Tom Richmond, a columnist for Tory Radio, on the fine balance between too much policy substance too soon, and too little too late.

‘Stand up, Speak up – The Nation’s Dispatch Box’ is not the most media-friendly slogan ever to grace our political debates, but the strategy behind it is much more engaging.  By offering the public a chance to shape Conservative Party policy, David Cameron’s desire to distance himself from the top-down legacy of the Blair era couldn’t be plainer.

That is not to say that he is abandoning the work of his policy groups, who are scheduled to report back in the near future after 18 months of discussions.  By the mere act of creating these six groups, he wiped the slate clean of previous Conservative policies and gave himself the chance to take the party in a new direction.  It is worth remembering that ‘Grammargate’ was nothing to do with his Public Service Challenge committee and the deliberations of all the policy groups have been carefully guarded.

Strategy and image have become an intrinsic part of political life,
something which David Cameron’s media background will presumably have
helped him adapt to.  Giving the policy groups a free reign on
researching and investigating the key issues in their specialist fields
has put the Shadow Cabinet in a strong position for two reasons.
Firstly, the policy groups are not technically part of the Conservative
Party, despite having many conservative thinkers amongst their ranks,
which has given David Cameron the freedom to continue his work
elsewhere.  Secondly, David Cameron is under no obligation to turn
their final proposals into policies – meaning that he can literally
pick and choose the most enticing proposals from all six groups in
terms of taking the party forward and reeling in the voters.  This puts
him in a very solid position relative to the Labour Party who are
unlikely to change their egotistical ways after so many years in power,
even with a new man at the helm.

But this is no time for complacency.  Yes, these policy groups are an
intelligent initiative and yes, consulting the public is a novel and
potentially powerful tool.  Giving the public a voice in forming the
policies of a future government would provide David Cameron with some
much needed breathing space between his approach and that of the Labour
Party.  However, a nationwide ‘dispatch box’ is not without its
drawbacks. Consulting the public would be useful at a theoretical
level, but compiling and analysing feedback received from comments on
online forums will be an onerous task unless the policy groups expand
their operations; gleaning the relevant material from hundreds of
public meetings around the country will be just as complicated.  The
final reports of the policy groups should supply enough political
ammunition for the Conservative Party, at least in the short term, and
let us not forget that the policy groups were open to submissions from
members of the public from the moment they began.  Having said this, a
new appeal for public involvement in policy formation should be

Ironically enough, it is the original six policy groups which now pose
more significant problems than canvassing public opinion.  Even though
David Cameron is under no obligation to accept the proposals given to
him, this does not solve the underlying problems inherent in being
leader of an opposition party in the post-Blair era.  Tony Blair
revolutionised the Labour Party leading up to the 1997 election without
ever committing himself to many specific policies.  This worked in his
favour for a significant period of time, but since 1997 it has
inadvertently left David Cameron and his predecessors with a genuine
dilemma.  The apathy amongst the British public in the wake of Tony
Blair’s hollow promises might tempt an opposition party into
concentrating on bold and audacious policies to erase the memory of how
politicians have let them down in the past.  David Cameron is all too
aware of how the likes of Michael Howard have tried this very approach
with issues such as immigration and subsequently left the political
arena with their tail between their legs.  An alternative approach
would be to give policy formation a low profile and hope the Labour
Party implodes in the meantime.  Although this approach has been
perfectly understandable up to now whilst David Cameron has been
‘rebranding’ the Conservative Party, the sense of frustration from the
public and media is steadily building.

The policy groups will undoubtedly give David Cameron a range of
constructive proposals in his bid to become Prime Minister, but
strategically there is still a lot of work to be done.  When it comes
to publishing the draft programme for a Conservative government before
the end of 2007, David Cameron must strike the perfect balance between
too much and too little substance in his policies.  Too much substance
and he has shown the opposition all his cards two years before the
General Election and risks more conflict within his own party.  Too
little substance and the public will turn away.  An unenviable
challenge indeed.

4 comments for: Tom Richmond: In pursuit of the perfect policies

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.