General Election? Don’t Mention the Policies
-John Fenwick is a professor of leadership and public management at Newcastle Business School in Northumbria University. The opinions expressed are his own.-
As we approach the general election on May 6, there is a problem for those politicians and commentators who are pleading for a greater emphasis on policy and substance. This is because, except in extreme cases, voters tend not to be swayed by policy or substance to any noticeable extent.
Party image, emotional attachment, and positive or negative feelings about leaders and parties are, for most, much more important.
The innovation (for the UK, at any rate) of a televised party leaders’ debate illustrates the point.
Media comment – and also (we are told) the public reaction – has focused on such matters as: were his jokes pre-prepared; did he smile convincingly or artificially; should he have been standing with hands in pockets (bad manners, I was taught as a child); did he perspire to a greater degree than is considered pleasant; did he adopt an aggressive or an emollient ton; how did he address the other party leaders and so forth. First names were used by Cameron and Brown in referring to fellow-leaders.
Intriguingly, in the second debate, Clegg chose to address his rivals by using both their first name and surname, conveying a formal and distant kind of respect. ‘He’ is used here generically. It applies to all three of them, and they are of course all men.
Feelings and emotions in elections tend to be expressed in very trivial, if effective ways, whether it’s ‘things can only get better’, ‘it’s time for a change’ or ‘that bloke’s suit doesn’t quite cut it’. Blair certainly did not win his 1997 landslide on the basis of policy.
It was a feeling thing: young, modern, starting afresh, new, reflected even in the renaming of the Labour Party itself. Feelings and emotions may express more substantial concerns, of course. In the aftermath of World War II, the public mood in Britain was for change of a real kind, far removed from today’s image manipulation. Much more recently, the discourse of the Obama campaign arguably represented a genuine public mood, whatever view people take of its subsequent trajectory.
So – what are the feelings and emotions that dominate this UK General Election campaign? Revulsion at the MPs’ expenses scandal, a feeling that whatever happens we are up the financial creek without a paddle, and a deep personal distain for politicians as a species.
Hence the apparent rise in support for Clegg. His pitch is that he isn’t a politician like the others. His closing speech in the second TV debate used the word ‘different’ numerous times. Whether he really is different is irrelevant. He just needs to appear so, so that he can tap into different feelings and emotions.
As for his policies? Well, it might well be that the public would not be too enamoured of policies on immigration and nuclear weapons or taxation if these were the deciding factors.
If offered by Labour, the policies would probably have been portrayed in the press as dangerously leftwing, a faint echo of Labour’s dismal failure in 1983. But they are not, because that isn’t the point. The point is that Clegg, simply because he isn’t Brown or Cameron, can hope to exploit other feelings and reactions.
Therefore, at this point in the election campaign, the key question is: how will people feel as they go into the polling booth? What’s their dominant emotion, their prevailing mood?
The leaders could usefully think about and act on this if they want to win. Rightly or wrongly, appeals to rational policy debate miss the point and misunderstand the process.