“Forensic” and “Plans”: signifier words

When used about two centrist figures, these words infuriate many on the left.

“Forensic” is used ad nauseam to describe Keir Starmer’s interactions with the government and “plans” was a key part of Elizabeth Warren’s brand.

The deployment of these words is an interesting and easily understood example of an important communications concept.

We can adapt an idea from semiotics and look at these words as signs. Very simply put, a sign consists of:

“Forensic” is the signifier and what is signified is Starmer’s leadership and communication style. In this usage of the sign, several things are signified including:

  • Lawyer (the positive attributes of this profession)
  • intelligence/scientific
    and arguably most important
  • “not Corbyn”

For the commentariat, professional managerial class and others opposed to Corbyn, “Forensic” acts as a short-hand for these virtues,

Similarly, “plans” was a sign for the pro-Warren liberals who were opposed to Bernie Sanders. It signified how her technocratic reform capitalism differed from Bernie’s left populism.

Starmer’s comms strategy

Despite criticism for being soft, it was clear that Keir Starmer had a methodical communications plan for engaging with the Tory government’s failures in tackling COVID-19. I outlined his approach in a series of tweets and this was proved correct.

It’s been possible to see Starmer’s structured approach unfurl in real time. His initial goal was appeared to have two primary aims:

  • Establish his own personal style
  • Have the media frame him as a constructive actor.

This was all the more important given the unrelenting hostility towards the previous Labour leadership from the press.

There was then gradually more confrontational messaging while operating in the “constructive critcism” paradigm.

This was followed by more overt questioning of the Government’s action. Though, as I pointed out with some amusement, Starmer’s comms appeared almost too structured.

Currently, there is a two-fold approach, with Starmer positioning himself as speaking on behalf of the public, while a member of the shadow cabinet uses more confrontational language.

The right, adaption & the primary contradictions

Before (perhaps instead) of completing what was supposed to be a two-post commentary on the result of the general election in the UK, I felt it important to elaborate on something I mentioned in the first post.

Having finally got around to reading Stuart Hall’s “The Great Moving Right Show”, I was struck by how well it integrated into my point about the need to understand the primary contradiction(s) at play during the election.

its popular success in neutralizing the contradiction between people and the state/power bloc and winning popular interpellations so decisively for the Right. In short, the nature of its populism. But now it must be added that this is no rhetorical device or trick, for this populism is operating on genuine contradictions, and it has a rational and material core. Its success and effectivity does not lie in its capacity to dupe unsuspecting folk but in the way it addresses real problems, real and lived experiences, real contradictions—and yet is able to represent them within a logic of discourse which pulls them systematically into line with policies and class strategies of the Right.

This passage pairs very well wiith what I wrote in my earlier blog post.

Brexit while on the surface is a reactionary movement is, in fact, quite the opposite. It is a revolutionary movement that seeks to reject the prevailing neoliberal order by going back to the future.

Coincidentally, while reading the Hall essay, I also came across this report Shapeshifters: the evolving politics of modern Conservatism. This makes many of the same points regarding how the Right adapts. Regarding Brexit and the election specifically, I thought this was well-stated:

The reframing also involved deflecting attention away from critical questioning of the causes of the 2008 economic crash and the subsequent self-defeating policy of austerity and towards popular hostility to the EU; its association with mass immigration as an immediate explanation for the deterioration of everyday life, particularly in small towns and the North. In doing so, the Right has remade political identities that articulates ‘gaining control’ as a popular struggle against remote elites.

The UK general election 2019: What breaks a butterfly upon a wheel? (I)

The Labour decision to back a second referendum was a mistake from a campaigning perspective.

As a campaign, it signalled the following to Leave voters.

  • Labour could not be trusted and was a party of politics as usual.
  • It reinforced the personal smearing on Corbyn as someone who could not be trusted.

This article does a great job of placing both Corbynism and Brexit as products of the same dialectic.

Labour’s Brexit position, which appears in hindsight to have been the worst of both worlds. By remaining essentially neutral on Brexit over the past three years, Labour allowed Lib Dems and Blairites and other technocrats from the previous era to shape what Remain meant, presenting it as the status-quo option, opposed to the change people are desperate for.

https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/dont-blame-corbyn-or-brexit-labour-failed-to-fight-our-broken-politics/

There is a point that I think is worth emphasising here: Brexit while on the surface is a reactionary movement is, in fact, quite the opposite. It is a revolutionary movement that seeks to reject the prevailing neoliberal order by going back to the future.

Labour’s proposals could be summarised as a core argument: we will use politics to make your life better. But if people don’t believe in the political system, they won’t trust you. Corbyn should have raged against elite rule, and promised a new democracy, by the people, for the people. He should have tapped into the anti-systemic energy. It should have been ‘by the many’. He could have won.

https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/dont-blame-corbyn-or-brexit-labour-failed-to-fight-our-broken-politics/

I don’t want to oversimplify things here: it could well have been that the gap between the old Labour working-class vote and the new Labour voter (particularly over the issue of Brexit) was insurmountable.

While offering a different framing about how Labour should have approached the Brexit issue (and coming to a different conclusion), this blog post offers some valuable insights into the longer-term composition of the electorate, which compliments the previous post.

Corbynism is the first mass expression in English and Welsh politics of a new working class. Its features are the immaterial character of its labour, that is it produces knowledge, services, care, relationships, and subjectivities/identities, and it depends on our social capacities and competencies as social beings – skills that can only be parasited off but not directly possessed by capital…

https://averypublicsociologist.blogspot.com/2019/12/the-working-class-politics-of-brexit.html

As to what next, this sums it for me:

They will have to face the fact that the electorate did not abandon Labour for the centre. They went either to the far right, in England and Wales, or to the social democratic nationalist alternative, in Scotland. They did not go to the Liberal Democrats or back Change UK. Chuka Umunna, Dominic Grieve, David Gauke, Anna Soubry, Jo Swinson and Luciana Berger all lost.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/13/labour-why-lost-jeremy-corbyn-brexit-media

Demographics, Voting blocs and wishful thinking

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A video from a 2014 marketing summit and a Sri Lankan political opinion piece from the start of this week provided some thought-provoking insight into a form of reductionism and generalisation. This kind of thinking is not just misleading, for campaigns it is a dangerous trap that can undermine communications and marketing.

As Adam Conover points out, the term “Millennial” is about the need to flatten and simplify demographics. In fact, this has a long history stretching back to the ancient world. The whole video is worth watching, despite the comments regarding social media seeming a little dated in 2018.

Moving to Sri Lanka, this huge simplification of the 2105 election is another egregious example of reductionism.

a small band of dreamers, united in the idea of democracy and freedom, prevailed over a juggernaut that was propelling Sri Lanka towards full-fledged autocracy.

Reimagining the diverse coalition that constituted the Yahaplanaya campaign as a “liberal project” is absurd. The political grouping that toppled the Rajapaksas primarily constituted of the oldest party in Sri Lanka (a Western-orientated capitalist one), had elements of support from the next oldest party (one with a socialist and nationalist base) and a number of other constituent parties including ethno-nationalists and had the tacit support of Marxists. The idea that majority of those who voted for this diverse coalition were western-style liberals seems a vast stretch.

Why then would the political editor of a major Sri Lankan newspaper make such an obvious misclassification? Why the reductionism and generalisation? As with the term millennial, it is a convenient tool that fits the prejudices and worldview of the person using it. Projection like this is a danger that any savvy campaigner must avoid!

Ideology and campaigns

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The idiosyncratic (and always thought-provoking) musings of Zizek aside, ideology has a hugely important but often misunderstood role in the current era of campaigns. It is also one of the four primary criteria in the disruption model of politics.

It is crucial to draw a distinction between ideology and policies in this context. Quoting from a previous post:

ideology refers to a broad set of principles and policy refers to the specific rules and activities that achieve these. Tougher immigration is an ideology and building a border wall is a policy…

And from the same post:

When cynicism about politicians is at record highs, a strong ideology has more weight than policy nuance. Expressing ideologically strong positions can convince voters that you will act on issues out of conviction; particularly to those who have seen successive generations of politicians promise to enact specific policies to fix their issues, only to let them down.

This distinction can be seen in the Clinton campaign of 2016, which was heavy on policy positions but, as the left-wing critique of it pointed out, ideologically weak.

More than perhaps any waged before, the Clinton campaign invested an inexhaustible faith (not to mention considerable financial resources) in the wisdom and effectiveness of experts, its upper echelons dominated by a generation of Democratic insiders steeped in Third Way thinking and analysis.

In word and affect, it spoke the language of white-collar professionals in New Democratic coastal heartlands and showed open disdain for some of the party’s traditional, less affluent constituencies and their aspirations. It eschewed the rhetoric of populist contestation in favor of bipartisan détente with factions in the Republican old guard and gleefully chased the votes of suburban conservatives. It publicly courted both Wall Street and Silicon Valley and proudly touted the support of their leading viceroys. It emphasized personality and qualification, judgment and temperament, over ideology.

Ideology > Policy

For campaigns (and especially disruptive ones), creating and propagating a strong ideology is vital. As “Democracy for Realists” pointed out,

Instead of folk democracy’s rational voter, most voters base their political decisions on who they are rather than what they think. Political behaviour reflects our membership of a particular group, an expression of our social identity. Voters choose parties which represent their culture and community, and stay with their political tribe long after they have ceased to serve their interests.

With this in mind, these are the crucial factors for campaigns to understand in order to be seen as part of the zeitgeist and attract voters:

  • People vote for what policies say about the party and the values they convey.
  • This can be best communicated through a strong ideology, that focuses on shared values and beliefs, not policy specifics.

Using the Political Disruption Model

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This event which provided the most detailed articulation to date of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s inevitable Presidential campaign also provides an opportunity to apply the political disruption model.

As I (smugly) pointed out on Twitter, I identified the contours of this campaign earlier this year.

With one exception, applying the model to the campaign shows that it meets the criteria needed for success.

While he has tremendous name recognition and a reputation for efficiency, due to his association with extreme Sinhala nationalism and his role as Defence Secretary personal branding is an issue for GR. I suspect this may not be a disincentive to the majority of undecided and floating voters in the south of Sri Lanka. However, ethnic minorities (primarily Hindu Tamils and Muslims) make-up approximately 22% of the total votes. Despite his appeals to an inclusive economic nationalism, they may take a far more sceptical attitude to him.

The Political Disruption Model v1

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I’ve been working on a model of political disruption that covers challenges to mainstream parties and politics. This includes situations where the ultimate goal was achieved, as in the case of the Trump campaign or ones that have significantly shifted the political landscape, such as Corbyn with the Labour Party in the UK and Bernie Sanders ongoing efforts with the Democratic Party.

These are what I currently see as the main criteria for successful disruption.

Cynthia Nixon & political party disruption

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I should preface my comments on the New York Governor Democrat primary campaign by acknowledging that the latest polling has Cuomo ahead of Nixon.  However, there is a momentum shift toward her.

The Nixon campaign bears the traits that I have previously identified as important in successful insurgent political campaigns. While I’m still working on a cohesive synthesis of these factors, I thought it a useful exercise to go through three of these in the context of the NY Governor’s race.

Environment: Anti-incumbency

The criticisms of Cuomo from the left/progressive wing of the Democrat party are well known. These criticism are (just) not over the nuances of policy. Cuomo’s style of corporate and compromise politics is clearly out of step with the zeitgeist. It’s worth noting he has already shown the intention to shift leftward for this campaign.

Cuomo has already moved to the left. He had, until recently, shrugged off the situation with the Independent Democratic Conference as something he was powerless to manage, despite the fact that it blocked progressives from having more power negotiating this year’s budget. Then, the same day that Nixon taped her comments at The Wendy Williams Show, the governor suddenly announced he had brokered a peace deal. If it could be done “over coffee and cookies,” as the Times reported it had, then, one Cuomo insider seethed, “Why the fuck didn’t you do it before?”

However, given his prowess as a politician, a challenge from within the party has been difficult. However, as the 2014 primary showed, shifting ideological and technological trends meant that the opportunity now exists to defeat brand name incumbents such as Cuomo. Key amongst the technological trends is the ability to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of party politics. As I blogged, this means:

In parties with a primary or voting system to nominate candidates, new media has now provided an opportunity for candidates to bypass their party’s establishment and still effectively campaign for nominations. This means that the disruption to the political mainstream may not follow the antecedent of new parties but as insurgent candidates taking over established ones.

Ideology

My model of political disruption does factor in that voters don’t pay particular attention to the specifics of policy. It does not, however,  discount the importance of ideology (which will be the topic of a future post). A look at Nixon’s Why I’m Running page, show a strong emphasis on a progressive message if not specific policies.

This crushing inequality isn’t something that just happens.

It’s not an accident. It was a choice.

It was a choice to slash taxes for the super-rich and impose austerity on everybody else. It was a choice to allow the schools attended by children of color to be underfunded and over-policed. It was a choice to sell our government off to corporate interests and wealthy donors, while the rest of us suffer.

This crushing inequality isn’t something that just happens.

It’s not an accident. It was a choice.

It was a choice to slash taxes for the super-rich and impose austerity on everybody else. It was a choice to allow the schools attended by children of color to be underfunded and over-policed. It was a choice to sell our government off to corporate interests and wealthy donors, while the rest of us suffer.

These are choices usually made by Republicans. But for the past eight years, they’re all choices that have been made by our governor, Andrew Cuomo.

Personal Branding

This is the obvious personal factor about Cynthia Nixon. While this can be spun in a negative manner, in this case, it grants her high-profile coverage from bastions of the mainstream press, that another insurgent candidate would have lacked.

While the presence of these factors does not guarantee the success of insurgent campaigns, I think it is clear we are seeing the emergence of patterns and criteria that point towards those which are capable of challenging the status quo.

Political candidates in Sri Lanka, #GE2017 aftermath

NB: This post was first published on another blog and imported into this one. Please forgive any formatting issues.

This is a typical example of the worthy but flawed thinking that so many people have about politics in Sri Lanka:

Do we at least now not need to think beyond blind allegiance to a colour of a political party but select good, honest men and women with integrity to exercise our sovereign legislative, executive and judicial powers to finally make policy-based decisions that will at least secure a better future for our children?

The question is not about a better quality of politician. The question is, who is willing to actually put themselves forward as political candidates and is there a pathway for them?

There are systematic problems (as there are all over the world) that hinder the development of “better” politicians. However, if we aren’t willing to get our hand dirty and get involved, then no amount of bedwetting and handwringing is going to make things better.

This is why movements like the Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress are so interesting and vital.

For all the talk about Macron, what he did has to be assessed in the context of the French political system. A more realistic option may be to transform parties from the inside out. The crucial question is how you can do this in systems like we have in Sri Lanka?

In Sri Lanka,the experience shows that no party follows any one procedure in the selection of candidates for elections at all levels. A study undertaken in respect of South Asia demonstrated that despite differences in procedures, parties in South Asia have some common features when it comes to candidate selection. Candidates are usually selected by consensus among the top leadership.

In most parties, the party chiefs have the final say, but they take decisions only after consultations with other party leaders at the relevant level. Today party alignments are unimportant and substantial de-alignment takes place during elections,and this could be attributed to the absence of strong constituency organisations with strong party loyalties and well demarcated party lines.

Therefore the organiser of the electorate – the candidate in waiting – or the MP of a given electoral division is the one who selects the candidates for the provincial or Pradeshiya Sabha elections. His nominees or recommendations are readily endorsed by the party leadershipand this,in effect, meant that all decisions are taken in consultation with the MP or the Organiser of the electorate.

The UK General Elections

From a campaigning perspective, this article was one of the better ones I read.

Crowd size at rallies does matter. One hesitates to endorse the Bill Mitchell model, but imprecise it is,  sheer numbers turning out for the candidate seems to be a reliable (if imprecise) indication of voter enthusiasm. This enthusiasm can be gleaned from elsewhere too – https://twitter.com/ell3ctric/status/874246543754264576

Finally, youth, youth, youth – the left owns them and if they turn out to vote, then that makes all the difference. This YouGov data is striking.

The education statistics are also very interesting. It’s in line with the US (for example), but given how far left Labour’s policies are (nationalisation!), has significant implications as to what is possible in terms of policy. It is also a clear indication that factors like income equality, public services, the financial crisis and paying for education are the dominant themes for younger voters.