Friday, 12 February 2016

Funny but fair - how to generate political nicknames that work

As political attention spans get shorter, it becomes ever more important to be able to label a candidate or a cause with a nickname that resonates. Whether you are tagging your own side or your opponents, if you can find a reference that people will remember then you have made a major step forward.

The history of political nicknames is a pretty long one. They divide into four basic categories:
  • those which are basically affectionate endorsements of a character;
  • those which are dreamt up by newspapers
  • those created as put downs by people supposedly on your own side, and
  • those designed to label your opponents in a negative fashion.

So Charles Kennedy, before he became Leader of the Liberal Democrats, was Chat Show Charlie - thanks to his frequent appearances on TV in panel games. To those who believed politicians should be serious at every turn, the nickname was an insult. But Kennedy kept up the appearances both because he was comfortable in such situations and was making a connection with those who would never dream of watching Question Time. See also Dennis Skinner, the Beast of Bolsover.

UK newspapers, in particular the tabloids, are responsible for many of the best nicknames. Paddy Pantsdown stayed with the former Leader of the Liberal Democrats long after people had forgotten the details of his affair with a former staff member. John Prescott will always be known as Two Jags for his government car use. And referring to Norman Tebbit as the Chingford Skinhead accurately reflected his willingness to trade blows (albeit metaphorical) and I suspect was a nickname he didn’t particularly mind.

Labour seems to be a fertile breeding ground for epithets designed to denigrate one of your own. The party has given us Brains (David Miliband), St Ella (Stella Creasy), and the Streatham Obama (Chuka Umunna). None are intended to be particularly complimentary.

Some politicians will be lucky enough to be given nicknames from more than one source. So Ed Miliband was Red Ed to the right wing press and (when a Special Advisor in Downing Street) the Emissary from the Planet F*ck according to Alastair Campbell.

When it comes to generating a nickname for your opponents, it can be a tricky business. There is the danger of being seen to be over the top or, most dangerous of all, unfunny. You might even find your nickname is taken on board by the recipient. So when Labour’s Harriet Harman (herself nicknamed Harperson by opponents deriding political correctness) labelled Danny Alexander the Ginger Rodent, not only did this deflect from the far more dangerous (because it was funny) Beaker epithet, but also gave Alexander the chance to take the name as his own, to the extent that he sponsored a guest beer in a House of Commons bar named ‘The Ginger Rodent’. The joke was on Harman.

In the United States, the attacks on Barack Obama claiming he was secretly a muslim were recognised by mainstream republicans to be alienating to most voters. But whilst they did not find favour with the GOP presidential campaign, Obama was referred to in all internal campaign briefings as BHO - for Barack Hussein Obama (his full name). If the republicans could not claim that their opponent was a muslim, they could at least continually remind people that he had a muslim sounding middle name.

The run up to the EU referendum in the UK is looking like fertile ground for nicknames. Home Secretary Theresa May is seeing the revival of her Theresa Maybe label as she vacillates between support for In and Out camps. And the attempt by the Leave camp to tag their opponents as Remainians could be seen as a clever move, linking the the notion of Romanian migrants to an In vote.

In UK by-elections, the labels get somewhat more personal. The Conservative candidate in the 2006 Bromley and Chislehurst by election, Bob Neill, came close to losing a 13,342 majority (holding on by just 633 votes) after a targeted campaign by the second place Liberal Democrats who named him Three Jobs Bob in respect of his roles as a barrister, member of the GLA and health authority boss, a targeting that Neill reflected on angrily in his count speech.

In 1991, the Liberal Democrat candidate in the Hemsworth by-election, Val Megson was labelled by the media as ‘the candidate who hasn’t paid her poll tax’. True enough. But at a time when many thousands of less well off voters in the seat were also struggling to pay the charge, it might not have been the worst nickname to have - particularly when it deflected attention from a number of other alleged financial difficulties the candidate was facing. Although never in danger of winning that contest, she nevertheless leapfrogged the Conservatives to take second place.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

When voters don't understand their job (a US election post)

The point of the primaries is to pick a nominee and the point of the early contests is to narrow the field somewhat so that the choice is clearer. The trouble is that voters in neither Iowa nor New Hampshire appear to have read their job description. Donald Trump’s failure to win in Iowa had him reeling, but his win in New Hampshire - and at 35% he hit the very top of the predicted range - restores him to favouritism. Ted Cruz, for all that he should have been weeded out by now, is in it for the long term thanks to his Iowa win. He also speaks to the Tea Party and the evangelicals in a way that no other candidate remaining does.

But in the mainstream column there is a clusterf*ck of epic proportions. John Kasich ‘won’ New Hampshire by coming second to Trump and will receive flavour-of-the-moment status despite his campaign being low on money. For the Ohio governor, New Hampshire was always going to be a good contest but there are few bright spots on the primary horizon. The failure of Jeb Bush and Chris Christie to shine - and Marco Rubio’s descent back into the pack - gives Kasich a few days of attention which he will have to make the most of if he is not to fade again.


While it is likely that Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson will be dropping out soon, the plethora of candidates in the ‘Not Trump or Cruz’ column is troubling for the party. The media love to talk up the prospect of a contested convention but the GOP appear to be playing into their hands. A run of states friendly to the Trump (and more so, Cruz) vision is coming up and the supposedly mainstream candidates could be calmed in very shallow waters unless something can be sorted quickly.

But (and it is a big caveat), if the mainstream could get behind a single candidate, then the pressure will fall back on Cruz and Trump. Neither is the sort of character to bow out but if they are facing a single establishment candidate then they are likely to lose a lot of states.


If Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina do drop out after New Hampshire then what happens to their supporters? They may have been also rans but they had the backing of about one in nine republican voters. The pollsters (who largely got it right in NH) suggest that the Carson fans will break for Cruz above Trump and the Fiorinas for Rubio above the Donald. But there may be a bit of tactical scrambling to be done among the remaining candidates over the next 48 hours.


The next primary is South Carolina which is a something for everybody state. Unlike Iowa (lots of evangelicals) and New Hampshire (lots of liberals), each of the different parts of the Republican Party will be able to find a lot of supporters for their cause next week. So the primary will be an opportunity to see who is able to turn out their supporters and, possibly, win a few from one of the other camps. But it is also possible that it will produce yet another muddled result in which everyone can take a positive and no candidate drops out.


If I had to guess what will happen then I think Chris Christie will be bowing out this week or next. So too will John Kasich after his few days in the sun and a disappointing result in South Carolina. Which will leave the mainstream to Jeb and Rubio. And whilst Rubio was given his chance after Iowa, his showing in the New Hampshire debate was pretty disappointing and late-deciding voters on Tuesday say they were put off by this. If he doesn’t recover pretty soon then he might be seen as another busted flush. So for all that the latest Bush has been written off and his vote tally underwhelmed in New Hampshire, it may well be time to see Jeb as the great survivor. Buy Bushes.


A footnote on John Kasich. So far, he is the only candidate (on either side) talking about winning the general election. As a left-leaning Republican it is probably the case that he doesn’t really have anywhere else to go. But while the bulk of the GOP candidates are talking to a small constituency on the right of American society, it was pretty clear that Hillary Clinton wanted to be able to tack to the centre and hoover up enough support to win the Presidency before the GOP even had their nominee sorted. But the strength of the Bernie Sanders campaign has thwarted this ambition.


Is Hillary Clinton the new Barack Obama? In a complete reversal of eight years ago, it is Clinton who is relying on the higher income, intellectual and ethnic minority voters. Bernie Sanders is picking up the blue collar and rural Democrats who Clinton won last time. (Clinton still wins among women and loses among the young, however).


For all that Sanders won big in New Hampshire, the odds are still stacked against him for the nomination. None of the next few contests are even close to his ‘backyard’ either geographically or demographically. He has the momentum at the moment but will have to capitalise on it hugely - and pick up a resonance among black voters that he has failed to show so far - if he is to have a chance.


Speaking of having the odds stacked against him, Sanders must also overcome the vagueries of the Democratic system. He (all but) tied with Clinton in Iowa and won comprehensively in New Hampshire but some how trails Clinton in delegate numbers. Not that it will be close enough to matter come the convention, but young idealistic Sanders fans will find it hard to come to terms with this sort of machine politics fix. (H/T John Ault for the link)


The billion dollar question is whether former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg will do more than hint at a third party candidature. It is said that he is determined to avoid a Trump (or Cruz) presidency. The trouble is that whilst a third party candidate has traditionally been of the Ross Perot right - and thereby weakened the Republicans - a Bloomberg centrist run is likely to take votes away from the Democrats. Pit Bloomberg against Hillary and they may battle to a score draw allowing Trump or Cruz to win on a (very messy) plurality. Only if the Democratic nominee is Bernie Sanders does Bloomberg actually emerge as a possible winner. And that ain’t gonna happen.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Graham Facks-Martin

Graham Facks-Martin, one of the stalwart servants of Launceston and North Cornwall, died this morning after a long illness.

Graham was a town councillor for many years. Previously he had been the chairman of North Cornwall District Council. He was a Conservative, but of a sort not frequently encountered these days. Passionately pro-European, he was also a keen advocate of more social housing and served on the board of Cornwall Rural Housing Association, latterly as chairman.

Graham was awarded the MBE for public service in 2006.

Graham and I didn't always agree on everything, but his passion for the town was quite apparent and he argued his case with conviction whether he ultimately won or lost the vote. He will be missed.

Scott Mann's dodgy toilet complaint

North Cornwall's Conservative MP Scott Mann has asked the Prime Minister to intervene to force Cornwall Council to abandon a policy of seeking to devolve public toilet provision. The trouble is that he forgets that his own party, when in power, did exactly the same thing.

According to the BBC:
Mr Mann said their closure would "bring disastrous consequences upon the county" and this was a "fundamental public health issue".
Cornwall Council, in the face of a government requirement to make £196m of savings over four years, is seeking to find commercial, community or local town and parish council partners to take on public toilets. The rights and wrongs of the policy are a matter for legitimate debate.

But what seems to have been ignored by Mr Mann is that when the Conservatives ran the council from 2009-2013, they did exactly the same thing. They listed a large number of public toilets and told local councils that if they did not take them on then they would be closed. Some town councils - like Launceston - took on the service. Others did not and the toilets were closed.

If Mr Mann is successful and the remaining toilets are kept open at Cornwall Council expense then it will be unfair on the people of towns like Launceston who are currently paying through their council tax both for the town's toilets and for those elsewhere in Cornwall. Ending this double taxation is one of the aims of the current policy which Mr Mann objects to.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Whitbread threaten higher prices to pay new minimum wage.

Whitbread are saying that they will have to raise prices at their outlets including Costa and Premier Inn so as to be able to pay the new minimum wage which will rise to £7.20 per hour from next April.

The rise in the minimum wage (still not a living wage) should be good news - with the caveat that it only applies to over 25s and so many people under this age will continue to struggle. Of course it may not mean that people have a lot more money in their pockets as the government is cutting tax credits and other benefits at the same time, but it will mean fewer forms and less bureaucracy.

The third side of the triangle is that the government has also been reducing business taxes - both corporation tax and by offering grants to local councils to cut business rates.

Overall, every part of the economy will gain and will lose. Whitbread are benefiting from lower taxes. In return they have to pay their employees a bit more. The workers are getting more in their pay packet but many are getting less from benefits. The government are getting less in tax but paying out less in tax credits. It's not exactly revolutionary stuff but fits with the Tory ethos.

What also fits with the ethos of the free market is that if customers don't want to pay the higher prices that Whitbread are threatening then they can take their trade elsewhere. I would thoroughly recommend using your local independent coffee shop instead of Costa.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Government to propose expanding powers of Police Commissioners

Far from regognising that elected police and crime commissioners are a failed experiment, it appears that the government is proposing to give these people control over fire authorities. A consultation is expected to be slipped out next week in advance of elections next May.

Police and Crime Commissioners were created three and a half years ago to replace police authorities. The government's vision was a single person to over see the work of each police force. But the first elections showed that the public didn't understand or were not enthused by the posts and only 15% bothered to vote.

Since then, police commissioners have largely failed to connect with the public - and certainly don't seem to have done anything to reduce crime levels. Instead, they end up costing more than the police authorities they were meant to replace and are being forced to implement government funding cuts.

Now the idea appears to be that they might take on the oversight of fire and rescue services.

One potential problem is where the fire service's boundaries are not co-terminus with the police force - like in Cornwall. Here we have a Cornwall only fire service (part of the council) but Devon and Cornwall Police.

But even if they can get over the boundary issue, this is the wrong step from the government. Better would be to admit that police and crime commissioners are an embarrassing mistake and return to an updated version of police authorities.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Eagle House application withdrawn

The planning application seeking permission to turn the Eagle House Hotel into a private residence has been withdrawn.

The controversial proposal was first put forward - and refused - last year. This re-application was recommended for approval by planning officers but was due to be decided by the planning committee next Monday.

It has been suggested that the hotel has been sold to a buyer intent on retaining it in its current form. I'm afraid I have not had confirmation of this and so cannot confirm - but it would be good news if true.