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.