The narrow politics of slogans and symptoms

The long election campaign is now well and truly under way. It is hard not be underwhelmed by the story so far.

Politics is a complicated, multidimensional business. Indeed, one of the things I don’t envy politicians is that they are expected to have intelligent views on all sorts of topics close at hand, or at the very least be able to recite the current party line with some semblance of cogency and sincerity. At one level I rather admire those who manage it, and in the process avoid the bear traps laid for them by the media.

But at the moment we aren’t getting a very multidimensional view of what the parties are thinking or planning. Isabel Hardman’s piece in today’s Observer gives us an insight into why that is the case.

We’ve known for a long time that the Liberal Democrats have lined up behind the vacuously agreeable “stronger economy, fairer society”. It has been shoehorned into pretty much every party communication for the last year at least.

But Hardman highlights the increased messaging discipline of the Conservatives in pushing their slogan “long-term economic plan”. This highlights the area perceived – goodness only knows why – as their strength. They are not only pushing the slogan directly and doing their best to link any topic discussed publicly back to the economy, but they are also actively seeking to de-emphasize policy pronouncements about anything that can’t be connected with the economy.

Hardman’s point is that in an election campaign focused on low information, low interest voters Labour is struggling to cut through because it has yet to settle on a slogan which is equally catchy, if similarly facile. Labour is doing itself no favours, it would appear, by seeking to offer a fuller, more rounded policy platform.

This need for lowest common denominator messaging also means set piece policy announcements are designed to say next to nothing. I was going to blog about Nick Clegg’s fiscal policy speech earlier this week. But I could find nothing of interest in it.

Earlier today Nick Barlow reflected on the state of play and offered some observations that are very much to the point:

I’m not going to claim that previous Lib Dem general election campaigns were examples of unalloyed genius in political campaigning, but they at least gave people something positive to latch on to as a promise of better days to come. Now, there’s no one doing that, and instead the election is threatening to turn into a series of dull people reading out PowerPoint slides comprised entirely of the dullest buzzwords possible, then wondering why all the audience has slipped out to go to the pub.

Yet if you look at Clegg’s speech from a different perspective – that the aim was to communicate (again) the simple message that the Liberal Democrats are not as nasty as the Tories but not as irresponsible as Labour, while in the process avoiding saying anything very specific about what this means in practice – then it might well be rated a triumph.

That, at the same time, it was utterly devoid of vision and represented the worst kind of splitting the difference is entirely incidental. And, from a certain angle, of little consequence.

This lack of vision, this lack of hope for a better future for the many not the few, bedevils mainstream politics. No one, perhaps with the exception of the Greens, is willing to say anything genuinely radical. And the Greens have maybe overdone it a touch.

When Labour do say anything that looks even mildly radical they manage to botch the message completely.

We’ve seen it this week on tax evasion and avoidance. Miliband was, broadly speaking, saying little more than that Cameron has been talking about the issue for the last several years and not making a vast amount of progress, whereas he was planning to push harder on it. It would have been possible to be positive about business and still make this point about cross-border tax avoidance – indeed it could be constructed as a very “pro fair competition, help-the-little-guy” message.  But, the messaging was wrong and, at the hands of the right wing media in full attack mode, it was constructed as an unambiguously anti-business message.

Then today we’ve had Tristram Hunt experiencing a rush of blood to the head and swinging so far the other way that he sounds like the worst sort of frothing neoliberal. Labour are, apparently, “furiously, passionately, aggressively pro-business”. This sort of statement will not remedy the original problem, but will succeed in alienating those looking for something different from Labour. After all, they can get pro-plutarchy messages from the Conservatives any time they like.

Not only is the messaging poor but also the parties have a tendency to focus on symptoms rather than causes. Presumably addressing causes would be too radical or implausible because it requires taking on powerful sectional interests.

The tax avoidance issue, for example, would be just as well addressed through continuing efforts on tax simplification and harmonisation at international level in order to remove the interstices that create opportunities for avoidance. But not only does that require far-reaching cross-national agreement but it is a rather dull, technical point that probably gets nowhere with the focus groups.

Similarly you can understand the motivation behind Labour’s proposals for rent regulation. And if it is well designed then rent regulation needn’t be anything like the disaster it is often portrayed as by market fundamentalist. But it really isn’t the best solution to the problem of housing affordability. However,  the alternative of tackling problems at source means addressing some deep-rooted structural issues and entrenched interests.

Government is a complex set of practices touching on every aspect of life. Changing society in ways that are transformative is a multifaceted project requiring clarity of vision, strength of purpose, and broad-based action commensurate with the scale of the challenge. Mrs Thatcher knew this. I’ll give her that. I suspect Cameron and Osborne also know it, but they’re keeping quiet about their vision because they know that many will find it unpalatable.

But no mainstream politician is effectively communicating an inclusive vision. From the Right we hear division. From the Left we see little more than fog.

Equally importantly, attempting to tell a complex story is unhelpful if voters are perceived to be demanding simple certainties. If subtlety is perceived to be indigestible then we are served a diet of crass simplifications.

This all makes the electoral campaign so far rather tedious for those who actually care about good governance, appreciate the awesome scale of the challenges facing government, and want to hear the parties’ ideas on how to address them. It’s like the whole thing is being conducted in the primary colours of a children’s television programme, when realism requires the more subtle palette of a seventeenth century Dutch master.

I live in hope that it this will change, but I don’t travel with the expectation that it will.


Reblogged to Guerilla Policy on 10/02/15.

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5 replies »

  1. Alex, I originally read the sentence from para 11 as, “No one, perhaps with the exception of the Greeks, is willing to say anything genuinely radical.”

    All politics is global?

    • Hello Bill, quite possibly! I think that, while we are comfortable with the idea that politics is local, increasingly we need to make that sort of connection to broader developments if we are to understand adequately what is influencing what happens on our doorstep. And perhaps there are broad scale demonstration/democratic contagion effects that we are yet to see fully work themselves out.

  2. I do think our current media landscape is making things worse. Perhaps politicians could look to actually going onto Youtube and trying to explain things? RSA Animate type stuff is very popular – perhaps that kind of style could be an avenue for more complex discussions? Sidestep the Sun and the BBC and just try some communicating…

    • Thanks for the comment. I like that idea. I think that some of the RSA animate stuff I’ve seen does a brilliant job of communicating complex arguments relatively briefly. We see that the Tories have moved to YouTube to run attack ads in marginal constituencies, but perhaps it would be possible for someone to grab the opportunity to use it for more positive purposes.