There are two things I have grown heartily sick of in politics.
The first is our habit of promising new things, rather than making people believe we can improve things.
The second is what I think of as ‘the revolutionary pose’, where a perfectly sensible, manageable, limited, incremental policy that might do a bit of good is dressed up as being a revolutionary step that will be utterly transformative.
In combination, these two traits lead to politicians making a whole bunch of oversold promises that sound impressive but will make precious little difference. Worse, it means their making said promises to people who don’t believe them anyway, and inevitably disappoint people even if by some miracle the promise is entirely kept.
I keep meaning to write a tract called ‘Down with Radicalism’, which will make the left-wing case against trying to look like you’re a radical.
For someone who hates both promises and bold rhetoric, Party conference season is always something of a test of my scepticism. The three political parties generally scatter promises like rose petals before a bridal party. Usually, the polls tell us that the promises are popular. (No-one tries to make an unpopular promise, obviously, which is another reason I believe the mechanism is bankrupt as a communication device).
Listening to promises of tax cuts, fuel duty freezes and free lunches, I wonder nervously if one of these promises will escape the hall, and set the nation alight. It does happen, sometimes. When it does, it makes me feel very stupid indeed.
Thankfully for me, a week after this conference season, we appear to be almost exactly where we were before it began. Depending on pollster and polls, the Conservatives are somewhere in the low-to-mid thirties, and Labour are somewhere in the high-mid thirties to forty.
Whatever the merits of the various promises, however popular they were, however vibrant the campaigning and media appearances to support them, all that seems to have happened as a result is that supporters of the parties have been reminded of reasons why they support said parties, and why the leaders of their party are generally good eggs.
As for the promises themselves, they have been welcomed, but perhaps with an accompanying shrug. ‘Perhaps‘ I feel the voters saying, through the pollsters spreadsheets. ‘But then again, perhaps not‘.
Meanwhile, in the background, the government’s approval rating slowly tracks the economy, held down on one side by the fact most people have gained little from the nascent recovery, and on the other by the fact the government is believed to be reducing the deficit in ways that are unfair and ill-judged.
So I am re-assured. Reasons to believe are more important than promises, practical improvement more significant than great rhetoric, the daily experience of life more important than conferences.
Still, though, I know that every adviser in the land is thinking, ‘well if we hadn’t promised people a free pony, where would we be now? eh?’
I recognise that the answer, that you would be free not to search for ponies but to do something else instead, is less than exciting for political campaigns in dire need of dividing lines. Nor is the dividing line ‘We’re the people who won’t pretend you can have a free pony, but will try to find a decent vet if your ass gets hurt‘ sound pleasing to attuned political ears.
One day, I will persuade a politician to promise the country a de minimis of change, instead of wide open spaces, and to focus their energy not on communicating the vast sweep of their ambition and their vaulting hopes for the future, but on convincing people how they will achieve that minimal change gradually and carefully with the maximum of careful calibration.
Then, we will see, oh yes.
Against Radicalism! For Caution!
Against promises! For working towards potentially better outcomes in the medium term, subject to countervailing circumstances!