Monday, 14 February 2011

Ends and means

The Jaxxlanders raise some good questions over the nature of the campaign messages for the referendum which is now a little over a fortnight away.  I’m not sure that there are any easy answers though.  And I think that some of the questions go beyond this particular referendum, and are a reflection on politics in general.
The post highlights two points in particular – the use of ‘celebrity’ endorsements and the vague appeal to patriotism.
I’ll admit to being dubious about the use of celebrity endorsements; I’ve never understood why the fact that one or another well-known person supports a particular outcome should in any way influence my own views.  We need to understand though - the simple fact is that the approach works.  If it didn’t, large companies wouldn’t be paying such enormous sums to the celebs to endorse their products.
The deeper question for me is whether we should really treat the marketing of a political viewpoint as being just like marketing a product.  The temptation of politicians to borrow proven marketing techniques and apply them to their own situation is obvious – but that doesn’t make it right. 
I suspect that one of the reasons that it works for the big brand names is that there is often very little of substance to choose between them.  Sadly, that’s increasingly true of politicians and parties as well – much of what passes for political philosophy these days consists of statements which could conceivably be made by any of the parties.  And there might well be a parallel there between Part 3 and Part 4 of the GOWA as well.  Faced with trying to explain what is not exactly a major constitutional change, resorting to proven marketing techniques is an obvious option.
As for the appeal to emotion – well, again, one would have to conclude that the approach works.  Much of Labour’s election campaigning in recent years – even as a party of government – was based around an appeal to an emotional and historical view of the Tories.  And within the target audience sector, I’d say that it worked.  The point is, though, that it doesn’t work outside that target audience – but if the target audience is big enough to carry the day, does it matter?
I think it does.  There’s a bit of ‘ends and means’ going on here.  If we focus entirely on getting the ‘right’ outcome (in this case a ‘yes’ vote on March 3rd), then the techniques being used will probably help to achieve that.  What they will not do, though, is engage people in meaningful debate.  Few, if any, minds will be changed.
From the point of view of the protagonists, the end justifies the means (and I’d say much the same about the behaviour of the other side – they are ignoring the substance of the issue to concentrate on those arguments which they believe will deliver their preferred outcome).
I’ve noted before my own view that politics should be about choosing between alternative views of the future, not just choosing which set of politicians is going to implement a cosy consensual set of policies.  And that implies that the ‘means’ are as important as the end.  Whether in an election or in a referendum, changing minds is surely as important as winning votes.
However, changing minds is a long term process; a three week campaign is about identifying supporters and motivating them to vote.  The pity, in the context of the referendum, is that we’re having the three week campaign without that lengthier debate beforehand – and it doesn’t help that the referendum is being held at the wrong time on the wrong issue as well.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

an interesting feature of the sniping from no supporters about the fact that a number of prominent figures in welsh life have come out in favour of a yes vote is the assummption behind this griping that if a person is believed to be of any public significance in wales they should not have an opinion on anything - why exactly should that be the case?

Is shane williams not entitled to publicly say is he is backing a yes vote in just the same way that i have repeatedly and publicly said im backing a yes vote? Does shane williams percieved 'celebrity' deny him the right to make public utterances on issues of major importance such as the referendum? I think not.

I also suspect that the no supporters who have posted to the blog you mention would have reacted in an entirely different manner if messrs williams et al had come out in favour of a no vote! These are the self same people who have spent months pouring scorn on the opinion polls giving a big lead to the yes side for a year now but who i can assure you will be treating the same opinion polls as the holy grail if they should suddenly start to show a significant closing of the gap between the yes and no campaigns!

At the end of the day when all is said and done this referendum really boils down to whether or not you think the people of wales are capable of making their own laws or not? And while i respect the right of people to take a different view on this question to myself and to vote accordingly i just wish they'd have the bottle to come out and say that the reason they will be voting no is because they do not think the welsh are capable of making their own laws!

Just as true wales spokeperson paul matthews did recently when he apparently remarked that the reason he is opposed to the welsh assembly gaining lawmaking powers is because in his view the welsh are not intelligent enough to make their own decisions. Admittedky a truly appalling statement from a senior figure in true wales but at least he was being honest....which is probably more than can be said for any of his true wales colleages!

And is also more than can be said for those who cite endorsements from leading figures in welsh life as a spurious reason to try and attack the yes campaign when in truth...and they are too cowardly to admit it....the reason they will vote no is indeed because they do not think the welsh are capable of making their own decisions and their own laws!

Leigh Richards
swansea.

John Dixon said...

Leigh,

"Is Shane Williams not entitled to publicly say is he is backing a yes vote in just the same way that I have repeatedly and publicly said I'm backing a yes vote?"

Yes, of course he is; he has the same right as anyone else. However, the question being raised, which I feel is a valid one, is whether a series of endorsements from sportsmen and actors is in itself a sufficient reason for others to vote a particular way, or an adequate substitute for putting the arguments. I don't think it is. It's a useful campaigning tool, because it creates publicity and attention; but it isn't a substitute for explaining why people should vote yes.

"At the end of the day when all is said and done this referendum really boils down to whether or not you think the people of wales are capable of making their own laws or not?"

I don't think that's the essence of it at all. And it mis-represents the argument.

It's certainly the way in which some people are putting it, but others, to be fair to them, are questioning not whether we have the ability to make laws but whether it is desirable that we should do so. That's a much more substantive point, which deserves a more substantive answer.

For those of us who believe that Wales should be independent, or even for those who believe that devolving power to a lower level is inherently a good thing (and the two are not the same), the answer is an obvious yes, but for those who take an alternative view, there is actually a coherent argument against. The problem that they are having, though, is that it is an argument against any legislative powers, or even against the existence of the Assembly, and neither of those options is going to be on the ballot paper.

Anonymous said...

"others, to be fair to them, are questioning not whether we have the ability to make laws but whether it is desirable that we should do so. That's a much more substantive"

Can you identify any such people john?...i certainly no of no one in true wales who fits that category of objections to the welsh assembly gaining lawmaking powers.

And to be frank i dont think opposition to the assembly gaining lawmaking powers because it is not somehow 'desirable' is any more coherent a reason to vote no than the reasons of those - like true wales - who are campaigning for a no vote because they are indeed of the view that the welsh are incapable of making their own decisions and their own laws.

further whatever the motives of those who are voting no and we are clearly not going to agree on that matter what cannot be disputed is that should there be a no vote on march 3rd such a result would represent a catastrophic setback for the entire political leadership of the welsh nation and would do immeasurable harm to the cause of welsh devolution....so im sure we at least agree that its imperative there s a yes vote on march 3rd john

Leigh

John Dixon said...

Leigh,

"Can you identify any such people john?...i certainly no of no one in true wales who fits that category of objections to the welsh assembly gaining lawmaking powers."

Perhaps they don't phrase it in precisely those terms - I'm just paraphrasing. But think about argument such as 'creating unnecessary differences between England and Wales' - isn't that really an argument about the desirability (or rather lack of) of making laws in Cardiff?

"And to be frank i dont think opposition to the assembly gaining lawmaking powers because it is not somehow 'desirable' is any more coherent a reason to vote no"

That's because you, like me, are a nationalist who believes that it's right for Wales to determine her own future. But from a different perspective, it's perfectly coherent to argue that it is undesirable to have different parts of 'the country' making different laws. I just don't believe that we win the argument against that viewpoint by denying its validity or insisting that those putting it accept our definition of 'nation' or 'country'.

"should there be a no vote on march 3rd such a result would represent a catastrophic setback for the entire political leadership of the welsh nation and would do immeasurable harm to the cause of welsh devolution"

Whilst I wholeheartedly agree that we need a yes vote on March 3rd - and have never been in any doubt about that - I think you may be overstating things a little here.

Anonymous said...

do hope you're proved right about me overstating things in the event of a no vote on march 3rd john..being welsh i suspect i perhaps have an all too natural tendency towards pessimism...:(..
i still have not fully recovered from the traumas of 1979.....and i was only a schoolboy then!

But we are going to win this referendum so we need not trouble ourselves with the consequences of a no vote ...:)...

Leigh

Spirit of BME said...

As a political geek, I can sympathize with your view on the quality and projection of the Yes case is poor and amateurish, but having no real debate may be one of their key aims of this campaign. The question being put on the maintenance of HMG in Wales is ,lets face it as boring as watching dog do-do dry and since 2006 Act the relevance of the issues without being able to control the economic world you live – well, its past its sell- by date in this age of austerity.
You are right that three weeks is useless to develop debate and you are right that celebrity endorsement is crass, but it works as people feel if they mimic these people a bit of star dust will fall on them.–sad.

Jeff Jones said...

In 1979 Gareth Edwards and Barry John came out for yes. It didn't make any difference. Given the lack of penetration of the Welsh media in Wales I doubt if many people even really know who has endorsed what. This might be a referendum with major symbolic significance for Nationalists but for most people it really is a non event because GOWA 2006 has already conceded the principle of lawmaking. The real danger will come after March 3rd when many voters will expect delivery of services to improve. Sadly there has never been much of a link between legislative powers and delivery of services. Yesterday's Western Mail also showed how difficult it can also be to actually devise new laws.It was interesting to see how many AMs wanted to place 'duties' on other bodies without it seems any thought whatsoever for any costs involved. Laws can also be challenged in the courts and have to conform to European Human Rights legislation. If they are not properly drafted then the lawyers will have a field day. Just take one which was mentioned yesterday ,the banning of adverts for 'unhealthy food'. Forget the interference in choice and trade how do you define what is an unhealthy food? As I said to a friend of mine last night let's start with Welsh salted butter and bacon from Carmarthen market and then throw in faggots from Neath market. A suggestion made with the best intention in the world but which in practice will never work. The other problem with full lawmaking is the issue of the mandate for the law. Most people would argue that you can only have a mandate for a law which has been included in your election manifesto. New laws also cost money even in a unicameral institution because they are often preceded by a White Paper and considerable scrutiny even before they are looked at by the legislature. They then have to be enforced and this also has a cost.Take Labour's idea that doctors will have to hold surgeries on a Saturday and possibly late into the night. This will mean a change in the doctor's national contract. You can't force them to open wihtout paying them. Who is going to pay for this and where is the money going to come from when the Assembly has no tax raising powers are obvious questions. Before 2005 Wandsworth PCT introduced a trial scheme into 6 surgeries in London. It was never extended to the whole area because it was too expensive.

John Dixon said...

Jeff,

Not a lot there with which I could disagree. One smallish point though -

"The other problem with full lawmaking is the issue of the mandate for the law. Most people would argue that you can only have a mandate for a law which has been included in your election manifesto."

In general, where legislation is being put forward by a government, I'd agree with that. However, there surely has to be a place for the equivalent of the Westminster "Private Member's Bill"? Few of them actually become law of course, but some do, and others can be picked up by Government. There have been some highly significant ones over the years - Leo Abse on homosexuality and Dafydd Wigley on Disabled Rights immediately spring to mind.

I had thought that that was the purpose of the Western Mail's question rather than thinking in terms of government programmes, but it wasn't evident that the respondents saw things in that way.

I completely agree with your comment about the disconnect between law-making and funding; it's an issue which needs to be addressed, and one which I've commented on before.

"The real danger will come after March 3rd when many voters will expect delivery of services to improve. Sadly there has never been much of a link between legislative powers and delivery of services."

Again, I agree, and I have been wary about over-selling the changes which will flow from the referendum vote. There are, though, things which can be changed by passing laws (and without merely placing duties on others!), and the Welsh Government ought to have that option at its disposal without having to go through the cumbersome LCO process. And that, really, is all the vote is about.

SiƓnnyn said...

John, my hope is not that the celebrity endorsement will change people's minds on the issue, (most no voters have already closed their minds!) but that it it will persuade people , especially younger people, to actually make the effort to vote!