Terribly Boring 4: a system for scoring policies

Some mild hand-wringing is going on over at LDV tonight over our poll ratings. One suggestion is that we’re emphasising the wrong policies.

The trouble is, it’s almost impossible to prove that a particular emphasis on a particular policy constitutes the entire problem – or that a particular emphasis on a particular policy constitutes an entire success. It’s an impressionistic and individualistic judgement.

For example, people (oh, you know, just people in general) claim that our 2005 platform of tuition fees and Iraq had a particular magic about it that we haven’t recaptured. But no single person has any real idea how success in 2005 really arose from those two foundations. The processes by which tuition fees+Iraq = electoral success is opaque to us. Post factum, we can come up with all sorts of justifications for why it worked. But no-one has ever proved to my satisfaction that the success of those two emphases was always inevitable. There was nothing exceptionally likely to result in success about it, and it’s possible, I think, to prove this as follows.

Our post factum justification for the success of the Iraq/tuition fees platform might run: “On one, we were proven right after a long-held principled stance on an issue that people could get properly angry about. On the other, we made it clear that we were onside with public opinion on a big issue, and they were both easy to explain.”

Let’s assign values to these. E signifies the quality of being easy to explain, Z signifies the quality of relating to a particular zeitgeist in evidence in press coverage (and is therefore largely outside our control), and X signifies that extra je ne sais quoi that captures people’s imagination. Given these values, opposition to the war in Iraq had an E and an X factor (the X in this case being the 2003 march, and the sense of being part of a grand sweep of history, and the fact that the Lib Dems were fairly suddenly and dramatically proved to have been right), and tuition fees had an E and a Z factor. Eventually, of course, Iraq acquired a Z factor as well, but the process by which that happened was not under our control. A fourth value, C, signifies coherence and consistency of abstract principle between policy emphases, something notably lacking from the Iraq/tuition fees platform.

A handful of our current policies would score as follows (an overall C rating being served up last):

1. The Green Tax Switch has both E and Z qualities. It’s easy to explain that income taxes will be lowered and this will be paid for by increases in pollution taxes (and if you can throw in the destruction of tax privileges currently enjoyed by richer taxpayers as well, so much the better). The environment is constantly and insistently zeitgeisty, and it will continue to flourish in times of recession as well (via its component themes of self-sufficiency and frugal living).

2. Locally elected health boards also have E and Z qualities. The powerlessness of the individual in the face of the monolithic NHS is a staple theme of every tabloid – a locally elected health board (and there, I explained it just by stating its name) ought to be flawlessly, instantly zeitgeisty. Not entirely clear to me why we can’t make the running on this one. I suppose you could argue that it has a sort of negative X-rating (if you will) that holds it back; it’s just never going to set anyone’s imagination on fire.

3. Civil liberties. Opposition to ID cards has E (nothing easier to explain) and X (“I don’t believe in that sort of thing”, individual-versus-state, 1984) qualities. But in spite of various gallant attempts on the part of the chatterati to push this concern on the nation, the sleepwalk largely continues, making civil liberties as a whole issue neither E, X or, especially, Z beyond certain cobwebby corners of the broadsheets.

4. The high-speed rail network has Z and X qualities. It’s zeitgeisty on two counts: environmentalism and the price of fuel. The X factor is pretty straightforward – it’s a big whizzy shiny thing you can publish an artist’s impression of. Instant win. It doesn’t have the E quality because of the funding mechanism. By way of demonstration, I don’t currently have time to go and look up the precise details of when we stick up VED and when we abolish it and what else we stick up instead. And offhand, I can’t remember. And if I can’t remember, we are in big trouble with the E quality on this one. This is important because a key negative policy position of ours – a consistent stance against airport expansion – needs its corresponding positive policy to have a good E factor.

5. The pupil premium has a strong E factor and possibly an X factor. The X arises from the fact that individuals will be putting it into practice, in contrast to their passive relationship with, say, restrictions on airport expansion. The problem here is that the Tories are about to capitalise on the X, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. This one doesn’t have a Z because the education narrative in the newspapers is currently about discipline, rather than the helplessness of the individual parent dealing with the education system (which was a much stronger theme a few years ago).

I’m sticking to five, but please do others in the comments. The overall C rating on these five examples is considerably higher than the 2005 platform in that every one of the five is linked to at least one other by a common theme. Two policies are linked by environmentalism (Green Tax Switch, high speed rail network), and no less than four by individual liberty and choice (Green Tax Switch, local health boards, civil liberties, pupil premium).

We could theorise that the ideal policy has E, X and Z qualities and is also C with other policies. No one of the policy platforms above fulfils this. Every possible policy emphasis we could make has its pros and cons. The one which, until recent events overtook us, had the potential to have all these qualities were those spending redirections and possible tax cuts.

E – it ought to be easy to explain that, given a total spend of £600bn of which £82bn is spent on education and £110bn on the health service, it should be possible to find a 3% redirection of current spending without affecting frontline services. It also ought to be easy to explain that this is what we exist to do as an opposition party. That £600bn represents Labour’s choices. It ought to be obvious and instinctive that we would not make – should not make – all the same choices.  That our Communications and Press teams so signally failed to explain this is deeply troubling. It also ought to be easy to explain that offering a tax cut is a spending choice and does not exist in opposition to other spending choices, but alongside them as an option. But here I can hardly park the blame on Press and Comms – the history of Tory slash-and-burn cuts in which reduction of expenditure went far beyond considered choice is too recent to be overcome as a narrative.

X – spending cuts are the one thing no-one except us has been talking about. The Tories are afraid to do it because of their own past associations, and it’s not in Labour’s nature to do it. The X attaches itself to spending cuts because of the sheer novelty value of the idea that the government’s spending money is actually our money. An entire generation, schooled under the mumsyness of NuLabour, has forgotten this.

Z – the Z factor just wasn’t there before the financial crisis properly imploded. It will now, in time, arise as the government is forced to consider recession spending cuts. I’m pessimistic about our chances of capitalising. A high-minded argument that we would make spending cuts on principle whereas the government is  only doing it out of necessity would go nowhere. A spending redirection in favour of a tax cut is riskier still. At the moment, Keynsian economics show no sign of being particularly zeitgeisty, among our own members or elsewhere.

C – spending redirections to our policy priorities are obviously consistent with those priorities. A spending redirection towards a tax cut would be consistent with the notion of individual choice and liberty. But would C come at the expense of Z (see above)?

So our current policy package scores generally equally to the 2005 platform when policy positions are considered individually, and it scores more highly on the overall C rating. Overall, there was nothing uniquely appealing about the 2005 platform – its components had the same mixture of pros and cons as our current policy base, and its clinching success took place largely at the whim of the press. It’s that Z factor. We can’t control the Z, although we can foreground policies that score on it – yet we did and do this constantly with the Green Tax Switch, and to little avail. A determined media can always emphasise the cons and an insufficiently determined Communications Team or Press Team can always fail to emphasise the pros.

I would have thought our increasing C quality would be a factor in our favour, potentially a replacement for the fickle Z, but so far that seems not to be the case. I imagine it’s a background belief on my part that our C factor will eventually shine through that prompts my continued interest in the tax cuts platform – under my ratings system they have the potential to be the lynchpin on which everything else hangs.


  1. I thought this was terribly convoluted lol…the fact is that we are in danger of being badly squeezed….

    The real question we need to be asking is how to make these policies fly in our 50 Labour target seats.

    Keynsian economics seem awfully in fashion with both our leadership and the editorial board of the Daily Mail if things are to be believed…sadly if they come with savage spending cuts they arent going to fly in the above mentioned seats…here like with most things its a matter of presentation and communication i feel

  2. I do not believe that the Lib Dem’s malaise in the polls has anything to do with policy.

    The two biggest negative factors for the lib dems are irrelevance (no-one believes that the Lib Dems are going to become the Government so who cares what they think?) and invisibility (why bother writing or broadcasting anything about the lib dems when no-one cares what they think?)

    We have tied ourselves firmly to the Government’s plan for ‘fixing’ the banking crisis so we have nothing to say on this subject that anyone would be interested in. We promise minor tweaks in policy for everything else, without any possibility of delivering, and ‘everything else’ is off the news agenda for the foreseeable future. Tax cuts now that everyone knows taxes are going to shoot up after the next election no matter what? It’s ridiculous, unless you’ve still got serious cuts in mind like abolishing the *entire* Quango industry.

    What can we do to increase our poll ratings? Stop being both invisible and irrelevant – irrelevant is the hard one but invisible is do-able by being bloody awkward, and that means going against the flow whilst being in tune with what a good proportion of people actually believe. With Iraq we did this: We didn’t just sell our party down the pro-War line. That’s what made it ‘magic’, because the press were happy to publish and record our objections because they thought they were hurting us by doing so.

  3. Omg we actually semi-agree on something…whether the tax cuts are viable is a question that yes I have some doubts on….however in our magic 50 seats how we play these is crucial…frankly people in these seats are going to care as much about frontline public services as they do income tax…..

  4. The tuition fees policy can still go forward. Abolish them & replace them with grants, to be paid for by fairly radical measures of restricting access only to the brightest, not just having any old twat go to “uni”. (Through the pupil premium, which is a quite magnificent idea, we can hopefully go some way down this road).

    End this culture of thinking a degree in golf course management or sociology counts for anything. A greater respect for vocational learning, & also a renewed emphasis that it isn’t an either/or choice: you can work as, say, a plumber & study English Literature because, well, you like English literature! I despise this fucking Gradgrindian attitude towards “uni”. If you’re not intellectually curious, don’t bother going is my advice.

    Additionally, it dismays me that top graduates go into shite like politics, the law & the City of London. The first two options are wholly useless to society & the third has been blown out of all proportion. Let’s encourage people into industry, research, teaching, invention, entrepreneurship & scientific endeavour.

    Green taxes, again, are an excellent proposal & should pay for cuts in income tax to show the working class that environmentalism is their friend, which they currently don’t believe. This emphasis on self-sufficiency might well end up being a winner amongst our old friends the settlers…

    I personally would say, for myself, a much more EU-sceptic position. I don’t consider the EU to be in any respect a liberal organisation & it restricts the scope for liberal policies to an unacceptable degree.

    I would cut spending on idiocies like ID cards, but I wouldn’t cut overall taxes, only redistribute them. I’d use this surplus to balance the budget (inasmuch as there was a surplus given that revenues look set to come down, which is why spending needs to be reduced).

    The need is to link concerns over civil liberties with a general feeling that the state has overreached itself. Yes, I also scorn these Mail-reading shitheads who talk about “the nanny state” but support enormous state intrusion into our lives in the shape of ID cards & 42 days.

    But they can be won over with an “it could happen to you” & “do you really want Brown having more power over you” message. (This actually did turn up once or twice in the Scum).

    There should also be a much firmer emphasis on secularism & the government should go out of its way to demonstrate solidarity with for example Gibson Square & face up to obscurantist, reactionary religion of whatever kind.

    In short, localise & humanise is my approach…

  5. You will observe that while I agree with LD policy on most issues, the approach I have taken towards Europe will alienate some, & in fact puts me closer to the Green Party🙂

    You (we?) should also hammer home this idea that Camoron’s party is fundamentally divided between the “libertarian” mentalists, the Cameroons, the hangers & floggers, the neocons & the theocons.

  6. Our green tax switch policy is undermined by our local government tax policy.

    People are naturally suspicious of promises to raise one tax and lower another, because they suspect the tax cuts will be less than the tax rises. People have experienced a masterclass in stealth taxation over the last decade, and they do not want it to continue.

    And look: we have a policy where local councils will take 3-4p in the £ as tax, wiping out the income tax cut from the green tax switch. Aha, people say, there’s your stealth tax right there, and they don’t notice that we’d abolish council tax.

    I am not saying that either policy is bad on its own. But because they say opposing things on income tax, they do not sell well together.

  7. “The two biggest negative factors for the lib dems are irrelevance (no-one believes that the Lib Dems are going to become the Government so who cares what they think?) and invisibility (why bother writing or broadcasting anything about the lib dems when no-one cares what they think?)”

    Charlotte has found a nail and walloped it with a sledgehammer there.

  8. Good point on the Green Tax Switch and local income tax offset. So basically, that policy loses its “E” rating and retains only Z. What should be (by its internal quality) one of our best policies is in fact one of our weakest in the round. Typical.

    Charlotte, I don’t think it’s to do with policy per se either. I think it’s about emphasis on the right policy at the right time – which is pretty much what you end up saying as well. You can’t separate out policy from the problem of being irrelevant/invisible.

    Re: the bail-out, I share a lot of your misgivings, but I’m genuinely not sure this is what “a lot of people are thinking”. The main emotion floating around seems to be anger against the banks, and it’s just as likely to take the form of people wanting them nationalised and bullied until they cry as people wanting them to be allowed to go bust. And if NC/VC think (for whatever reason) that it’s the right thing to do, surely this is one case where it would be properly irresponsible to take an anti-establishment line.

  9. We are probably going to get a bit more social democracy, a bit more regulation. There will still be capitalist ownership, a market economy & old-fashioned profits in most of the economy.

    The world is going to carry on turning…

  10. To paraphrase Charlotte, the two biggest factors for the LibDems are relevance and visibility.

    We have a track record of getting our policies practised without needing to get into government, and as we show that we are more relevant than ever before we have grown our level of representation and become more visible than ever before.

    As we grow in relevance and visibility we are convincing more and more people that we might actually get into government (although this has a habit of scaring off almost as many people as it attracts. Bloody typical irony if you ask me, but the long road is the one that gets you further in the end…).

  11. People vote on narrative’s rather than policies; sure you have to have policies to back up your narrative (otherwise you will be exposed as shallow)but the pros and cons of individual policies are neither here nor there.

    Witness the amount of pro-choice women who are going to vote for the Republicans.

    Going back to Charlotte’s point about being invisible and irrelevant – this is because we don’t have a coherent narrative and therefore no hook for peple to hang their understanding of what a Lib Dem future is.

    I know you think policy is and should be the basis on which people make decisions. I too would like that becasue Lib Dems have the best policies and therefore we would win. But they don’t; most people have neither the time nor the inclination to read through manifestos – blimey, last election it was nigh on impossible to give them away as I canvassed!

    So, instead perhaps you might put all this energy into working out what our narrative might be and then we might start to grab the intention that we need not to be invisible.

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