The Queen’s Speech, which took place last Wednesday, went as we predicted with proposals announced on fiscal responsibility, financial services, constitutional reform, education and energy amongst others. The Speech was short and to the point with only 13 bills and 2 draft bills announced and no announcements on Health (one of the largest Government departments), immigration or MPs’ expenses.
The Speech was touted as being the most political for a decade, as was to be expected with a General Election taking place next year and once the Queen had left Parliament Gordon Brown and David Cameron drew the battle lines. The Prime Minster defended the speech saying that it showed that the Government was ’standing up for Britain’ and criticised the Conservatives over their inheritance tax policy, whilst the Leader of the Opposition responded by calling the Speech ‘half-baked’ and a ‘waste of the country’s time’. These soundbites, like the contents of the Speech itself, were not particularly surprising.
There is now a period of reflection in the House of Commons as the Speech will be debated for no fewer than 6 days. With that in mind we gathered together leading parliamentarians to see what they made of the speech:
Dr Des Turner MP
Labour Member of Parliament for Brighton Kemptown
“Given that the Parliamentary Session will be shortened by the General Election this was a very ambitious Queen’s Speech, containing very real and useful legislation.
I totally disagree with those who think it is simply part of the Election manifesto - such claims are very wide of the mark.
These measures are very important and legislation like the care for the elderly Bill are part of a long overdue revolution for people who are in the latter part of their lives.”
Chloe Smith MP
Conservative Member of Parliament for Norwich North
“For me the Queen’s Speech was a mixed bag. For the most part it was all about the Labour Party serving itself rather than the country. It was a case of politics not Government.
There were a number of measures that simply served to create the next Labour election manifesto and you have to ask yourself if these measures are so important then why have they taken 12 years to be implemented? Furthermore, a number of measures were policies that the Government should be getting on with anyway rather than legislating on.
Having said that there was one measure that my constituents might welcome, which was the announcement on flood defences.”
Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Spokesperson for the Home Office
“The Queen’s Speech has rightly been criticised for pretending that so many Bills can be passed in the few days of Parliamentary sittings before the 2010 general election. When there is no chance of getting most of them into law it is farcical.
I hoped there would be more realism but this is obviously just for the shop window. Nobody would guess that six months from now a new government will have to make huge spending cuts.
The absence of any mention of a referendum on electoral reform, widely supported in all three parties, is a serious disappointment.”
I love the way new media and digital communications have become intertwined with political discussion. It will hopefully lead to a bright future of government, political debate, public interaction and general engagement. But It is important to remember, just because it is a public conversational tool, doesn’t mean you need to have a public conversation. People who use social media for reasons other than just saying hi to your friends, should be clever about it and aware of potential ramifications, especially people who are in positions of respect and power.
This was what David Cameron meant when earlier in the year he said that twitter could cause problems for MPs because tweets can be taken out of context or the MPs could get involved in conversations that normally they shouldn’t. These conversations are also permanent and can be dug up at any time.
It is with these comments in mind, over the past few days, I have been watching an argument between Kerry McCarthy MP, Labour Twitter Tsar and Shane Greer, the executive editor of Total Politics. Both of these people are in positions of power and respect. A senior and respected Member of Parliament on one side and a journalist who has a vast number of followers and loyal readers and edits a magazine with no-particular party politic on the other. People follow what both of these individuals say with interest and they, as a people’s representative and as a member of the fourth estate respectively, are in a position where it is important where they act and carry themselves properly.
But as you can see from this twitter conversation, things have become a bit out of hand. Remember this all started over what music people should like as a display of their political ideals.
I won’t go into detail about what each said, but to be sure, it has clearly been a case of misrepresentation by both parties. Kerry McCarthy is at fault because she took the bait. But what is concerning is she has taken the bait before as you can see from these conversations with Nadine Dorries MP. In this case, as the Labour Twitter Tsar, Kerry should know better.
As you can see, Shane went into a diatribe about being from Northern Ireland and his time there which sounds awful. But if Kerry hasn’t met him or heard his accent and she is right, there is no reason for her to research Shane’s birthplace or personal history. She is also right to suggest it is fairly egotistical to suggest she should know his heritage and she is right to not apologise. He then proceeded to blog about it with gusto.
A spat between these two is fine, it happens. But when these two started off at each other, each others followers and supporters joined in and attacked each other. Together they produced this;
As well as a large number of tweets over the matter from everyone’s respective cronies. Here is a sample.
As I said, both of these people are in positions of power and respect. Arguments like this turn people off politics, getting involved at the local level and engaging. As you can see, it is a pack mentality, but that is politics, but sometimes, someone needs to be the adult.
This whole argument won’t have any severe ramifications. It won’t lead to resignations and won’t even make the news. But it turns people off. As I said, it is important that people use social media conversational tools wisely.
The Internet has been changing every facet of modern life, even the mother of parliaments (at least to a certain extent anyway). An exact state of affairs at parliament would be tricky to gauge, as innovation seems to be happening in different places.
Examples include the recent guide to Twitter, published by Neil Williams, head of corporate digital channels at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which outlined how the micro-blogging service could be used to share policy information and engage the general public around issues of interest.
The main political parties have shown enthusiasm in adopting social media as well, although this hasn’t necessarily translated across to their respective Parliamentary Members where there is the more familiar range of adoption patterns from early adopters to laggards to complete technophobes. Pretty much every Member of Parliament and election candidate not contesting a safe seat has a web presence of some sort, whether that is through a party backed website, or through extensive social media branding. Most of these are run through constituency or Westminster offices however, there are few MPs who are leading the way in the digital space.
John Redwood MP. The Conservative MP for Wokingham was recently voted the second best MP blog by Total Politics readers, losing his number one position last year to the aforementioned Tom Harris
Apart from the lack of uptake of social media tools across the Parliament as a whole, the biggest area where there seems to be a lack of understanding about social media is that it is a conversation. Although Twitter lends itself nicely to sound bites there doesn’t seem to be that much political engagement going on. There also doesn’t seem to be that much awareness about the impact of what they can be talking about. For instance, one MP recently complained about the workload required to deal with constituents.In another case, an automatic news feed on Peter Hain’s Facebook page prominently displayed an embarrassing piece of coverage.
Peter Hain's Facebook Feed
Despite the high profile digital campaign of Barack Obama, the US generally isn’t anywhere near the level of near universal digital and social media adoption that one would expect. For example only 29.5 per cent of US Congress members and Senators are on Twitter – 123 House members and 35 Senators out of a possible total of 535. .
But the fact is, the next election is going to be a hard fought campaign and this is likely to have a transformative effect on digital politics as a new generation of politicians come through.
So where is the opportunity in digital for parliamentary and public affairs campaigns?
The most obvious use of social media is for campaigning as it is easy to demonstrate support for a cause, through re-tweets or number of members in a Facebook group. Social media both facilitates and reveals groundswells of popular support. Nixon’s famous silent majority, are no longer silent or invisible to politicians.
For electoral candidates, Obama’s secret was always to tweet asks and Calls-to-Action and this should be harnessed by MPs or PPCs. There is no particular need for an MP to tweet about what they are having for breakfast, although the ‘inane’ tweets do personalise the tweeter so they can be beneficial.
But the key is, actively engage and converse with users online by asking supporters, party members and voters to do something. Come to my rally, get one friend to help deliver leaflets, donate £5 to the party, come knock on doors with me. Tweets like these that actively call for support and include the public are far more likely to help the candidate get elected.
This method of personalised engagement and Calls-to-Action can also be harnessed for out and out public affairs campaigns. It isn’t something that will transfer well to asking for support for a bank’s or defence company’s campaign, because the public will always be wary of sinister motives. But it will transfer brilliantly to campaigns surrounding NGOs, charities, patient groups, green and sustainability projects, local engagement and welfare organisations due to the need to rally support through calls-to-action.
A second and underrated factor is providing content for researchers. Like the rest of the UK, parliamentary researchers will often hit Google as their first point of call when finding out about a new subject and developing a point-of-view for their MP. Providing the freshest, most relevant content around a particular area, particularly if it has an industry rather than a specific corporate slant is one of the best ways to influence from a digital point-of-view.
There has been an increasing level of political social media analysis in the recent months. Tweetminister essentially aggregates tweets by Members of Parliament, as well as blogs on interesting issues surrounding communication and an open Parliament while the Hansard Society has recently published a report into the use of Facebook by MPs.
We would love to hear your views on the matter, so please feel free to leave comments.
The Lib Dem Conference this year seems to have been more exciting than usual. I am afraid to say that too often I have dismissed it as a warm up for the main two conferences. But this year it has delivered a punch.
Whether you love Nick Clegg or you see him as a David Cameron downgrade, this year he has brought greater presence and press coverage to the conference than before. The newspapers have followed what, in particular, Clegg and Cable have had to say.
The two dominating policy announcements for me have been the ‘Mansion Tax’ - Vince Cable’s announcement that people with houses over £1 million would be charged a tax at 0.5% on the value of a house above this amount and Nick Clegg’s announcement of ’savage’ cuts.
With the ‘Mansion Tax’ Vince Cable received great coverage and it has been debated widely in the press and on news channels. In fact people have been scrutinising it as if it could be introduced by a Government. This shows that the Lib Dems have been taken more seriously at this conference.
Similarly Nick Clegg’s announcement of ’savage’ cuts was a strong call that gained a great deal of coverage, but again the messaging and PR behind the announcement was extremely poor. Nick Clegg has not thought through the messaging because ’savage’ cuts, as opposed to just ‘cuts’, suggests that frontline services will suffer. Again it is a case of Lib Dems making a great deal of noise and being scrutinised seriously and being found wanting on their messaging.
Overall the Lib Dems seemed to make progress this conference, being taken seriously. But their messaging has been found wanting. They need to now work out their proposals tightly and sell them with the right language that says they are a party that can govern not just a third option.
Throughout his Premiership, Gordon Brown has been accused of dithering.
First it was the will he, won’t he non-election decision way back in 2007. Since then he has been accused of taking far too long over decisions of national importance on numerous occasions including Heathrow, the banking crisis and most recently, the long absence of a UK Government statement surrounding the decision to free Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi . If he’d made a statement earlier, I’m sure he and his Cabinet wouldn’t have been drawn into this mess about Libya quite so deeply.
Even his “cautiously optimistic” interview with the FT regarding the recovery from the economic crisis sounds like he is hedging his bets.
But the silence coming from Number 10 in regards to a Leader’s Debate during the upcoming election campaign is personally dumfounding and not a little bit frustrating. David Cameron has accepted the invitation, as has Nick Clegg, but there is nothing from the Prime Minister. Sky News has said that if Brown doesn’t turn up, there will be an empty seat on the podium if he fails to attend and debate.
Granted, a debate could be dangerous for Brown as it could potentially highlight his weaknesses or make David Cameron and Nick Clegg look Prime Ministerial, but surely that is better than not-showing up and there stands an empty chair. With Brown’s and Labour’s poll numbers through the floor, surely it is imperative that Brown shows up and tries to engage with the public. Brown clearly needs to be more decisive and more approachable to win the next election and a good showing in a national debate may not be the answer, but it would certainly help.
In modern times, there has never been such a disconnection between the public and Westminster. To simply get people to the polls and to keep out the BNP, the main party leaders need to show what they stand for and why people should care. Not showing up would be devastating and Brown’s silence on the issue is definitely hurting him even further.
As I write this, 2029 people have signed a petition from Sky News calling for a Leader’s debate since September 1st and that number is rapidly climbing, at least 900 in the past few hours.
But, this dithering raises an even larger question. As Philip Johnston of the Telegraph stated in his blog on a similar subject almost a year ago, Brown certainly doesn’t inspire confidence with his decision making. So what is the reason behind it?
Is Brown unable to make immediate decisions without consulting every man and his dog? Is he getting bad advice? Is he terrified of the repercussions of a bad decision? Is it a mixture of everything?
For Labour to claw back in the polls, Brown needs to be stronger and less hesitant than he currently is and someone in his team needs to take matters in hand. Labour needs a strong Brown and they need him now.
They all came from an era when their mistakes, blunders, gaffes were less highlighted. There are no videos surviving of the time when Winston Churchill mixed up his words or when Mahatma Gandhi forgot someone’s name or when Calvin Coolidge accidentally said something inappropriate - but I am certain it must have happened.
Their careers, whether good or bad, are largely remembered by their witty remarks, political judgement or important policy actions. Their careers are not defined by gaffes, because a gaffe is much funnier when seen on television than when reported in the news. If you read about Dan Quayle (see above) misspelling potato, whilst visiting a school, it is funny, but it does not encapsulate the gut-wrenching horror or cringeworthiness that the video brings.
What has spurred me to write this is the fate of Alan Duncan. He is Shadow Leader of the House of Commons and what he does day to day is largely unknown to the general public. His good decisions and policy initiatives are not discussed or made public. What is known about him is that he made an off the cuff remark about MPs expenses that is becoming an internet video sensation. Poor old Alan.
I do not have sympathy for him personally, but I feel that Alan Duncan is not a new breed of blunderer. I’m sure there were many serial blunderers in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century. But, sadly the rise of video combined with the internet has meant that political gaffes now travel the world phenomenally quickly and will last for years. I’m afraid that Dan Quayle will forever be known as Mr ‘Potatoe’. For this reason politics has changed. There is such a thing as a career ending ‘political gaffe’, which may be caused by little more than being filmed at your most tired, most forgetful or when you just seize up in front of the cameras.
At least in yesteryear politicians knew roughly which decisions would land them in trouble with the press. In the modern age of all-pervasive media and rapid distribution of material globally you can go from great television performer (as I have heard Alan Duncan described) to loose cannon in an instant.
What I really find interesting about it and is obviously the point of the gallery, is the evolution of twitter use by Parliamentarians. Initially, when I first joined twitter around 18 months ago, I think there were only one, maybe two MPs tweeting. Now according to the Independent, there are at least 66 MPs tweeting - 10% of the Commons. What’s even more exciting is that the vast majority of those MPs are active tweeters. Sure you have MPs such as @HarrietHarman who hasn’t tweeted since May and there is Shahid Malik (@DewsburyMP) who has never posted, but you also have avid users such as Kerry McCarthy [Lab] - Bristol East with 2623 updates, Jo Swinson [LD] - East Dunbartonshire with 1503 and of course Tom Watson [Lab] - West Bromwich East with 2368. There are apparently also 13 Ministers tweeting away.
Some MPs have even got so involved they have tinted their profiles green in support of the Iranian protestors. This may be a slightly questionable in terms of foreign policy decisions, but the fact is these MPs actively involved in the political social media revolution.
Most surprisingly, possibly in the majority of cases, it is actually them tweeting and not a researcher hidden away in Portcullis house as proven by @JoSwinson who tweets from the Chamber. And they reply if you contact them.
So the moral here is that there is a growing awareness of the power of twitter and social media in Westminster and this is surely going to grow. Twitter, facebook and other tools are becoming more and more legitimate ways to contact and engage with MPs and other key decision makers. I can only guess about what is to come especially in the lead up to the General Election
Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard makes his opinion clear
This is more of a point of interest than anything else, but I’ve had a number of long chats with colleagues and friends about the benefits of the Australian Political system that I grew up with and first acquired my love for the cut and thrust of politics - although, to be fair, in Australia, it is more like the punch and head-butt of politics.
It goes onto to make a number of key points about the differences in accountability and transparency between the British Westminster system and the Australian Washminster system - a mix between the British and American systems.
Whether this was intentional or not, very cleverly, the Speaker was made to be the fall-guy.
Effectively, the Speaker is the CEO of the House and the buck stops with him when it comes to rules and guidelines of the House. With the downfall of the Speaker on that basis, the story has been deflected away from the MPs to the need for change within Parliament.
But surely, there is still lots more to come. Even with 25 journalists working on this story day and night, they can’t have gone through every single receipt and every single backbencher yet. Now that the Speaker has fallen, the Parliamentary smokescreen been blown away, opening the door for the Telegraph to publish more stories about wayward MPs?
If you knew the expenses details of Morely, Chaytor and Hogg, would you hold onto that story until the public was already demanding blood, or would you have released them earlier before stories on the higher profile Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet MPS, which were interesting but ultimately less tantalising?
Will an MP talk to the Telegraph again? Obviously, but its reputation of being in the pockets of the Tories has now clearly gone and they have led the pack of attack dogs that is the media in this situation.
But, as a former member of the fourth estate, I’m on their side. I’ve heard people say the media has gone too far etc. but this is what the media is here to do. It is part of their remit nay, responsibility to stir up the establishment and right wrongs. This is journalism that hasn’t been seen in Britain for a long time - proper hard muckraking, designed to bring the seemingly unaccountable to account.