Something that fascinates me is that politicians always talk about their political heroes being people of principle, like Reagan and Thatcher, yet most of them seem to have no principles that I can discern. They don’t stand for anything much, and that is very disappointing.
Ever since the “third way” infected politics world wide we have seen a focus on strategy and narrative rather than principles and conviction.
As political parties became “brands”, their principles were reduced to “attributes”. Just as Heinz may change the level of salt, the label or the price of a can of baked beans, political parties began to ditch or adopt policies to suit the public taste, day by day, week by week.
How we laughed in No 10 when Tony Blair agreed with Bill Clinton that “the most important person in the world is the member of a focus group”. I even inserted a joke about it into a speech John Major gave before the red hordes massacred us in 1997. But after the deluge, the Blairite approach to politics became accepted wisdom. Strategy and narrative were in, principle and conviction were out.
The rise of the pollster and focus group junkies…upon us and still upon us.
Opinion research is critical in politics, but only if it is used to tell a politician how to communicate, not what to believe – a point Lynton Crosby, the election guru who will advise the Tories’ 2015 campaign, repeats ad infinitum. It provides a map and a compass, but the leader must set the direction. Before 1997, we certainly did too little of it. But politicians who are guided by polls are chasing will-o’-the-wisp in a forlorn search for popularity. They are not selling baked beans, but something more complex: vision, belief and leadership. And the more politicians change to reflect every passing fad, the less the public believes what they say, and will-o’-the-wisp flits away.
We lack conviction politicians.
Nor am I saying that politicians should worship at the shrine of a holy grail of principles. Such blind devotion is at the top of the slippery slope of fanaticism. There is a world of difference between that and the sheet anchor of belief, the integrity of politicians who sticks to their guns, and of whom even their enemies begrudgingly admit, “They’ve got guts – they’ll speak their mind, whatever the consequences.”
There are precious few politicians in New Zealand prepared to speak their minds. I blame MMP.
“Whatever the consequences”: that’s what it boils down to. Yes, speaking one’s mind can mean exposing uncomfortable truths. Yet what is the point of being a politician if you don’t speak your mind? What hope do we have as a country if our politicians stay silent on issues, for fear of losing votes?
Such refreshing words and yet so disappointing.
The mindset of political strategy is now poisoning the well of politics. Those politicians who do have the guts to highlight unpalatable truths, and what they would do about them, are criticised. On Europe, politicians are told that voters don’t care about it – so shut up. Meanwhile, politicians talk of taxing “wealth” more because of what that would “say” about their party, not whether it is the right or wrong thing to do.
All this puts presentation before principle. Remember what used to be Conservative principle? “Cutting taxes has been shown to be the greatest stimulus to economic growth and personal freedom there has ever been. Every pound we cut in tax is a pound more for people’s choice, a pound more to create work for others, a pound more to buy things for their family. Apologise for that? Never.” That was John Major in 1992, just before he won more votes than any Prime Minister at any election. He was the last Conservative to win a general election outright. Mea culpa.
Food for thought for John Key, food for thought.