Every week the Co-Founder and Chief Executive of the Young Britons’ Foundation,
Donal Blaney, explains one of Morton Blackwell’s Laws of the Public
Policy Process. Morton Blackwell is the Founder and President of the Leadership Institute in Arlington, Virginia.
Something happens to politicians when they stand for office. It’s not
so much that they forget who put them where they are, although that
seems to be an increasingly common factor. It’s not that they forget
their principles, although certainly many seem to do this as well
(assuming they had any to start with). It’s that their IQs fall a dozen
or so points. They forget everything they ever learned from the days
when they were mere mortals, or “activists” as they are more usually
When politicians are seeking the approval of voters during an election
campaign, they focus on campaigning so as to secure victory. Every
leaflet, every public statement, every speech focuses on ensuring the
success of the campaign.
Yet all too often the tactics that were so successfully deployed in
opposition or during an election campaign are ignored once victory has
been secured. The Machiavellian arts of persuasion, message repetition
and pre-emptive rebuttal fall by the wayside and are replaced by
managerial and technocratic centred administration.
The feisty performance of the Conservative campaign in 1992,
personified by John Major on his soap box, was replaced by mundane,
defensive government which failed to sell the achievements of the
Conservative government and instead saw ministers encamped in their
departmental bunkers beholden to Sir Humphreys and Bernard Woolleys.
In contrast, New Labour understood that governing is campaigning by different means. The first term Labour government, in particular, saw a continued and sometime vicious assault on a demoralized opposition coupled with a masterful management of the news agenda.
Conservatives should rightly decry the excessive spin and the recurrent abuses of powers that have been the hallmark of New Labour. But it would be folly not to learn from Labour’s undoubted success at getting their message across, advancing their agenda and destroying their opponents.
The fact that the Conservatives are in opposition for at least the next 2-3 years does not mean that conservative activists can safely ignore this week’s maxim. Conservatives in local government can and should ensure that this maxim is at the heart of all discussions among local authority cabinets or administration group meetings.
Failure to adhere to the principle that “governing is campaigning by different means” is tantamount to taking your eye off the ball. It allows your opponents to regroup and negates any inherent benefit arising from incumbency. The public’s lack of interest in political discourse means that any message needs to repeated ad nauseam before it enters into the minds of voters.
Successes in councils need to be announced, reannounced and announced again. Opponents’ shortcomings need to be highlighted and focused on time and time again. Key phrases and slogans should be repeated. Wandsworth and Westminster councils are pioneers of this approach. In Hammersmith & Fulham, the Conservative cabinet even has a member dedicated to “strategy”. Richmond council, on the other hand, failed to adhere to this week’s maxim which led to its loss to the Liberal Democrats in 2006.
As and when the Conservatives return to power, the Party needs to focus on what it will do once in office – not just as regards specific policies that will be enacted but also by ensuring that the government’s message is properly communicated to the media and voters alike. It may make some activists uncomfortable but our model should be Labour in 1997 and not the Tories in 1992. Only in that way will we ensure that we stand as good a chance as possible of governing well for a decent period of time instead of enjoying a honeymoon even shorter than that of Steve McClaren.
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