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Time for a coalition narrative

By Simon Goldie
May 8th, 2011 at 7:00 pm | Comments Off on Time for a coalition narrative | Posted in Conservatives, Government, Liberal Democrats

All communication professionals know that if you fail to provide a narrative someone else will frame one for you. What is more, it is likely to be one that you don’t like.

After the bruising electoral verdict of 5 May, the Liberal Democrats are searching for a way to distinguish the party from the Conservatives.

As the party has already found, this is difficult.

It seems that the plan is to publicly say when they don’t support certain policies.  This was done over immigration and could be a template. It has been supported by the Conservatives too.

But done too much and voters will naturally ask why on earth are you in government with a party you have so little in common with.

Perhaps a better way is to develop a coalition narrative. The repeated messages would explain why the parties went into coalition, why coalitions sometimes disagree, how this new political arrangement is working and what it hopes to achieve.

Each party could keep its own identity but collaborate on this one area. To do so, a communication adviser from each party would have to work together to ensure consistency of message and help create a framework that allows disagreements to be aired in such a way that does not damage the government.

In all the talk of arguments and Ministers out of sympathy with each other one thing seems to have been forgotten. All governments face such problems. The Liberal Democrats and their coalition partners could turn this into a virtue by showing that people can have different views and still work together.

The public, I suspect, would much rather that happen than sniping, background briefings and the usual political shenanigans that occur when relationships break down.


Alcohol poisoning is not an issue for government

By Angela Harbutt
February 18th, 2011 at 3:20 pm | 5 Comments | Posted in freedom, Government

The BBC has just announced that an alcohol label campaign has just been launched by the partner of former Stereophonics drummer Stuart Campbell. Campbell died after a heavy drinking session in 2010, choking on his own vomit.

 His partner, Rachel Jones, has launched a campaign aimed at bringing alcohol labels into line with stark warnings on cigarette packets and has secured the help of Llanelli MP Nia Griffith to achieve this. 

On Wednesday Ms Griffith raised the issue with David Cameron during PMQs. Cameron referred her to plans to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol (a bad piece of policy in my view that will unfairly penalise responsible drinkers on low incomes, whilst leaving  posh middle class kids binge to drink on our streets as before).

But for the Rachel Jones campaign and the Llanelli MP, this is not enough. Calling for for stronger labelling on alcohol,  Ms Griffiths said “If you saw someone drinking a bottle of poison or bleach you would stop them”…”People need to be aware that alcohol – in particular spirits – can lead to death.” 

 The thrust of this campaign is grounded in the belief that people are unaware of the fatal consequences of drinking a large amount of spirits in a short time. It is undoubtedly extremely sad that Stuart Campbell died in wholly avoidable circumstances. But surely, we should look at the bigger picture?According to the Office of National Statistics 179 people died due to accidental alcohol poisoning in 2009 (latest figures available). That sounds like a lot of people. But consider how else people died that year….


462 people died from complications of medical /surgical care

223 people died in cars hitting a stationary object (a fraction of the total number of car accidents)

431 motorcyclists died in traffic accidents

205 died people drowned

182 people died from inhalation or ingestion of food

….. and so on……

According to the Office of National Statistics, the NHS killed over twice as many people as alcohol poisoning. More people also died from drowning, car and motorcycle accidents; for goodness sake, even FOOD killed more people than a binge drinking session. Are we going to put similar labels on every car, every bathtub and swimming pool, and on the front door of every hospital?

Of course consuming alcohol carries risks. Drunks get behind car steering wheels and kill people. Drunks walk out into the street and get knocked down. Drunks get into fights and kill each other. Drunks go home and beat up their wives and kids. We are also aware that long term heavy drinking can lead to ongoing health issues including liver damage etc..

Almost all of the above are more serious than death by alcohol poisoning. And the idea that a label on a bottle will cut the number of such deaths is just plain fanciful. I have heard (too many times) the line “….if it saves just one life then it will be worth it”. That is just plain wrong. Even if it did “save just one life” – and proving that would be mighty tricky – the cost to the rest of us is simply too high. You just can’t save every person from themselves (there were 3457 suicides in 2009). And the implications of where this might lead next are simply dreadful….leading this government down the same path as the previous government – treating us like incompetent children.

No.Labelling is tackling the problem from the wrong direction. We live in a society that has become increasingly dependent on the government to sort out our problems and our friends, families and neighbours problems. Its time we took a whole lot of that responsibility back.

I heard Rachel Jones on the radio yesterday. She is a genuine person; articulate and yes, courageous, to speak of her loss, and through it, highlight the dangers of binge drinking. But surely her efforts would be better placed using her experience  to encourage people to look after each other a little better. Most of us have been out with mates who have drunk way too much. I have seen good responsible mates take that person in hand, take them back to their place, sit up with them until they have recovered. I have even seen a good friend of mine walk a stranger back to her place one night and sit with her til she had sobered up. That one action probably did save a life.

Doesn’t the answer to death from alcohol poisoning (or rape or assault) lie in a bit more care from everyone of us to our fellow man? That is surely 100 times more effective than a label on a bottle that will be wholly ignored.

I can’t make people care more, or demand that people take more responsibility for those them, nor can the government, but people like Rachel Jones probably can raise awareness to the dangers and persuade us to all be better friends to one another.  That is where she should be putting her efforts, rather than demanding that the Government does something. A harder task but infinitely more effective.

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The consequences of unintended consequences

By Simon Goldie
January 31st, 2011 at 12:33 pm | 4 Comments | Posted in freedom, Government, Liberal Philosophy, Policy

Policy makers often refer to the potential of unintended consequences when debating new legislation or regulation. Politicians from all political parties seem to realise that whatever you do something will then happen that is unexpected.

If we start to think about policy through the prism of the unintended, then our recent political history makes a lot more sense. Someone comes up with a brilliant solution to a problem, a majority back it, it is enacted and a little later a new problem pops up because of the solution to the first problem. A new solution then needs to be developed to deal with this unintended consequence.

There are different ways to respond to this.

Governments could try and gather together the best brains in order to ensure that every possible outcome is worked out. Arguably, this approach is already being done and yet we still seem to be unable to avoid problems coming from solutions.

Another option is to accept that this is simply part of political life. There will always be unintended consequences so one might as well be stoical about it and just find a new solution.

One of the issues is that policy changes can impact on a lot of people. If that impact is negative it will take a lot of resource to solve the problem. Not only that, but ethically one might ask what right do policy makers have to affect people’s lives in this way?

There is another path to take. If you step back and let people work out the solutions by relying on the wisdom of the crowd, you are likely to arrive at solutions that everyone thinks are workable. This is because ways of doing things emerge through co-operation and experimentation. Another way to describe this is spontaneous order.

The other advantage is that when lots of people try different things and one experiment has negative effects it is not going to impact on everyone, just the ones who are engaged with that particular solution.

The great thing about this approach is that policy makers don’t need to rush off and come up with a framework that enables this activity. We already have one: the free market. And where we think the market isn’t appropriate we can always disperse power to people.