationale to his actions. Previously his words and actions appeared to be a continuation of his ‘no surrender’ posture, and refusal to accept the legitimacy of Sinn Fein as political partners.

On deadlines, and the strength of weak positions

We may think of deadlines as all the same. Deadlines are deadlines. But the evidence is that deadlines come in several different shapes. For example, they may be imposed or mutually agreed. Each of these can be more of the so-called absolute sort or the sort that turns out to be more arbitrary. [I leave those with that sort of interest to explore the ‘two by two matrix’ I’ve suggested]

Hostage situations begin with a demand linked with an imposed and absolute deadline. Resolution tends to require movement towards agreement, and movement away from the absolute nature of the deadline and the demands. What begins as an ultimatum, shifts towards a situation of mutual give and take.

Often the ultimatum may be the response of a leader (or more broadly an individual) in a relatively weak negotiating situation. The ultimatum may include a threat of self-harm (‘Don’t come any closer or I’ll jump from this window-ledge’).

This one has been agreed at one level (inter-governmental) and imposed at another level (on the political parties by the Irish and British Governments).

We can also see how deadlines may be presented as immutable when they are actually rather arbitrary. Immutable deadlines would include those when the missing one triggers off other very serious consequences, which can be legal, economic, technological, or medical. Other deadlines seem more arbitrary, for example, when accompanying efforts to achieve movement in political negotiating processes.

This one seems to be an imposed and somewhat arbitrary deadline disguised as an agreed and ultimate one. Dr Paisley on behalf of the DUP places himself in the relatively weak position of opposition to the trajectory of power-sharing. However, he is at the same time a strong position for arriving at some concessions and some wriggle room. There has already been a possibility of a billion pound offer in what appears to be a negotiating chip from Westminster this week. Such negotiating gains may just about permit Dr Paisley to do what he has repeatedly insisted he would never do, and sit down with those with connections with terrorist acts of violence. And to do it without losing political credibility to others who would follow his earlier ‘no surrender’ rhetoric.

It looks as if the ‘final deadline’ will turn out to be a more arbitrary one. Dr Paisley may hold his first-ever meeting with Gerry Adams, later today. The latest events more tortuous process towards peace in Northern Ireland since the time of the Good Friday agreement. It may have reinforced the belief that politicians often say one thing and mean another. Sadly, it will also reinforce the more dispairing beliefs of those who believe that politicians are always duplicitous, and never to be trusted. Which was one of the messages in the recent TV series about the traps to personal freedom.


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