Monday 30 June 2014

We need to overcome the curse of positioning

Listening to Ed Balls last night, he sounded so authentically Labour that it made me smile a weary little smile.  As Balls explained, Jon Cruddas can't possibly have meant it when he said he was frustrated with Labour's treatment of his policy review.  Why, well he can't be, can he?  He was so supplicatory on the phone only a few days ago...

But actually Cruddas, who has been turbo-charging Labour's policy review, was really unambiguous in his rage against the political machinery which could reduce his review to what he called:

"Cynical nuggets of policy to chime with our focus groups and press strategy."

Cruddas is undoubtedly right, and there is no doubt that Labour's in a difficult position.  If its policies are too dull, everyone says that Miliband is failing to inspire.  If they are too interesting, everyone says that man is insane.

The trouble is that this malaise of  positioning goes way beyond Labour.  Michael Meadowcroft, the former Leeds West MP who is the closest the Lib Dems have to an in-house philosopher, was complaining about exactly these same thing in the Lib Dems in the latest edition of Liberator (along with a staunch defence of Nick Clegg, which I entirely agreed with, but not linkable).

And I've been wondering about this because there is no doubt that the curse of the focus group does suck idealism out of party platforms  Yet parties have to know what people think about their propositions.

How do you square the circle?  I think the answer is that, the ecstacy of positioning that characterises Lib Dem economic policy for the past generation may be inevitable - and even necessary - but it works only on two conditions.

First, that there has to be a general understanding about what your party is for (both Lib Dem and Labour have some years ago foregone this).

Second, that there has to be a ferment of wider debate - exemplifying purpose and ideals - that goes on incessantly in and around the party (Labour manages this but the Lib Dems, so far, lack the institutions of debate and the opinion-formers who carry on public debate, though these exist underground).

I must admit I have sat through some vacuous presentations on party positioning in my time.  I have wracked my brains why otherwise intelligent people take them seriously - especially those which rank policy areas in order of importance in the public's mind.  What does it mean if the public put health top, for example?  That they want more beds, fewer beds, less pollution, more NHS spending, more choice, less choice?  The answers are always assumed.

But Cruddas was pointing towards something yet more insidious.  It is the idea that you can create some kind of political crusade out of a series of opinion surveys stitched together.  A series of bright ideas and clever slogans. a paint-by-numbers approach to politics.  It is utterly vacuous and the public knows this as much as anyone else.

The want their politicians to believe something and, if it seems heart-felt and practical, they often give people a chance.  As long as they understand why these ideas hold together.

These are extremely hard things to achieve in these days of negative campaigning, but it is the moral coherence - or otherwise, and their authenticity or otherwise - that people respond to.  And if you ask me for evidence, just think for a moment what influences you.

So don't for goodness sake give up on ideas.  Because, outside Westminster, the ideas are emerging and they have some resonance.  Don't let's carry on as if the world hadn't chanced since 1979 (or worse, since 1945).

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