Sunday, July 26, 2009

What you don't want to hear

Conservative leader David Cameron has said the "scale of the economic mess" he would inherit if he became prime minister was "incredibly daunting". Mr Cameron told the BBC he was "looking the British people in the eye" and saying public spending had to be cut. (BBC News)
Photo of David Cameron by net_efekt
A common criticism of politicians is that they simply tell voters what they want to hear. To some extent this is a reasonable thing for politicians to be doing: they need voters to find their statements agreeable. And to some extent it is reasonable to criticise them for this: voters need politicians who articulate sound policies rather than populist policies.

But politicians have learned that if they are all being tarred with the accusation that they just say what voters want to hear, a way of standing out and appearing competent is to be up-front about unpleasant realities.

Tony Blair and New Labour did this with their so-called "hard choices". John Major did this with his "If it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working".

Yet recent polling suggests that the people don't know whether they want higher taxes, cuts in spending or no change. There is no best sound-bite at the moment.

But this might change. As the views of economists, pundits and politicians begin to converge on higher taxes and cuts in spending, the war of words will be about who can sound the sternest about what needs to be done and how Labour is best-placed to do it because they've got the experience, how the Conservatives are best-placed to do it because Labour got us into this mess, and how the LibDems are best-placed to do it because fresh thinking is needed.

And so we come full circle: politicians will once again be telling us what we want to hear, but this time it will be about "austerity is necessary" rather than "stability is enough".