Aren’t the British people lucky? One party offers them a married couples tax break and more obligations on the unemployed – two things a majority say they would like to see. Another party offers them “free” school meals; again backed by most people. And a yet another party offers to freeze people’s energy bills: and 63 per cent say, yes please. The only problem for the voter must be the stress of this over-abundance when they have but one vote to give to but one set of munificent politicians.
I’m being facetious but the view that policy announcements matter politically in and of themselves, or that they can be judged by how they poll individually, is still surprisingly prevalent in political commentary. It’s partly an import from the US, where bought media does allow campaigns to push their single policies or single attacks to voters directly. Here, outside of extreme circumstances like the financial crash of 2008, a policy announcement only has political consequences if it unravels or causes a row that keeps it in the news bulletins over a number of days and weeks. Look at Gordon Brown’s tax credits or the Coalition’s increase to the personal allowance. Both involve huge sums of money but moved a fraction of the voters that, respectively, Brown and Osborne’s 10p and 50p tax rate disasters did.
However, after the party conference season, both Labour and Tory activists will have to take a break from moaning that they have insufficient policies “for the doorstep”. Their second favourite complaint is normally that the cabinet or shadow cabinet aren’t doing enough, especially that they aren’t “landing blows” on the enemy. Just as with the complaint about a lack of policies, it’s often a way of externalising a political problem: it’s not that voters don’t like what I’m saying, it’s because they haven’t heard it yet and that’s the fault of lazy old such-and-such.
Fair or not for either government or opposition, that perennial will have to be temporarily suspended after yesterday’s triple reshuffle. But again, while personnel changes may improve or undermine day-to-day administration, they don’t solve political problems unless they are dramatic and controversial. Peter Mandelson’s return to support Gordon Brown did address a political problem (insufficiently as it turned out). People had a view about it, whether that was positive or negative. Rachel Reeves, Vernon Coaker and Tristram Hunt may do some things differently in future but I’d be surprised if they have been chosen to push for a dramatically different political approach to, respectively, Liam Byrne, Jim Murphy or Stephen Twigg. Norman Baker, by contrast, might enter controversial fights or unravel completely. If he does end up the focus of media attention, it could shore up Lib Dem support among one of their traditional constituencies (the odd) but it could also undermine Clegg’s nascent claim to credibility on the basis of solid governmental experience.
After the conferences and the reshuffles, we now know much more about the personnel and policies that will form the cast list and the prop list for the drama of the 2015 general election. But we know little more about the script than we did a year ago.