Politics is not about policies. Why the politicians are failing.

Today the FT’s excellent Janan Ganesh writes on how the British Conservatives are failing to get the ethnic minority vote (£). Also this morning two opinion polls showed that the Labour Party had lost its poll lead to the Conservatives. We can add the Liberal Democrats and the Greens to the list of underperforming political parties in Britain, leaving the field clear for the insurgent Ukip. Mr Ganesh points to a reason for the Conservatives’ failure, that applies just as much to others (except the Greens perhaps).

Mr Ganesh says that the problem is that politicians “…think politics is about policy.” And yet voters hardly know what policies the particular parties stand for. The Conservatives note that conservative values and fear of immigration are at least as prevalent in ethnic minorities as elsewhere. So they freely talk about immigration being excessive and about the need for stronger controls. And yet all this heightens voters’ suspicions that the party is not inclusive. The Conservatives have been here before. In the 2001 election they went down to a catastrophic defeat after pushing policies (on Europe in particular, as well as immigration) that seemed to play well with voters, and yet heightened their reputation as the most toxic brand in politics. They fared little better in 2005, when they tried similar “dog whistle” tactics. Their fortunes only changed when David Cameron went to prodigious efforts to de-toxify the Tory brand by advocating policies (environmentalism, gay marriage, and so on) that could distinguish the party from their former selves. Unfortunately for them, this change did not go deep enough into the party’s inner being, and it is wearing thin.

Labour seem to be in a similar fix. They have used a lot of clever researchers to fix on a series of populist policies. These include fixing energy prices and controlling private rents. All these policies, apparently, play well with focus groups. Also they have chosen “the cost of living crisis” as their overarching theme – since many voters feel hard done by in the aftermath of the recent economic crisis. And yet their poll ratings are fading. The policies are popular but they are damaging the Labour brand – or at least doing nothing to strengthen it.

The Lib Dems find themselves in a not dissimilar predicament. Most people seem to think that their influence on the coalition government is for the good. They are associated with some popular policies, such as raising tax thresholds. And yet their poll ratings languish around the 10% mark. They are perceived as politicians no different from the others in moral fibre, who enjoy being in power a bit too much.

The paradox is that British politics has never had more sophisticated advice. Each party leader is surrounded by clever people with access to the latest evidence-based theories. and yet they are all failing – and the height of ambition seems to be to fail at a slower pace than the others. What is needed is a bit more old-fashioned nous.

The last really successful party leader in this country was Labour’s Tony Blair. He employed a lot of sophistication as well, but the secret of his success was that he understood political brand building. The rise of Labour in the 1990s under his leadership was nearly a policy-free zone. So much so that when he won in 1997, his government lacked momentum because it did not have a clear idea about what to do.

What Mr Blair realised is that to build voters’ trust you have to do things that are hard. In Mr Blair’s case, he took on the Labour left, overturning all their sacred policy shibboleths, and changing Clause 4 of the party’s constitution. It was a process of destroying polices, rather than making them. To be fair on Mr Cameron, his rebuilding of the Tory brand involved some hard things – but he chose not to be quite as radical, and left the conservatives in his party silent but undefeated.

For the Liberal Democrats, their time in government might in time come to be seen as courageous rather than self-indulgent. Their leader Nick Clegg’s firm stand on Europe is a clear step in the right direction – though as yet there is no sign of a poll boost. Petulant rows within the coalition, such as this weekend’s on schools, are probably not helpful though. Proper rebuilding of their party’s brand will have come after next year’s General Election.

That applies to Labour too. It is too late for Ed Miliband to resolve the tensions within his party, and so give voters a clear picture of what the party stands for, beyond its headline grabbling policies and slogans. For all party’s difficulties with ethnic minorities, it is perhaps the Conservatives that have least reason for discomfort, once the European elections next week are out of the way. They are failing more slowly than the others, and if they don’t panic they will recover a lot of the ground they have lost to Ukip, unlike Labour. It probably won’t be enough to win them a majority, because they failed to reform the electoral system in their favour, in spite of clear opportunity having been presented – through a combination of the Alternative Vote and boundary changes.

So here’s what I predict for 2015. The Conservatives gain some seats but fall short of a majority. The Lib Dems lose 10-20 seats, but still leaving a substantial voting block in Parliament. Labour make few advances. Ukip will pile up 10% or more of the vote, perhaps surpassing the Lib Dems,but get one seat at most – they will take most of their votes from Labour. The Conservatives will attempt a minority government.

2 thoughts on “Politics is not about policies. Why the politicians are failing.”

  1. Imagine speaker A is committed to an idea, and proclaims it passionately. He gets popular support. Speaker B meets with his team and says: “A has built a good brand, he has found a popular message with effective marketing – we must do the same.”

    I claim that however apparently similar A and B’s message is, what they are doing is completely opposite.

    I think this may be part of what you are saying?

    1. Yes, sort of. When a voter chooses a representative, he or she is mainly picking somebody whom they trust to take decisions on their behalf. They usually aren’t picking particular policies. They are likely to trust speaker A more, since they have revealed more about what they really think.

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