‘Sell the sizzle not the sausage’ goes the old advertising phrase. Political strategists too have been creative in exploring the stretchable space between substance and message. As a former member of the New Labour junta I am hardly in a position to complain, but the Coalition publicity machine does seem to have gone into a super-fast spin cycle since the New Year.
There is a good example this morning. Normally in Government when ministers are told there might be a problem they will ask their officials to check the facts closely before admitting anything publicly. It is interesting to see the logic reversed as it has been this morning by Chris Grayling, the employment minister, and Damian Green, the immigration minister. Writing in the Daily Telegraph the ministers give the clear impression that there is a major problem with migrants illegitimately claiming benefits. The ministers’ article gets a predictable front page splash with the implication that this problem of benefit abuse involves 370,000 people.
But as a searching interview of Chris Grayling by John Humphries revealed on the Today Programme, the evidence of actual wrongdoing is much, much smaller. Indeed of the 370,000 only 2% were found to be making fraudulent claims. There is a large batch of cases in which the claimant is yet to be fully identified, but on the surface at least, there isn’t any very strong reason to think the proportion of fiddlers will be much higher in this group.
It is unusual for ministers apparently to seek to alarm the public about an existing policy, but even more odd when the factual basis for the concern seems so tenuous. Two of the Government’s vulnerabilities right now are unemployment (which is high and rising) and immigration (which is also high and rising despite a high profile Coalition commitment to reduce it). In the short term, at least, it isn’t clear Government can do much to put either trend into reverse.
Put the two challenges of rising unemployment and immigration control together and the populist script writes itself. Facing this danger – reinforced by the continued toxic salience of immigration in opinion polls – ministers may well have decided that it was vital to show they were getting a grip on the issue. I will leave others to decide whether presenting the public with alarming, but arguably misleading, statistics is a price worth paying to pre-empt allegations of complacency.
The Grayling/Green article is the second high profile example of the Coalition volunteering concern about its own policies. The first was David Cameron’s recognition of the inequities of removing child benefit from households containing a higher tax payer. I am not for a moment doubting the sincerity of the Prime Minister’s concern but it is noteworthy that not only did the Chancellor almost immediately confirm his intention to implement the change but, as Gavin Kelly pointed out, it is hardly credible that Mr Cameron has only just noticed a flaw (namely that a household with a single income of £45k will lose out while one with a combined income of £80k might not) which must have been apparent from the very first time it was floated by officials.
There is no reason why ministers cannot acknowledge problems with their own policies, indeed it could be seen as welcome candour. But aspects of both cases (the ministers’ apparent indifference to the impression created and Mr Cameron’s ‘discovery’ of the perverse impact of benefit withdrawal) suggest that the Coalition has of late been listening rather too carefully to the spin doctors’ advice.
Given the tough policies it is pursuing the Coalition’s popularity is holding up pretty well and most of the media continues to give it the benefit of the doubt. In these circumstances spinning can feel like an easy game to play. But as the weather of public opinion changes the political wicket takes spin less and less well.
Regardless of disagreements about the pace of spending cuts, there is no question the Coalition is trying to do something tough and brave with its austerity programme. Given the pain being suffered by ordinary folk, the credibility of the Government is important not just to its political aspirations but to national morale.
Modern politics inevitably involves creative communication, but selling a sizzle will stop being such an effective strategy once people start noticing the frequent absence of sausage.