Category Archives: Public Relations

Identity politics work – sadly

In the UK yesterday, many people from the “Remain” end of the spectrum expressed disbelief that UK passports will be blue from October 2019. Some, the current author included, noted that they were not blue in any case before they switched to their current burgundy; others suggested there were other priorities in national life; still more tried to pin a cost on the change (we will come to that…); and pollsters said people did not really care that much.

Meanwhile, in the US, the President was arguing for the term “Merry Christmas” in preference to “Happy Holidays”. There was a similarly disdainful reaction from Liberals; and pollsters again said people did not really care that much.

However, I suspect people do care. That is why the UK Prime Minister and US President are getting up to such antics around “identity politics”. As we know only too well in Northern Ireland, identity politics work.

A few years ago, at around this time of year, Sinn Fein decided to switch its stance on the Union Flag at City Hall, thus meaning that an Alliance amendment in line with its own policy would see it flown only on designated days. Very few people would have expressed much interest in the subject to pollsters, but Sinn Fein was deliberately pulling at emotions and identities; and the DUP responded. The result was economic chaos – and both parties improved their position at the subsequent elections. Having messed around for a year now while Health goes unreformed, Education becomes unsustainable and the economy fails to grow, the two parties should be being punished by the electorate for their callous unwillingness to get on with the job – yet both, in fact, are scoring record poll numbers. Identity politics work.

I was in the US last month and I did notice the preponderance of the word “holiday”, to an extent that it is now plainly ludicrous. A market outside the Smithsonian in Washington DC plays Christmas music, sells Christmas gifts, is based on German Weihnachtsmaerkte (“Christmas markets”), yet incredibly is referred to as a “Holiday Market”. This, to people of even slightly Conservative leanings, is surely an example of political uber-correctness, and a reaction is unsurprising. This notion that things which are obviously one thing cannot be referred to as that thing for fear of causing some kind of “offence” genuinely and often in fact legitimately annoys people, even though they overtly make little of it. So, when someone actually appeals to that covert annoyance, it is unsurprising that that appeal is successful. Identity politics work.

And so it was with the response to the blue passports. Firstly, there is the somewhat academic factual reaction (“Ah, but Croatia has its own colour and it is in the EU”); but for people like last week’s Question Time audience in Barnsley, that misses the point and just looks smug. Secondly, there is the (entirely legitimate) mockery of the notion that the colour is “iconic” for the simple reason that UK passports were never that shade of blue; but perhaps this too misses the point, which is presumably that at least they will not be burgundy like the Continentals. Thirdly, there is the notion that there are other priorities; but here we have the Remainers/Liberals engaging in fake news of their own. Although the new passport provision contract will indeed cost nearly £500m, the fact is it would cost that regardless of the colour – so the notion that not changing the colour would leave £500m over to tackle homelessness or to spend on the NHS is no more accurate than the infamous £350m claim on the Brexit bus.

In fact, we all get embroiled in identity politics – even those of us who claim to be above it get embroiled in it, even though we tell ourselves that we only do so to try to emphasise why we are above it. In fact, I do think it is worth making the point that having a big fuss over changing a passport colour does make the British themselves look rather insecure and their government look pathetic. If anything, however, even this is merely a representative symptom of the broader problem – that the British are fundamentally insecure and their government is pathetic. To be clear, I could not care what colour my passport is, which means it does not bother me to change it; what bothers me are the ludicrous fantasies of “bringing back”, “iconic colours” and “independence” when we should not be seeking to “bring back”, there is nothing “iconic” about the colour, and the fact the passports will be made abroad to standards set abroad rather demonstrates the absurdity of the notion of “independence” in an interdependent world.

For all that, in fact what has happened is the Prime Minister has successfully diverted attention from the real story, which is that David Davis’ impact assessments have now been shown beyond doubt not to, er, assess impact. Since one Cabinet Minister has gone for lying, there is a cast iron case for a second going. But we are not talking about that. Identity politics can be a lovely diversion when you want to shield some other story – which is why they work. Sadly.

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Media still don’t understand referendum result

The biggest issue with the referendum result is not, in fact, what now happens with regard to the UK’s relationship with the EU, but who governs the UK and with what legitimacy.

The media continue to misunderstand this, but presenting the referendum victory as one for Messrs Johnson, Farage and perhaps Hannan. Those names were not on the ballot paper, and I would safely say that if they had been, only a minority of Leave voters would have voted for them.

The Leave vote is being characterised by the very Liberal Elites they were kicking in the teeth as essentially a rural Conservative/UKIP one. Look at the results charts, however, and that fundamentally misunderstands who Leave voters are.

The very first sign of the Leave victory came from a whopping lead secured in Sunderland. This is hardly a citadel of Tory farmers! On it went – Sheffield, Hull, even Birmingham had Leave majorities of varying sizes. While not discounting the Conservative voters who did vote to leave (though even many of these came in some of the poorest parts of the south, such as Hastings and Folkestone), the vast majority of Leave voters were not Conservatives or even UKIP. A lot were (previously, at least) Labour and, most notably of all (but missed completely by the media) a huge number were non-voters.

Actually, overall, the north of England voted Leave in greater numbers than the south. So where in the media are the northern English voices about what should happen now?

Many Leave voters were putting down a marker not just against the political elite but also the media elite which it feels ignores them too. The fact it is ignoring them even now rather demonstrates the point!

The average Leave voter simply does not look like Mr Johnson or Mr Farage. Think urban north and you are much closer. This is very important – because they are still distant from real power, and indeed with Mr Johnson and Mr Farage in charge they will only become more distant.

This brings us to the most important issue of all. In the words of the Prime Minister who took us into Europe: “Who governs?”

And with what legitimacy?

A Prime Minister Johnson, or Gove, or even May comes to power without an election, but is also entirely unrepresentative of the Leave voters who in effect created the vacancy. (For the reverse reason, their legitimacy would also be instinctively questioned in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but we will come to that in another post!)

The media have to be very alive to this issue, but it seems they are not. Focused as their are on political (would-be) leaders rather than the actual social issues the voters themselves were feeling, they are simply missing the point – and the people. There is no point reporting who the next Prime Minister will be or even how negotiations will likely proceed without also assessing the legitimacy of that Prime Minister’s actions through the eyes of those who in effect put him or her in office.

As I wrote from the start, these are not political matters so much as social and economic ones. So they need to be reported as social and economic ones. To report them otherwise is to miss the point – and to contribute to the very alienation which drove much of the Leave vote in the first place.

Time to redouble efforts on Road Safety

The last road fatality in Northern Ireland brought the total this year to equal to the total for the whole of 2013 – in other words, by mid-October as many people had lost their lives on our roads as did in the entirety of 2015.

It can be argued that this is inevitable as an economic upturn sees people driving more. However, with vehicle safety improving every year, even that does not necessarily stand to reason. Comparable countries have not seen the rises we have seen in the last two years.

Certainly, as I have noted before, the lack of resources for police enforcement is a serious issue. However, that only reinforces the responsibility on the rest of us. We need to consider whether we are giving the road our full attention; whether we are considering all road users and not just those surrounded by metal; and whether our driving is appropriate to conditions as winter approaches.

Typically, between now and end of year, around 12-14 more people are killed on our roads. Let us try to make that zero.

A1 fatalties reason for sorrow – and anger

There was a severe accident on the new A8 road between Belfast and Larne on Sunday, in which there was one casualty but no one was killed. The road is built to the highest possible safety standards below a motorway, including a median barrier throughout meaning that all traffic is proceeding the same way, and there can therefore be no head-on collisions where, in effect, impact speed is doubled or impact is directly with the side door of the car.

Such standards were not originally envisaged for the road and, indeed, there are other, older sections of it where a head-on or sideways collision would be possible due to a break in the median barrier. It is no accident that standards have been raised – people like Wesley Johnston, the roads blogger, and Ben Lowry, in the Belfast Telegraph and now the News Letter, have long campaigned for “no gaps” (i.e. no breaks in the central reservation of a dual carriageway). It was indeed while querying the baffling decision to put median breaks and roundabouts on the new A6 Toome Bypass in 2004 that I got to know both, and upon becoming an elected representative in 2005 I was prominent in highlighting the outrage of allowing blatantly dangerous turnings to remain on prominent, dualled, inter-urban routes.

Our pressure did deliver a change of policy, first apparent arguably on the new A1 Newry Bypass and then more obviously on the new A4 Dungannon-Ballygawley route. A regular dual carriageway would have seen fatalities in the double figures on those routes since 2010 – there have in fact been two. That is the difference in action.

This brings us to the three young gentlemen who had set out on a journey on Sunday afternoon but were not lucky enough to be travelling on a road the standard of the new A8. They were travelling on the A1 between Dromore and Banbridge, a stretch which retains “gaps” (breaks in the central barrier), and where I was interviewed by Niall Donnelly for UTV fully ten years ago appealing for them to be closed (I cannot find the footage but I am certain of the timing). At one of the gaps, the one for Mount Ida Road, all three were killed.

The horrific outcome of Sunday's fatal A1 collision - courtesy BBC

The horrific outcome of Sunday’s fatal A1 collision – courtesy BBC

There is a particular horror to road fatalities. They are so sudden; utterly innocent (and, disproportionately, young) people are involved; there but for the grace of God go the rest of us (I was driving the same route almost exactly 24 hours earlier myself).

In this case, however, there is also a particular anger. There have been proposals to close these lethal “gaps” since 2007, but still we await action – as the answer late last year to this question (not surprisingly asked at my behest) demonstrates.

It is to the credit of TransportNI (the agency formerly known as Roads Service) that they changed policy on dual carriageway construction some time ago, but the Department has been far too slow in implementing the “gap closing” proposals which are frankly straightforward (in that the case for them is clear on safety grounds and they do not require significant new land, etc) and relatively inexpensive (versus other prominent projects which, while improving traffic flow, will not make such a difference to safety).

There has been a rather unfortunate attitude among some senior bureaucrats that they were somehow being cunning by not upgrading the Belfast-Dublin route on the Northern side of the border to full motorway standard, as merely dualling it was cheaper. Let us be clear: merely dualling it and allowing cars to compete with bicycles and tractors across central reservations may have been cheap – but it was lethal.

The whole A1 in Northern Ireland must be upgraded without delay to the standard, at the very least, of the new stretch of the A8. If not, we are guaranteed to see more horror, just as we saw so completely unnecessarily on Sunday.

My sincerest condolences to the families and friends. Let us now ensure this does not happen again.

Auguri, Richard e Martina!

I miei complimenti a Richard e Martina… congratulations to guest blogger Richard Price and Martina de Gregorio on their recent engagement.

I’ve known Richard for some time and had the great honour of meeting Martina in Brussels 18 months ago or so.

I should add that I am not the only person associated with this blog who wanted to wish the happy couple well.

(And, by the way, one guest blog, one engagement – beats Blind Date anyway! Who’s next…?!)

Auguri!

Branding: people don’t believe you, even if it’s true

The new Audi A4 “compact executive” saloon is due out early next year. Already the blurbs are appearing in the car magazines about how it will have a “drastically improved driving experience” aimed at “seizing the BMW 3-series’ crown” as “best car to drive” in the class.

I have to wonder at Audi’s PR team. Why would they allow such a thing to be written in advance of the launch of the model? Why are they prioritising “driving experience” when its main rival has been accepted as the “ultimate driving machine” for at least two decades (i.e. as long as the typical target buyer has been driving)? Because here is the thing: even if Audi were to produce a model which was clearly a better drive than the BMW equivalent, no one would believe it!

This is the power of branding – it builds on a perception which once had justification, but which is maintained in the public’s view long after it is objectively valid. Thus BMW is the “ultimate driving machine” even though other makes do better in sports and touring car racing; Volvo is the “safe” option even though in fact Renault was the first make to have a five-star Euro NCAP rating; Toyota is rock solid reliable even though it has had more recalls globally in the last five years than anyone.

Audi has enjoyed phenomenal success – outside North America at least – with its strategy of using only four basic manufacturing points to build over 50 different models. In other words, there are fundamentally only four Audi models, but they are reshaped, redesigned and re-powered into a vast combination, allowing almost anyone to find an Audi that suits while maintaining the “premium” brand. It’s brilliant. But trust me, no one will ever believe they are better to drive than the equivalent BMW – even if some of them are…

The scourge of retrospective nonsense

“Exit polls are usually [quite reliable], but of course in 1992 they were wrong – the exit polls said a Labour victory, it was actually a Conservative victory” – so said elections expert Anthony Foley at the start of the BBC’s 2005 General Election coverage. The problem is he was utterly wrong. The exit polls in 1992 actually suggested a hung parliament, with the Conservatives as the largest party – they were out (as the Conservatives actually had an overall majority), but nothing like as far out as retrospective “expert analysis” often claims. Indeed, no polls at all in 1992 pointed definitely to a Labour overall majority.

ESPN, in its coverage on English top-flight football’s “last day dramas”, started in 1968 with Manchester United needing to beat Sunderland to secure the title, but crumbling to a narrow defeat and thus handing it to City. This certainly counts as drama – but, upon checking, it’s not actually true. Even if United had won, City would still have taken the title on goal average.

There is, of course, a natural tendency to dramatise and exaggerate. However it does, when taken to this extent, give us often a significantly erroneous view of the past, and of the motivations of people acting in that past. In this age of instant information – both given and taken – it pays to be a little more careful.

NI’s “liberal” media really don’t get it, do they?

One political correspondent suggests Peter Robinson’s comments on not trusting Muslims were an “error of judgement”. Only in the Liberal world 10% of us inhabit. Another suggests there was a “backlash” against him – but again, only from those Liberal ten-percenters. The Liberal media don’t get it, do they?

On Thursday, almost one in four of those entering the polling booth voted DUP first preference. Not a single one of those will now be regretting that decision. That is the real issue here – why can the media not understand that?

In the traditional conservative religion-centred world Peter Robinson inhabits, his comments were far from an “error of judgement”! Having seen 15% of the European Election vote disappear to his right (and similar at Council level where they stood), Peter Robinson the master tactician has instantly looked in that direction to shore up his vote.

After all, no one who voted for Anna Lo would ever contemplate voting DUP. But those (more) who voted for Jim Allister might. It’s that simple.

This has nothing to do with demands for resignation (which only make the DUP cult stronger) or the Ministerial Code (which they’ve already torn to shreds without penalty around the flag protests). It has to do with the fact that making comments like this make you more popular in Northern Ireland, not less so! (The Equality Commission has come out against you? Easy, point out no one elected them. Sinn Féin has come out against you? Easy, no terrorist apologist gets the high ground. And thus the votes return…)

Peter Robinson represents a much larger segment of the Northern Ireland population when he says these things than I do when I oppose them. That is the stark reality – and is the reason for my own appeal to Progressives to face that reality and unite to grow the rational centre ground.

It is astonishing that Liberal hacks in the press have so little understanding of the country they live in. That’s probably why no one buys their papers any more. The rest of us have to make sure that, in future, we offer stuff a significant chunk of our population (and electorate) are going to buy…

Be highly cautious with Northern Ireland “polls”!

I am a big fan of the polling company Lucid Talk which deserves credit for trying to break into a market which simply does not exist in Northern Ireland – namely polling.

The company itself has been consistently clear about its methodology, and has openly warned that much of what it does is not “polling”, or at least is not to be compared to what is referred to as “polling” in Great Britain.

It is not for me to promote a particular company, but the simple fact neither Lucid Talk nor anyone else will be able to deliver polls of real value until they are paid properly to do so.

Polling is in fact an incredibly complex thing. Most obviously, it has to be properly weighted – to take account of voting intention in the past, voting likelihood, social background, gender, age and so on. This in itself requires an enormous amount of research – I have already cautioned that even in Scotland it may be way off with regard to the forthcoming referendum.

With more limited resources, the trick really is not to overstate your case. My own company did an exit poll (purely for research purposes) at the last Assembly Election, after which we were able confidently to predict that Anna Lo would top the poll in Belfast South; the Ulster Unionist vote was down in some places but not in others; the Alliance vote was up in some places but not in others; the DUP and Sinn Fein vote was roughly stable; and (the late) David McClarty would be elected. Here’s the thing, though: with the exception of the latter, I would have confidently predicted all of those things anyway! In other words, I was reading the poll through my own instinct before declaring what I felt it meant – a vast amount of interpretation utterly unacceptable (rightly) to a professional pollster.

As it happened, I was fairly confident (but not confident enough to state overtly) that Steven Agnew would be elected. I reckoned (again not with huge certainty) but had got wrong that David Ford would be on 18% (he was on about 14%) – however, this turned out to be not far off as we did that particular section in Ballyclare, where the Alliance vote in the Local Election did increase markedly (by an amount which, if repeated across the constituency, would have seen it reach 18%). But then, I also reckoned that Mr McClarty would take the seat from the DUP not from the Ulster Unionists – our poll in Coleraine was actually quite good for the Ulster Unionists, when in fact their two candidates came last and second last. A mixed bag at best, in other words…

One thing that I would like to research again that stuck with me was that 29% of those polled had changed their vote in the Assembly Election from the General Election the previous year. In fact, it was striking how many could not remember how they had voted in the past (indicating no affiliation to a particular party). That one is maybe to be pursued next year – but it’ll be a voluntary activity, I suspect.

If we want real polls of real value, frankly, someone is going to have to pay proper money for them.

Unionists fall into Sinn Fein’s trap on parades/past

Nelson McCausland said violence after Friday’s “Republican” parades in Belfast was inevitable. Mike Nesbitt opposed the Castlederg IRA parade with constant reference to, and I quote exactly, “our own PUL community“.

They have fallen – hook, line and sinker – into Sinn Fein’s trap through which history will be re-written to the benefit of the IRA. They may both be Oxbridge-educated, but when it comes to parades and the past their innate sectarianism makes them fools.

Here are a few facts which it doesn’t suit populist, sectarian Unionists (or “Republicans” for that matter) to point out:

  • as a result of the “Troubles”, more Catholics were killed than Protestants;
  • during the “Troubles”, more Catholics were killed by the IRA than by anyone else; and
  • at the end of the “Troubles”, more Catholics were unemployed, in poor health and on low incomes than Protestants.

In other words, a terror campaign for which the IRA was primarily responsible resulted in hell for all of Northern Ireland – but particularly for Catholics.

Thus, Sinn Fein is engaged in a long-standing campaign to make all Catholics believe that the IRA’s terror campaign was not only justified but even glorious. It accepts that Protestants will never believe this, but by pushing this view among Catholics it can then include acceptance of the justification of IRA terror as part of an “equality agenda”, whereby Protestants are generously “entitled” to believe the IRA campaign was unjustified for as long as Catholics are entitled to believe it was justified. Mike Nesbitt is one of many foolish Unionists who fall into this trap by suggesting that the only people opposed to IRA terror, and indeed implicitly that the only victims of it, were Protestants (or members of “our own PUL community“) – thus reinforcing the very dichotomy Sinn Fein is attempting to pursue! This is where buying in wholly to the blinkered sectarian approach gets you.

At the same time, Sinn Fein is also engaged in an attempt to reduce the number of parades and bonfires – an outcome which will gain it kudos in its “own community” with the added benefit, for some at least, that this will predominantly annoy Protestants. After all, Protestants do over 80% of the parading in Northern Ireland and nearly all the bonfires, so any blanket restriction to either will particularly affect Protestants. It just so happens, this summer, that “Republicans” have started pushing the limits on both, particularly parades, causing Unionist politicians both to call for the parades to be banned and to blame the parades for subsequent violence. Thus “Republicans” can very neatly tie parading to violence and move gradually towards a position where there is growing public support, particularly outside the inner cities (among all communities), for parades to be banned altogether or at least severely restricted; a useful by-product of this is they can attempt to tie the Orange Order to Loyalist paramilitaries to the extent that this becomes part of the accepted narrative, even though it is no less ludicrous than tying the GAA to the IRA. By coming out and presenting (presumably paramilitary-inspired) violence as an inevitable consequence of parades, Unionist politicians foolishly enhance Sinn Fein’s narrative. Indeed, we now have a precedent for a parade being diverted from its route by the PSNI due to a violent protest – such a precedent will now be expected to be matched by future parades organisers, very few of whom will be “Republican”.

All of this is beneficial to Sinn Fein because it serves to make it the natural follow-on of the Civil Rights Movement rather than of a needless terror campaign which cost thousands of lives; it has the additional benefit of making professional Protestants, essentially aware of what is going on, give up on Unionist leaders as the fools they are for falling into all these traps, with the consequence that suburban Unionists increasingly stop voting.

This is indeed a calamitous failure of Unionist leadership. Why? Mainly because good leaders listen, but Unionist politicians don’t.

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