Sunday 24 November 2013

The perils and pitfalls of electoral themes

Richard Morris at the the blog A View from Ham Common has done us all a service with an online poll among Lib Dems about which policies should be emphasised in the next party manifesto.

Top of the list, perhaps unexpectedly, came housing.  Followed by jobs & sustainability, bracketed together.  Not sure which I would have chosen to go first, given the choice: probably jobs & sustainability, followed by 'children'.

Two things occur to me about this which make it slightly uncomfortable.reading, and all because the the besetting Lib Dem sin about this kind of thing - the fantasy that somehow electoral success is all about polling and positioning.

This is not a criticism of the poll, quite the reverse.  But the first problem is this.  It is one thing to say that housing should be top of the party's campaigning list, but quite another thing to develop real solutions that are up to the enormity of the task.

Party president Tim Farron has important proposals to make about rural housing.  There are Lib Dem councils which have done imaginative work backing community land trusts, to keep the value of the homes low.  But where are the policies to ratchet down ballooning house prices?  Where are the proposals that back up Nick Clegg's lead on garden cities?  These might be forthcoming, but the party needs a distinctive role to play in the national debate about housing, and at the moment it doesn't.

The second problem is that all these topics actually beg questions.  They seem to imply specific policies, but may not actually do so.

I'm assuming that the people who picked 'housing' meant the rapid building of social housing, by system or systems unknown, but actually we don't know.

Previous polls - and I've seen so many of them - have tended to put 'environment' low.  Bracketing sustainability with jobs forces it up the list, and we assume this implies some kind of systematic development of green jobs - but, actually, we don't know.

I've always believed that the sensible move for the party would be to bracket the environment with health.  In fact, health usually has its own category, and we assume this is ticked by people who want more health spending - but actually we don't know.

Often, in fact, this kind of poll tends to reflect what's in the newspapers.  To be useful, it needs to test specific policy proposals.

What Richard's poll gives us is a guide to where we should put our efforts to develop those specific policies - housing, jobs, environment and (because it needs to be linked to the environment) public health.

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