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Election 2015 – Expectations versus Reality

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Expectations

BBC election studio 2015

Having followed the Guardian live blog all of Thursday (discretely as I was working at the time), my original plan was to start with the BBC election coverage at 10pm. The exit pole would be revealed and this would signify the start of my electoral journey into Friday morning. Twitter was open, the live blogs were being monitored, BBC Two was on TV. My expectation was that the result would be close, the machinations of coalition arithmetic would be endlessly analysed and provide for hours of entertaining debate and wondering.

That was how things were supposed to work. The final result would arrive early in the morning and provide a concrete narrative of how a coalition would be formed. My expectation was that the Tories would claim legitimacy and set themselves up for a very British coup to retain power. I would be disappointed and angry, but at least I could console myself with they fact they would “steal” the election and govern in coalition without a strong mandate from the people. Labour would be revitalised and most virulent temptations of the nasty Tory right would be tamed by the liberals.

The shock of the Exit Pole

The BBC released the results of their Exit poll just after 10 to the shock and disbelief of many. A final poll of polls compiled by the Press Association had put the Tories on 276 seats, Labour on 271, Lib Dems on 28, SNP 48, UKIP three and Greens one. Nicola Surgeon tweeted to treat the poll with “HUGE Caution” while Paddy Ashdown said he’d eat his hat if it was true.

I was flummoxed by the prediction. To think the Tories could be near to a majority was never a result I envisaged throughout the campaign. The polls – and polls of polls – while predicting up to a 35% vote share, never had has resulting in much more than 283 seats.

The first guest interviewed by David Dimbleby after the release of the exit poll was Tory education reform supremo Michael Gove. While appearing shocked at the predicted result he said “I believe it could be right, yes”. With that my heart sank. I was forced to contemplate the manic desires of the Tory neo-liberalism agenda expanding its reach over the coming five years. This would be exemplified by the

* increasing privatisation of the public sphere – think provision of NHS services by private companies, further outsourcing of public services and huge reductions in social housing
* deregulation of the corporate sector – think expansion in zero hours contracts and further pressure on rights of trade unions to strike
* lowering of income and corporate taxes, paid for with spending cuts – taking the axe to £12 billion (10%) of the welfare budget affecting the poorest and most vulnerable in society

Like some on twitter, I had to switch off. My election night was over.

What went wrong, what to put right and future wrongs

Friday represented a chance to analyse and reflect on how the Tories achieved their majority. Stephen Fisher sums it up as

Ultimately the main answers are to do with the collapse of Labour in Scotland inadequately compensated for by modest net gains in England and Wales. On a smaller scale the Conservatives have benefited disproportionately, on seats if not on votes, from the collapse of the Liberal Democrats. The rise of UKIP that was expected to disproportionately hurt the Tories, but in fact seems to undermined the Labour performance more.

The next step is to understand what Labour got wrong, how they can rise again and what the next five years have in store for the UK.

Alan Johnson, writing in the Guardian, and Owen Jones at the paper’s live event yesterday point to a few of Labour’s problems:

1) Scotland – The extraordinary wipe-out in Scotland (they lost 40 of 41 seats). Owen Jones puts this down to the formation of an alliance with the Tories in the referendum on Scottish Independence; The chief tactic of which was fear. They are described in Scotland as the “Red Tories”. Along with this, there was the filling of the progressive vacuum by the SNP and poor party organisation in constituencies with once large Labour majorities. Polly Toynbee believes that Scotland is gone and can never again be controlled by the same party North and South of the boarder. Given this, does Labour retreat into a focus on individual constituencies or become a Scotland focused party loosely federated with a UK Labour identity.

2) Strategy and Messaging – The failure to project a coherent narrative for what the Labour party stood for over the past 5 years allowed the Tories to grab public attention with their clear and sharp messages of ‘recovery, jobs and leadership’. Their “achievements” as they claimed were to have “balanced the books, reformed welfare, taking the low paid out of tax”. They created powerful narratives which were endlessly peddled by their media advisers into the right-wing press.

Labour seemed to rely on facts and figures which failed to counterbalance the emotional power of a good human anecdote. Today’s Guardian leader sums it up as

What Labour needs most urgently now is not soul-searching or a hunt for first principles, but instead to figure out how to convert these principles into the sort of policies that might just catch the ear of a radio listener or TV viewer who is only half paying attention, and which the next party leader will be able to use to unfold the intelligible story that Mr Miliband was not in the end able to tell.

The foundations of the Tory election platform was a ‘strong economy’ and ‘strong leadership’. Labour failed to counter this by either its previous achievements or exposing the inherent weaknesses in this Tory argument. Johnson writes:

We seemed to have no effective riposte to Cameron’s successful distortion of our economic record in government. Thus a succession of Tory ministers were allowed to describe the global banking crisis as “Labour’s recession” and to refer (as Jeremy Hunt did) to the economy contracting. There was no rebuttal from Labour pointing out the decent levels of growth being recorded before George Osborne choked off the recovery through his vainglorious emergency budget in June 2010.

No sooner had Ed Milliband resigned than had the hustling started for the next leader of the Labour party. New Labour survivors such as Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper are favorites, along with Chuka Umunna and Dan Jarvis. Good candidates, but not exactly inspirational leaders to advance and champion the principles of the left as eloquently as Blair advanced New Labour’s aspirational visions.

Their challenge will be to redefine the principles of the party and outline their strategy for 2020. Last night’s Question Time pondered if they were “too right wing for Scotland but too left wing for England”. Can they conceivably ever recover in Scotland, can they ever win by being a “traditional left” party? How do you combine the aspirational, entrepreneurial and prosperous vision of “Mondeo man”, with compassion and support for the poor and vulnerable. What does the map below say about their base and can they ever made inroads into Southern England?

Miliband gambled that the country was ready to move its political centre to the left. The benefits of such a move were not powerfully articulated or accepted by a public swept up on a Tory vision of recovery and prosperity for the few.

As dispiriting as it sounds things may have to get a lot worse before they get better. Polly Toynbee’s outline of the dystopian future ahead for the low paid represents the chilling reality of the next 5 years. It’s a reality I completely unexpected at 9.59pm on Thursday. It’s a reality borne out of a surge in Scottish Nationalism, Labour’s strategic mistakes and the powerful Tory messaging of a strong economy and strong leadership. It’s said the Left have only two positions, self-righteousness and self-loathing. The latter we’ll have for months, but let’s not fall into the former once the cuts begin in earnest.

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Opening Up Gov.uk – [VIDEO]

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Guardian Technology reporter Jemina Kiss talking to Mike Bracken (UK Government Digital Chief) and Francis Maude (Cabinet Office Minister) about Gov.uk and a radical shakeup in the government’s digital estate.


(via guardian.co.uk)

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Jordan Raynor – Co-founder of Citizinvestor — outlines his new platform for the crowd-funding of local government projects. The site – similar to Kickstarter – highlights public services projects that are in the pipeline but unfunded and provides a mechanism for citizen to contribute financially to their implementation.

(h/t Govfresh)

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Freedom of Information campaigner Heather Brooke’s powerful Ted talk traces her battle to uncover the British Parliamentary financial expenses and the resulting political scandal in 2009. She urges us to ask our leaders questions through platforms like Freedom of Information requests — and to finally get some answers.

On her fight for Parliament expenses information:

So I fought for about five years doing this, and it was one of many hundreds of requests that I made, not — I didn’t — Hey, look, I didn’t set out, honestly, to revolutionize the British Parliament. That was not my intention. I was just making these requests as part of research for my first book. But it ended up in this very long, protracted legal battle and there I was after five years fighting against Parliament in front of three of Britain’s most eminent High Court judges waiting for their ruling about whether or not Parliament had to release this data. And I’ve got to tell you, I wasn’t that hopeful, because I’d seen the establishment. I thought, it always sticks together. I am out of luck.

Well, guess what? I won. Hooray. (Applause)

On the democratization of information:

So we are moving to this democratization of information, and I’ve been in this field for quite a while. Slightly embarrassing admission: Even when I was a kid, I used to have these little spy books, and I would, like, see what everybody was doing in my neighborhood and log it down. I think that was a pretty good indication about my future career as an investigative journalist, and what I’ve seen from being in this access to information field for so long is that it used to be quite a niche interest, and it’s gone mainstream. Everybody, increasingly, around the world, wants to know about what people in power are doing. They want a say in decisions that are made in their name and with their money.

On the demand for data:

So that’s why we’re seeing increasingly this demand for access to information. That’s why we’re starting to see more disclosure laws come out, so for example, on the environment, there’s the Aarhus Convention, which is a European directive that gives people a very strong right to know, so if your water company is dumping water into your river, sewage water into your river, you have a right to know about it. In the finance industry, you now have more of a right to know about what’s going on, so we have different anti-bribery laws, money regulations, increased corporate disclosure, so you can now track assets across borders. And it’s getting harder to hide assets, tax avoidance, pay inequality.

On advances in freedom of information:

So this is a guy called Seb Bacon. He’s a computer programmer, and he built a site called Alaveteli, and what it is, it’s a Freedom of Information platform. It’s open-source, with documentation, and it allows you to make a Freedom of Information request, to ask your public body a question, so it takes all the hassle out of it, and I can tell you that there is a lot of hassle making these requests, so it takes all of that hassle out, and you just type in your question, for example, how many police officers have a criminal record? It zooms it off to the appropriate person, it tells you when the time limit is coming to an end, it keeps track of all the correspondence, it posts it up there, and it becomes an archive of public knowledge. So that’s open-source and it can be used in any country where there is some kind of Freedom of Information law.

On advances in investigative reporting and collaboration:

In my own field of investigative journalism, we’re also having to start thinking globally, so this is a site called Investigative Dashboard. And if you’re trying to track a dictator’s assets, for example, Hosni Mubarak, you know, he’s just funneling out cash from his country when he knows he’s in trouble, and what you want to do to investigate that is, you need to have access to all of the world’s, as many as you can, companies’ house registrations databases. So this is a website that tries to agglomerate all of those databases into one place so you can start searching for, you know, his relatives, his friends, the head of his security services. You can try and find out how he’s moving out assets from that country.

On radical openness:

So I’ve mentioned WikiLeaks, because surely what could be more open than publishing all the material? Because that is what Julian Assange did. He wasn’t content with the way the newspapers published it to be safe and legal. He threw it all out there. That did end up with vulnerable people in Afghanistan being exposed. It also meant that the Belarussian dictator was given a handy list of all the pro-democracy campaigners in that country who had spoken to the U.S. government. Is that radical openness? I say it’s not, because for me, what it means, it doesn’t mean abdicating power, responsibility, accountability, it’s actually being a partner with power. It’s about sharing responsibility, sharing accountability.

One future solutions:

So what is the solution? It is, I believe, to embody within the rule of law rights to information. At the moment our rights are incredibly weak. In a lot of countries, we have Official Secrets Acts, including in Britain here. We have an Official Secrets Act with no public interest test. So that means it’s a crime, people are punished, quite severely in a lot of cases, for publishing or giving away official information. Now wouldn’t it be amazing, and really, this is what I want all of you to think about, if we had an Official Disclosure Act where officials were punished if they were found to have suppressed or hidden information that was in the public interest?

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The popular website KildareStreet.com, was effectively shut-down earlier this month by changes to data feeds on the Irish Government’s Oireachtas website. The independent website – created and run by John Handelaar – utilized public data sets to provide a convenient and searchable archive of everything said in the Dáil [Irish Parliament] since January 2004, and Seanad [Ireland’s Upper House] since September 2002.

While the site was hugely popular – receiving over 570,000 unique visitors in the year to September (a third of these from Irish government addresses) – it has been unable to update its archive of data since the beginning of the new Dáil term on September 18th. The reason is down to changes in how the Houses of the Oireachtas publishes its XML feeds, and raises questions about the Government’s commitment to Open Data.

According to a statement by John Handelaar of Kildarestreet:

On September 18th, 2012, with no warning or published statement of intent, a significant change to the Houses of Oireachtas website housing the public record of Dail and Sinead debates was made, effectively killing KildareStreet.com for the foreseeable future.

It appears that such changes were made to achieve efficiencies through the removal of a layer of outsourcing. Ryan Meade’s blog on the debacle sums up the rational:

Mark Mulqueen, Head of Communications for the Oireachtas, confirmed to me on Twitter that the recent changes to the site were designed to achieve efficiencies by ending the outsourcing of “a large amount of work involved in debates. That’s where a saving arises.” I asked him if this meant that Propylon were no longer managing the debate records and he replied, “Yes, I can confirm that to be the case. Using existing resources we will provide access to debates more quickly”.

The consequences of these changes (which were implemented without prior warning), however, were to kill the data feeds that KildareStreet relied on. In order to recover from this loss of data, KildareStreet have embarked on a 2 week fundraising campaign to assist with a new edition of the website to cater for the Government’s XML design changes (and use of the proprietary and dated Lotus Notes platform).
KildareStreet.com

This rebuilding effort is expected to take several weeks to design and implement.

It is worth noting, however, that the changes to the Oireachtas website do not appear to have gone without incident. Simon McGarr notes (and I can personally testify to the following):

The search doesn’t work and never did. You can’t link to any particular part of a debate. You can’t look for contributions by a particular Oireachtas member. Basically, you can’t do anything you could possibly imagine you might actually want to use a record of the Oireachtas debates for.

KildareStreet in contrast has a very intuitive user interface and allows for email alerts when various key words are spoken in parliament. It has operated since 2009 on €5,800 raised from donors and does not receive any government funding. It’s a supremely efficient and effective service and deserves public support.

To donate, goto kildarestreet.com/zombies

For more check:

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Clay Shirky’s recent TED talk, “How the Internet will (one day) transform government,” is a powerful assessment of how governments can utilize the power of the Internet to lower the costs of doing things. He investigates the government’s role in the coordination of collective effort, and how the intrinsic features of the web can mean the dramatic lowering of costs facilitating big changes.

Via TED:

The open-source world has learned to deal with a flood of new, oftentimes divergent, ideas using hosting services like GitHub — so why can’t governments? In this rousing talk Clay Shirky shows how democracies can take a lesson from the Internet, to be not just transparent but also to draw on the knowledge of all their citizens.

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