Objectives are important

I feel as though I’ll regret writing this post, but I feel the need anyway.

I’m seeing a lot of people who are saying they are communications experts judging the latest modifications to the Government’s advice communications and arguing that they are “bad comms”.

Ultimately, it’s easy to say they’re right. The messaging is vague, requires an explanation to make sense, and clearly moves from a direct “do as we say” type of message to a more suggestive “this is on you” kind of message.

But is this ‘bad comms’ or not?

Well, what is bad comms? It’s comms that doesn’t achieve its objectives. And the problem with making any judgements on this is that (unless I’m missing something) with the best intentions, we’re only guessing at the objectives that were set.

We are all talking about it. We are all paying attention. We are all aware of what the messages are and – because it is vague, and we’ve been talking about it – we’ve also been paying attention to the “complex multiple page explanation” – the nuance that is necessary for phase two.

And so I think it’s possible, possible, that the campaign is delivering exactly what those in charge wanted.

I’m sure we’ll have many conversations, thoughts and perhaps studies on this in the future, but that’s my contribution.

Brexit: I only care because I really don’t anymore

I thought I’d run out of things to say about Brexit, until this week when my personal tax statement fell through the door and – of course – the first thing I looked for was the contribution I’d made to the EU.

Straight away, I noticed the EU was at the bottom the list of where my hard-earned had gone and that, in total, I’d contributed less than £100.

And all of a sudden, I had a new opinion.

Not a rare event more generally, but with Brexit – after three years of exclusively feeling despair and hoping that I’d somehow develop a long lost Irish relative out of nowhere – something new developed.

I just don’t care enough about something which costs us so little and, really, is only concerned with things that I don’t really understand, don’t need to really understand and ultimately don’t really want to understand.

A good many people feel that the political part of the EU was seeping into areas it shouldn’t have, and that’s fine and a perfectly valid concern – but in the most part, terrible reporting of what the EU, and Westminster politicians being happy to place blame elsewhere, was actually responsible for was driving some of that.

And even if those concerns exist, from where I’m sat there are easier, simpler things we could be doing that would make a much bigger positive difference to our lives than occupying ourselves with a big, poorly understood and all-consuming activity like Brexit.

Like many things, it just feels like a complex ‘thing’ has been reduced to simple solutions for the sake of a parliamentary system that encourages diametric opposition at all costs and broadly newspapers which don’t have time to deal with complexity.

We could be solving social care. We could be finding ways of creating new homes that meet people’s needs and don’t piss off everyone in the local community along the way. We could be incentivising better pay through tax breaks which wean people and companies off of needing state support, rather than paying welfare.

We could just be enjoying having high unemployment, a relatively strong economy and trying to work out why we’re not getting more productive anymore.

It seems to me we’ve got our priorities wrong. But we’re where we are. And given we are where we are, and that I don’t really think we should spend any more time on this… Maybe no-deal would be best?

Whatever happens, we need to find a way of getting some brain space back and turning our national conversation onto something else that will actually impact on our lives. And maybe we will.

After all, when Brexit is done with who is there left to blame?

What would I even stockpile?

Over the weekend, the snow – and the fact that it turned to ice, trapping me (yes, I’m exaggerating) at the top of a hill – got me thinking about stockpiling.

Leaving aside that stockpiling and panic buying seems fashionable, the fact that I found myself without easy access to a supermarket – and thus with only a limited choice of food – made me consider whether I was sufficiently well prepared. No deal Brexit or, indeed, global warming.

But then I got thinking. And frankly, it’s all just too many questions. What would I stockpile? What do I actually value and need access to? Is the point of stockpiling to survive (why bother) or to ensure you can access the things you like?

All in all, it meant I failed – because I didn’t do anything. I’m stockpiling inaction, and relying on the UK’s existing stocks of “oh, it’ll probably be OK”.

Helpfully, someone else has done the worrying for us. There’s a list of what to buy on, of course, the FT.

I’m still OK with charging graduates more

In 2015, I said that I am pretty fast at coming to an opinion over things and usually equally quick at changing my mind, but on tuition fees it seems I am pretty committed to my view.

I won’t pretend that each month, when I look at my payslip I’m not slightly annoyed at seeing money disappearing off to pay back my student loan. I am.

But I’m also still not sure there’s anything wrong with a system which means that I got an expensive education and only have to pay for it now that it’s making me a profit. I am the first person in my family to go to unveristy, I’m not from a well-off background and I had to work to pay my rent while I was at University despite getting the full maintenance grant at the time.

Student loans don’t appear on your credit record, don’t really affect your ability to get other loans because of their size, have fixed repayments regardless of the interest rate and only due when you’re earning above a certain amount plus they get written off when you turn 60 whether you’ve paid a penny or not.

But what I said in my post back in 2015 should be the solution is still what I think should be the solution now. And what Damian Hinds said today is almost there.

We still need to remember why we educate people

Having a good education system is important for two reasons (and probably many more). Firstly, having a better educated population means we’re a better educated country which can achieve more, and secondly because higher education allows graduates (like me) to do jobs that pay more and ‘climb the ladder’. So, because both the individual and society benefits both should also pay.

But what the current system ignores (although it’s unclear if it was ever meant to) was that all degrees are not equal in what they contribute to society. My own degree (English Language and Media) is worth less to society than, say, a scientist or a doctor and worth more to me, because it’s allowing me to do a job I love.

So, with a ‘variety’ of fees – as Damian Hinds MP said today might happen following the third review of fees in 12 months – was what I proposed when I wrote about this in 2015, because with a bit of price variation we could encourage a greater number of people to become educated in subjects where we’re short of experts.

We could even go as far as making it free to do certain higher qualifications if we’re running short of a particular profession.

f you want to complete a degree in a subject we don’t ‘need’ you to study then you’re welcome to do just that, but that’ll be £55,000 in ‘debt’. On the other hand, if you fancy becoming a doctor then how about society pays for it all – perhaps with some conditions that you stick about in the UK.

There’s no need for any of this ‘money’ to change hands until a graduate is earning too, just as now. So there’s no poor people locked out of higher education but a substantial return, and ultimatley more people graduating in useful subjects.

On this, like so many other things, we constantly kick the can down the road. As a result, we’ve ended up with a complicated system which clouds our ability to make rational and logical decisions about what’s good for us as a whole.

Oh well.

Facebook is a small threat for now, but what about next time?

We know that Facebook had a big impact during the election, with left-wing news websites managing to play the Facebook algorithm far better than the right wing ones did, but something I saw during the last week of the campaign worried me more than all that.

I know, of course, that both left and right are happy to make things up (or, perhaps, over-simplify things) about their opposition in order to be more convincing, particularly during an election and it’s more common (for me at least) to see the left doing this.

It might be because there are more of ‘them’ online, because Tories generally aren’t as loud about being Tories, or because of the people I follow and see, but I pretty much expect that the Internet will tell me the Tories have done bad things with power and the ‘left’ have a dodgy past, are hypocrites and so on.

What I didn’t expect to see was something like the Conservative Voters for Teresa May pages.

There’s the twitter accounts dedicated to memes and ‘well-sourced’ graphics proving that the Tories are the cause of all evil and there was the ‘fake’ Conservative website, pitched as a ‘joke’ but most certainly counting as serious campaigning in my book, saying it was uncovering “Tory Lies” by mocking their manifesto.

But these are both obvious that their true aim is to get you to vote for someone else, even if how exactly they’re funded might be a bit more hidden for me.

Conservative Voters for Teresa May on Facebook and Twitter isn’t anything like that. The pages use Tory-style graphics and messaging to convey negative messages about the party, pitched as campaigning for them.

Only… with a few seconds of scrutiny, the whole thing feels a bit like the projection of what an ardent Corbynista thinks happens inside the head of a Conservative voter rather than something serious.

The posts focus on many of Labour’s key attack messages: the Tories will prioritise good education for the rich and cut other school’s budgets, privatise the NHS because it worked well for the railways, raise taxes for everyone (because the rich already pay enough) and so on.

It could be a joke site, of course, but if it is then it’s doing a pretty terrible job, and the descriptions make clear it’s supposed to be a group of Conservative supporters running it. And it could well be, but for how I came across it at all.

About 4 days before the election, my feed repeatedly showed me sponsored posts from the page. Yes, someone had paid for me to see the posts.

Now, as many comms professionals will know from their own experience, my Facebook profile isn’t really representative of me at all. I follow pages I wouldn’t aside from for work, visit posts that criticise the people I work for and generally cause Facebook a great deal of confusion in working out what I like and who I am.

So while I do know that someone had paid to show me an ad for the page, what I don’t know is whether I was being targeted as a potential Tory or as an on-side Corbynista. Either way the opaque nature of what was being posted worries me.

This actual page is not a big thing at all: it’s gathered a relativley insignificant 1,400 Facebook followers, and a rather lacklustre 23 on Twitter – but it’s a proof of concept which could be easily be something bigger next time round.

What I’ve been wondering is whether this was an exercise in mockery or was it intended as a final shove over the line for people who might’ve been teetering on the edge of supporting Labour?

The comments on the pages, mocking the Tory lines, suggest it’s the latter – but then so do most of the comments on official Conservative social media properties, so it’s really hard to tell.

Facebook sharing of shaky partisan stories might be hard for the right-wing media to compete against, mock sites might be confusing a very small number of voters and enforcing the spirit of local spending rules on local campaigning a big challenge for the Electoral Comisssion, but what if pages like this were set up on a bigger scale next time?

Could this influence a big number of people? This style of messaging is probably never going to convert a Tory to vote Labour (it’s too obvious), but having both sides of the argument could very well help keep those who aren’t sure – but might have previously voted not-Tory – on side.

It’s almost like a virtual reality echo chamber, affirming what people think – even when it’s not actually been said – and I think it’s quite worrying.

Of course it also could be real…

The images throughout this post are taken from the page I’ve written about, and so are of course owned by whoever the authors are.