That ordinary people have an increasingly cynical view of politics is not the most original of observations. However, in seeking an explanation – and a solution – for this state of affairs, Matthew Taylor makes some thought-provoking points:
“…as the world has become more complex, fast moving and unpredictable the parties have – in a desperate and forlorn attempt to retain public trust – become more extensive and more specific in their promises.”
The trouble is that specific promises are more easily broken:
“We have had public pledges, Golden Rules, an independent Bank of England, the OBR and even last week’s fiscal responsibility legislation, yet still politicians fail to deliver.
“Perhaps they need to take the principle and make it more populist: ‘Ed Balls pledged today that if Labour’s misses its fiscal target, he will volunteer for I’m a celebrity, get me out of here with his fee going to help the squeezed middle’.”
Hold that thought about Ed Balls, because I’m going to return to it. But first let’s look at Matthew Taylor’s proposed solution:
“…one of the main reasons politicians aren’t straight with us is that we don’t talk sense to them. As Ben Page from IPSOS MORI famously said: ‘the British people are very clear about what they want: Swedish welfare on American tax rates’.
“So I thought I’d offer a way forward. How about if we the voters were to define our own policy priorities? I don’t mean simply the top-of-the-head prejudices people tend to offer opinion pollsters. Neither do I mean broad values or aspirations, as everyone signs up to fairness, freedom and hard working families.”
Taylor would like us all to “decide our top three… policy priorities along with one currently on offer that we most strongly oppose.” This, he believes, would greatly improve the quality of public debate:
“It would offer an invaluable shared starting point for political conversations between friends or strangers, and enable us to be more focussed and forensic in weighing up what the parties are offering. It might even give politicians the courage to stop trying to be all things to all people and say ‘if that’s really what you want, you shouldn’t vote for me’.”
It’s an intriguing idea, but how would one ensure that the policy “priorities” were consistently and sensibly formulated? A lot of people would come up with wish-fulfilling nonsense like ‘tax the bankers and double funding for the NHS’ or ‘leave the EU and use the savings to abolish income tax.’ Also, how would politicians get a feel for the collective priorities of the nation? I’m not sure that the Miliband method of accosting random strangers in the park counts as a scientific sample.
Perhaps the think tanks could get together and agree wordings on, say, three varying proposals for each of the top ten issues. The pollsters could then get together and run them by a representative sample of the electorate.
However, if it would be useful for the politicians to know about our priorities, then the reverse also applies. Not all political promises are equal – some are clearly higher up the to-do list than others. But which? A manifesto policy carries more weight than one that didn’t make the cut, but we need additional levels of prioritisation.
Which brings us back to Ed Balls in the jungle. The only policy promise that really counts is one that carries a penalty if it’s broken. I’m not suggesting that a minister should eat a kangaroo’s unmentionables if they fail to deliver on a top priority. Rather the consequences need to be of a more serious nature – a trip to the political wilderness, not the jungle.
An even higher level of prioritisation would be a ‘red line’ promise – i.e. a commitment that would have to be included in any coalition agreement. (Or, in the case of a minority government, an issue on which a Commons defeat would be regarded as a vote of no confidence).
So, in all, this would make for three levels of prioritisation – the manifesto policy, the ministerial resignation policy and the red line policy. With each level, the cost of making (or breaking) the promise escalates, thereby providing a guide to how seriously we ought to take it.