Ewan Crawford: Silly season is a time to get serious
As the Olympics dominate, our politicians have gone oddly quiet, but are they using their freedom well? asks Ewan Crawford
IF you feel there has been something missing this summer, have you considered it might not just be the absence of some sun but the fact that there hasn’t been enough Ed Miliband in your life?
Or maybe the problem hasn’t been the lack of announcements from the Labour leader. What about his party’s Scottish red flag-bearer Johann Lamont, or even Alex Salmond or David Cameron?
Apart from the obligatory congratulatory Olympic tweet or press release, all these politicians have been relatively quiet over the past week or so in particular.
But, and I am probably going out on a limb here, I am guessing that the political ceasefire (now shattered at Westminster over House of Lords reform) has not been that big a blow to most people’s lives.
Summer is always a traditionally quiet time for politics, but with London 2012 wiping virtually every other domestic story from the airwaves, most senior politicians have decided there is no point in trying to “get up”, as Tony Blair’s former press spokesman Alastair Campbell used to say, any other issue.
The fact that the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, chose this time to make his statement on House of Lords reform – rather than waiting for the Olympics to be over – suggests this is an issue on which he is not exactly seeking to dominate the news.
The door may now be open for a period of speculation about both Mr Clegg’s leadership and the future of the coalition, but the calculation will surely be that people are more interested in the fortunes of Team GB rather than Team Lib Dem.
This, then, will be a test of a wider question which faces all parties – how to balance short-term media and political management with longer term strategic goals.
For opposition leaders, who unlike Mr Clegg lack the levers and responsibilities of power, media attention can become intoxicating, but on their own attracting headlines, even favourable ones, should not necessarily be equated with political progress.
That is not to say that getting mentioned in the press and on radio and television is without practical benefits. In some respects, the ability to get noticed is essential for those trying to make a name for themselves and their parties.
In his book, The Audacity of Hope, written before he became president, Barack Obama highlighted the remarkable statistic that the re-election rate for members of the US House of Representatives was 96 per cent.
It was difficult, he wrote, to penetrate the consciousness of a busy electorate, which meant that winning in politics often came down to simple name recognition and was why “most incumbents spend inordinate amounts of time between elections making sure their names are repeated over and over again, whether at ribbon cuttings or Fourth of July parades”.
Skilful politicians in this country have also used the media to their advantage. In his role as Scottish Secretary before the last UK general election, it seemed to be a rare day indeed when Jim Murphy was not featured at some event or other.
Tellingly, one of the few notable political stories of recent days was the announcement by a back-bench Conservative MP elected only in 2010 that she was resigning. In her two years in the House of Commons, Louise Mensch, through her ubiquitous presence on Twitter and ability to attract publicity because of her honest statements on drug use and her personal life, has become better known than some members of the UK Cabinet.
The only other politician who has consistently been getting headlines has been the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, through a combination of the Olympics and his carefully cultivated personality.
For more serious politicians, however, the mayor’s celebrity points to the dangers of both too much and too little publicity.
The lack of other political stories has provoked a great deal of commentary and polling on Boris’s chances of succeeding David Cameron as Tory leader and Prime Minister. This is bound to be an irritant to Number 10 at a time when the Westminster government is struggling in the polls. But the danger of too much publicity on too many issues is that it can become hard to work out what a politician really believes in. One political journalist, for example, described Mr Johnson’s role accurately as being nothing more than a “living taunt” to Mr Cameron.
The best political leaders – a Salmond or a Blair – seem to possess an instinctive ability to intervene at the right times and on the right issues, although neither of course has proved infallible.
But both are clearly strategic thinkers with long-term goals in mind. It is this lack of time to think strategically that is one of the big problems caused by the insatiable demand for reactions and initiatives.
I remember feeling particularly aggrieved during one summer while working for the SNP when the party was described as “becalmed”. From my perspective we were working exceptionally hard in difficult circumstances, but there was clearly an issue, in an unforgiving political and media environment, with our public profile.
Notwithstanding the Westminster coalition’s difficulties, if the Olympics have now afforded a rare opportunity for Scotland’s main parties to think long-term about how to improve people’s lives, then that is something that should be welcomed.
It is revealing, I think, that some opponents of the SNP are getting so excited publicly about Team GB’s success at the games and making predictions about the impact on the independence referendum (when there won’t be any).
The more astute campaigners on both sides should be focussing on the economic and social conditions likely to be prevailing in 2014, rather than on the need to make a political point about a rowing or cycling race in 2012.
Douglas Alexander, the shadow Foreign Secretary, wrote recently of the importance for political parties of “capturing the sense of possibility”. In this he is surely right, but to get to such a position is difficult amid the inevitable daily battle of claim and counter-claim between the parties.
We would all benefit if our political culture was such that snap judgments could be avoided and parties were given time to develop ideas. But I’m not so naive as to think that will happen any time soon.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 22 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
Wind Speed: 24 mph
Wind direction: North west