Will 2010 be the “IT” election

I have just spoken at a Smith Institute debate on whether the 2010 election will be the “IT” election.

The Smith Institute invite explains:

“This will be the first election campaign where ‘tweeting’, ‘social networking’ and ‘blogging’ will be in eveidence. But how much of a role will the new information technology play, and do the politicians really understand it? This debate will address these and other related issues concerning the use of new technology in election campaigning.”

I have to admit that when I heard the topic with IT shown as “IT”, my mind was inevitably drawn to the Wikipedia definition of an “IT” girl:

“An It girl or It-girl is a charming, sexy young woman who receives intense media coverage unrelated or disproportional to personal achievements. The reign of an “It girl” is usually temporary; some of the rising It girls will either become fully-fledged celebrities or their popularity will fade. The term “It boy”, much less frequently used, is the male equivalent. This term is unrelated to the abbreviation IT.”

I don’t know about IT or its proponents in the next election being charming or sexy, but they are certainly receiving intense media attention and in my view it is probably disproportionate to likely achievement.

And indeed my view is that 2010 is not going to be the General Election where the result will be determined by bloggers, Twitter or social media.  This opinion is no doubt a jaundiced one, but there were similar claims about the significance of IT before previous General Elections.  Some will remember the claims made for the Labour Party’s Excalibur system in the run up to the 1997 Election …..

My argument is that 95% of the electorate will cast their votes in blissful ignorance of what has been going on in the blogosphere and – as in previous Elections – their votes will be influenced by their past allegiances, their perceptions of what the Parties stand for in policy terms, and their assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of the different Party leaderships.

So the question is what influences those perceptions and assessments – what creates the zeitgeist?  The answer is still predominantly television, radio and newspapers.

Over time this changes: television was not a factor in the elections of 1950 and 1951 and probably did not become really significant until 1964; newspapers are no longer decisive (The Sun may have boasted that it won it in 1992, but I doubt that the same will be plausible in 2010.).

People are increasingly getting their news and opinion in new ways.  However, the old media – at present, at least – are still central.  Nevertheless, politicians need to adapt to the changing media landscape and master the new ways of communicating – as Roosevelt did with radio in the 1930s and as Wilson and later Blair did with television in this country.

But – and it is a big but – even though the new media are not yet decisive and mastery of them is not yet obligatory for an effective politician, new media will have a significant indirect impact on the forthcoming Election.  This will be manifested in the way they impact on the terms of the debate reported by the traditional media.

Individual bloggers will from time to time set the agenda, rumours in hyperspace will eventually get reported, bloggers will subject policy statements from the main Parties to rigorous analysis and fact-checking, and the speed of the blogosphere and the rapidity with which material (particularly “gaffes”) can be spread on YouTube and via Twitter will challenge the traditional media and require a more fleet-of-foot response from the political parties and from politicians.

There will be a premium on seeding material in the blogosphere and on harvesting useful information or arguments that emerge there.  Political parties will be able to energise their supporters and communicate with them more rapidly.  And there will undoubtedly be benefits for those individual politicians who can communicate effectively in the new media, retaining their own authenticity whilst avoiding creating (too many)  hostages to fortune.

Are the political parties and our leading politicians going to be able to meet this challenge?  Well, we will soon find out.

House Magazine article on public engagement in counter-terrorism policy

This week’s House Magazine contains an article from me on the need for public engagement in the development of counter-terrorism policy.  This develops themes I have spoken and written about before: control orders and other anti-terror measures must be sensitively explained and enforced, if they are not to feed grievance.

In the article, I point out that the terrorist threat is a very real one but that the:

“the response …  has to be proportionate and measured. I believe that this balance is appropriately struck in the government’s CONTEST strategy.

The Prevent strand of the strategy – which aims to divert individuals from going down the path towards violent extremism and to reduce the threat from extreme radicalisers – is co-equal with the Pursue, Protect and Prepare strands.”

And go on to stress:

“nobody regards control orders as being ideal. But any government has a paramount responsibility to protect the public. If there is information or intelligence that suggests that particular individuals present an extreme threat, it would be wrong to ignore it. And if that information cannot be used in court (perhaps because it puts at risk other people who have provided that information), then those who oppose measures like control orders have to explain what they would do instead.

All politicians have a role to play in ensuring that there is a sensible debate about these issues, and a genuine engagement with the public about what is being done to combat terrorism. It is important that people understand why particular measures are being taken, and are able to see that those measures are being used in a fair and proportionate way.”

Is Victoria Borwick the Tories’ secret weapon in London

Victoria Borwick AM has had a good day at the Metropolitan Police Authority.  Not only was the report of the Civil Liberties Panel, which she chairs, on public order policing accepted with universal support from Authority members, but she also displayed a note of acid wit ….

Right at the end of the MPA meeting there was an item on appointing a new Independent Member, following the unexpected and sudden resignation of Deborah Regal.  I suggested that it might be a good idea to discuss what skill gaps there were on the Authority that might be filled by a new appointment.  And Victoria Borwick’s instant response?

“Whoever it is needs to know how to do up the buttons on their shirt.”

Now what can she have meant …..?

The DCiC*  needs to watch it – she’ll be the Tory candidate for Mayor when Mayor Boris Johnson stands down (as I suspect he will in the first few months of 2012) before he know it.

*Dog-Catcher-in-Chief  (aka Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse AM)

Dog-Catcher-in-Chief Kit Malthouse works hard on his patience, courtesy and charm at the Metropolitan Police Authority

The Metropolitan Police Authority is in session and the DCiC* (Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse AM) is in the Chair.  The meeting has a comparatively heavy agenda – at least in comparison to recent meetings when the Conservative Party’s policy of trying not to discuss anything but the Commissioner’s Report at full Authority meetings.

On the Bill today (sorry, unintentional pun) is the long-awaited report of the MPA’s Civil Liberties Panel on public order policing (arising from the issues around the G20 protests) and approval of the Policing London Business Plan for the next three years.  What is more the DCiC has told members that he wants to finish promptly at 12 noon, so that there can be a private meeting of Authority members to discuss the MPA’s own priorities.

This means that the DCiC will have to use his (rarely used) powers of patience, courtesy and charm to get through the business expeditiously without cutting off any members in full flow.  So far, he is doing fine.

But everyone is on their best behaviour.  Jenny Jones AM is clearly trying to curry favour and is acting as teacher’s pet – fetching the DCiC’s coffee without being asked (of course, I don’t know whether she has put anything in it to induce a mellow haze in the DCiC).

It is left to Anne McMeel, the Metropolitan Police’s Director of Resources, to introduce the first touch of asperity with her put-down of Dee Doocey AM who asks for more detail on the costs of operations and is told that it is in the report to the Finance and Resources Sub-Committee “admittedly on the last page”, implying that Liberal Democrats don’t read all the way through to the end.

But the clock is ticking and the Commissioner’s Report item hasn’t been finished yet and there is only 50 minutes of normal time left.  And the DCiC has chewed his way through two pen caps and is shuffling backwards and forwards in his chair.


Information Commissioner’s rush to meet his performance targets provides script for David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions

I have just come from a meeting addressed by the Information Commissioner.  As an aside, he told us that the end of his reporting year – 31st March – is next week and that he is rushing through adjudications on Freedom of Information Act appeals, so that he can improve his performance statistics before the year-end.

As Information Commissioner adjudications seemed to have provided the bulk of the (limited) substance of the Leader of the Opposition’s contributions to Prime Minister’s Questions earlier in the day, one cannot help but wonder what David Cameron would have done without them (his questioning was  otherwise rather thin on substantive attack lines).

In any event, the Information Commissioner seems to be promising more adjudications over the next week – although he didn’t indicate the subject matter.  Assuming there is a PMQs in the week after Easter and given that Nick Clegg seems to working hard at his David Cameron-lite look, we now know where the Leader of the Liberal Democrats will be looking for his inspiration …..

Is likening a burka to a paper bag worse than comparing it to a bin bag – should a Metropolitan Police Authority member be worried?

An obscure Conservative MP, Philip Hollobone, has been referred to the Police follwoing his remarks that a burka  was ‘the religious equivalent of going around with a paper bag over your head with two holes for the eyes’ for allegedly inciting religious hatred.

Now there is a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, who as it happens is also an elected member of the London Assembly, that customarily uses the term “bin bag” instead – I wonder whether they are worried that they might now be investigated?

Five of the top fifty Labour achievements since 1997 – X

  • Created a new right of pedestrian access to the English coast, so that every family has the opportunity to enjoy the length and breadth of our coastline.
  • In the last four years Labour’s work overseas has helped over 7 million people in sub-Saharan Africa access clean water and sanitation.
  • In Europe we signed the Social Chapter and introduced measures including four weeks’ paid holiday, a right to parental leave, extended maternity leave, a new right to request flexible working, and the same protection for part-time  workers as full-time workers.
  • We led efforts to agree a new international convention banning all cluster munitions.
  • We introduced the first ever British Armed Forces and Veterans Day to honour the achievements of our armed forces – both past and present.

Encouraging technology innovation to solve problems for Government

A few days ago I hosted an interesting seminar in the House of Lords on “Tackling Transmission of Healthcare-Associated Infections”.  The purpose of this was to bring together policy-makers on the subject from within the Department of Health, representatives from the voluntary sector and involved service users, researchers and legal experts, front-line NHS practitioners, and a number of Parliamentary colleagues to discuss what has been achieved and what are likely to be challenges in the future.

There were some interesting points made in the discussion, such as the need to empower patients to challenge doctors and nurses about whether they have washed their hands, and some excellent comments such as “Anyone who doubts Darwin should look at how pathogens respond to antibiotics”.

However, I was particularly pleased to hear a contribution from Sandra Barrow, the leader of the Department of Health’s Healthcare Associated Infection (HCAI) Technology Programme.  She described how the Programme is aiming to speed up the process of identifying useful technological innovations that can help deal with HCAIs, encouraging front-line NHS staff to work with industry to develop innovations, and then fast-tracking the evaluation process so that innovations can be utilised more rapidly.

The Programme recognises that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) will often provide the most innovative ideas, but may also face the greatest difficulty in getting their ideas developed and adopted in the NHS.  The Programme has involved workshops involving 500 frontline NHS staff and a road show engaging with a similar number of SMEs to identify the most promising technologies for reducing and preventing HCAIs.  Several hundred ideas and products emerged from this process which have then been assessed by an expert panel to identify a short-list of products that are being evaluated in eight showcase hospitals.

The ideas emerging include innovative air disinfection technology, new infection detection techniques and the use of nano-technology to provide anti-bacterial protection layers for surfaces.

What excited me about this was the way it recognised that SMEs are a key engine for innovation and the way in which emerging innovations were being rapidly appraised and assessed for early adoption.

The approach being taken, like the INSTINCT programme designed to harness new innovative technologies to address challenges in counter-terrorism, demonstrates how Government can work with industry, especially SMEs, to make the best of British scientific ideas.

Five of the top fifty Labour achievements since 1997 – IX

  • Launched the Swimming Challenge Fund to support free swimming for over 60s and under 16s.
  • Banned fox hunting.
  • Led the campaign to win the 2012 Olympics for London.
  • Free admission to our national museums and galleries.
  • Devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, an elected Mayor and Assembly for London and directly-elected mayors for those cities that want them.

Youth theatre for our times

Earlier this evening, I was at the Jacksons Lane Community Centre to see a wonderful Bilimankhwe Young Company production of a double bill of plays by David Farr (I should, of course, declare an interest as one of Bilimankhwe’s trustees).

The plays, “The Queen Must Die” and “Ruckus in the Garden”, were performed by young people aged between 12 and 18, all of whom are in Haringey Schools.   Both plays were hilarious and were much enjoyed by the (mainly) late-teen audience.

The first is a farce set at the time of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002.  The action takes place the night before the Jubilee procession in a small town, when a giant papier mache statue of the Queen is to be the centre-piece of the procession.  The statue becomes the focus for 2 groups of teenagers who have their own reasons for wanting it destroyed. The first group belong to the anti-monarchy group the ‘Popular Republican Front’ and want to destroy the statue as a symbolic act of defiance against the ‘establishment’. The second – all girls – have a serious fashion situation they need to resolve in order to hold on to their credibility. All they need to do is go to the house where the statue is being kept and get past the babysitter – Shaun ‘the lips’ Digby, played by Archie Barber.  There are fine performances all round, but notably from Fred Rich as Darren, the (self-appointed) revolutionary leader with a fine line in political rhetoric, from Chanteese Black as Shannon, the leading fashionista who transforms herself into the WAM (Women Against the Monarchy) when she thinks Darren is a real film director, and from Gulsah Akdag as Mad Mike, Darren’s Rosa Luxemburg, an animal rights activist who keeps threatening Shannon with an axe.

The second play revolves round two schools: Riverdale Comprehensive (where the chavs from the sink estate go) and St Nectan’s (not selective, but it is really, where the better-off middle classes send their children).  Both are on an educational trip to the Garden of Cecil Fortescue House. A ruckus is inevitable, as is customary when these two schools meet.  Magic waits amongst the topiary in the form of Cupid, who brings about transformations romantic – and revealing.  The action is an amalgam of a “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Romeo and Juliet”, but with a happy ending for the two sets of star-crossed lovers (excellent performances by Carla Ingram as Tamsen and Enzi Alexander as Kath, who swap bodies, to confuse James Martin as Stanley and Michael Mellor as Hugh), and for the “unexpected” couple, Faisal Bhatti as Rock and Seraphina Taylor as Maisy.  Issues of class, gender roles, violence, and prejudice are all neatly explored.

So, if I’ve whetted your appetite, there’s only one more performance and there aren’t many seats left.