Saturday, 26 September 2009

The Conference Context

Interviewed this morning on BBC Radio about this week's Labour Party conference, and specifically whether this could be used by Gordon Brown to regain the political initiative.

It's not looking good, as the Prescott headline in The Indpenendent will likely convince more voters that Labour is disunited. One of the golden rules of British electoral politics is that disunited parties don't win elections. The latest Times/Populus survey carried out this month reveals just 22% of the public thinks that Labour is united - compared with 55% saying this of the Conservatives.

It is unlikely that even a good conference will dramatically shift Labour's fortunes - rarely do they change the political weather. Although there's a convincing argument that in 2007 the Conservative conference did.

One of the problems for Labour is that its poll ratings have stayed pretty stable over the past few months, similar to the level the party was recoding in June when the Prime Minister nearly lost his job. And the latest polling further shows the problems facing the government. In the Populus survey, on every single measure Cameron is better regarded - often considerably better regarded - than Brown. These include which party leader is seen as strong and decisive: two attributes many people in the Labour Party think ought to "belong" to the Prime Minister.

Elections are won and lost not only on how the public rate the party leaders, but also on their appraisal of the parties' policies on the issues people care most about. Again the Populus survey is bad news for Labour, with the Tories leading on every single measure, including the NHS (albeit only by three points).

Labour will try to use the next few days to set out its plan for the country; to demonstrate to the public that it has the desire and ideas to govern for another five years. We'll know how successful this has been in a few days... ...before the Tories get their chance to respond

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Internal Comms may never be the same again...

We like to talk about the latest thinking in employee engagement, but this offering from Fenland District Council left us speechless.

Now we're off to East Anglia to find out more...

More on Cuts

I was on the Stephen Nolan show on Five Live about the battle over cuts. As well as sticking loyally to Mark's line, it was a chance to explore the potential impact on the Party's activists from Labour being forced into discussing cuts. Labour's core will be much less likely that the rest of the public to believe that you can have significant cuts in public spending without damaging public services. Gordon Brown's speech to the TUC went down badly enough there: how will it have played in constituency Labour parties?

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Labour Cuts vs. Tory Cuts

Gordon Brown’s admission that a future government will need to cut public spending marks a significant shift in Labour’s election strategy. The change in strategy not only reflects the economic necessity, but also political realities and the public will.

A recent Populus poll for The Times showed that 81% of the public believes "it is now inevitable that there will be significant cuts in public spending after the next election regardless of the outcome of the election". A YouGov poll for The Sunday Times found that by a ratio of 3 to 1, the public believes "Britain’s deficit should be cut through cuts in public spending (60%) rather than tax increases (21%)".

Labour’s new strategy of recognising cuts are necessary brings them back into the election game. The key issue now for Labour is their credibility as a potential ‘cutting government’. The public will be asking whether a Labour Government could really make the necessary public sector savings, particularly one that has been in power for more than a decade. When it comes to cutting waste, incumbency is a disadvantage. It is also worth remembering that credibility will not just be gained on what the politicians promise. New Labour believed that its success was built on promising not to be a tax raising government. Yet as MORI’s polling showed in 1997, 2001 and 2005 most people did not believe them.

The Conservatives will be pleased that they have won this key battle between ‘Labour investments vs. Tory cuts’, but now the war moves on to somewhat different territory. The Populus/Times poll showed that the Tories had a ten point lead over Labour (38% vs. 28%) on who could be trusted to cut spending in ways ways "that don't harm important public services and that minimise the negative impact on ordinary people". A few years ago the Conservatives would have been delighted by such a polling result. However this lead is smaller than their current voting intentions lead over Labour . This suggests there still remains public uneasiness about the potential Conservative approach to public spending cuts. The battle lines in the next election will focus less on how much is being cut but where the axe will fall.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

End of the Obama Honeymoon?

The Times yesterday reported that President Obama's poll ratings have slumped forcing him into a rethink of his key healthcare reforms. The claim of an Obama poll slump is significant and deserves a more detailed analysis, as this could be the first sign of the end of the Obama honeymoon.

First it is worth looking at how the American public is reacting to the healthcare debate. The Times is right to point our that only a fifth of Americans believe they will be better off from what they understand about the new proposed reforms, according to the latest CNN/ORC polling. The same survey, conducted between 28th and 31st August, also shows that America is divided in its opinion of Obama's healthcare plans with 48% stating they are in favour compared with 51% against. Tellingly, the differences are not just on partisan lines with younger Americans (aged between 18 and 34 years) broadly in favour (60%) while older Americans (aged over 55 years) broadly opposed (60%).

Healthcare is clearly an issue where the President is losing public support. His approval ratings for handling health care policy has gone from 57% in mid March this year to 44% by the end of August. Yet Obama's wider approval ratings, though down over the summer, remain resilient. We've been monitoring the President's approval rating on a daily basis for the past few weeks, in particular focusing on the daily rolling surveys published by Gallup. Towards the end of last month his overall job approval ratings fell to exactly 50% in the surveys conducted between 24th and 29th August . However, since then, Gallup has seen his ratings rise slightly to 55% in the first week of September. The latest published survey, with fieldwork conducted 3rd to 5th September, has 52% of American's approving of Obama's performance.

When, and surely this is just a matter of time, Obama's approval ratings fall below 50% there will be many commentators arguing this demonstrates the end of the Obama honeymoon. While it is true that this will be a symbolic milestone it is worth remembering that statistically an approval of 49% is no different from 52% or 47% from 50%, as most surveys are conducted to be accurate within a margin of error of plus or mins three percentage points. And even when his ratings fall below 50% he will most likely have more in favour of his performance than against as it is usual to have five to ten percent of people not giving an opinion. When the President finds himself with more Americans disapproving of his performance than approving, the honeymoon will for sure be over.

Obama has indeed enjoyed a strong honeymoon - not so much for its duration, but its height. Between January and June this year in virtually every survey by Gallup (in 146 out of 156 polls) between 60% and 70% of the American public approved of Obama's performance - a consistently high rating, particularly given the economic crisis facing the country. July saw his approval ratings slip with his job average ratings for all the Gallup polls published in that month being 57% and slipping to 53% on average in August.

Part of the appeal of Obama has been the contrast he makes with his immediate predocessor, George W. Bush. While the former President governed for most of his second term with a majority of the public critical of his performance, the beginning of his first term was much different. Although he never began with the highs of Obama at no stage in his first year did Bush's approval rating, according to Gallup, slip below 50%. His lowest was recorded in a survey conducted 7-10th September 2001 when 51% of Americans expressed approval. The events of the following day transformed all of this. By the 15th September 86% of Americans approved of George W. Bush as President and by the 22nd this peaked at 90%.

For those of you who are wondering how this compares to our own Prime Minister's ratings, Ipsos MORI's latest survey, conducted in August, showed just 28% satisfied with Gordon Brown's performance - in fact the highest he's ever been rated was 44% in September 2007.

If you are interested in understanding the reasons for Obama's falling ratings this website is an excellent resource on American public opinion.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

"Universal Healthcare Systems Are Better"

A fascinating review of public attitudes to healthcare systems has recently been released by Gallup, and it provides good news for both universal healthcare systems generally and the NHS specifically.

Gallup compared public attitudes to healthcare among those OECD countries with a universal healthcare system and those without. They found that the average satisfaction with the availability of quality healthcare in one's own area was 79% in the 22 universal healthcare system countries, but only 66% in the 8 non-universal healthcare countries. In addition, on average, the public in the former are more likely to have confidence in their national medical or healthcare systems (73% confident vs. 60%).

The cross country analysis also finds that in most countries people are more positive about their local healthcare system than their perceptions of the national system. This has been a widely recognised feature in England for some time - and not just in healthcare. According to the Gallup analysis this "perceptions gap" is highest in Germany and the US. However, there are exceptions, for example in Finland the public are more likely to be positive about their national rather than their local system. These findings of course beg several questions, including what sort of gap is desired or should we aim for no real gap in perceptions, as is the case in countries such as France, Sweden and Ireland? And to what extent are the differences (or lack of differences) due to differing levels of service delivery, media coverage, public scepticism about how their own personal experience reflects national reality, or the effectiveness of nationwide branding strategies?

In the UK, 73% of the public have confidence in the NHS nationally - same as the average of all 22 universal healthcare countries in the OECD. In total, 18 of the 30 OECD countries have lower ratings for their national systems than in the UK. In terms of satisfaction with the availability of local care the NHS does even better - 22 OECD countries have the same or lower ratings than the 85% satisfaction in the UK.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

UKOnline - is it transforming how we deal with government or just helping us become better shoppers?

For over a decade now the UK Government has pursued policies to increase citizens use of the Internet in order to usher in the Information Revolution and in the words of Tony Blair not only to benefit the private sector and wider economy but also for public services to use information technology to help create fundamental improvement in the efficiency, convenience and quality of our services.

A major survey for the European Commission provides some insights into how far this has been achieved, at least from the perspective of the general public.

How Many Online?

The UK has done well in terms of public use of the Internet, with one of the highest levels of take-up across the EU. Four in five (80%) UK adults use the Internet at least every three months; only in Sweden (85%) and DenmarK (91%) are the levels statistically higher. The EU27 average is 68%.

However, with just 30% of UK adults using the net "several times a day" we are in line with the EU27 average (31%) and half the level found in Denmark (61%).

What Do We Do Online?

The chart above shows the activities of Internet users in the UK and for the EU27 average. Brits are similar to other Europeans in mostly using the net to search for information, email or send instant messaging (more than nine in ten Internet users do this). In many ways, UK Internet users lead other Europeans - almost four in five online Brits (78%) buy products or services online (the highest level of any European country), use Internet banking (56% in UK vs 51% in EU27) or use social network sites (39% in UK vs. 32% in EU27).

However, online Britons are no different from the European average in terms of using the Internet for "filling out and sending forms electronically to the public administrations" (46% in UK vs. 45% in EU27). France (63%) and Denmark (61%) head up this league table and a further seven European countries beat the UK on this measure.

And What Impact Has the Internet Had On Our Lives?

It seems the Internet has helped the UK become ever more addicted to shopping. Almost two in five (37%) online Brits strongly agree that the Internet has improved the way they shop (this is twice the EU27 average), though even more strongly agree the net has improved how they keep informed about current issues (53%), improved opportunities to learn (48%) and improved access th health-related issues (42%) - the latter perhaps a sign of the success of NHSDirect, especially given the EU27 average for this factor is just 28%.

It's not just about shopping and getting health information where more online Brits believe the Internet has improved what they do. They are also more likely than other online Europeans to strongly agree that the Internet has improved opportunities to learn and help manage finances (both 12 points higher), improved relationships with family and friends (8 points higher) and improved pursuit of hobbies (6 points higher).

Yet this has not translated into more online Brits strongly agreeing that the Internet has improved "the way you deal with public authorities" as just 16% in the UK say it has (the average in the EU27 is 15%). In Estonia, Malta, Austria and Hungary around three in ten of their online citizens strongly agree the Internet has improved access to their public authorities.

The question for the UK Government then is how much can it learn from other European countries which have been more successful at using the Internet to improve how citizens interact with it; as well as what more can be learnt from Tesco and other retailers where online Brits have been among the most enthusiasitc converts to the benefits of transacting online...

You can download the full report here.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

We Love the NHS

The Conservative MEP, Daniel Hannan's, criticism of the NHS seems to have unleashed a bout of patriotism in the UK, at least if we judge it by the media reporting of the massive "twittering" response. But relatively few people use twitter so is this really a good measure of public opinion, or is it more a reflection of how the media can hype up the impact of new technology?

Representative opinion polls, which capture the opinions of those offline and online, shows unequivocaly the strong public support for the NHS. A poll by Ipsos MORI for Unison, released this week, shows that more than three quarters of the British public (77%) believe that "the NHS is crucial to British society and we must do everything to maintain it" in comparison to thinking that "the NHS was a great project but we probably can't maintain it in its current form (22% of the public agree). Few institutions, in Brtain at least, enjoy such widespread public support. Even support for the Monarchy trails that of the NHS, as this trend data shows (around seven in ten people wish Britain to remain as a Monarchy).

Indeed, a survey conducted in 1999 found that the NHS was seen by far the most important achievement of the 20th century by the British public - more so than the establishment of the welfare state, winning the 2nd world war or even the introduction of universal suffrage. It would take a brave - or in David Cameron's words an "eccentric" British politician - to argue the NHS was a mistake and a relic of the past.

Yet despite the widespread support for the NHS now and the evident pride in its achievements over the past 60 years, almost half (47%) the public do not think it will exist in 50 year's time. Two in five people (40%) also don't expect Britain to have a Monarchy in 50 year's time... if they are right the Britain of the 21st century could be very different from the last one....

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

A Greek Tragedy! Banning Pre Election Opinion Polls

As a keen member of the World Association of Public Opinion Research (WAPOR) and as someone who believes pre election opinion polls help to keep politicians honest ( and stops journalists just sticking their finger in the wind or relying on "a focus group of one person", I wholeheartedly agree with WAPOR's reaction to the Greek government's decision to ban the publication of election polls in the final 15 days of the election. Click here to read the press release.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Afghanistan – an unwinnable war?

July saw a large increase in British military deaths in Afghanistan and the highly publicised row between the Government and the Opposition (and the military top brass) about the adequacy of equipment for soldiers on the frontline. It is no surprise then that several polling firms were commissioned to ask the public about their views on Afghanistan. Overall the surveys provide us some clear insights into public attitudes. They show how the public is divided on Britain’s continual involvement in the war and suggest there is strong public scepticism about what can be achieved there.

Two polls conducted in the first half of July, by ICM (for the Guardian/BBC Newsnight) and by Populus (for ITN News) show that two thirds of the public (67%) say they feel they understand the purpose of Britain’s mission in Afghanistan and there is a strong consensus that the main reasons for being there are ‘as part of international fight against Al Qaeda terrorists’ (80% say that this is one of the main reasons) and ‘to help the Afghan Government to fight the Taliban’ (78%).

These surveys reveal, however, that the public is split down the middle in terms of its support for British military presence in Afghanistan. The ICM survey shows that 46% of the public supports the ‘British military operation in Afghanistan’ and 47% oppose it. Interestingly, further sub-group analysis reveals that the key opponents of British military presence is over-65 year olds, with more than half (53%) opposing the war.

Perhaps one of the explanations for the public opposition is the high level of concern about military equipment. According to the Populus poll, three quarters of the public (75%) believe that ‘British service personnel in Afghanistan are inadequately supplied or equipped’ and a ComRes poll (for The Independent), conducted towards the end of the month, also found that 75% of the public agree that ‘British troops do not have the equipment they need to perform their role safely in Afghanistan’. And adding further pressure to the Government is a YouGov poll, conducted 16 - 17 July, which found that 60% of the public believe Gordon Brown is ‘deliberately trying to fight the war on the cheap’ – three times the proportion who believe the Prime Minister ‘is doing his best to provide British troops with the equipment they need’, (20%).

Finally, perhaps the most troubling results for the Government are that three in five people (58%) who believe that war in Afghanistan is unwinnable (ComRes/The Independent) and approaching half the public in both the Populus and YouGov surveys felt the objective of stabilising Afghanistan and preventing it becoming a terrorist stronghold was a worthwhile objective but not at the cost of high levels of British casualties.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Vote Rantzen?

Esther Rantzen has decided to contest Luton South at the next election despite being quoted on the BBC as saying:

"Political experts have told me I would be crazy to stand, that I haven't a hope in hell, that it will lead to humiliation and embarrassment on my part..."

Are these experts right? One of the secondary but intriguing features of recent elections has been the return of "independent" MPs. Since 1945, independents and even small-party MPs have hardly flourished. Yet since 1997 we have seen Martin Bell elected as an independent, Richard Taylor for Health Concern (2001 and 2005), and George Galloway for Respect (2005). Add to this the way the share of the vote for "others" keeps creeping up year on year and the grip of the "big three" parties on Westminster politics looks like it is weakening.

Well, perhaps. Certainly the smaller parties have learned to target their meagre resources and use a presence in local government as a base to challenge for Westminster seats.

But the prospects for genuine independents are much less promising. For each one who has succeeded in recent years, dozens stand and get nowhere. Success depends on a combination of three factors:

1) A strong local issue: the proposed closure of Kidderminster Hospital kick-started Health Concern, while the Iraq War played out strongly in Bow in 2001 and Neil Hamilton's decision to run again in Tatton despite being mired in scandal helped galvanise opposition there.

2) An effective electoral machine: this was crucial for Galloway in 2001, while having local councillors helped Dr Taylor retain Wyre Valley in 2001. And John Sweeney's excellent book on the Tatton election shows how hard it was for Bell's campaign to gain traction, and how critical the influx of supporters (not all with the presence of David Soul) was to building momentum and credibility.

3) A free run: probably the most critical factor is having one or more of the main parties standing aside. Bell and Taylor both gained enormously from this.

Using this score-card, the Rantzen campaign does indeed look doomed. The current MP Margaret Moran has already announced she will not stand again, so MPs' expenses will not have the same local dimension as at Tatton. She has no effective machine in place - no website, for example, to turn the interest surrounding her announcement into support or donations. And there is little prospect of any other party standing aside.

But Ms Rantzen says she is "fascinated by politics", which is reason enough to have a go.

Monday, 27 July 2009

I'm Unpopular. Vote for Me!

I've just been writing a chapter for a book on British Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition, and I wanted to see whether unpopular Prime Ministers (or even Opposition Leaders) could win a General Election.

Looking at polling data going back to before the 1959 General Election (thanks to Gallup and MORI for these), for 8 of the 13 General Elections the incumbent Prime Minister had a negative approval rating (over a six month period immediately before the election). On three occassions the PM lost the election (Wilson, 1970; Heath, Feb 1974; and Callaghan, 1979). But four times, the PM retained office (Thatcher in 1983 and 1987 and Blair in 2001 and 2005). The explanation for three of these four victories was that the incumbent PM, despite being unpopular, was more popular than the challenging Leader of the Opposition.

2005 was an exceptional election. Tony Blair's average net approval rating (-26) was lower than that for Michael Howard (-20). Suggesting that in that election, the voters based their decision on more than just their ratings of the party leaders.

Is this comfort for Gordon Brown? In the first half of 2009, Brown's average net approval rating was -33; substantially below that for David Cameron (+14) - indeed Cameron is the most popular Tory Opposition Leader since Ted Heath in the 1960s.

The bad news for Brown and Labour is that not only is their leader behind the Conservative alternative, but the gap between them is huge. At 47 points, there have only been two General Elections since 1959 where there has been anything like this gap - in 1997 (Blair's lead over Major was 73 points) and in 1983 (Thatcher's lead over Foot was 49 points).

Of course, the next six months might see a turnaround for the fortunes of the present PM, but time is running out for what at the moment looks like another a sign that a landslide election is on the cards...

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Carry on in Cardiff...

BBC Radio Wales interview this morning, ahead of the Cabinet’s latest (I think sixth) meeting outside London – this time in Cardiff. As I said on radio it’s a good idea that the Cabinet do get around the country (why would anyone be against it?), but I doubt it will have much impact on what people think of the present Government. Also interesting discussion about whether Labour will reap any political benefits from the economic recovery, assuming there is one and the public feels it before the next election. I’m sceptical, but more on that in another post…

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Microsoft - Love It or Hate It?

So Microsoft is top of the annual Superbrand list for 2009. It's no surprise that the company should have very high recognition. The survey uses YouGov's online panel, and anyone with a computer either uses Microsoft or has gone with rivals like Apple that define themselves against Microsoft. Presumably those whose PCs had frozen, crashed or been taken over by malware weren't able to complete the survey.

But there's a lot more to the survey than just who is, or is not, No 1. The richness lies in the detail: that the biggest consumer brand in the public sector after the BBC is Ordnance Survey; or that a very twenty-first century visitor attraction like the Eden Centre can be a bigger brand that Schweppes, dating back to the Eighteenth; or that Top Trumps are the fastest-rising toy or game brand. But as in all ranking surveys, there has to be a note of caution unless and until full data tables and methodology are published.

Apple, if you want to know, was No 9.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Communications in the Financial Crisis

Just back from Berlin where I was giving a presentation to Finance Ministry officials, senior advisers and academics from around Europe, hosted by Das Progressive Zentrum and the German Ministry of Finance. The full presentation is here. The key point for government communicators was to be realistic about what could be achieved, the need to move on from talking about the financial crisis to the economic one, and how - even if you get the policy right and the communications works - it doesn't guarantee a political upside for the incumbent.

This slide makes the point. Being seen to screw up on the economy can lose you an election; and even if you are able to turn things round, it's likely you won't get the credit. Economic optimism is rising, but confidence in Gordon Brown as PM is heading south.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

If only all countries could be like...Costa Rica

The New Economics Foundation has just published an update of its Happy Planet Index and top of the 146 countries covered is Costa Rica. A stable democracy with no army and a comprehensive welfare state, Costa Rica scores highly on the length and quality of life of its citizens. It also does so with around half the environmental impact per person of the United States. In others words, Costa Rica is far more efficient at turning resources into human happiness than the UK or US (at 74 and 114 respectively).

NEF's index is part of the wider debate on quality of life indicators which politicians such as David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy have shown interest in. Such an indicator would give a much broader base for shaping and evaluating policy and a valuable alternative to GDP as the prime target for policy-makers - though as it would involve the UK immediately dropping dozens of places down the world's league table, there's little prospect of such a change happening anytime soon.

The study is based on existing data and NEF's costs are only in analysis and interpretation: in other words, it is in itself a good example of efficiency in turning resources into benefits.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Lord Adonis' New Employees

By taking over National Express's East Coast rail franchise, the Department for Transport is adding another 3,000 or so to the state's head-count. As well as reigniting the 'public versus private' debate, it also raises interesting questions about employee engagement. The idea of serving the public can be highly motivating in areas such as health or education: why not on the railways?

When the same thing happened to Connex in 2003, the resulting state-owned firm, South East Trains, was often cited as one of the best-performing train operators (particularly by anti- privatisation campaigners). As usual, it isn't easy to identify how much was due to employee motivation and how much to other factors - in this case, anything from new trains to leafs on the line.

But the National Passenger Survey does give some clues. One question in particular - overall satisfaction with the helpfulness and attitude of staff on trains - may reveal how motivated staff feel. Between Spring 2004 and Spring 2005, satisfaction for all train companies rose by 8 points from 54% to 62% while the results for South East Trains rose twice as fast - from 35% to 51%.

After the transfer to private-sector GOVIA in April 2006, the results for South East Trains stall, then decline. By the Spring 2009 the level of satisfaction with the helpfulness and attitude of staff on Southeastern had fallen to 39%, compared with 51% for comparable train companies.

Is this evidence of public ownership inspiring heroic staff performance? Only a specific study could answer that. For now, it may be safer to conclude that good management can improve customer service in both public and private settings.

Though would customers of Northern Rock agree?

Monday, 29 June 2009

Gordon's Relaunch Plonk?

A couple of weeks back the FT's Alex Barker blogged this rumour about a new logo commissioned by Peter Mandelson for Gordon Brown's fightback relaunch.

The logo itself would be plonked (technical term) on initiatives over the summer to give that joined-up-government feel. If it's to happen, today's the day as Brown is currently speaking in the House.

The most likely result is that almost no-one will notice it except for public servants (who will be annoyed by it) and journalists. And as the latter only ever write two stories about brands (1 = how much did it cost? and 2 = my daughter could have done that) it's hard to see the point of it all.