Edward Staite is an international communications consultant and campaign adviser. Follow Ed on Twitter.
What are you doing now? I know you are reading this article
but you’re probably doing something else too. That’s the way we live and work; multi-tasking –
so our minds are rarely focussed on one thing.
When George Osborne delivers his Budget next week few will
be totally focussed on what he is saying. Other MPs will be tweeting and
e-mailing, as will journalists in the House of Commons gallery, while those watching
at home will soon become reliant on the TV graphics rather than the
After, political journalists will form a “huddle” with one
of the Chancellor’s economic advisers to find out what the Chancellor has just said.
Within minutes, commentators will focus on one or more of the Chancellor’s announcements
as the political jousting begin. Whatever theme has been given to the Budget in
advance will become lost, forgotten.
The Budget is invariably an opportunity missed. Politicians crave
getting ‘air time’ and securing ‘cut through’. The Budget should be an
open-goal with as much ‘air time’ as the Chancellor wishes. The problem comes
through a poorly constructed speech, lacking a theme, continuity or showing a
common touch which guarantees no ‘cut through’.
Harold Macmillan described Budget Day as “a bit like school
Speech Day; a bit of a bore but there it is.” It is nearly 60 years since
Macmillan was Chancellor but little has changed. In speech making people have a
terrible tendency to say what they think is expected. The Budget Statement is
Working closely with George Osborne I saw his speech-writing
and delivery skills. They are not insubstantial and yet the occasion of the
Budget seems to make the Chancellor shrink at a time when he needs to stand
taller than ever. It appears as if the
Treasury mandarins have drowned out his voice by putting process ahead of what
the real purpose of Budget day should be: communicating directly to
A glance through Budgets from the past dozen years: every
pressure group is appeased; the latest policy trend pounced on to secure headlines.
The result is a Budget full of political calculation on winners and losers;
tinkering rather than leading; and the now habitual “unravelling” of “key
In 2006, to neutralise the Conservative lead on the
environment, Gordon Brown announced with great fanfare a zero rate of tax for
the least polluting cars. The reality, two cars qualified for the scheme of
which one had gone out of production and the other wasn’t available in the UK. Last year, what became known as, the “pasty
tax”, a measure to raise just £50 million, did considerable damage to the
perception of the Government in the minds of many.
The Treasury website states “when the Government publishes
the Budget, the Chancellor gives a speech to Parliament in which he sets out
the key decisions on tax, borrowing and spending, and his reasons for taking
those decisions.” That’s his brief but a good Budget speech should be a
signpost to the key policy decisions not an extended précis of them.
The longest Budget speech, by William Gladstone in 1853, lasted
nearly five hours. In the last 20 years the average speech has been just above the
hour mark. This is still unnecessarily long. The way we consume information today,
even compared to thirty years ago, has changed while our attention span has
reduced. I urge George Osborne to rip up
his latest draft and start with a blank piece of paper. Begin with what he
wants to say rather than a list of policies he feels he has to include.
The Government should follow President Obama’s lead and look
to new ways to connect with voters. This is part of a wider malaise; the
government is lagging behind when it comes to the use of modern communication
methods. The world has changed quickly and the annual Budget Statement, despite
the obviously important content, seems outdated and irrelevant to most voters.
George Osborne should forget trying to appease everyone in
his speech as it shows a lack of strength, coherence and will cloud his
message. A speech about everything is a speech about nothing. Ultimately at a
time where budgets are being cut and everyone feeling squeezed in some way there
will be few winners. This doesn’t mean the Chancellor cannot communicate a
powerful message on the tough medicine needed to bring down the deficit, and the
blame for its prescription attributed to the Labour Party.
This is why, to grab the opportunity handed to him, I’d
advise George Osborne to construct a very different kind of budget speech;
shorter, more focussed on one theme, not trying to be like Gordon Brown, or any
previous Chancellor, and instead use the Budget to communicate a message and a
plan rather than be seen to tinker. Achieve this and his task I believe he
should be focussed on, of saying one thing well, gets an awful lot easier.
Last year’s Budget started positively with a confident line
“This Budget rewards work.” Sadly – although this theme was followed through
with some policies – notably National
Insurance – it was over-shadowed by a full complement of additional policies
not focussed on rewarding work. some of which soon began to unravel.
I’m not advocating the Chancellor of the Exchequer delivers
a Budget which is policy-light and content-free but a simple truth is that complexity
is the enemy of a good communicator. No speech which grabs people can be
without substantial policy but, as Ronald Reagan’s speech-writer, Peggy Noonan,
says “big things are communicated using small words.” Of course Treasury
officials will want to over-complicate things to prove their worth, but this
must be resisted. Osborne should insist on brevity to keep us – and him –
focussed. He should also make his audience think. The UK is faced with a
considerable challenge over our economy and future prosperity. There is no
bigger issue. He should stick to this subject as a way to introduce policy to
his audience instead of delivering an endless list of schemes and initiatives
which are far removed from his theme.
How about an opening to surprise people and get them hooked
“This Budget is focussed on dealing with the deficit and rewarding
those who work hard. I am not today publishing a raft of measures designed to
secure short term headlines but a plan to get this country back on track. My
statement will be short as we are sure of our task: reduce the deficit; deal
with the problems left by the last Labour Government; and help all those in
this country who work hard for themselves and their families.”
There is good politics in this approach too. Following
orthodox processes, developed over decades, risks a further diminishing of
trust in the government. A recent YouGov poll showed just 19 per cent trust
senior Conservative politicians to tell the truth so deliver a Budget Statement
of spectacular simplicity where there is far less “small print” to potentially undermine
people’s perception of the Chancellor and the Government.
Next week’s Budget is George Osborne’s chance to communicate
the message “this government is on your side” rather than Labour’s counter
punch of “out of touch”. This can only be achieved if he delivers a speech
which makes an argument with a theme wrapped around consistent messages
supported by examples of how this will be delivered. A mish-mash of measures,
projects and initiatives will fail.
If George Osborne can deliver this kind of speech,
breaking the shackles of perceived wisdom and civil service orthodoxy, arguing how
his policies will put us on a road to prosperity in simple language that keeps
our attention, connecting with voters through real-life examples, then it will
have been a Budget Statement fit for our times.