Mental Health – the Atlas way

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Mental Health – the Atlas way

Nina Doehmel-Macdonald, Senior Consultant shares her thoughts on Atlas’ wellbeing policy during Mental Health Awareness Week…

One in four people will experience diagnosable mental health issues during the course of a year – that’s technically three people within Atlas alone. Mental health is a critical part of life and given that we spend more time with our colleagues than most other people in our lives, it’s astounding to think that mental health in the workplace is only just becoming part of public discourse.

We take mental health very seriously at Atlas – our wellbeing policy is not just a token gesture. Together, we have all undergone both Mental Health First Aid and mindfulness training so that we can best support each other and manage our own health. Our flexible working policy is a core part of our agency's culture and has enabled us to learn to drive, look for new flats, make time for doctor and dentist appointments, care for relatives in hospital and drop off kids at school. And of course, sometimes, things happen which mean spending a bit of time at home simply helps. We actively try and reduce the stigma around mental health and operate a metaphorical open door policy (metaphorical, as we have no doors!) – all of these points contribute to a better quality of life and work.

There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to wellbeing, which is part of the reason why Atlas also offers all employees a ‘Smile More/Save More’ budget to invest in an activity of their choosing – be it painting, language lessons or yoga, or putting the budget into a savings scheme. Along with eating well, getting enough sleep and exercising these activities all contribute to a healthy and happy life, and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt in my 32 years it’s that you have to find what works for you and stick to it. All. The. Time.

For those not personally affected by mental health issues, it’s more than likely you know someone who is, or will be in the future. It’s so, so important to talk about it so that others know that it’s okay to ask for help.  It may be Mental Health Awareness Week this week, but protecting and building our mental health needs to be a 24/7, 365 days a year thing.

Our mission is to be the happiest agency in London – and not just because it’s the woke thing to say. We firmly believe that a happy team results in great work, and great work means happy clients. At Atlas, we’ve pursued this model for almost four years, and we know it works. Our clients stay with us, refer us on to friends and colleagues or come back to us when they themselves change roles. Healthy, long term revenue streams mean we can reinvest back into the company and our staff, which has allowed us to recently launch a completely equal enhanced parental pay policy. The policy is on par with many of the biggest employers in the UK - something we are incredibly proud of.

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LOCALLY SPEAKING

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LOCALLY SPEAKING

As everyone’s favourite B word dominates the airwaves, behind the scenes the nitty-gritty of politics continues. And nothing is more nitty-gritty than local elections. On Thursday many voters in England will go to the polls to elect their local councillors. An event that may not have always captured the imagination, but could actually be quite exciting. Well, for some of us at least.

In this blog, researcher Mike Hough will discuss where the elections are taking place, what we should look out for and what it tells us about the bigger picture of politics.

WHERE?

So firstly where are these elections being fought? Pretty much everywhere in England, barring London. This means there will be elections in the Tory shires, elections in Labour heartlands and elections in key battleground regions.

And who is fighting them? Well, the usual suspects. The Tories, Labour, Lib Dems, the Greens and UKIP will all be contesting a number of the seats. The new kids on the block will not be making an appearance. Alas, the nascent Brexit Party and ChangeUK were not created soon enough to be allowed to put forward candidates. The Electoral Commission are such spoilsports.

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SCORES ON THE DOORS

In total, there are 8,425 seats in play. The last time many of these seats were contested was in 2015 on the same day as the General Election. A pretty good day for the Tories. This means the Tories start from a high base and are defending 4,906 seats. This compares with 2,113 for Labour, 647 for the Lib Dems, 176 for UKIP and 71 for the Greens. It also means turnout then was much higher than anyone expects to see on Thursday.

WHICH ISSUES MATTER

The national mood and national politics is always relevant, which further suggests it will be a difficult night for the Tories. However, it is important to remember in local elections voters cast their vote for a number of different reasons. For some this is the best opportunity to register what they think about bin collections, potholes, police services, women’s refuge funding, libraries, the arts transport services, council tax and a wealth of other local political issues. Parties will be and are campaigning with this in mind. See Labour’s latest pledge to reverse cuts to 3,000 bus routes in England for example.

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WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR?

OK, so onto the actual results. Where could we see drama?

BRIGHTON AND HOVE

Brighton and Hove Council is fascinating, at least for the nerds amongst us. No party has had overall control of the council since 2003, and excitingly all council seats are in play on Thursday. The Tories are currently the largest party but both Labour and the Greens have a significant presence. If the national mood turns decisively against the Tories you would expect them to lose seats here. On a good night Labour would expect to do well and probably take control of the council. However, don’t rule out a strong performance from the Greens who have a solid local base.

STOKE ON TRENT

Stoke is normally Labour land. Yet in 2017 on an otherwise bad night for the Tories they seized a parliamentary seat in Stoke South. The local council is now also no longer in Labour hands but is run by a coalition of Conservatives and City Independents. Labour would expect to make gains on Thursday. However there is a caveat, Stoke is also Brexit land. If Labour Brexiteers are angry with the party’s constructive ambiguity on the topic closest to their hearts we could see it play out in Stoke. Whether Labour can in pro-Brexit areas will be an interesting dynamic to monitor.

BATH AND NORTH EAST SOMERSET

Last but not least, Bath and North East Somerset. The council was taken by the Conservatives in 2015, but this could now be under threat. The Conservative councillors will come under attack from all sides on Thursday especially from the Lib Dems as they have traditionally performed well here both at a council and a national level. If the Lib Dems are ever to realise their much promised #LibDem fightback they need to make gains here. Their aim is to win enough seats to ensure the council moves from Conservative control to No Overall Control. And if that isn’t a metaphor for the beleaguered leadership of Vince Cable I don’t know what is.

THE BIG PICTURE

Prediction time. Drumroll please. So come Friday what will we all be talking about? We predict losses of upwards of 500 Tory councillors and more than 300 Labour gains. A good result for the Lib Dems with over 100 gains which will set the stage for Sir Vince’s much heralded exit and a forthcoming leadership contest. There should be considerable gains for the Greens as Sir David Attenborough, our carbon guilt and Extinction Rebellion have seen the environment climb back up the political agenda.

There is one final issue. Trust (you can read our wider views on trust here). Trust in our politics and politicians is at a low ebb. This is likely to materialise through voters staying away with turnout expected to fall from the already low 2018 numbers. So whilst we all dissect the results, it is important to remember most voters probably just won’t turn out which is something for all in politics to reflect upon.

WHERE DO WE END UP?

So where will this leave politics when all is said and done? We think these local elections will capture the headlines for a day or two but then the story will move on. The narrative will return to Brexit and the European elections and their implications (examine our latest thoughts on the European elections here).

Yes, the elections will be another nail in the coffin for our depleted Prime Minister’s career. But no, it will not be the final one. Unfortunately Mrs May will have to suffer a few more wounds yet. So I suppose regardless of the results you might say nothing will change.

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European elections: a 2nd Referendum or a waste of time?

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European elections: a 2nd Referendum or a waste of time?

Few of us would have predicted at the start of the year that by the end of May we would be preparing ourselves for Euro elections in the UK. However bar a Brexit rabbit being pulled from the Prime Minister’s handbag, this is the direction we are heading in. Although Brenda from Bristol will no doubt be unimpressed, the potential implications of this surprising electoral event are rather significant. 

Low turnout, big impact.

The Brexit deadline extension to 31st October has meant that despite MPs returning this week to Parliament, things are pretty calm in Westminster. Apart from continuing speculation about when Theresa May will go and the dying-on-their-feet Government-Labour Brexit talks, the Euro election, with its new parties and wacky candidates are taking centre stage. The ensuing results may have real significance, chiefly influencing the future of Brexit. 

For an election traditionally viewed as a non-event that suffers from a poor turn-out, this is very much a change in mood. That is because the Euro elections are a high stakes poker game for both Leave and Remain to shift the tables and break the current deadlock in Westminster.

Remainers celebrated more than Brexiteers when Theresa May was forced to accept an extension to Brexit. The extra time heightened possibility of a 2nd Referendum. However, Remainers also need to be careful what they wish for.  The delay and therefore the likelihood of Euro elections has created an opportunity for Leavers to put the People’s Vote arguments to bed once and for all.

What the polls say

We all know polls can be unreliable barometers of future voting intention, but if they are to be believed then Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party will be the big winners in these Euro elections.  The Times’ Red Box showed the latest YouGov polling on Euro voting intentions in a handy Leave v Remain v Lab v Tory format. It is early days and only one poll, but what it does show is that there is a very good chance that if you include the Conservative vote as broadly ‘Leave-supporting’ then Leave-supporting parties are on course to win the highest percentage of the vote on 23rd May.

A combined Brexit Party, UKIP and Tory vote would gain 46% of the vote, and a combined LD, Green, SNP/Plaid and ChangeUK vote, 32% of the vote. The great enigma in this is Labour who, are on 22%.

Labour is simultaneously committed to a 2nd Referendum but ultimately still in favour of Brexit (as even arch-Remainer Andrew Adonis has been forced to concede). A sizeable proportion of the Labour vote is pro-Brexit as opposed to the membership which is overwhelmingly pro-Remain. As the only party on the ballot without a firm anti- or pro- Brexit position, on this occasion their vote is essentially neutral and they may see a big dip in support in comparison to previous elections.

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People’s Vote proxy?

So the question is, come Euro election results day on Sunday 26th May, will a majority for Leave-supporting parties ensure Brexiteers can claim that Britain is still in favour of Brexit and go so far as to suggest that it negates the need for a 2nd Referendum? Given how important motivation and media air time are, and that the more representative EU voting system favours small/emerging parties, I think that it probably will. If the margin is significant between the two sides, then the call to treat the Euro polls as proxy for a 2nd referendum will become deafening. After all, it’s not like the Euro elections are about anything else except Brexit.

To date both sides have been reluctant to discuss this thought, for obvious reasons. As the 2017 election demonstrated, big early polling leads can rapidly disappear. The flip side is, of course, also true. If Labour comes out firmly in favour of a 2nd Referendum and the combined percentage of the Remain parties wins the day then the calls for a 2nd Referendum or even a revocation of Article 50 will be loud too. But those are bigger ‘ifs’.

Either way, much as we are enjoying the revelation of d-list celebrity names of Euro candidates on both sides, the vote is actually far more important than perhaps realised. This has not been lost on senior campaigners and when I put this thesis to a senior Eurosceptic Cabinet Minister recently, his view was ‘100%’ the results of the vote will be used as a 2nd Referendum. There is no doubt that after the 26th May the shape of the Brexit argument will have been fundamentally realigned and perhaps decisively in one direction or another.

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Trump: the 2020 election and why he’s here to stay

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Trump: the 2020 election and why he’s here to stay

I can still hear the faint not my president chant ringing through the streets of towns across America following the election of Donald Trump three years ago. It shook up the nation and politics generally, with ramifications across the globe. For many of the disappointed, it was a matter of holding tight before he would no doubt be rejected in 2020. Or even better, he’d be impeached before the next election even took place.

But let me tell you now: The Donald isn’t going anywhere. While he’s failed to broaden his base beyond his immediate supporters, history is on his side. The economy is doing well, unemployment is down, and he’s got more in the bank than any other past incumbent president at this stage in the campaign trail: all of which are key indicators of upcoming success. Let’s take a closer look.

It’s the economy, stupid

Very rarely has an incumbent presidential candidate gone on to win a second term when the economy is in decline. And fortunately for Donald, the US economy is very much on the up, and most importantly, in the right places. Given Trump has made few new friends, the key question for 2020 will be whether he has retained his old ones.

Here the economies of the rural, ‘forgotten’ states are significant, and they have boomed. Earlier this year it was reported that 10 states hit their lowest rates of unemployment in their histories: Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont and Wisconsin. Nine out of ten of these states voted for Trump. White men without degrees have experienced a 3.1% wage raise over the past two years, 1.5% for black men, 1.7% for white women, and 0.6% for black women.

But is this enough? As Thomas Edsall pointed out in his excellent most recent New York Times piece where he reveals these statistics, these were the same economic conditions under which Democrats reclaimed the House last November in the midterm elections.

Money talks

As the famous political philosophers ABBA once said: “it’s a rich man’s world”. Nowhere is this truer than in US elections. Not only will the successful candidate rack up hundreds of thousands of airmiles travelling across states, they need to fund cripplingly expensive ad campaigns. The price of victory ($400 million). Ads are the most significant expense for any campaign, with more than 70% of Obama’s re-election campaign expenses and 55% of Mitt Romney’s being spent on them. Literally billions of dollars are spent during election season, and nobody is better prepared for this than Trump.

The US President has already raised a whopping $30 million in the first quarter of 2019, more than both of his Democratic rivals combined. We’re still more than 18 months away from the ballot box and already the Trump campaign has spent nearly $11 million on Facebook ads since May 2018, running more than 190,000. By contrast, Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign had less than $2 million at this point in the election.

So is he really here to stay?

Before you all get too depressed, we do have to remember The Donald is nothing if not unpredictable. While campaign finance and the state of the economy are traditionally reliable indicators for the success of an incumbent president, we should know better than to rely on precedent and predictions from past elections.

Indeed, one of the reasons Trump was elected was that he represented change. Americans were bored of the same candidates (and dynasties) running the country and wanted an outsider. But Trump can’t claim this in 2020. He isn’t change anymore, he’s the incumbent.

With the full Mueller report released today fully clearing Trump of collusion with Russia, the reality of a second term feels a real possibility. For all the shiny videos emerging of Democrat candidates now pledging to change America, the cold facts remain that they lack the clear advantages Trump possesses ahead of 2020.

Sophia Stileman, Researcher

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“Lies, damn lies and statistics” and the gender pay gap

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“Lies, damn lies and statistics” and the gender pay gap

When I talk to my dad about the gender pay gap, this is his go-to phrase. Falsely attributed to Disraeli, popularised by Mark Twain, the expression was originally coined by radical liberal Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke in 1891, or possibly not.

According to last week’s second annual publication deadline, 78% of firms pay men more than women. And yet my dad will insist there is no such thing as the gender pay gap. It is a statistical creation, a false metric that allows women to feel hard done by. He will go on to argue that the only form of discrimination is income inequality and, while that has been dramatically widening (he worries) it does not affect women more than men.

My dad is rarely wrong. But on this one he is suffering from a particularly acute case of white male unthinking, deriving his opinion from his own perception (a world where his wife and daughter are treated and valued entirely equally, and his mother and grandmother called all the shots). He assumes his experience is a truth that should be universally acknowledged.

When I commented on Helena Morrissey’s excellent post about the GPG on LinkedIn the response was less polite than the debates my dad and I have… John K from San Diego asked “what about the societal expectation that men should work hard and provide for their families, die younger, perform the dangerous jobs? Shove it sweetheart, we ain’t buying your misandrist crap any more. You and your screeching fellow man hating harpies have ruined the narrative.” Which is something of a surprise to read on a professional networking site. Although it turns out that John is not alone, depressingly nearly half (46%) of American men believe that the gender pay gap is made up for political purposes.

Trolling aside, just because it is a crude metric, doesn’t mean it cannot tell us something meaningful and powerful. What it does not tell us is that women are paid less than their peers. Nor does it tell us that “women should just be more confident and ask for a pay rise” (again my dad). My mum once met my old boss, whereupon he launched into a volley of praise for my performance at work. “Don’t clap, throw money” was her zinging response. She and I, and in fact women in general, don’t have a problem asking for more money. The research shows we are simply less likely to get a positive response to that ask.

Of the 9,961 companies which had filed by 5pm on 4 April, 44% had improved or narrowed their pay gap. On the flipside, 40% of reporting firms saw a growing or widening pay gap. This is not surprising considering that the data being reported is already a year old, so the plans published last year could not possibly have come into effect for this year’s data. Some commentators have suggested those with “good news” to tell should be scrutinised for potentially gaming the system. Whereas those whose gaps have got wider might be investing in the future by hiring lots of young, lower paid women, who will eventually make their way through the ranks.

 

The great Brexit distraction

So now that we have had a chance to review the numbers published last week, what have we learned?

Last year, we predicted that worsening numbers would drive the biggest headlines ahead of the second anniversary. This proved to be the case for HSBC, KPMG and EasyJet, but the biggest difference was actually in the volume of coverage. If like us you have been trying to engage journalists in any story at all over recent months, or simply regularly consume the news, you will know why: Brexit is dominating the agenda to the exclusion of all else.

In March 2018, 7,375 UK stories ran with “Pay Gap” in their title, in March 2019 there were just 1,280, an 80% reduction in media coverage. There was more of a focus on specific sectors, with health, universities and financial services driving the biggest stories.

The outraged scrutiny of the BBC’s gender pay gap looks somewhat hypocritical when you compare their numbers to the rest of the media industry.

The outraged scrutiny of the BBC’s gender pay gap looks somewhat hypocritical when you compare their numbers to the rest of the media industry.

Media companies themselves also had to report on their gender pay gaps, but funnily enough those didn’t drive too many headlines. Two years in a row the BBC actually had the second smallest gender pay gap in the sector, not that you’d know it.

The most improved award goes to the Daily Express who narrowed their median gap from 19 to 14.6 per cent. Hats off to Press Association for demonstrating that a pay gap in the media is not inevitable.

 

Call in the spin doctors?

If transparency leads to bad headlines, who do you call? As we highlighted last year, not all spin doctors are equal when it comes to equality. Very few PR consultancies are required to publish their gap, only 4% of PRCA member firms are large enough that they fall under the regulations. However, the last PRCA Census showed that between 2016 and 2018, the gender pay gap actually increased in the PR industry, growing from 17.8% to 21%. So what credentials can you look for in an advisor?

Well, walking the walk is a start. And the picture here is as murky as the national one. FTI Consulting, reported the largest pay gap, at 32.2 per cent median. But put this down to “providing services beyond PR that are historically male-dominated”. Edelman’s gap last year was 10% and their rhetoric was frankly rubbish, so it’s no surprise so see their gap widen to 13.4%, worse still their bonus pay gap has gone up from 44% to 73%.

As with media, a pay gap in PR is not inevitable. We are a small firm of just 12 so our numbers are easily skewed by individuals, but our median pay gap is 24% in favour of women, up from 5.6% last year. The median gender pay gap at Golin has risen to 7.7 per cent in favour of women, up from 4.6 per cent last year. The same is true for Hill and Knowlton, in 2018 they reported a 3.9% median gap in favour of men, this year that has switched to a 2.36% gap in favour of women.

 

Reputation vs productivity

So spin doctors may or may not be able to help you with a reputation challenge from the gender pay gap. But what is sad is that this is definitely the box it seems to fall into in the minds of management. We should be investing in diversity to make our businesses more productive – not simply to look equal.  As Harvard Business Review explains diverse teams are more likely to re-examine facts and remain objective. They encourage greater scrutiny of each member’s actions, keeping their joint cognitive resources sharp and vigilant, thereby reducing risk. Hiring people who do not look, talk, or think like you, may feel less comfortable but it means you avoid the costly pitfalls of conformity, which discourages innovation. Time and again studies find that equality is good for business performance, but we still don’t act like we believe those findings.

 

No plan, no action?

Many firms did not publish a plan of action alongside their numbers, which means we shouldn’t expect to see meaningful progress any time soon. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) - which enforces the gender pay gap rules - said that forcing companies to report their pay gaps was not enough to eliminate pay disparities.

On a more personal level, this isn’t a ‘girls job’ to fix, and it is illusory to think that the argument should only be concerned with women’s choice over their lifestyles. As men become more aware of the problem, having to collect and address the stark facts, they too can help as powerful agents for change.

Part of the future of Pay Gap reporting needs to be concerned with the workplace stereotypes that remain frustratingly persistent. As I wrote last week, some of this is about a parenting penalty at work. But it starts even before childcare becomes an issue, according to the Government’s graduate earnings survey, men earn more than women at all stages in the decade after graduation, with male earnings 8% higher after just one year, 15% after five years and 31% higher at 10 years after graduation.

The same unhelpful gender stereotypes that teach girls to be polite and helpful, not pushy or bossy, also teach boys not to cry. These attitudes and behaviours should not be overlooked when searching for solutions, meaning a focus on mental health support at work and shared parental leave for male managers are just as important as affordable childcare and negotiation skills for women in the executive pipeline.

If you need help planning for gender pay gap 2020 – we’d love to hear from you.

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COMPROMISE, COMPROMISE, WHERE ART THOU COMPROMISE?

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COMPROMISE, COMPROMISE, WHERE ART THOU COMPROMISE?

Well where to begin. It certainly has been an exciting week. Tottenham have finally moved into their new stadium. Harry and Meghan have broken a record by reaching one million followers on their newly launched Instagram account. New adverts have been released for the last series of Game of Thrones. Oh and Parliament has continued to talk about Brexit.

Yes, the B word. Now if your mood is anything like ours it would be fair to say you are probably suffering from Brexit fatigue. And we are the political nerds. The bad news is there does not appear to be an immediate end in sight. Researcher Mike Hough looks at what the future may hold and whether there will ever be a time when we do not talk about Brexit.

WHAT ON EARTH IS HAPPENING

The best we can probably say is [Add strong insight here.] Of course I’m kidding but this does rather sum up where we are at with Brexit. Parliament has continued to clarify what they don’t want without expressly saying what they do want. No to No Deal, No to revocation, No to the PM’s deal, No to a customs union, No to a second referendum. Some more resounding than others.

In an attempt to break the deadlock the Prime Minister this week invited Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for talks. To say this has gone down badly with Tory backbenchers is an understatement. The brave loyal band of ERGers have been sharpening their knives. Ministers have resigned. Yet the world has not come to an end. Of course, conversations may fail to bear fruit. Despite the reaction what our politicians should know is that the public actually like our politicians working together. With a 52:48 result, compromise was always a necessity rather than a luxury.

SO WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Initially, more talks. And then probably some more talks. Likely followed by even more posturing. Both sides competing to use the most ridiculous and unhelpful language. However, at some stage Parliament will have to make a decision. In a Bill passed in just one day on Thursday in the Commons, Parliament ordered the PM to seek a further extension. But then what? All competing sides in the UK political sphere will have to compromise. Yes the dirty C word again. This compromise could look like a softer Brexit (whatever that means), a confirmatory referendum or a combination of both.

We have a tendency to forget one fairly important player in this debate. The EU. Any request for a further extension will have to be agreed by the EU. The Prime Minister has requested an extension until 30th June yet the EU appears to favour a longer extension. All will be decided at a special EU summit next week. Power is in their hands. Which given Parliament’s inability to reach a decision may be viewed as a relief by those on the remain side.

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HOW IT ENDS?

You will be glad to know I have conducted detailed market research on this question. Thus rendering any future democratic exercise meaningless. I jest, but I did ask the office. Whilst there are currently 19 different options on our sweepstake of wild predictions the consensus view was that the UK will most likely face a long extension. In this extension period we consider it likely there will be a further democratic exercise; a General Election or a confirmatory referendum. In this period we will also probably have a new Prime Minister.

But this is just a guess (hopefully an educated one!). In reality, your guess is as good as ours. No situation is simple here and all come with challenges. No-one on either side of this debate is likely to end up satisfied. Our office Brexiteer and People’s Voter are united in horror (if not on much else!). This whole situation has not been handled well and questions have to be asked about all parts of the process. The 20:20 hindsight of commentators wise after the event is already creeping in.

SHALL WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE?

Whilst all this is ongoing we shouldn’t forget there are other issues of political significance. The Gender Pay Gap (read our latest blog here), schools funding, the NHS and an ageing population, the regeneration of our most deprived towns and cities, the police and knife-crime. These are really serious issues and they are not getting the airtime they deserve. They should not be an after-thought to the Brexit conversation.

Anyway, let’s try to end on a positive note. There are good things happening as well. Happiness is at an all-time high. Technological and medical developments continue to astound. The sun is shining (at least some of the time!). Politics has engaged a greater number of young people. And despite the present discord in the words of the late Jo Cox MP, “there is far more that unites us than divides us”.

I know it doesn’t feel like it, but this won’t go on forever. We will move on. And yes, regardless of how this ends and what side of the argument you are on the future is bright. Well brightish!

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Balance for Better: Women in Sport

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Balance for Better: Women in Sport

Balance for Better: Women in Sport

Today is International Women’s Day, where the theme is ‘Balance for Better’. It provides an opportunity to talk about the progress we have made in working to achieve gender balance, as well as a chance to reflect on the challenges that still lie ahead. Our Researcher, Sophia, explores the gender balance in sport, highlighting problems in the way women’s sport is reported in the media, and what we can do to tackle them.

Where are we at?

First, we should note that great progress has been made in the world of women’s sport globally. Representation in high positions has improved. The number of women on International Olympic Committee (IOC) Commissions has been increased to almost 43% of the total membership since 2013.[1] A growing support for women’s sport is also reflected in our population. According to the Women’s Sports Trust, 59% of people in the UK have an active interest in women’s sport – a potential market of 24 million people.[2] Women's sport is on the rise compared with years gone by.

This is starting to be reflected in the media. Alex Scott made history as the first female pundit in the Sky studio on Super Sunday last year, where she reported on premier league fixtures alongside Graeme Souness and Jamie Carragher. While she had been a pitchside analyst in the past, having a woman in the studio was unheard of. She said of her success as a female pundit: “I want people – boys and girls – to be sat at home watching me alongside the likes of Rio Ferdinand or Frank Lampard, thinking that it’s normal, that we all know what we’re talking about, and that they’re not judging me at home just because I’m a female.”[3] You and I both, Alex. But it remains that women are still not playing and talking about sport on an equal footing to men.

Drip drip drip

One problem is the way we speak about women’s sport. Often it’s a subtle drip drip drip that influences our perceptions and can have a significant impact. For instance, men’s sport is largely considered the default ‘sport’, with pundits most often referring to “football” and then “women’s football”. I’m no expert but women’s football is just as much ‘football’ as men’s football. They both play by the same rules and require the same commitment.[4] Then there are the not-so-subtle commentators. Simon Kelner, the former editor of the Independent, said that women talking about Football World Cup games “is like getting a netball player to discuss major league basketball”. Not helpful. Jason Cundy also attracted widespread criticism for his comments on hearing Vicki Sparks commentate on the World Cup last year, complaining it was “a tough listen. I prefer to hear a male voice. For 90 minutes listening to a high-pitched tone isn't what I want to hear.”

Aesthetics or athletics?

Perhaps the worst and most enduring practice of commentators is the focusing on appearance over ability. Why are we talking about the length of Heather Watson’s skirt, rather than the possibility she might win the UK women’s first gold medal in tennis since 1908? Why does commentary focus so disproportionately on women’s appearance and personal lives in sport rather than the quality of their performance? The double standards and sexual undertones in the way women’s sports are reported is a dis-service to the sport being played, as well as the individuals playing.

Culture

But maybe the current narrative around women’s sport is just a symptom of a wider problem of culture? For many women the ‘lad-culture’ of football is very off-putting and makes it seem like it’s not ‘meant for them’. It’s not hard to see where this comes from. It’s reinforced very early on in the playground that netball is for girls and football is for boys. In fact, by the age of 10, 95% of boys will be playing football, compared to only 41% of girls of the same age. We can’t expect adult sport fans to dramatically change their view of men’s and women’s sports teams when it runs counter to everything they experienced growing up. When Girl Guides did their Girls’ Attitudes Survey 2018, one young respondent said: “I think girls’ lives would be better if girls felt more encouraged to do sports and ‘male’ subjects in school.” We cannot stress enough the importance of starting the process of encouraging girls into sport early.

What next?

Given all this, what can we do? In a conversation that so often relies on vague conclusions about “society” and “equality”, having tangible actions that can make a positive difference is important. Here’s a few ways we can take small steps towards a big goal (if you’ll pardon the pun).

Firstly, we can’t underestimate how important it is to work alongside men, rather than opposite them. Not just because shutting out 50% of the human population makes absolutely no sense, but because men suffer from gender inequality too. Men in sport can play an incredibly important role in calling out sexism where the voice of a woman sadly just wouldn’t be as effective. Sir Andy Murray is a wonderful example of this. Two years ago, Murray was praised for correcting a journalist who said Sam Querrey was the first American to reach a grand slam semi-final since 2009. Murry responded: “Male player,” highlighting that Serena Williams had won a fair few majors in that period.

Secondly, we can build on successful instances where both men’s and women’s sports have happened side by side. In 2016 the Men's and Women's World Twenty20 was held simultaneously in India. In fact, the final took place on the same day and at the same ground. The result was greater publicity and interest in the women's game. Whilst some may argue that such a format makes the women's game a sideshow to the "main event" of the men's tournament, that is not the result in tennis or athletics. A Jessica Ennis-Hill title is as widely reported and known about as a Mo Farah one.

It is a similar story with rugby. The Six Nations has both a men’s and women's tournament running concurrently. Often the women's match is played at Twickenham straight after the men, or alternatively takes place across the road at the Twickenham Stoop on the Friday night before. This raises awareness of the women's rugby and allows fans to be introduced to the women's game. My local club Harlequins include their women's team on their results page, in their social media posts and competitions. As far as they are concerned, they are one club with two teams.

Another way balance can be achieved in sport is through brand investment. Advertising and sponsorship are crucial, not just through funding but in the message projected to women that sport is for them too. The commercial male focus puts a lot of women off and brands are often hesitant to invest in women’s sport because they don’t feel that they’re reaching a large enough audience. But more brands need to break the cycle and tap into a growing market of women.

Some progress has been made here; only yesterday Lucozade announced they will be moving into sponsorship of women’s football for the first time ever ahead of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019. This follows Nike’s ‘Dream Crazy’ ad series, featuring Serena Williams calling out double-standards on how female athletes are described when showing emotion. The ad closes with: “If they want to call you crazy, fine. Show them what crazy can do.”

This is the way forward: equal treatment and partnership, including, not excluding, men in the debate. Celebrating the progress made thus far, but mindful of our steps yet to come.


[1] https://www.olympic.org/news/women-in-sport-where-are-we-with-gender-equality-today

[2] https://www.womenssporttrust.com/there-is-a-real-and-growing-demand-for-more-womens-sport-in-the-uk/

[3] https://inews.co.uk/sport/football/alex-scott-sky-sports-pundit-super-sunday/

[4] Cambridge University Press have analysed millions of words relating to men and women and how they are described in language associated with the Olympic sports.

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IT’S THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

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IT’S THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

It’s that time of year again where the Gender Pay Gap dominates the headlines. In March last year 7,375 UK stories ran with “Pay Gap” in their title. New research from Opinium shows 64% of Brits have heard about the Gender Pay Gap in the last 6 months. With last year penned the “grace period” for firms, this year looks set to be double the scrutiny for those finding themselves under the spotlight. With less than a month to go until the reporting deadline our new Consultant, Bethan Phillips, examines what’s been creeping out of the woodwork.

FROM BAD TO WORSE

16% of firms, nearly 2,000 companies, have released their gender pay gap data for a second time. And so far in 2019 there have been 1,130 stories with “Pay Gap” in the headline. BBC analysis in February showed at the time of publication the median gap (that is the difference in pay between the middle-ranking woman and the middle-ranking man) in Britain has lessened - it is now 8.4%, down from 9.7% last year. Hurrah? Alas, not quite. In 4 out of 10 companies, the gap is getting worse.

Towards the end of last year, in the midst of Brexit chaos, some firms released their gender pay gap results for 2018- including HSBC and 18 Government Departments. At nearly a third of government departments the gender pay gap has widened over the past 12 months, despite previous pledges to reduce it.

Guardian GPG infographic.png

The biggest rise in the median pay gap was reported by the DCMS, where the median gap nearly trebled from 8.2% to 22.9% in 2018. The main reason cited for this increase was a “loyalty penalty”. Whereby progressive policies such as flexi working, targeting working parents, encourage women to stay on in their roles. Only for them to be “screwed on pay” because by being promoted internally they are limited by civil service policy on internal pay increases. However, men who were hired externally at a director level were (surprise surprise) recruited on much higher salaries than their female equivalents.

HSBC might have thought they’d escaped media scrutiny when the press didn’t initially pick up their increase in gender pay gap. Roll on 2019 and a flurry of articles branding HSBC the “worst bank” for the gender pay gap surfaced. Their gender pay gap grew to 61% in 2018, compared to 59% a year earlier. Safe to say- HSBC’s new year wasn’t off to the best start.

HSBC gender pay gap.PNG

Another pay gap offender was the energy giant Npower, whose median gender pay gap has grown from 13% to 18%. This was in part attributed to more female than male employees opting for a salary sacrifice benefits scheme. These schemes were hailed “a positive step towards the company being more family friendly”. There appears to be a recurring correlation between family friendly policies and the gender pay gap, with women suffering the financial consequences. But it also goes to show that Gender Pay Gap reporting is just one crude metric which doesn’t tell the full story behind the number.

BOYCOTTING ON THE INCREASE?

With the second year of Gender Pay Gap reporting well underway, conversations around consumers and potential recruits boycotting brands and businesses because of their gender pay gap are growing. Research from The Equality and Human Rights Commission shows candidates are putting more pressure on companies to show they are pushing diversity and gender equality – with two-thirds of women taking a company’s gender pay gap into consideration. At a panel discussion on The Gender Pay Gap, hosted by Lansons, Opinium and PRCA, Bibi Hilton MD at Golin suggested we will see an increase in consumers boycotting brands with a gender pay gap. An opinion echoed by Allyson Stewart-Allen, CEO of International Marketing Partners. Reputations are certainly at risk, but will consumers actually boycott these businesses? We’re not sure that consumers are really ready to put principle above pricing yet, but we’ll be delighted to be proven wrong on this one!  

LONG TERM ACTION PLANS

There are no silver bullets when it comes to fixing the gender pay gap, so we will no doubt see these worsening results continuing to dominate the headlines. Sam Smethers, Chief Executive of Fawcett Society, is urging businesses to draw up long term action plans. She believes they need to illustrate a dedication to making change by producing a 3-5 year strategic plan on how they will improve their gap. A piece of advice reverberated by Chloe Chambraud Director at BITC Gender Equality at the PRCA Gender Pay Gap panel discussion. The pressure is on for the Government to require firms to have a real action plan to address their pay gaps and consequences for those that don’t.

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Would I lie to you?

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Would I lie to you?

Our Researcher Toni Heijbroek promises to stick to the facts in her latest blog, when pondering on the state of our public psyche and the findings from this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer.

Who do you trust? Why do you trust them? These questions permeate our lives from the workplace to our weekend conversations in pub corners. But the consequences for business and comms are far greater than trusting your mate to get the round correct.

For 18 years, headlines from the Edelman Trust Barometer have provided insight into the state of trust in our international communities. With 33,000 respondents worldwide, it is the mother of all surveys. It’s highlighted shifts in the way we, as global citizens, view the world and the institutions in it. In 2017, trust was in crisis. 2018 was coined the year for the ‘Battle of Truth.’ And the 2019 results are in... but what do they actually mean for politics, media and comms?

THE POWER OF POLARISATION

This year has seen ‘trust inequality’ return to record highs. As part of their barometer, Edelman have calculated the average percent of trust placed in NGOs, business, government and media by two groups of society. The ‘informed public’, the top 16% of the global population holding the top quarter of global household income, who went to university and the ‘mass public’. The 84% of people around the world who aren’t so lucky.

This increase in ‘trust inequality’ means the gap between our global population’s ‘informed public’ and ‘mass population’ has widened.

This tells us that, unsurprisingly, as a global society we are becoming more polarised over whom we trust and why. We, as Brits, are in an even more dire state. Our ‘informed public’ sits happily in a state of ‘trust’ at 64 points, with our ‘mass population’ 24 points lower in a state of active distrust. We are a nation divided along a number of fault lines.

Protesters at the #MeToo survivors’ march : thousands march in LA as sexual misconduct allegations continue

Protesters at the #MeToo survivors’ march : thousands march in LA as sexual misconduct allegations continue

Take politics, for example. In a post-referendum environment, it will hardly come as a shock that things are not looking rosy for our political elite. But 3 in 5 UK citizens believe Government doesn’t listen to “people like them”, regardless of their leaning in the 2016 referendum. And half of us believe the socio-political system is broken. For better or worse, you need look no further than Parliament’s new Independent Group of MPs, or TIGgers, to see that this disillusionment with politics is echoing in the halls of Westminster. 

We are also divided along gendered lines. Gender Pay Gap reporting and the #MeToo movement are indicative that inequalities and injustices are not going away. Our collective desire for change has never been greater, fuelled by a mutual feeling that governments and elected officials just don’t get it. 

BUT WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR MEDIA?

This collective urge for change means our desire for fact finding has sky rocketed. Our engagement in the news agenda is up, the disengaged are becoming more engaged, and more and more people are amplifying the news agenda through their own personal social channels or blogs.

PR professionals everywhere can sleep easy, as this means our market is growing. As more people engage with and augment news, there is the ever increasing opportunity for our work to affect more and more people. Our scope for impact is on the up. 

Yet with power, comes great responsibility. Awareness of scary algorithms designed to perpetuate echo chambers of news online are coming under fire. And two thirds of us worry that the news we consume may be weaponised and fake.

SO WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? WHO DO WE TRUST?

If you are reading this from the relative comfort of your ergonomic desk chair, take a moment with me. Do you trust your boss?

Turns out, 73% of us in the UK do.

Our gradual reordering of trust has landed “My Employer” with the top job. They are considered more trustworthy than NGOs, governments and the media. And they hold this position because in our polarising world, we look to relationships that are close at hand.

Your employer is much more tangible than government, for example. The talking heads in Central Lobby on the Ten O’Clock News are a far cry away from who you see across the office on a Monday morning.

These relationships make us feel more empowered. They are more controllable.

Surprisingly, this also rings true for those who are more traditionally considered disenfranchised. Even the majority of those who believe the system is failing them trust their employers.

 
From the Edelman Trust Barometer: For each one, respondents were asked to indicate how much they trust an institution to do what is right, using a nine-point scale where one means that you “do not trust them at all” and nine means that you “trust them a great deal.” “Your employer” was a category for those who are employed, but not self employed.

From the Edelman Trust Barometer: For each one, respondents were asked to indicate how much they trust an institution to do what is right, using a nine-point scale where one means that you “do not trust them at all” and nine means that you “trust them a great deal.” “Your employer” was a category for those who are employed, but not self employed.

BUSINESS AS USUAL?

However we are not allowing the top cats to rest on their laurels. Globally, three quarters of us say that CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for the Government to impose it. This means that we are increasingly expecting employers to be at the forefront of issues like gendered pay, prejudice and discrimination, and even the environment.

Similarly, 7 in 10 of us think it is “critically important” for CEOs to respond to challenging times. This means we want our business leaders to take a stance on political events and national crises. Board rooms across the country: take note.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR COMMS?

As we look to our employers more and more as trusted partners, the role of internal comms gets ever more important. If we trust our businesses so much more than our governments, and our media outlets, why aren’t we all utilising internal comms as part of our campaigning?

The year of ‘Trust at Work’ shows the increasing necessity of successful internal comms. Employers need to be vocal on change that is happening in their businesses and in the wider community. They need to start and continue meaningful conversations that support workplace progression. They need to run open and honest internal comms campaigns that nourish this growing trust.

Put simply, employees are putting their trust in the workplace, which means we need to trust them with our campaigns.

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The Independent Group: A Bold But Empty Gesture?

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The Independent Group: A Bold But Empty Gesture?

While both Labour and Tory defectors in the new Independent Group appear seemingly united, underpinning their rationales are two very different parties, with very different problems. New Atlas researcher Sophia looks at whether the TIGers can mobilise the centre ground and offer more than an anti-Brexit movement, or whether their inevitable differences will be too strong to overcome.

 

CONTEXT

 

The creation of the Independent Group is understandable but also puzzling, as Britain’s two main parties find themselves in very different circumstances. While Labour has been consumed with allegations of antisemitism and bullying, many have been left wondering why three Tories have left a party that is trying to fulfil its manifesto pledge of pursuing Brexit.

 

If you separate the Independent Group’s policies beyond Brexit you will still find, at heart, Labour and Conservative MPs. Despite both main parties being split, they are of course ideologically separate. Umunna still supports greater public spending, and Soubry still supports the austerity agenda driven by the Conservative Government. While ideological differences with their native parties have brought them together, ideological differences may yet tear them apart as buried beneath the surface lie very different views on the role of the individual and the role of the state.

 

SUBSTANCE

 

So can the Independent Group unite around more than disillusionment with the leading parties? More than slowing -even preventing- Brexit? Their statement of independence is worryingly empty: void of distinct policies and consisting more of vague statements that nobody could really disagree with. On the other hand, (highlighted here in a previous Atlas blog), a moderate (even if somewhat vague in TIG’s case) middle ground for the politically homeless is welcome at a time when politicians (and people) are so deeply divided.

 

CHANCES OF SUCCESS

 

Last week a YouGov poll placed the Independent Group at 18 percent, despite their lack of manifesto. Although the usual caveats around the reliability of polling applies, to put this in some context, Cameron called a referendum when the UK Independence Party polling at just 10%. This latest polling suggests that the electorate to some extent shares TIGer’s disillusionment with the main parties and simply favour a change -any change- from May’s shambolic handling of Brexit and the hard-left of Corbyn.

 

These considerations are now more poignant as the Group's character shifts from an SDP-esque Labour splinter movement, to a political grouping with the potential for electoral influence. The First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system has historically smothered small parties before they even get started, and this will surely be no different. Once the novelty of their creation has worn off, whether they have the potential for electoral success is yet to be seen.

 
independentgroup2.jpg

 

THE FUTURE

 

One option on the table is to facilitate some form of merge with the Lib Dems, however this comes with its own baggage and further dilutes the possibility for consensus as a third party enters the mix. The extent of agreement within the Group on Lib Dem involvement is already contentious, with some avoiding the question and some seemingly suggesting they’re all welcome.

 

Regardless of how you look at it, it’s bold. To cross the benches and collaborate with your opposition on forming a new parliamentary group takes some guts. But once the novelty wears off, will they unite and change political history, or be remembered as an idealistic but ultimately hollow faction? We will be watching with interest.

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No such thing as bad publicity?

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No such thing as bad publicity?

Gillette Logo.png

An unusual suspect for controversy by all accounts, Gillette certainly kicked 2019 off with a bang. Their advert, ‘We Believe: The Best Men Can Be’, sought to combat toxic masculinity by asking men to call out the detrimental and damaging behaviours of their peers.

Our intern, Neil McAvoy, examines the recent advert causing quite a stir.

So, why the fuss?

To many the advert is uncontroversial. The statement that men no longer must fall into behaviours that, while deemed ‘masculine’, have been problematic and unhealthy for men and women alike is surely one to be welcomed?

Gillete Ad, Pro Response 1.png
Gillette Ad, Pro Response 2.png

If only this was where the story ended …

THE REACTION

As if to confirm the existence of a problem within the psyche of a noisy portion of the advert’s male audience, a fierce and relatively widespread backlash ensued. At the time of writing, the short film version has around 25M views, 678K likes and 1.2M dislikes.

Gillette Ad, Neg Response 1.png
Gillette Ad, Piers Morgan Response.png

While the advert is certainly not without its faults (few ever are!), it’s hard to, in good conscience, disagree with the message that bullying, harassment and workplace sexism aren’t aspects of society that should be allowed to endure. Nor is the advert wrong in suggesting that these behaviours, at least the latter two, are disproportionally experienced by women. The assertion that men need to act more often to prevent the spread of these behaviours is also accurate. While these truths are hard to deny, they were lost on many men who watched the advert.

As the advert’s reception demonstrates, Gillette is also correct to think that these messages have yet to resonate with the parts of society they need to most. Whether a 30 (or 90) second Gillette advert is either the effective or appropriate vehicle to accomplish this is another matter.

ARE GILLETTE THE RIGHT FRONT-RUNNERS?

If companies are going to provide this type of social commentary in their adverts at all, should Gillette be the one to do so?

On this issue, rationally, yes, they probably should. Gillette is one of the world’s largest marketers to men. Its (potential) influence is huge.

They are also donating $1m annually into US non-profits which align with their recently demonstrated ethos. Additionally, Procter and Gamble, Gillette’s corporate overlords, have run similarly motivated adverts on other companies they own in the past. Whether this is for their own gain or society’s, I’ll leave you to decide.

Always, Throw Like a Girl Ad.gif

SO WHY ISN’T IT RESONATING?

Firstly, when most watch the advert, they don’t see this context. Instead, many protectively see the ‘feminisation’ of a male world they have grown accustomed to, feel instantly uncomfortable and react defensively. Others, rightly or wrongly, perceive the advert to stink of virtue signalling.

The generally poor execution of the advert doesn’t help either. The acting is far from ground-breaking. Shock horror, I know. The several heavily exaggerated stereotypes and caricatures featured make it challenging for the advert to convey sincerity. A line of men stood BBQ’ing is tricky to take seriously, no matter the context. This trivialises the issue and, while the message remains the same, makes it more difficult for the advert to achieve its goal of changing minds.

Gillette, Men BBQing.png

The short and simple requirements of an advert don’t lend themselves well to a convincing comment on one of society’s longest-running problems. Resultantly, it oversimplifies an issue which, whether you like it or not, can’t be resolved without sensitivity and the appreciation of nuance. It uses the example of two young boys play-fighting to represent toxic masculinity. This is neither accurate or helpful.

While short and sweet adverts work relatively well when selling products or experiences, they work less so when trying to change men’s minds and misplaced senses of identity. This has caused many men to miss the point of the advert, unable to see the benefits both men and women will receive from such a change and merely perceiving an attack on ‘masculinity’.

THE RESULT?

Perhaps Gillette’s foray into the realm of social commentary will add itself to a list of examples that prove there is such a thing as bad publicity. While certainly raising the company’s profile, the advert has created serious uncertainty for Gillette’s brand reputation and sales. It may have also further entrenched the type of men it was trying to reach into their defence of the more unpalatable and disruptive aspects of masculinity. Through gargantuan publicity, Gillette has risked deteriorating the circumstances of each of the matters it set out to better. Bad publicity does exist.

Whatever your view, it’s probably worth remembering that it was just an advert. A reality which seems to have been lost on many.

Gillette Ad, JamesO'Brien.png

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MOMENTS THAT MATTERED 2018

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MOMENTS THAT MATTERED 2018

As the year draws to an end, here at Atlas we’ve been reflecting on our top 12 moments that mattered in 2018; the good, the bad and the ugly.

Salisbury poisoning

4th March 2018

On Sunday 4th March Salisbury, a relatively unheard-of city famed for its Anglican Cathedral, hit headlines around the globe, as the setting for a Le Carré style attempted espionage. In the early afternoon Mr Skripal and his daughter Julia were discovered unconscious on a bench in Salisbury. The city went into lock down and the press went mad; who was behind the poisoning, Putin or rouge Russian security agents? Since then we’ve learnt the pair were poisoned by military-grade Novichok nerve agent.  There were two other innocent people who later came into contact with the perfume bottle, used to contain the nerve agent, one of whom died. The two Russian suspects have been identified as officers in Russian military intelligence.

Did you know…The head of the British Army has declared Russia a "far greater threat" to the UK's national security than the Islamic State group.

 

Gender Pay Gap headlines

Gender Pay Gap headlines

Gender Pay Gap Crescendo 

April 5th 2018

The Gender Pay Gap filled the headlines in the lead up to April 5th, with barely a day going by without the media putting a company and their data in the spotlight. Despite people frequently conflating equal pay and the gender pay gap, it was encouraging to see the message break through that more needed to be done to support the progression of women across all industries. By April 2018 positive stories and calls to action, such as EasyJet’s efforts, were gaining as much attention as the scandals and outrage. A lack of workplace equality isn’t a ‘girls job’ to fix, and as men become more aware of the problem, having to address the stark statistics, they too can help.

 Whilst over 10,000 companies and public sector organisations revealed their pay gap data this year, one got more criticism than any other - the BBC. The ONS puts the UK’s average median pay gap at 17.9%  so the BBC’s gap of 9.7% is significantly below that, and better than the majority of other UK  media organisations. However, it’s PR woes were compounded when former China Editor, Carrie Gracie won an equal pay claim against the corporation. She later donated all of her back pay to the Fawcett Society to support other women fighting legal cases.

Did you know…There were 7,375 pay gap stories in UK media during March, five times more than in the previous month. And there were 10,891 employment tribunal claims from April- June in 2018, up 13% on the same period in 2017.

 
Mark Zuckerberg at Congress

Mark Zuckerberg at Congress

Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, grilled on live TV by Congress over data misuse

10th April 2018

It was the most oddly riveting TV watching the gawky tech billionaire, who still wouldn’t look out of place on a college campus, getting grilled over the Cambridge Analytica data-harvesting scandal. Having refused numerous times to testify (UK Parliament didn’t get a look-in), politicians wanted blood. The out of touch questions and gnashing teeth of lawmakers jarred with the nervous yet robotic calm of the overly prepared CEO. The hours of scrutiny revealed snippets on Facebook’s battle with regulation, it’s business model and vulnerabilities over election interference and fake news. For many though, the real insight was as much about getting a peek of the man-child who grew an empire that defined a generation of social media users and is unrivalled in its global influence.

Did you know… Mark Zuckerberg was questioned by over 100 politicians for almost 10 hours.

 
Windrush protesters

Windrush protesters

The Windrush Scandal

29th April 2018

The Windrush scandal hit the headlines, triggering social outcry and political outrage as it revealed elderly people of Caribbean heritage had been wrongly detained, denied legal rights and threated with deportation. Once the story broke, the Government argued they did not consider the Windrush generation to be here illegally, despite the ‘hostile environment’ they had been forced to endure. Following weeks of uproar about the Government’s treatment of the Windrush generation, on the 29th April the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, resigned. Tragically, this will never compensate the families of the 11 people deported from their home who passed away overseas, or those who lost jobs and driving licenses when their indefinite leave to remain was withdrawn.

Did you knowSam Beaver King, one of the passengers on board the first Windrush journey later became the first black Mayor of the London Borough of Southwark in 1983. He also had an influential role in the first Caribbean carnival which is what we now know as Notting Hill Carnival.

 
Prince Harry and Megan Markle exchange vows

Prince Harry and Megan Markle exchange vows

The Royal Wedding

19th May 2018

On a glorious sunny Saturday in May, almost 2 billion people tuned in to watch Prince Harry marry his American girlfriend Megan Markle. Yes, almost 2 billion. Their ‘I Dos’ were heard across countries, continents and cultures. Their every movement and fashion decision analysed by royalists and republicans alike. It marked an important moment of diversification for the royal family, as they welcomed a mixed-race American divorcee with a high flying career and a longstanding commitment to activism into their ranks. And the reverberations of their big day are still being felt. Google has revealed that Megan Markle was the ‘most searched for person’ of 2018 and the royal wedding itself was the most searched story. Love them or loathe them, the royals are still undeniably top of our news agenda.

Did you know… Harry and Meghan read traditional vows from the Common Book of Prayer, though Meghan left out the word "obey" - just like Diana did.

 


Dacre Departs the Daily Mail

7th June 2018

In June this year, Paul Dacre, Editor of the Daily Mail since 1992, announced he was stepping down. Under Dacre’s leadership the paper was always at the forefront of political and public debate, from calling out Stephen Lawrence’s suspected murderers, to being on the side of the ‘free press’ during the phone hacking scandal and most recently, christening Remain supporters in Parliament the “enemies of the people” off the back of the Brexit vote. Love him or loathe him, Dacre has been the éminence grise of British politics for decades. In his absence, with huge pressure on traditional print, the question Geordie Greig his successor must answer is what lies ahead for Britain’s third most read newspaper.

Did you know The Daily Mail has 1.3 million readers and is the most read newspaper after the Sun with 1.5 million and the free Metro paper with 1.4 million.

 
Tense fans watching the penalty shoot out

Tense fans watching the penalty shoot out

England winning a penalty shoot-out in World Cup

3rd July 2018

The Women’s Commonwealth netball final win clinched the BBC Sports Moment of the Year Award. But surely, for football fans, England finally winning a penalty shoot-out for the first time since v Spain in Euro '96 was the moment of 2018?! It was the last 16 tie of the World Cup in Russia. England had done well to qualify out of their group and they were facing Columbia. A testy match ended in a 1-1 draw after 120 minutes and every England fan's worse dread was looming… Amazingly, despite Henderson's miss, the goalkeeper Jordan Pickford performed heroics and Eric Dier calmly slotted home the winning penalty for England to bury 22 years of penalty pain.

Did you know… More than 24million people in the UK watched the penalty shoot-out (not counting those who live-streamed it on the internet).

 

The new temperance

10th October 2018

Wave goodbye to Student Union £1 a pint nights, new research published in the journal BMC public health showed earlier this year that nearly 30% of 16-24 year olds do not drink, an increase from 18% in 2005. It seemed Generation Z was swiping left to drunken nights ‘out out’ in favour of looking picture perfect for their Instagram stories. Increased tuition fees, housing costs and mental health concerns could also be contributing to the increased sobriety. Binge drinking, much like smoking, is dropping out of fashion. But, with cocaine use rising sharply in the last year, is booze being replaced with risqué habits.

Did you know… Declining interest in alcohol among young people is a worldwide trend, according Dr James Nicholls, director of research and policy development at Alcohol Research UK.

 
Angela Merkel negotiates with Donald Trump at the G7 summit in Canada, in June 2018.

Angela Merkel negotiates with Donald Trump at the G7 summit in Canada, in June 2018.

Angela Merkel to step down

28th October 2018

With her announcement that she would step down as party chair, the Merkel era is drawing to a close.

Even her harshest critics can’t say that she had it easy. The collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Euro crisis, the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the shift in Germany's stance on nuclear power, the Greek bailout and then, of course, the Refugee crisis.

Frau Merkel will be remembered for her commitment to freedom, her profound response to Trump’s election as US President in 2016, her unique ability to get through to Putin, her unflinching desire to help…and, of course, for her love of the beautiful game.

‘Mutti’ will be admired and praised for her quiet confidence, but torn apart for her actions that led to the formation of the Alternative für Deutschland. Her successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, or AKK, has a lot of work to do both to reunite her party and the nation if she is to hold onto Merkel’s power base. Let’s see what 2019 brings.

Did you know… Potato soup is one of Angie’s dinner party staples.

 

US mid-terms

7 November 2018

Though the long-awaited ‘blue wave’ turned out to be more of a ripple, it was clear the morning after the mid-terms that the weight of political power in Washington had definitely shifted. It had been a night of many firsts. The first openly gay male governor took charge in Colorado, the first two Muslim women were elected to office, and the first woman under 30 years old was elected to the House. But despite all the reasons for Democrats to cheer, they had lost the expectation management game. The results also reiterated the deep divisions in US society – and the uphill struggle ahead as they look to 2020. 

Did you know… 529 vs. 312 is the number of women running for Congress in 2018 vs. 2016.

 

 

Michael Cohen’s Sentencing

12th of December 2018

In the final throes of 2018, Michael Cohen was found guilty of, among other crimes, tax evasion and campaign finance violations. President Trump’s former lawyer/fixer/Pitbull, having turned on his old master, was sentenced to 3 years in prison and hit with nearly $2,000,000 worth of fines. The cloud already hanging over the Trump Whitehouse darkened as the President became an alleged accessory to these crimes.

Cohen repudiated Trump’s self-confessed ignorance of Cohen’s payment of hush money to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, women who allegedly had past affairs with the now-President. This prompted Trump to label Cohen a ‘rat’ on twitter. Not the smartest analogy considering the circumstances. If he didn’t before, Trump now reeks of illegal wrongdoing and the office in which he works is the most noxious it’s been since Watergate. Talk about ‘cleaning the swamp’?

Did you know… According to the Washington Post, between taking office and September of 2018, Donald Trump made more than 5,000 false or misleading claims.

 

A vote of no confidence

12th December 2018

7:30am. The moment when Sir Graham Brady announced a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister had been triggered by the Conservative Party.

By 9:00pm it was all over. In a packed committee room full of MPs and journalists in scenes relayed across the world, Sir Graham Brady confirmed Theresa May retained the confidence of her party colleagues winning with 200 votes to 117.

This was the moment that the internal divisions within the Conservative Party and the Government reached a crescendo.  It was the culmination of a year where the Prime Minister has taken many hits but had managed to cling on.

Did you know… Between the announcement of the vote and the vote itself there were more than 90,000 tweets that included "the Conservative Party" and the prime minister's name as well as the hashtags #NoConfidence and #LeadershipChallenge.

 

 

 

 

 

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“I haven’t got the foggiest idea”

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“I haven’t got the foggiest idea”

Well the date has finally been set. Tuesday 11th December. Set your calendars. The Atlas Christmas Party is in the diary.

Oh, you thought I was talking about something else? That’s a little awkward!

Of course, the 11th December is also the date for the so-called ‘meaningful vote.’ At around 7pm MPs will vote on whether to approve Theresa May’s deal.

And then? Well that is a matter of considerable debate. This blog will attempt to assess what could come next.

So the vote?

Well if you take MPs at their word, the vote will be lost. 100 Tory MPs have said they will vote against the deal. And all the opposition parties have said they will vote against the deal. This means the Prime Minister (PM) does not have the votes.

Then the fun and games could really begin. Here are some potential options on what could follow:

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  1. The Prime Minister is removed

The rumour mill will go into hyperdrive if the Government lose the meaningful vote. Prepare for the prominent opinion that the Prime Minister and/or the Government is finished.

One thing you will hear a lot about is No Confidence Votes. Now, crucially a No Confidence Vote from Parliament is different to a No Confidence Vote from the Conservative Party. First let’s begin with a No Confidence Vote from Parliament. This requires a majority of MPs to vote they have no confidence in the Government. If this vote was lost, the Government would collapse, triggering a General Election. This is very rare in UK politics.

But the possibility has been enhanced by Labour Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer suggesting it is “inevitable Labour will press no confidence vote if the vote is lost.” The DUP, whose votes the Government rely on are also refusing to confirm whether they would back the Government. This would make the numbers very tight and the end result unpredictable.

Ok, so now a No-Confidence Vote from the Conservative Party. This has no legal impact on the Government and is a direct vote against the leader of the party. This is a simple majority vote but only Conservative MPs can take part. Should the Prime Minister lose she would be forced to resign. To trigger this, 48 Conservative MPs need to request a vote by submitting a letter (yes an actual printed letter). Rebels have launched efforts to reach this threshold before, but have failed. Following ‘the meaningful vote’ we expect there will be another sustained attempt. And in a more febrile mood the rebels stand a greater chance. Yet, the struggle to date to even reach 48 letters means their ability to marshal the 160 or so votes to carry a ‘no confidence’ challenge against the Theresa May is far from certain.

Our view is that the PM suffers a greater threat from the House than from her own party.

2.    The Prime Minister is sent back to Brussels

After the vote the PM will be summoned to the despatch box. The mood of the House will dictate what happens next. One option could be they instruct the Government to negotiate a new deal with Brussels. That is of course assuming Brussels is in any mood to renegotiate. Some have argued that the only way to win further concessions from the EU is to show that Parliament will not accept their current offer. We’re not so sure.

What direction further UK-EU Brexit talks take would have to be focused on what deal could secure the support of the House as the new deal would have to be put to yet another Parliamentary vote.

To this end, cross-party talks have begun over the so-called Norway plus option. This is viewed as a softer Brexit. This angers Eurosceptics as the UK would have to retain free movement but would be more attractive to opposition MPs. It is feasible to see a deal of this kind gaining a majority in the House after a first vote is lost.

Another option is a ‘No-Deal’ Brexit or a negotiated ‘No-Deal.’ Legally, if the vote is lost and no further legislation is passed this is where we are heading. This would please the Brexiteer wing but would worry many more in Parliament. We believe Parliament will find a way to stop this.

Our (current) view is that Norway plus is more likely than no-deal. But ask us again next week!

3.    Another Vote

Could the Government have to go back to the people? A General Election? Another referendum?

Under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, a General Election (Labour’s preferred option) is hard to achieve without the support of the Government. A General Election could be triggered by the Government losing a vote of no confidence (as mentioned earlier). However, even in a divided Conservative Party, one thing that unites them is not wanting a General Election. Faced with the risk of Corbyn taking the reins in Number Ten, the tories will fight hard to avoid one.

On Monday, a petition carrying almost 1.5 million requesting a ‘people’s vote’ was delivered to Parliament. Despite the PM refusing to consider this option, momentum is growing. Former Universities Minister Sam Gyimah is the latest to voice his support. There is a debate over how you could turn any majority into the House into legislation to permit a second referendum though. Especially with a looming deadline and an unsupportive Government.

Our view is that the Government does not want to go back to the people. But in a Parliamentary stalemate this might be the last option standing.

Conclusion

Truthfully, no-one knows how this ends. There has been a lot of talk about a constitutional crisis. But, we just don’t know. We have never been here before. We are in uncharted territory.

So, as none of us are any the wiser, why not like us go out and enjoy the festivities. The matter of whether we still have a Government can always wait until the next morning!

We will leave you with the wisdom of BBC reporter Chris Mason, who when asked what could happen next candidly replied  “I haven’t got the foggiest.” Now there is a man who speaks for the nation.

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Wur tearin’ the tartan - at the SNP conference

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Wur tearin’ the tartan - at the SNP conference

Atlas Director, Charlie Napier, reflects on his first ever SNP party conference.

Atlas Director, Charlie Napier, reflects on his first ever SNP party conference.

Since I first started in public affairs almost 20 years ago, I have been to the majority of Labour and Conservative party conferences. In recent years, I have sometimes dreaded the prospect, but, like many things in life, I come out the other side feeling pleased that I have been. Despite the hassle and expense, going to them normally feels worthwhile.

So with a certain amount of trepidation, this year I made my SNP debut. As it turns out, after the maelstrom of the ever growing Labour/Tory conferences it was almost a joy to be in a (very wet) Glasgow at a conference with a far more homespun feel to it. It felt much more relaxed and much less hectic than the other two. Despite the passionate rallying cries for independence and (mostly) against Brexit, it had the feel of a large family gathering, something which Nicola Sturgeon alluded to in her speech.

Non-political nerds will have to forgive me as I highlight the ‘interesting’ differences. For a start, as mentioned, the size. Official figures said 4,000 people attended – at times it felt more like 400 to me. The fringe programme was supremely modest (60 open ones) but no less engaging in subject matter. Needless to say the three Brexit fringes seemed to be by far the most popular. There were 40 exhibitors, most of whom were from the non-profit sector, and considering we had all the Scottish Government Ministers and Leader there, security was gloriously light. The relaxed one man bag checker, the lack of photo on the pass and all round low key security was a refreshing change from the scanners and endless queues at the Tory conference. Some may mock this light touch but it should be celebrated that Scotland seems to be generally immune to serious terrorist threats.

Other unusual things I noticed were: the one café in the conference area stopped serving tea or coffee during the speeches to make sure delegates didn’t dally around and actually went in to listen to the debates. The fringe meetings were strictly timetabled for three set periods during the day, so they too didn’t interrupt the main action. It really was empty outside the full hall when the key speeches were taking place.

And it seemed to work. Although the conference hall was big (so much so that I was easily able to get in to watch the Leader’s speech, which at the other two is a near impossibility unless you are a member and queue for ages), it was nearly always full. Contrast that with the Tory conference where the main hall was half empty and all the focus was on the fringe programme (one in particular).

To seasoned conference goers who, like me, believe all the action happens outside of the main hall, this was quite an extraordinary thing. I guess it is what conferences were like before the lobbyists and corporate interests over ran the two big ones. As a result though, anyone who did make the trek up north or across from Edinburgh was rewarded with decent conversations with MPs, MSPs and their staff.

The other aspect I found fascinating was the curious juxtaposition of the elected politicians when debating subjects. At an energy fringe I went to, we had Paul Wheelhouse, Scotland’s Energy Minister and Alan Brown, the SNP Westminster Energy spokesperson. Paul was full of the joys of the Scottish Government’s energy policy whereas Alan was bemoaning the situation in Westminster and how ineffective and full of hot air the Westminster Energy Ministers and their Shadows were.

It really brought home the contrast between SNP MPs and MSPs. To me, being an MP is the route to take if you want to make a serious change to the country – i.e. go on and get into Government and be actually running things. In Scotland, being an MSP is what fulfils this role. Being an SNP MP is like choosing a life of permanent rebellion, being a disrupter but never having any hope of actually holding the reigns of power. This stark difference was really brought home to me at the conference.

So although I have no strong feelings about Scottish matters (apart from some fishing ones), I really enjoyed the conference and from a professional point of view found it well worth the trip. It made me think perhaps I should join the London branch of the SNP…but then on my way back south I chatted to a delightful SNP member and realised that perhaps my views weren’t 100% aligned with their policies.

 

 

 

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The rise and rise of the female voice. Does anger = action?

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The rise and rise of the female voice. Does anger = action?

Senior Consultant, Nina Dohmel-Macdonald, writes about her first ever party political conference and the rise of the female voice.

Senior Consultant, Nina Dohmel-Macdonald, writes about her first ever party political conference and the rise of the female voice.

I’ve thought about female anger a lot in recent weeks, particularly in the wake of that US Open final.  Without it, there would be no #MeToo. Without it, there would be no Amika George, fighting to stop any girl in the UK from missing school simply because she can’t afford sanitary products. Without it, I wouldn’t be asking friends and colleagues to stop saying ‘I’m not sure whether that’s been helpful’ every time I hear them finish a sentence with those words. I can’t imagine the countless articles, thought pieces and books on the subject will die down any time soon - especially given this weekend’s news that Mr Kavanaugh has become the new Supreme Court Justice.  

It’s worth looking back to 1991 when Anita Hill, a reserved law professor, testified to the Senate about her former boss, Clarence Thomas.  Despite his confirmation, her testimony electrified women in the US. She sparked an unprecedented political movement that lead to an increase in the number of women serving in Congress. The year that followed was christened ‘Year of Women’. Sound familiar? And maybe history will repeat itself in more ways than one.

There are 60% more potential candidates than there were in 2016 for America’s upcoming midterms. Eleven female nominees are running for governor and at least 185 for the House of Representatives. Record breaking numbers. There are also five woman vs. woman races. Another record. Women have won more primaries than ever before. Yes, there’s an argument that a large part of this is just lip service, as nearly half of those standing may lose in 'likely' or 'safe' Republican seats.  However, even with this being the case, I believe a record breaking number of female candidates still represents a reaction…a reaction to the thousands of stories that have come out in the wake of the Weinstein scandal, and Trump’s anti-feminist stance.

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Anger was certainly something I witnessed when I attended my first Party Conference – the Women’s Equality Party Conference - at the beginning of September.

Over the course of two days, so many issues were deliberated, discussed and debated.  Motions were passed and pulled apart.  Some of these stopped me in my tracks. Did you know that Westminster is proposing to write off £2.5bn of historic child support payments – most of which is owed to single mothers – simply because the cost of maintaining the records is too high? Or that this year the failure of evidence collection in just four rape cases has resulted in the review of all live cases, whilst the failure to convict thousands of rapists has had no effect on the system, at all? No? Me neither. 

I saw the obscure functionality of a political party, and just how long debates about seemingly straightforward motions can go on for. I left feeling inspired too. Yet my main take away was much bigger. Yes, without anger, there will be no change - we know that from both the present and the past. But what I’d hadn’t considered until then is that anger needs to be collective, not personal. Yes, we can do small things on our own. But anger is better when it’s a collective act, when everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet and when it’s channelled in the right way. Only then can it be as galvanising and productive as we so desperately need it to be.

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Tory Turmoil or Tory Triumph?

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Tory Turmoil or Tory Triumph?

Researcher Mike Hough takes a before and after look at Conservative Party Conference 2018

Researcher Mike Hough takes a before and after look at Conservative Party Conference 2018

Well it cannot be worse than last year, can it? Who can forget last year’s Conservative Party conference, particularly coughing fits, P45 pranks and falling letters making it memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Not many expected May to last much longer after that. But despite constant talk of coups and resignations, the Prime Minister is still in place.

That is not the only thing that has stayed the same. Over the last year the party has remained divided over Brexit. The jostling behind Theresa May as candidates fight for a future leadership campaign has only intensified. The Prime Minister continue to battles with her party as major decisions present themselves.

Add to this a Labour conference that was expected to ignite over Brexit, deselections and anti-Semitism but passed by quite successfully. Despite these problems the Conservative Party, with a little help from the DUP, are still in power and in most polls they remain ahead.

Sunday sees the starts of this year’s conference, and here’s what we expect.

A beauty contest

As speculation persists that this will be Theresa May’s last conference as leader, the future contest to replace her will rise a few notches. Cabinet members, while strenuously denying it, will be campaigning.

The likes of Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, Penny Mordaunt, (basically half the Cabinet) will all be using this conference to show they are the Tories next great hope. With members making the final decision, each potential candidate will be seeking to build their support base. Outside of this group, also keep an eye out for Tom Tugendhat and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Of course, there is one other, but we will come onto him later.

Brexit, Brexit and more Brexit

Brexit, the issue that stubbornly refuses to go away. Labour’s wrangling and disputes last week will seem like child’s play compared to the debates that will be ongoing at Tory conference. Is Chequers dead? Can Theresa May get any deal through Parliament? Will the wine be chilled?

The Prime Minister has shown no desire to ‘chuck Chequers.’ Despite the intense criticism from both Remainers and Leavers, May is sticking stubbornly to her plans. The end of conference will likely see a Prime Minister feeling battered and bruised, but, no more battered and bruised than from when she started the week.  There will be little change when it comes to the perennial B-word. The Prime Minister will know it is about getting through the four days in Birmingham before the virtually impossible process of securing a deal with Europe re-starts.

Boris Johnson

And then there is Boris. Boris will be the darling of the conference. Large crowds will follow him everywhere he goes. The media will hang on his every word and speculation will be rife about a future leadership challenge. Just as he likes it.

Whatever your view on his antics, there is also a serious conversation here. The former Foreign Secretary is front-runner to be the next leader (and de facto the next Prime Minister) and that means his actions are worth debating and discussing.

His plan published today for a ‘Better Brexit’ will form the basis of many of the Brexiteer arguments, as he leads the process to craft a narrative beyond Chequers. However, whether we will be any clearer on what the future holds for Boris by this time next week is anyone’s guess.

A rabbit from the hat?

Following some meaty policy announcements made at Labour conference, the Conservatives and the Prime Minister will be under pressure to respond. Former Skills Minister Rob Halfon has broken ranks to explicitly call for the Prime Minister to match the offer made by Labour to working people.

Party conferences have now become renowned for shock announcements. And the Prime Minister will be desperately wanting to push a few stories that aren’t about Brexit. Before last year’s speech went horribly wrong, Theresa May’s intent to adopt a more interventionist approach might have been what made the headlines. As it happens, her main announcement of an energy price cap has sailed through Parliament and will be in place before the winter. She needs to repeat that trick with added bells and whistles. Perhaps, there will be an announcement about workers on company boards after McDonnell’s pledge. After all that was a Theresa May idea in those heady pre-election days. Or maybe there’ll be an announcement designed to hit the rail companies or the big utilities organisations. Whatever it is, it needs to be radical and impactful.

Will things be any different come Wednesday?

We don’t think so. There will be drama and gossip, intrigue and debate. The Tories will still be divided on Europe and speculation will be rife about Theresa May’s leadership. Talk of a no confidence vote will reverberate around the conference hall. But she will not be challenged…

It will not be an easy conference for the Prime Minister but neither will it be terminal. Most will be steeling themselves for the true battle ahead, the battle for Brexit and the return to Westminster. The plot may thicken next week but the story will not close - these few days are only a sub-plot in a far bigger narrative.

Post hoc post script…

So, we are now a week post-conference. The dust is beginning to settle. What were the main takeaway’s and how did it compared to our expectations?

1. The beauty contest – As predicted the conference saw many potential candidates press their case. Javid and McVey went personal, Hunt went Brexity and Hancock went digital. But are we any clearer on who will be the next Tory leader or when this contest will begin. Not really!

2. Brexit – The issue bubbled away beneath the surface but did not quite ignite. The topic of the majority of fringe meetings, the trigger for a few drunken renditions of Jerusalem and God Save the Queen. Much will be read into the PM’s failure to mention Chequers in her conference speech. However, the real debate around Brexit will happen in the next few weeks. We will be far clearer in a month.

3. Boris Johnson – Yes, Boris is still the hero of the grassroots. His appearance at a fringe event was like no other. There were the traditional rhetorical flourishes and calls to Chuck Chequers. But, despite this, it is hard to argue his route to Number 10 became any smoother last week.

4. The rabbit from the hat – The PM’s speech exceeded expectations, albeit low ones. And that bunny? The announcement of the end of austerity and an unashamed attempt to reach centrist voters. This has been matched with an audacious article in the Labour supporting Observer this weekend. A PM repositioning herself?

Given all that is happening in politics, this conference is unlikely to last long in people’s memories. But with all that is on the PM’s plate, that might be no bad thing. And coming out of the week no worse than she started will probably be viewed as a success by her team.

Now, onto the simple process of negotiating a Brexit deal!

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Labour conference 2018: ready to govern now?

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Labour conference 2018: ready to govern now?

Atlas Partners Director, Charlie Napier, reflects on his time at Labour conference 2018…

Atlas Partners Director, Charlie Napier, reflects on his time at Labour conference 2018…

Well, in the end, conference 2018 for Labour did focus on the three predicted themes but only one of which had any impact beyond the political bubble. That of course was Brexit and despite seeming to tie themselves up in knots as to whether they would be open to having another in/out referendum, most members left conference feeling in a better place than perhaps they had been at the beginning of the week when it came to Brexit.

Remainers were encouraged by Keir Starmer’s open acceptance of a second referendum if Brexit negotiations fell apart and Leavers were pleased that that policy didn’t appear to become official. It certainly summed up Labour’s policy of obfuscation over Brexit which once again served them well as it managed to neither offend nor please anyone greatly. In the end the whole argument was trumped by Jeremy Corbyn’s offer to support the Government on Brexit if they could guarantee a customs union, ensure an open Irish border and keep to a bunch of promises on jobs and sustainability. Finally it seems that Labour had a clear position on Brexit albeit a near impossible one for Theresa May to deliver. A cunning ruse in that they have at least stated some sort of position but one which is also vacuous in its lack of deliverability.

The other two issues that we and most others had predicted would be central to conference was the row over anti-Semitism and internal party changes to enable the Left to maintain power. There was some focus on anti-Semitism but Corbyn’s condemnation seemed to broadly shut the issue down even though not everyone was convinced by its sincerity.  As for the internal changes, Tom Watson can feel pleased that his strong support for a second (female) deputy so unnerved the Left that they promptly withdrew the idea.

Overall, the whole conference seemed to work well for the leadership and the idea that the party is ‘ready to govern’ genuinely seems to have got cut-through. Corbyn’s visit to see Barnier the day after the conference was a masterstroke (despite a lack of Euros) as it gave them an extra day of largely approving headlines which focused on the professionalism of the party giving it that ready to govern feel.

Delegates and members, whether they agreed with the leadership or not, recognised that real policy which actually made sense to people was being proposed on an industrial scale. It was almost as if the longed-for general election was actually due to take place soon and the battle lines were being drawn. It seems to have rattled the Tories, many of whom have admitted that Labour’s policies and ideas appeal to more than just a minority of the population.

The party definitely smells blood as the Government attempts to get Brexit over the line, hurdle after hurdle. If this week’s Conservative gathering in Birmingham is as bad as last year and the subsequent Brexit negotiations and eventual vote in Parliament are lost then that pressure to have a general election, unlikely as it seems currently, will grow ever stronger and Labour will feel that they can turn the gains of 2017 into an outright victory. Of course, it’s all very well being prepared but unless the Conservatives do decide to commit a collective hara-kiri then a general election does seem a long way off and all the talk and look of being ready for govern will mean absolutely nothing.

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What to expect from the 2018 Labour conference

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What to expect from the 2018 Labour conference

Can you remember anything about last year’s Labour conference? No, nor can I because the following week Theresa May had a shocker of a conference which followed on from her shocker of an election campaign and that set the tone for the rest of 2017. As it happens, Jeremy Corbyn had a very good conference basking in the glory of the near general election miss, having various foes come to heel and Momentum rallying the troops for the battles ahead at their neighbouring conference. It seemed that all was relatively rosy in the Labour garden as they exploited Tory woes and Brexit punch ups and open divisions were hidden below the surface.

A year later, we seem to be in a slightly different place.  Despite the continuing Brexit divisions within the Conservative Party and ineffectiveness of the LibDems and SNP, Labour has not been able to exploit the state of their opposition over the Summer and internal divisions have re-surfaced in the most dramatic way.

The battle over control and indeed the soul of the party has intensified since last years conference and a confident Momentum has been turning the screw on the more moderate wing of the party. As a result, conversations about a break-away party have continued to emerge but tribal loyalties are preventing that from coming to fruition. However, this conference could be crunch time for the competing wings of the Labour Party.

The battle over mandatory re-selection of MPs may sound like dull internal housekeeping to outsiders but if the Left get their way, it could dramatically change the make-up and course of the Party. In case you haven’t been following it, the ruling committee of the Labour Party, the NEC, is now dominated by Momentum and Cobynista supporters who are busy figuring out ways to purge the moderates in the party or at the very least dilute their power. It is looking like they are slowly getting their way so ensuring that the chances of a break away party being formed looking increasingly likely.  

The issue that dominated the Summer for Labour was rows over anti-semitism. I won’t repeat the whole story of what happened, but although it has gone quieter of late, expect that the fall-out will continue with various sides looking to continue the arguments or seek revenge. That more than anything else will make the fringe programme more interesting than normal.

And then we come to the big one, the one that those in the country who are still awake may actually notice - Brexit. With the Tories tearing themselves apart over it, Labour’s own Brexit divisions have meant that they have been unable to seize the initiative and damage the Government over it. The leadership’s policy of not disturbing the Tories as they argue away seems to be effective in the short term but has unsettled Labour members (as well as the London Mayor and some unions) from all wings of the party who would like the party to jump off the fence. The caution of the Labour leadership is going to be challenged this week by the members but will it lead to a big policy change or will the leadership stay on the fence and stick to demanding a General Election?

So lots of fun and games ahead for the record numbers (at least since Jeremy took over) expected to attend. There will be a curious mix of even more Momentum/Corbynista members attending coupled with lots of corporates taking stands and sponsoring fringe events in case a Corbyn government comes sooner rather than later.

Can’t wait…

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A People’s Vote will not deliver an exit from Brexit

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A People’s Vote will not deliver an exit from Brexit

Atlas Director and former Lib Dem Special Adviser, Vanessa Pine, argues the Lib Dems must stop banging on about Brexit.

Atlas Director and former Lib Dem Special Adviser, Vanessa Pine, argues the Lib Dems must stop banging on about Brexit.

Following Lib Dem conference, a nagging thought that has been growing in the back of my mind is getting louder. The Lib Dems must stop banging on about Brexit.

I don’t mean they should not talk about it ever, but at the moment they are pushing “an exit from Brexit” to the exclusion of all else. The party has become dangerously myopic. As the applause in the conference hall and the proliferation of fetching blue berets with yellow felt stars demonstrates, an imaginary get out of jail free card and the idea of a People’s Vote is like catnip to activists and the new members who joined following the 2016 failure of Remain.

 

Two years ago, when I first had this debate with the party’s then Director of Comms, the Lib Dems were a lone voice calling for a referendum on the final deal. Since then the Electoral Commission has called the spending of the Leave campaign into question, senior Brexiteers admitted their campaign promises were false and politicians on all sides of Parliament have now lined up to say the so called “Chequers deal” is rubbish. And so, as Brexit reaches its crescendo over the next few months, the opportunity to win new centrist, pro-European supporters has become more acute.

 

In which case, it may seem counter-intuitive then to argue that it’s time for the Lib Dems to talk about other things. But there are two big reasons why, in my view. Firstly, because I do not think we can win a People’s Vote and secondly, because the party must not consign itself to becoming a reverse UKIP single-issue pressure group.

 

Be careful what you wish for

This week the official People’s Vote published thoughts on how a second European referendum – or a first referendum on the final deal – might be brought about. But they are focussed on process not persuasion. From the public messaging, it seems that little has been done within the Remain camps or the Lib Dems to address why we didn’t win the argument in June 2016. The message is still an uninspiring one of economic doom. The same project fear that failed to secure a win last time.  Back then, only this Gordon Brown video sought to make the emotional case for remaining in the European Union. At best, People’s Vote are now saying “its ok to change your mind” which still implies “but we think you were wrong before”. The hope and the change, which uplifts and inspires voters, was and still is all on the Leave side.

 

More than 50% of the seats where Lib Dems are the main opposition (18 of 35) voted to Leave by a majority. Setting aside a People’s Vote, the party cannot win Westminster seats again without the support of at least some of the Brexit coalition. Yet too often it talks to those voters without empathy. We reject legitimate concerns by lumping them in with racism and ignorance. Even those from within the party struggled to get a hearing on a controversial new immigration policy debated on Sunday morning, which was explicitly amended to reserve the right to call Brexit voters racists.

 

This failure to meet people where they are, may be because only three of the current MPs represent Brexit majority constituencies. Partly because it gets so little media coverage, the Lib Dem narrative and policy offer fails to address legitimate concerns about standards of living, cuts to precious services and rising pressure on those services from immigration. Those on the doorsteps of St Ives, North Devon, Hazel Grove, Winchester, and Wells must “Demand Better” than that. Telling more than half your voters “you’re wrong” and – if there is ever a single moment in time when Brexit can be proven to be bad – “we told you so” – seems unlikely to change their minds. The polling evidence that voters on either side have changed their minds is patchy at best.

 

I believe this double failure of messaging and empathy means, even if the long shot comes off, the Lib Dems and other remainers would lose a People’s Vote. And by a wider margin. Leave would argue compellingly to people who have been left behind by austerity, that metropolitan liberal elites are still talking down to them, telling them they know best and blind to their concerns. “They are ignoring your wishes and trying to get off on a technicality, Go tell them again louder…” is far more likely to get voters off sofas and down to the polling station.

 

One trick pony

Losing a People’s Vote would take the issue of our European relationship off the table for a generation at least, if not for good. And as the AV referendum shows, the Lib Dems love a lost cause, in fact they revel in the nerdiness of technical merits over the practical feasibility. Post-Brexit, the Lib Dem leadership will face huge internal pressure to become the party of return. That identity crisis could consign the Lib Dems to perpetual political obscurity.

 

The party urgently needs to broaden the conversations it is having with voters. New liberal answers to people’s day to day problems are needed. Under Vince’s leadership foundations have been laid - the so called “ideas factory” is open, cranking out policy suggestions on taxation, health, housing, AI and tech. His attempts to make the party fit for purpose may yet bear fruit. And it is to his credit that he has shown vision for the movement beyond his own tenure. He is in politics to do something not be something. But having signalled his intention to step down, the party, the Westminster Village and the voters will have to look to the prospective candidates who might replace him to meet this challenge.

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