James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
The public don’t make their minds up about political issues using a calculator. They’re driven primarily by their emotions and values – above all of family and fairness. There is a strong moral component to politics. Campaigns that cede the moral highground to their opponents therefore often find themselves in difficulty.
On the face it, major reform of the international development budget looks an easy sell and a potential vote-winner. The polls suggest that people think the aid budget is too high and should not be ringfenced. It’s clear there are also considerable concerns about the effectiveness of aid spending.
But people also continue to give substantial amounts voluntarily to foreign aid charities. That’s because they hate to see people suffer, even if they don’t know much about the country in which crisis-stricken people live. People want to do the right thing.
One way for the Government to campaign for reform of the aid budget – with or without a reduction of it – is to lead on British taxpayer value. There is undoubtedly some public irritation about high spending abroad, when cuts have been made to domestic spending.
Not as crudely put as this, Priti Patel led with a form of this taxpayer value argument in her Daily Mail article yesterday – making the point that the aid budget derives from ordinary people’s money.
Such an approach might carry a significant proportion of the public – particularly if the Government articulated the immorality and unfairness of waste in difficult times. In the direct confrontation that would inevitably follow with aid agencies and charities, the Government might win a brutal victory.
But there is a better way to think about reform and also to communicate it. This is for the Government to trust their own instincts – and much of the public’s too – and to call for the aid budget to be spent more fairly from the viewpoint of the recipients of aid. In other words, to say that spending needs much greater scrutiny so that those that need help most get the most help.
The taxpayer value route would look like the Government was hostile to aid and that bean counters needed to lead the reform. This would hardly promote a feel-good factor about the development budget and it isn’t where the public is as a whole. A fairness for recipients route would make it clear that aid matters a great deal – that it can save lives and transform communities, but only if spent wisely.
This isn’t about a ploy to save money. This is about how best to explain complex reform to an interested public. This approach would certainly be treated more sympathetically by the media and would likely cut through more effectively to the public. But it is also the right way to think about reforming aid in principle.
The Government should not think that what quickly and easily secures headlines – taxpayer value – is the best way to articulate serious reform over the longer-term. They need to stay positive on development, with caveats.