Competence not policies are the key to political success

Yesterday Britain’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) published a poll exploring the public’s attitudes to the Labour Party. The press release’s headline, “New poll has no easy answers for Labour but trust and competence key”, does not invite much interest. A poll that found easy answers, or which suggested that competence and trust could be taken lightly – now that would be interesting!

There were one or two eye-catching findings though:

  • Over 55s overwhelmingly picked the Conservatives over Labour by 47% to 24%. Labour did better amongst younger voters, but not overwhelmingly so.
  • The survey identified 13% of floating voters that considered Labour but voted for another party (Conservative 35%, Lib Dem 23%, Ukip 17%, Green 14%). This group were much more worried about Labour overspending and the SNP – few mentioned Labour’s lack of sympathy for aspiration and success. This seems to run counter to the Blairite narrative, which drops in the word “aspiration” at any opportunity.
  • The Conservatives were perceived to win on competence, while Labour were closer to ordinary people.  The former was more important. The Conservative record in government was considered more competent than Labour’s. This is a tough message for Labour supporters, who, often passionately, believe the exact opposite. No doubt they will blame media bias.
  • People tended to think that Labour was too soft on big business rather than too hard. This again seems to contradict the Blairite narrative that the party should cosy up to business again.
  • Overwhelmingly people wanted Labour to be “tougher” on immigration and welfare. A hard message for not just Labour supporters but liberals of all parties.
  • Perhaps it is not so surprising that voters preferred by 77 to 15 “concrete plans for sensible change” over “big vision for radical change”. Another place where political activists seem distant from the public.

Of course this tells us as much about how issues should be framed as it does about what is likely to change voter behaviour. Voters may want parties to be tough on big business, but constant battle with business would probably undermine any idea of economic competence. If you have a big vision for radical change, it is clearly important to present it as if it a concrete plan for sensible change. That Politics 101, as the Americans might say.

The bigger message is that the idea of competence is critical for any political party that aspires to government, rather than merely protest. This isn’t a new idea, Mark Pack, the Lib Dem uber-blogger, has made this point recently. He rather spoils it by using the jargon word “valence” to describe it, a word that is conjures up the idea of atoms and chemical bonds in my brain. It is important because many political “strategists” tend to focus on policies instead. They see their job as identifying a set of popular policies through polling and focus groups, and then using these to win votes. Labour certainly seemed to think this way, and so did the Lib Dems. The Lib Dem post-election survey had this idea hard-wired into it. What policies would have made a difference, it asked (or something similar). That was irrelevant, was my answer. The Conservative election maestro, Lynton Crosby, did not make this mistake. Their campaign was based on the juxtaposition of competence with chaos.

So political campaigners need to think hard about how the public develops its judgement of competence. Actual competence is not enough. By and large the Lib Dems record in coalition was highly competent – but the public gave the party little credit for this. The tuition fees fiasco seemed to loom larger. Maybe that isn’t quite fair and the party was more damaged by the fact that it could not lead the next government, nor would it state is preference of which party it would team up with.

For the Labour left though, the competence problem is a big one. It is very hard to be a party of competence and a party of protest at the same time. Almost certainly the public associates free spending and higher taxes with a lack of competence. Tony Blair (another politician that grasped the dominance of competence over policy) understood this clearly. Labour has to embrace at least some aspects of what it calls “austerity” in order to build trust. And they need to find ways of doing this that aren’t just hot air. Their leader has to show that they can face down internal opposition and embrace party division in order to push such polices through.

So the prime requirement for Labour’s next leader is bloody-mindedness, and an ability to push through policies that trade union backers and many activists will dislike. On this score Yvette Cooper looks the best bet. Her chief rival, Andy Burnham, looks too flexible. The potential third candidate, Liz Kendall, is the one I personally find the most attractive – but she has much less of a track record, and their must be doubts as to how much clout she would have if she won.

3 thoughts on “Competence not policies are the key to political success”

  1. Where the LibDems failed utterly in their election strategy was to point out the costly incompetence of the Tories; particularly their “improvements” to major departments such as Health and Social Security. The reorganisation of the NHS cost over £3.5 billion AND made things worse. The cost of marketisation and its oversight costs billions and takes millions out of the NHS system to pay the private sector.
    The insane reliance on new IT systems as the first choice improving efficiency has cost the DWP a fortune. Major Projects Authority director Dr Norma Wood said that much of the £303m invested in IT by that point was “not fit for purpose”. Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee Margaret Hodge: “The DWP seems to have embarked on this crucial project, expected to cost the taxpayer some £2.4 billion, with little idea as to how it was actually going to work. CONFUSION AND POOR MANAGEMENT AT THE HIGHEST LEVELS have already resulted in delays and at least £34m wasted on developing IT.”
    And then we have the West Coast Mainline franchising fiasco in 2013 which cost £50 million just to reverse. The Transport Committee chair said: “Embarking on an ambitious – perhaps unachievable – reform of franchising, in haste, on the UK’s most complex piece of railway, was an irresponsible decision for which ministers were ultimately responsible.
    “This was compounded by major failures by civil servants, some of whom misled ministers.” Notice the last sentence. The usual scapegoat. But the civil servants were drastically under-resourced, not allowed to hire essential expertise and even the Permanent Secretary was privy to some critical information.
    Michael Gove ruinously closed the very successful school delivery system (Partnership for Schools), only to have to resurrect its equivalent a few months later. And so it goes…
    The LibDems could have had a field day here; but chose to flag-wave Gay Marriage and free school lunches instead. Just who are their advisers????
    Labour could not challenge on competence as it would be the pot calling the kettle black.
    But where the LibDems made their biggest error was on the three occasions when they could have halted the Lansley bill, i.e. voting against at the inception, voting against Section 75, and supporting David Owen in the Lords. I understand that Nick was disinterested in who delivered NHS services and its concomitants, which is probably why going on my knees to get him to oppose it all just did not work. Again, just who was he listening to? Has he now gone back to South Africa?

    The insane reliance on new IT systems as the first choice improving efficiency has cost

  2. corrections: “The Permanent Secretary was NOT privy to some critical information.”
    and, of course, the last fragment that somehow repeated itself from my draft.

    1. Thanks John. What I mean by “competence” is a sort of comms and marketing concept which does not bear much relationship to actual competence. But there is a lot of massive incompetence about, not excluding the coalition government. The reason why the Lib Dems were so uncritical was twofold I think. First, I don’t think many of those in parliament really “got it” about government competence – that highly centralised programmes and grandiose computer projects are such a bad way to go. The political class as a whole doesn’t seem to get it. Second they felt that the etiquette of a functioning coalition restrained them – that they were complicit to a large degree. I still think that more in the party do “get it” than they do in other parties – but not enough. As the party rebuilds this will be important. As David Boyle writes, we need a revolution in economic and government thinking on the scale of those in 1945 and 1979 – and getting away from these grandiose projects should be part of it. I would like the Lib Dems to pioneer the thinking on this revolution (as Keynes and Beveridge pioneered that of 1945) – but we have to accept that the coalition did not do much to take things forward in this respect.

Comments are closed.