Political appeal

What does Ken have in common with a Republican senator?

Vietnam war vet and Republican John McCain and London mayor and former restaurant review Ken Livingstone are probably not often bracketed together politically! But I have been thinking recently about them both and their own rather different political personas.

Both have had periods of great popularity – though McCain still seems to be basking in it whilst Ken’s has well and truly worn off – and it has not been for their stances on particular individual policies. ‘What about London’s congestion charge?’ you may well ask – but actually Ken’s popularity pre-dated him staking his reputation on that policy – and indeed pre-dated Blair’s attempts to noble his Mayoral candidature. As for McCain – he is best known legislatively for the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act. Yet America is not stuffed full of people eagerly hanging on every drop of debate over election spending rules (imagine how scary such a country would be!).

So what has made both at various times so popular? It’s been their overall image – willing to stand up for what they believe in, willingness to deviate from the official party line and so on. Their stances on individual policies have certainly fed that image, but they’ve not created it. If McCain was relying on interest in campaign finance rules or Ken on eager readers of his restaurant reviews neither would have hit the heights they have.

Of course, with other people the key image is of being a policy wonk. Paddy was as well know for his frenetic pace and spewing out of policy ideas as for the number of ways he knew how to kill you with his hands. (It feels much safer having become an MP under a different leader!). But either way, it is not the details of the individual policies that made the overall image and reputation in themselves.

What does this mean for a political party like ours? Well – I think it means that we far too often put the cart before the horse. It is – to mix metaphors – as if we go to the supermarket, have an intense debate over what item to pick from each shelf (non-biological or chlorine free? low fat or organic? fair trade or free trade bananas?), end up with a pile of uncoordinated goods and say, “make a decent meal out of that!” It sort of works, but really what we should be doing is being clear what our overall message and core beliefs are, and then selecting policies to fit them – rather than hoping that the former will someone how emerge from lots of policy detail drawn up in isolation from each other.

We should also remember how little most voters know about policy detail – it’s more general statements and impressions that carry a lot of weight. (A good example is the research done by the British Elections Study for the 2001 general election – a half of voters who were willing to take part in a poll about politics got less than two-thirds of the simple questions correct, such as what voting system is used and how long it is between elections).

Now, I wouldn’t go as far as the Liberal Haldane who said, “The abstract programme of a party is not what is important. What matters is the volume and quality of the spirit which has inspired the programme”. I don’t say that just because he ended up joining the Labour party – not something I’m planning! – but also because I wouldn’t be quite so dismissive about the policy details.

It’s right in principle and in practice to have substantive and detailed answers to what we’re going to do on a wide range of issues. The choice of what details to fill out and what to talk about does add to the overall impression – or as the American blogger Mark Schmitt put it, “It’s not what you say about the issues, it’s what the issues say about you.”

So Haldane does have a good general point. It’s a variant of one that Charles Kennedy also often made – think how few of the big political issues during his leadership (not just Iraq) hardly featured in the preceding general election. Elections are not just about choosing between detailed policy programs, or who is best to represent your area, but also choosing the team that will have the best judgement and approach to the unknown problems the future throws up.

This certainly has some implications for our policy making process. There has been lots of (sensible) talk about changing it so that, for example, it better reflects the speed at which the rest of the world works. What is missing from much of these discussions though is the key linkage between deciding the overall message and then making sure the subsequent policy making process fills it in, working to that overall plan and message. Otherwise it’s all about tinkering with details that will be made redundant by an independent message picking process. And then there’ll be all the political flak for policy details that don’t actually fit but were agreed and published beforehand.

As for what I think that overall message should be … that will have to wait for another day!

A shorter version of this article first appeared in Liberal Democrat News.