The Budget and the politics of noise

Summary

A very politicised budget with little mention of young people’s interest, as the noise from the Commons chamber drowns out the politics of hope

…which is how I felt at the end of the exchanges yesterday.

The ill-judged online poster released by Grant Shapps, the Conservative Party Chairman (click here – which had the double impact of bringing attention to #diversityfail in this tweet) provided Twitter with 48 hours of fun as people made up their own versions – you can make your one here. Chances are in the run up to the May 2014 and May 2015 elections, well see online posters of other political parties given the same treatment. Makes you wonder why parties simply don’t provide templates for everyone to play with and be done with it.

“What’s this about Bingo-bingo-land – or was that Bingo-bango by Basement Jaxx?”

After Godfrey’s bongo-bongo-land shocker (see here), Twitter users went off on one with all things ‘bingo bingo land’ – a sore point given the history of where the former remark came from (see here). But in the grand scheme of things, for me the way the UK announces tax and finance policy in set-piece speeches is more political theatre and not sound policy-making. After all, in business, surprises good or bad create instability. You have a pressure to respond to them one way or another – whether dealing with a cost increase or an expectation to pass on a tax cut onto your customers.

“The serious stuff?”

Parliament’s budget pages are here. The often-quoted Institute for Fiscal Studies’ analysis is here. This is the organisation where politicians love to have on their side. It’s like:

“We know the world views politicians as low-life lying scoundrels – even we think we’re low-life lying scoundrels! But because the IFS back our policy on [insert name of policy area], we must be right and that ‘orrible lot over there must be wrong!”

And so it goes on. Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government has a better alternative for financial policy making – see here.

“Was there anything good in The Budget?”

The BBC’s key points are here. One of the Lib Dems’ key policies on raising the ceiling at which income tax is paid, rises again. Also, expanding taxation on residential properties held by companies that otherwise have not been paying stamp duty equalises the market – as it tends not to be first time buyers with limited incomes that set up offshore finance companies to dodge such taxes.

“The big themes missing?”

Regional transport beyond potholes (which is not nearly enough given the damage done by recent winters), young people beyond apprenticeships, or the environment. On the last point, it feels like ministers have pretty much given up.

Labour’s conundrum

While people are generally bored of the ‘under the last Labour Government’ klaxxon, the challenge the Labour front bench has is when the Coalition brings in policies (no matter how small) that are seen to be socially just – for example raising the income tax threshold. The unanswered question will always be: “Why didn’t Labour do this when they were in office?”

“Why unanswered?”

Because the structure of the Labour Party at a high-policy level is ever so top-heavy and closed that a very small number of people have both a huge amount of power/influence along with a huge amount of information to cope with that it is beyond the capacity of that small group of people. It takes time to absorb the information and learn the skills required for different policy areas. That’s why it takes time for ministers to get up to speed on their policy areas. This is why it makes no sense at all to have such regular turnover of ministers and policy chiefs. For too many in party politics that aim for ministerial office, I get the feeling that they are aiming for the highest post they can possibly get to, rather than for a specific mid-ranking or junior post specific to their passion & knowledge, that they want to stay in for a long time.

The question the Labour Party as an institution needs to ask itself is:

“What is it about its internal structures, systems and processes that led to poor policy-making when it was in office?”

Because until it comes up with answers to that question – and acts upon what it finds, it runs the risk of making similar policy errors should it be re-elected.

On the Liberal Democrats side, they need to ask themselves about managing the expectations of the public around what being in a coalition as a principle actually means. For me, many of their political problems stem from a 2010 election campaign where they did not prioritise the policies which were for them rock-solid non-movers from the ones where they could be more flexible on. Had students known what Lib Dem HQ was thinking on fees, what would the impact have been in 2010? Who would have benefitted instead? (For example the Greens?)

The politics of noise

This is something that I’m picking up more and more as a recurring theme in TV political debate. It also makes me wonder what we had before policy think tanks were invented. My previous blogpost writing up about a panel of European Parliament candidates standing in Denmark and the UK (see here) was probably the first time I had seen ‘the politics of noise’ up close and face-to-face against a panel of people who, for want of another phrase simply do politics differently.

“How does it work?”

Take one person who might have a reputation for speaking in a very loud and/or abrupt manner with opponents, sprinkle in a mix of political partisanship along with a smattering of ill-informed publications (such as where this announcement came from) from an institute set up by people not wanting a huge amount of public scrutiny (see here), hook up with connections in the media – producers, commissioners, researchers and the like, and put together with someone either of the same disposition but from a slightly different part of the spectrum (where you get a shouting match) or someone who is more cerebral, more softly spoken and easily shouted down (so you don’t get to hear them) and job done. Either way, alternatives don’t get to be heard.

At the event at with the Danish candidates mentioned a couple of paragraphs above, I found it difficult to remember what the other candidates said because I was too busy laughing at the ill-informed points one UK panelist was coming out with in quick succession.

“Why don’t the alternatives get heard?”

For a start, if one proponent decides to be loud and shouty, their opponent all too often feels overwhelmed by the loud shoutyness of the proponent that they are silenced, or feel the need to respond with their own shoutyness to the ill-informed points made by the proponent. In the very limited media time, they have allowed the proponent to set the agenda. As a result, people generally get put off politics by the shoutyness of one person, the shoutyness of both people or the lack of clearly explained ideas from the person that was silenced. (To point out, conferences on the left/activist scene have their own issues with loud shouty people. Sometimes even I can come across as being one of those loud, shouty people too!)

“So…how do you get around this problem?”

Not easily.

Some have tried ‘becoming the media’ – or an alternative to the mainstream at least. Novara Media and Democracy Now! are two such examples. Indymedia was one I became aware of in my time in Brighton when at university, but looking at it now, it feels a bit too 2001.

Others take to popular social media – Facebook and Twitter to lampoon the proponents, but there’s only so much impact that can have. (Especially if you are faced with someone who thrives on ‘notoriety’).

Some politicians are actually going back to community roots, embedding themselves in community campaigns while developing strong links through social and digital media at the same time. Julian Huppert, Stella Creasy and Robert Halfon (LD, Lab & C respectively) are all doing this to very good effect. For me, it’s also a much more resilient way of doing things in the face of negative media onslaughts – simply because constituents’ experience of their local MPs will be far better informed than anything the mainstream media can come up with. (And thus the media onslaught risks having the opposite effect).

But in the grand scheme of things…I don’t know how to deal with the politics of noise

If you take the mainstream print media, how many people buy their daily tabloid newspaper because of the politics? In my experience living and working with many a buyer and reader over the years, very few of them have said ‘politics’. Most of them had little interest in politics anyway. But that does not mean they don’t have views, nor does it mean they ignore the very partisan politics that does get reported. In the case of the tabloid-reading men I’ve lived and worked with, sport, scantily-clad women and telly/entertainment were the main reasons. For me, that sort of explains why your politically-passionate Guardianista or campaigning Indy reader perhaps struggled to engage or empathise with the mindset of someone who is not a politics’ watcher like them.

Technocratic facts vs passionate emotions on serious issues

It’s kind of the ‘holy grail’ of politics: Finding those people who are good with the above and who can also connect with and inspire people – and enable them to contribute too. Because you can put a lot of effort into something, but is it having an impact? Or is it the equivalent of running very fast on a hamster wheel? It’s something I ask myself at a local level quite often. How much of what I do personally is having a positive impact?

Food for thought.

 

This entry was posted in Party politics. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Budget and the politics of noise

  1. Pingback: The Budget and the politics of noise – A dragon’s best friend | Public Sector Blogs

  2. Paul says:

    Its easy when you spend your life on twitter to conclude that the world is full of good informed people with largely sensible opinions about the world. Most of the people who are worth following on twitter fall into this category. However, unfortunately the world is equally full of people who have limited time an inclination to find the facts and happy to go with their gut (equals prejudice). This was proven to me tonight with the NickvNigel debate. Nick may have had the arguments but Nigel has the emotive arguments (and he’s very good appealing to bigots without going too far himself).

    Frankly the conclusion that I’ve drawn is that engaging with UK politics is pointless and depressing. Winning the population over isn’t about winning arguments – its about emotions and showmanship. Indeed if you watch what passing as political comment (in the press) isn’t about the political issues but about “market segmentation of the voting demographic”. The challenge for the intelligent voter isn’t finding the party who has sensible policies, its trying to work out which part behind the noise and bluster of their “market analysis” and “staking popular positions” actually will make moderately sensible decisions if elected.

    I appreciate this might not be a common or popular position but i tend to think that mainstream UK politicians seem to be significantly better than the UK public deserve. I’m relatively confident that both Labour, Lib dems or the leading (moderate) Tories could form a competent government. Most are pro-business, pragmatic about state investment and services and have sensible view on the EU and global affairs. However, its sad that the only think that keeps mainstream politicians where they are is essentially their superior marketing skills (and not rational arguments).

    • Paul says:

      Read DemSoc’s response to my comment…. and I have some sympathy with those who want the debate to be better informed and don’t want to give up on politics, the problem is how?

      I figured I could go on twitter and find like-minded people (from all parties) who care about the debate (albeit with differing views). However, in the real world the agenda is often being set the visceral reaction of the lowest common denominator (particularly on issues like immigration and the EU). This in turn sets the editorial polices of the tabloids and the responses by the “marketing” teams in the political parties…. and no amount of shouting of the facts to twitter followers seems to change that.

      As per my previous comment I don’t blame the politicians for this. Most of our mainstream politicians are trying to make the best of a bad job. The problem is a large chunk of the electorate that are so ill-informed they have effectively driven politics to this level of marketing and showmanship. Worse mainstream politicians they didn’t play the marketing games then (as NickvNigel shows) the would leave the door wide open populists and other demagogues.

      • Paul says:

        Worse if mainstream politicians didn’t play their marketing games then (as NickvNigel shows) this would leave the door wide open populists and other demagogues.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s