What sort of politician do you prefer: a conviction politician led by a clear sense of what is right and wrong, or a perception politician led by the public mood? Should a politician rely mostly on their political philosophy or on the deliberations of various focus groups?
Perhaps these things are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps the former is too autocratic and the latter too weak, and perhaps the best sort of politician is the one who knows what he or she believes but is not so self-obsessed as to be blind to fallibility.
These questions arise because of a recent post by Alex Massie on his Spectator blog. Labour and Conservative politicians, he writes, ‘are both wrong on the politics of the 50% rate of income tax.’ We might wonder how they can both be wrong. Surely 50% is either the right rate or it is the wrong rate? What does he mean?
The telling word here is politics. When various characters ask why so and so is playing politics over this or that issue, they are criticising their political opponent for not treating the issue with the impartial respect it deserves. In this context, it is a pejorative term: to play politics is underhand, ignoble and contrary to the interests of the country.
And yet politics is their game. It is what we elect them to Westminster to do, and it is a serious game that affects people’s lives. Political decisions are necessary in a civilised society: they determine the occurrence of war, the level of public services and the degree of public intervention in otherwise private matters. No-one is exempt from their effects. It just so happens that politics has two meanings: the functional process of deciding policy; and the political process of ingratiating oneself with the public.
In this example, Mr Massie is saying Conservatives and Labour have both blundered: the Conservatives because, by reducing the income tax rate from 50 to 45%, they have reinforced the wrong political message – that they look to the interests of their ‘rich chums’ first; and Labour because, by arguing for a return to the 50% rate, they are reinforcing their negative image as the tax and spend party. They are, in short, reinforcing negative stereotypes.
This is a good point. Perception really does matter. But there is another side to this. What happens if one of these positions is right: ‘right’ in the sense of being in the long-term interests of the country as opposed to the short-term interests of the party? What then? We have subordinated conviction to perception. There might be very good electoral reasons to do this, but the country has lost out. Politics, as one might say, is more than mere politics.
It brings us back to the question: what sort of politician do you prefer? Should they act in the interests of the country or their party? We could get into the circular argument that a party needs to win an election before it can implement its otherwise terrific policies, thus making a bit of politicking an essential precursor to doing good. But what if this analysis is also wrong?
We do not need much reminding that politicians have a pretty low reputation at the moment, and that this was caused by not only the fiddling of expenses but also a growing sense that they lack political integrity. How many times does a vox pop survey turn up a verdict of ‘I don’t trust politicians?’
People vote for various reasons, and perception is no doubt one of them. But in this context, perception is a negative reason to vote, especially if it is based on a set of policies that seem to contradict the overarching political philosophy of whichever politician happens to be standing before us at the time.
For Conservatives to argue for higher tax and Labour for lower tax seems to run against everything we think we know about these parties. When they start arguing for things contrary to their philosophy, it merely reinforces the thought in the public’s mind that politicians lack integrity. To the electorate, it looks like the politicians are simply gaming them. The damage done to Nick Clegg over his promise on university tuition fees comes to mind.
Mr Massie is right to attach importance to political perception, and no doubt he attaches equal importance to integrity. But there is an inevitable trade-off when political philosophy is subordinated to presentation. Political parties will always have an eye to the next election (and also think that this requires a lot of ‘politics’), but they need to ask themselves why people are reluctant to vote for them. Is it because they don’t spend enough time ‘signalling’ and combating ‘negative stereotypes,’ or because the public don’t really trust what they are being told anymore?