So true they said it twice: I was surprised yesterday to see a column in The Times by Libby Purves with content very similar to one by Philip Collins published in the same paper last Friday. The question the two posed was why the Conservatives seem to care so little about the impression created by, on the one hand, auctioning time with cabinet members to millionaire oligarchs and tax evaders while, on the other, becoming ever more aggressive in their approach to people on benefits.
But no sooner is my old campaigner’s gaze fastened on the failings of the Tory strategy when along comes Labour with yet another example of message indiscipline and incoherence. Yet, and feel free to call me simplistic, the imperative for each of the major parties seems absolutely clear.
Labour, seen as the more caring and in touch party but lacking economic credibility, should have only one message to which they should stick religiously (to paraphrase James Carvill, it is only when a politician thinks they will be physically sick if they repeat the same line again that a few voters will have started to recognise it). That message should focus on an iron determination to manage the public finances responsibly.
Ed Balls should make a major speech with the shadow cabinet ministers representing major spending departments sitting behind him like obedient Soviet-era apparatchiks. In it he should pledge that if faltering economic growth imperils his debt targets it will be public spending, not deficit reduction, that will bear the brunt of adjustment. All the shadow ministers should then make ‘tough choices ahead’ the theme of the speeches they make to their various stakeholders. In fact, as far as I can tell, they are all going around promising or implying they will be able to dispense greater generosity if Labour wins.
The imperative for the Conservatives seems just as clear. They should focus almost all their energy rebutting the public’s perception that they are complacent, nasty and on the side of the rich. They should go to great lengths to show they really get how tough things continue to be for ‘hard working families’ and make it absolutely clear that in the even harder fiscal choices ahead they expect the most well off to make the biggest sacrifices.
Both parties do from time to time articulate the message I am proposing but when they do it competes unsuccessfully with so much other noise. To be fair to the campaigners, this is partly a consequence of the fixed term parliament extending the old four week run in to the election to a four month slog.
If I am at all right about this (and I did work on some rather successful election campaigns, oh yes) the question is why the parties are not doing what seems obvious. One explanation is they refuse to say stuff they don’t believe. Perhaps the Conservatives really think the super-rich are all well deserving wealth creators, that Ed Miliband is mentally defective and that the biggest problem in Britain is the workshy on their lavish benefits. Maybe Labour deep down doesn’t believe in balancing the books and has no intention of making any more promises on deficit reduction than it absolutely needs to: ‘Politicians refuse to stick to vote winning message because it lacks intellectual rigor’? Well, maybe.
Another explanation is that the campaigns are weakly managed. Certainly there are many stories about failings in Labour’s high command, and the views of most Conservatives about David Cameron are reminiscent of the kind of things Aston Villa fans were saying about Paul Lambert until he has sacked last week. But a bit of message discipline, with the election 90 days away: surely it can’t be that hard?
So in the end I plump for a third explanation. It is simply that, whatever the parties say, no one seems to be listening. To show discipline in any endeavour we all need a bit of encouragement. But the polls are stuck and the public view the election campaign with lordly indifference. Furthermore the whole shooting match is generally being reported by the national media with a mixture of myopic laziness and knowing disdain. Politicians are trying anything because nothing seems to work.
We know that waving our arms and shouting doesn’t help foreigners understand us but when nothing else is working we all end up doing it. Similarly politicians know that having lots of different, conflicting messages doesn’t work but they just don’t know what else to do.
This really is a folie a deux (one that I think we may be debating this week on Moral Maze). We refuse to respond positively to anything the politicians say. They in return become desperate, self-indulgent and unfocussed, which makes us even more disengaged and so it goes on.
As someone who loves politics and is excited by elections I hate to say it, but the best thing for all of us right now might be for the campaign to be suspended for two months; no more gaffes, no more dumb-arse policy announcements, no more vacuous rhetoric, no more tendentious headlines. By all means continue the battle on the ground - local campaigning and door knocking – but suspend the battle in the air. Then maybe when it all kicks off again in mid-April we might start to listen and they might start making sense.