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The Conservative party has an empathy problem. Does it care about that? It should. - Spectator Blogs

3 September 2012

11:37 PM

3 September 2012

11:37 PM

For people in the communication business politicians have an uncanny ability to confuse even their better intentions by resorting to clumsy, even stupid, language. Thus David Davis earlier today. When normal people hear the phrase “shock therapy” I’m pretty sure they associate it with pretty awful, even ghastly, measures that, most of the time, don’t even have the saving grace of working. You wouldn’t want any of your relatives to be given shock therapy. It’s A Clockwork Orange or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest stuff.

Davis is not alone. Dominic Raab says the “talented and hard-working have nothing to fear” from removing “excessive” employee protections. I suspect many hard-working people, including talented hard-working people, might say it’s damn easy for him to say that.

And since Raab is the co-author of a forthcoming book which, inter alia, argues that “Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world,” he is not the only thrusting young Tory who seems to think that insulting your audience is a nifty, even bold, way of persuading them to vote for your party. (The members of the Free Enterprise Group say this is an unfair, selective, reading of their idea. Perhaps. But if you don’t want the headlines to be about “idlers” then don’t use the term “idlers”. This is not complicated stuff.)

There are rather a lot of people in this country who think they’re working pretty hard as it is, thank you for asking. People who are making do with less than they had before. People who have digested the lessons of the boom and are paying down debt, cutting extravagances to make do in tricky times. People who are working longer hours for the same pay or who have taken pay cuts to help their employers (and their colleagues) stay afloat. Then there are the people who have seen their tax credits cut or their child benefit slashed and wonder why they have to make do with less when the government was so desperate to reduce income taxes for the wealthiest Britons. If you’re a student facing £27,000 of tuition fees your elder siblings did not have to pay you may feel you’re being hard done by. And everyone is still being clobbered by the VAT rise but the impact of that rise, like so much else, increases the lower down the income scale you travel.

I think you could forgive people in any one of these groups – and many voters are in more than one such category – for thinking they’re doing their best and they don’t much appreciate being hectored in such terms by, god help us and of all people, Members of Parliament. A little more listening, a lot more understanding and rather less condemning would be no bad thing.

I mean, I assure you, “we need to be more like China/Singapore/Korea” is not a winning message even on those occasions when there might be something we could usefully borrow from the east.

How you present your argument always matters but it’s especially important when you’re trying to sell ambitious programmes that, inevitably, will cause much disruption. It’s all very well to talk of not wasting a crisis but if you do then don’t forget that many people will be frightened by your apparent opportunism. They may even mistake your urgency for some satisfaction that matters have become so grim shock therapy is the only way forward. Especially when that therapy principally involves peddling theories you’ve long considered winners but for which the public has shown less enthusiasm.

One thing all this does, however, is demonstrate the divide in the Tory party between conservatives and Tories. The former often seem to draw some inspiration from their cousins in the Republican party; the latter, remembering that Britain is not the United States, adopt a more prudent, sceptical position to the latest enthusiasms emanating from Washington think tanks.

That’s not to say a simpler tax code and lower taxes would not be useful. But it is simply false to insist that all tax cuts, from whatever level, will increase revenues or pay for themselves. Relatedly, asking What Would Margaret Do? strikes me as being no more sensible – in fact just as asinine – as asking What Would Reagan Do? This is not 1979. In any case, much of the supply-side’s low-hanging fruit has already been picked.

So I’ve some sympathy for Fraser’s view, put with characteristic force and logic, that those Tories who fret about “modernising” are stuck in the past. He’s also right that the Tory party’s collapse in the north and in Scotland can’t be solved by hugging eskimos or any other caricature of “modernisation”. But Gavin Barwell is also correct: the government has not done enough to persuade anxious voters that they will benefit from, not be the victims of, Conservative policy.

A smaller state is, in many ways, a splendid thing. I like the idea. But I also know that a party that appears to think – or at least too often implies that – public sector workers are, with the exception of the sainted nurses, workshy, unproductive incompetents is going to struggle to win the votes of people who work in, or are married to or are the sons or daughters of, government-paid workers.

It’s not about hugging people, it’s about empathy and imagination. As Fiona Melville says:

All politicians must earn the right to be heard. We believe that we have a sensible, fair system of beliefs that will chime with people if we get a fair hearing. But people who instinctively mistrust us will not give us that fair hearing. So we need to ensure that they understand our motives, and that we understand their priorities and their hopes and their fears.

Well, yes. The key part is this: people must understand the government’s motives. Here the government is a victim of its own achievement: it has, I think, successfully persuaded Britain (and even the Labour party accepts this) that public spending must be reduced and long-term government indebtedness tackled. What it has not done, however, is persuade people that many of its more important programmes are motivated by a larger, better purpose than simply reducing  government spending.

Matthew d’Ancona wrote a terrific column for the Telegraph at the weekend that highlighted this point. Writing about the Paralympics and welfare reform he suggested:

It is certainly true that some cuts to the welfare system have been driven by the deficit reduction programme. How could it be otherwise? The new Personal Independence Payment, which replaces the old Disability Living Allowance from next April, is partly intended to save money. But the ESA is emphatically not subject to Treasury targets: Grayling’s objective has been to make sure that, where possible, those able to work are encouraged and enabled to do so, and not locked in welfare dependency. About half of 1.4 million claimants have been assessed so far; the process should be complete by March 2014. It is hard pounding – not least for those who must make the often frightening journey across the border from Benefit Land into the employment market. But it is worth it.

As the Conservative conference approaches, Cameron and co are under pressure from the Tory Right – or Tory “Mainstream” as it now likes to be known – to do more, to cut faster and deeper, to reduce more taxes, to produce a persuasive “growth strategy” (but also, of course, to reduce immigration, cut nothing that affects the middle class, and avoid any transport projects in their constituencies). The PM is asked by Tim Yeo whether he is “man or mouse”. It is the season of angry policy shopping lists and butch goading of senior ministers.

If only more of Grayling’s comrades on the Right had his grasp of the sheer complexity of government: the difficulty of taking one system that affects millions of people and replacing it with another. Every such process – and the Coalition is embarked upon scores of them – is subtle, demanding and agonisingly slow.

Spot on. There are no big bangs in government. There are no measures – no, nor even any package of measures – that can transform government or the economy in one happy, revolutionary moment of dazzling clarity. Tories are supposed to appreciate this.

But Matt is right to stress the importance of the fact that many of those most immediately effected by government policy do not trust the purity of the government’s ambitions. They fear they are being made scapegoats for other people’s failures.

Now, for sure, the government must also deal with an opportunistic opposition and an often querulous media. That’s what they are there for. But most of all it must do a better job of explaining its motives.

The cynical view is that a government with a communication problem really has a policy problem. That’s often true. But not always. This government has some good ideas and some good stories to tell (notably, in England, on schools and welfare) but it’s not very good at explaining itself. No wonder so many people distrust it or assume it’s not interested in “people like me”.

Again, all this is difficult. The government needs to be tough yet empathetic; pragmatic yet imaginative and modest yet ambitious. A mighty tricky task but they wanted it. But if they’re to do it well they need to spend more time asking how their views and plans might be misconstrued and then find ways of talking to the public in ways that make their better intentions clear and lessen the room for misunderstanding, anxiety and, in the end, rejection.

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