Month: May 2009

Internet People Power

I’ve spent quite a bit of time recently looking at other political websites from this country and overseas just to get an idea of the overall design and layout that people use.  It’s a bit of a project at work to try and come up with some ideas for upgrading our own website.  One thing that really stands out to me is how political parties in other countries use images of people – usually their leaders or their lead candidates – far more than anyone in this country does.

LDwebsiteIt’s no secret that I’ve never liked the re-design of the Liberal Democrat website that was carried out last year.  I think the new website looks dull, amateurish and doesn’t carry our key messages very well (I could go on, but I won’t as I might offend someone I know), but it also is very light on key party figures such as Nick Clegg, Vince Cable or Chris Huhne.  OK, so Nick appears on it in a slightly ghostly way but it isn’t that prominent and doesn’t look particularly well integrated in to the site.

What is much better and I think far more appealling is Nick Clegg’s personal website as it, unsurprisingly, contains bigger images of him, has a much sharper design and includes more ways of interacting with him and the party.

ConservativewebsiteSo I then looked at the other two main parties.  You usually know when a party leader is unpopular as they hide them on leaflets and don’t ever refer to them.  But this seems to be the norm on British political websites.

Even the Conservatives who, if the opinion polls are to be believed, are popular at the moment have no main image of David Cameron.  He is there, but only as a picture attached to an article with the most prominent picture belonging to Andrew Lansley and even that isn’t that clear.

Going by my logic of unpopular leaders, it isn’t a surprise that Labour don’t include a picture of Gordon Brown prominently on their front page.  Although I was surprised that at the time of writing their main picture is of a concerned looking David Cameron and a pensioner.  I know they are trying to make a point about scrapping Winter Fuel Allowances, but I am not sure that putting such a prominent picture of the “popular” leader of the opposition on your website is that good an idea.

GreensI also looked at a few websites belonging to smaller parties.  Plaid don’t bother with prominent images of their politicians (unless you include one photo of Jill Evans MEP attached to the main article), the SNP do (which is good but the image isn’t that inspiring and perhaps largely related to the continuing popularity of Alex Salmond) and neither do UKIP who simply use an image of Churchill despite the fact he believed in a European Union and was very pro-European.  The one party in my spectacularly unscientific trawl round the party websites is the Green Party who include a lot of images of their candidates from around the country.  They might not be used as effectively as they could be and the images are somewhat dominated by Jean Lambert MEP’s perm, but it is nonetheless a good-looking website.  Well done to the Greens (probably the only time you will ever hear me say that).

socialdemokraternaLook abroad though and you spot straightaway the use of people.  I admit that there is a strong argument that politics shouldn’t just be about personalities and in this country elections are about electing local representatives in parliament rather than who the Prime Minister should be.  That stacks up well if you just looked at countries such as France (who also seem surprisingly bad at it, but maybe that’s because the party leader isn’t necessarily the presidential candidate as I remember some pretty good websites for Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal at the time of the last election) and the United States of America.  Indeed the Democrats use Barack Obama’s image a lot, but then that’s easy when your most prominent politician is president and still very popular.  But what stands out is how countries that have a parliamentary system that is similar to ours use their key politicians prominently on their websites anyway.

D66I wouldn’t want to claim there is any sort of uniformity abroad at using key personalities on websites, as the websites of the main parties in New Zealand, Australia, Italy, Germany and Switzerland to name a few don’t bother.  But it seems to be more prominence abroad and as a few examples I have included here screenshots from the Swedish Social Democrats (Socialdemokraterna), the Dutch liberals (D66) and the Canadian Conservatives.

Despite the arguments against turning politics in to something that is solely about personality, we have to face facts that at the top it really is, and increasingly it is at a local level too.  I also think that by showing your key personalities it can make your party seem more human and make people relate to them as real people.  It would also be a good way of breaking down CanadianConservativessome of the barriers that have inevitably grown since the MPs’ expenses scandal started.

I once toyed with the idea of taking photos at Liberal Democrat conference of ordinary conference representatives just chatting to people and doing the full mixture of things that people do at conference and then using them in a leaflet to sell the party and conference.  I didn’t do it as it isn’t my role and so I couldn’t see the point, but I think the idea would sell the party as an interesting bunch of people rather than the image that people have of either politicians generally or Liberal Democrats in particular.  Doing something similar with a website could have the same effect.  We talk about how important it is to have good action shots of our candidates on our election leaflets, so why don’t we do the same on our websites?

“The” Labour Party

Today I received my postal vote for the European Elections.  No prize for guessing who I voted for.  But looking down the huge ballot paper I wondered where Labour had disappeared to, until I realised that they were actually on the ballot paper as “The Labour Party” which meant they were listed alphabetically under T rather than L.

I don’t imagine this will make a huge difference, but when you stand on a party list you do have to consider where you appear alphabetically.  I had to consider this when I worked for the Welsh Liberal Democrats as we had to decide whether we stood under the UK-wide name (Liberal Democrats) or the national name (Welsh Liberal Democrats) or the Welsh language name as that was the majority language in my region and got you further up the ballot paper (Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol Cymru).  There is evidence that it helps being further up the ballot paper, especially when it is a large ballot paper such as in the European Elections,  as you may be deciding between two parties and you settle on the one that you see first.  Just as in all-out council elections where there are multi-member wards, candidates with surnames that are earlier in the alphabet do better than those with later surnames.

I suspect Labour’s decision to be on the ballot paper as “The Labour Party” may not make a huge difference.  But who knows?  In the current climate a handful of votes may make a real difference to the result.

Apparently I do write like a man

Inspired by a comment to a post written by Jennie Rigg, I have tested out my blog and apparently my writing style is that of a man.  Which is somewhat of a relief, but not necessarily expected.  It isn’t often that I am told I am masculine.

The reason I know this is thanks to The Gender Genie – a website where you can paste some of your writing and it will tell you whether the text was written by a man or a woman.  I tried a few different posts and each of them came out as male – some by big margins some only narrowly.  Apparently it is all decided by the types of words that I use and although I have no idea how scientifically valid the conclusion is, it is interesting nonetheless.

Let’s have Frank Field as Speaker

The only declared contender for Speaker so far is Lib Dem MP Alan Beith.  Whilst I have never met Alan Beith, everything I know of him is that he is an honest, respected, hard-working MP who genuinely wants to reform parliament.  However despite this, I am not convinced that the Liberal Democrats currently have enough MPs to be able to spare one to be Speaker – as impressive as it would be to have a Lib Dem hold the office.

The person who I really hope does stand is Labour MP Frank Field.  Frank Field has yet to declare his intentions, but the latest post on his blog, (and it’s a nice looking website and blog that he has), makes it very clear that he is considering running.  The post also has that distinct feeling of someone who has already made up their mind but is going through that slightly false charade of looking as though they haven’t decided whilst in reality they are putting together a campaign team and building up an impressive list of supporters before actually declaring (just as happens in party leadership elections).  If what Frank says is true, that there will be a genuine period of campaigning and public debate before MPs vote (I thought Michael Martin had said the new speaker would be selected at the start of next week, but maybe I got that wrong), this could actually be a real opportunity to rebuild trust in parliament through people engaging with the process and being enthused by the debate.

My reasons for supporting Frank Field though are very simple.  He is someone seen as a genuine reformer, he is a bit of a maverick in his own party, but at the same time he is also a strong believer in parliament.  Whilst I do not yet know what he will advocate if he chooses to stand (I am sure I won’t agree with all of it), I am reassured by his belief in the importance of political parties whilst also encouraging proper scrutiny of government.  He could well be the first Speaker to enter the office with a real mandate, rather than simply to continue a centuries old office.

Obama, pirates and Flickr

Ever since Barack Obama was elected it’s been very easy for people in this country to look across the Atlantic with envy.  The events of the last week has made that even stronger, although in forming his cabinet Obama has had his own fair share of dodgy politicians to deal with.  But this photo that I spotted today perhaps shows even more just how different the two administrations are.

Obama and speechwriter Cody KeenanOK, so it’s all light-hearted and you could argue that given the serious events going on in the world at the moment this isn’t appropriate.  But I think it’s good to see the more light-hearted side of government and Obama is very good at that.  With Brown you get strange smiling that is more of a gurn, but with Obama you get a genuinely relaxed guy who, as the recent White House Press Correspondents’ Dinner showed, has a real humorous touch too.

When I found this photo I also noticed a subtle difference in approach to how government works with the people.  Whilst both The White House and 10 Downing Street have Flickr sites – something I never knew before – The White House actively encourages people to download the photos on there and use them to illustrate the work of the president.  10 Downing Street on the other hand has reserved all rights and doesn’t give you any chance to download the photos even with restrictions on their usage.  What is noticeable is that on The White House Flickr site people have posted loads of comments and actively engaged with the website, the Downing Street site has no comments at all (or at least none on the first two pages anyway).

It’s only subtle and given the current events in British politics it isn’t that important.  But I think it shows a different attitude and a completely different approach to politics and to government, and one that we could learn from.

Are MPs less honest now than they were

Well if you listen to Norman Tebbit you would think so.  This week he called for people to “teach the big parties a lesson” because “what is wrong is that the people who are currently in it [the House of Commons] are misbehaving”.  But if he really believes that the current crop of MPs are somehow more dishonest than those who have been there before he is guilty of a serious re-writing of history.

We can all point at countless examples through history of MPs who have have behaved in a dishonest way with probably the most famous being Lloyd-George’s sale of peerages.  What is different now is not that MPs are less honest it is simply that a combination of the internet, the Freedom of Information Act and stronger investigative journalism means that the general public are more likely to know what is going on.

The other big change though is that MPs now have bigger allowances to spend than they used to, and that is because the expectation of how an MP does his/her job has changed.  At one time MPs hardly did casework and until recently many MPs just ignored letters from constituents, whereas now people expect a reply.  It is virtually impossible for an MP to operate properly without staff, an office, computers, stationery and many of the other things that the allowances pay for.  It is also very difficult for an MP who believes in serving his/her constituency properly can operate without two homes (unless their constituency is near to London) whereas at one time many MPs hardly spent any time in their seat.  It is also the case that at least fifty years ago most MPs had a large personal wealth before getting elected and many did other jobs on the side, whereas now most MPs are full-time and are not that rich and so do need some financial support to help them buy or rent a second home.

I do not want this to be taken as a blanket defence of MPs and their allowances, as I have often argued in the past that things have to change – as I did here and here – but I worry now that however necessary and reasonable some allowances are none of it will now ever wash with the public.  Funnily enough though, the very fact that all expenses and receipts will now be publicly available will mean that reform will perhaps be less necessary as MPs will judge what is right and wrong by what they believe the public perception will be regardless of the rules.

A recent poll has shown that the general public now want a general election to sort out this problem.  I do understand the anger that people have about this – I’ve heard it myself – and it also angers me as I believe that politics can be a force for good and it is incredibly frustrating that no one will now ever listen to what a politician has to say or believe that anyone who stands for parliament can be honest even though the majority are.  But having an early general election won’t solve this problem.  The expenses issue touches all parties, (and would no doubt touch UKIP, Greens and the BNP if they happened to sit in parliament), and so you cannot simply choose to vote for one specific party to solve the problem.  When a general election comes the issues will, and should, be wider than just MPs expenses, and so you aren’t necessarily going to empty the House of Commons of dishonest people as a result.