Political PR seems to be dominated by a dictionary of buzzwords or themes that have an unrivalled ability to provoke a vitriolic and passionate response from an otherwise passive section of the electorate. It is amazing to witness the wholehearted approval of a BBC’s Question Time audience as soon as an under pressure Tory MP mentions “the scale of the financial crisis inherited from Labour” only for an equally impassioned response when Labour’s representative blames “bankers, austerity and cuts” or accuses the government for being out of touch. Whether it is the result of some pretty impressive spin from party political strategists, or down to the dominance of the press in formulating the public’s political standpoint, (or should I dare mention a combination of the two), people are programmed into responding to political decisions in a very predictable fashion. This is not down to an apolitical electorate, but rather a reflection that it is Public Relations, and not ideology that drives policy today.
For all the criticisms one can wage at Margaret Thatcher, she led government and the UK through outrage and elation, not once wavering from a political ideology that she believed in. The polarisation she created existed because she held her ground, people could align themselves because they knew exactly where she was coming from. And while genuine conviction may have brought about her fall, it also kept her in power for 11 years.
…this is a government increasingly defined by U-turns.
Perhaps it is a reality of the compromise required in coalition government that Thatcher’s lamentation of seeming “to smell the stench of appeasement in the air” is now an ideology assigned to the past. Despite the expected conflicts that have arisen within a Tory/Lib Dem coalition that prevent overall ideological unity, the least that should be expected is a coordinated political strategy. If the events of last week have anything to tell us, it is that criminally this is lacking too. Back to buzzwords; this is a government increasingly defined by U-turns.
There are circumstances when policy U-turns should be praised. Flexibility allows a government to respond effectively to an ever changing environment. Equally they suggest a government willing to listen to the electorate and formulate appropriate policy. Perhaps this was best exemplified last year when the environment secretary, Caroline Spelman, abandoned plans to sell 258,000 hectares of state-owned woodland in England only one month after they had been announced. Sheer incompetence can also lead to a significant diversion in policy: “the facts have changed” said Phillip Hammond when explaining the U-turn over the future of fighter planes. The facts hadn’t changed Mr Hammond; you got them wrong in the first place.
…to expect their government to carry out the appropriate research…
And then there are the U-turns the Chancellor announced last week. George Osbourne’s budget provoked significant condemnation from nearly all sectors of society so perhaps, in announcing that the pasty, caravan and charity taxes would be scrapped, the Chancellor should be praised for reacting positively to public opinion like Spelman did in 2011 over the selling of woodland.
And yet we must consider the relative importance of governmental policy towards woodland compared with a Budget that sought to define economic policy within the context of zero growth, significant unemployment and an unprecedented Euro crisis. Osbourne’s budget U-turns might be the right decisions now, but why on earth were the decisions made in the first place? It is completely reasonable for the electorate to expect their government to carry out the appropriate research and make informed policy decisions based on what is best for society at large. The implication is that decisions have been made on an ad hoc basis by a government that truly is “out of touch”. Osbourne is providing credible resonance to those buzzwords. How can the government expect the support of the nation when there have been no fewer than 35 U-turns in the past five years? They have become a tactic of policy by a government conscious that re-election in 2015 is by no means guaranteed.
…a popular image that was finally eroded by Blair’s Achilles heel…
It is clear that the damage the budget inflicted on the government’s image had to be averted and therefore the U-turns last week are a clear example of Public Relations trumping ideology. When popularity is low, a policy of appeasement will always exert its influence.
The days of genuine political conviction appear to be over. No more so is this reflected in Labour’s condemnation of U-turns that revert back to policies they themselves supported in the first place-look no further than the fighter jets. The majority of politicians occupy a political standpoint to the right of centre that Tony Blair began popularising in 1997. It was style that won support, won votes and won elections. It relied on spin, use of the media and a popular image that was finally eroded by Blair’s Achilles heel: Iraq. For David Cameron his equivalent appears to be the economy. No wonder he now confides in Blair; a former nemesis turned inspiration. Ideology is absent.