Chris Tarquini explains that in politics it is the question that matters more than the answer
As the Labour party bring a conclusion to their party conference there are renewed hopes that it could be the start of a slow surge that culminates in electoral victory over the coalition. By relentlessly linking everything to the cuts and hammering the government on a daily basis Miliband and co are hoping they can slowly bring in a cynicism of Cameron and Clegg that will drag them down into the mud in a ‘they’re not like us’ strategy. Whilst I have previously mentioned the slightly weird Ed Miliband (without a Cameron slip up) is essentially unelectable, this policy may have some success if they can make the debate about extreme cuts vs moderate cuts. For a modern day tactic like this we need only look across the pond to President Obama and his embattled re-election campaign.
In the latest Gallup daily tracking poll President Obama has an approval rating of 40%, with 51% disapproving of his performance in office. An economy explains the ten point drop between 40 and 50, but considering he entered office with a 68% approval rate (and only 12 disapproving) there is another reason. Relentless GOP pressure.
Rather than trying to deal with Obama and cut deals like they did on occasion with Clinton, Republicans have adopted a duel policy of negotiating the Democrats to the right then screaming ‘no!’ anyway whilst using their media allies (cough-Murdoch) to win the message war.
The next election will be about jobs and the deficit, two different issues that a huge number of Americans seem to think are directly correlated. This has also meant that the GOP can oppose every Democratic policy due to ‘the deficit crisis’, an issue that rarely concerned them during the presidency of George W Bush. There are thousands of Republican or conservative videos that attack Obama whilst whitewashing GOP responsibility, however the one below is my personal favourite.
Do many people remember it was George W who bailed out the banks? That the stimulus contained a huge tax cut? (at least a third of the bill) or that this whole fiscally responsible Republican trick happened under Bill Clinton two years into his presidency, a trick they subsequently dropped when a Republican ‘won’ the presidency in 2000? Of course not. It isn’t the issue. The issue is now a Mitt Romney wet-dream of jobs and the deficit. Not the restructuring of the financial system, not raising living standards and not the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is not coincidence. This is because the battle is now being fought ever closer to GOP turf, away from their weak points.
Two people best demonstrated how this issue works. I once interviewed journalist and YouGov President Peter Kellner and naively asked ‘who is winning politically on healthcare?’. Kellner gave me a political lesson in how different people want different things from their issues and there isn’t always a’ winner’, for example those who want a private system vs a completely nationalised ones (particularly politically applicable in America). For the former a foolish politican may ‘privatise the system’ whilst a savvy one will ‘make it more efficient’ or ‘streamline it’ (see the conservative party). The second was a brilliant Bush campaign manager nicknamed ‘The Architect’, Karl Rove. A master of the political dark arts, Rove explained how half the battle is what you are arguing about as opposed to who wins. If the question is, ‘Is Obama a secret communist?’ the best that can happen is that sane people decide he is not. The worst is that people imagine him as Trotsky looting private businesses. By framing the debate about spending purely under Obama the GOP are trying to make the issue a referendum on Obama. If the question is – are you better off than you were four years ago, Obama loses. However if it is a genuine debate about a Republican against the likeable and charismatic Obama the election becomes tight. In this sense the biggest issue is the question that the electorate ask, not the answer.
So with reference to my earlier point, how does this affect Britain? It shows two things. The deficit is not seen as as big an issue amongst the general public until the ‘saddling our children with debt’ talking point comes into play. Who would want to see their children grow up bogged down in an economic distopia where we have to go out into the woods and chop down trees to build a hut as all our money is being spent on debt interest? In contrast the cuts will hit the poorest in society most, which in a calculated and political sense is not as much ‘Middle England’. You know, the ones that decide elections? Sure, it will sting everyone but those at the bottom are going to feel the brunt of it. Harriet Harman’s desperate attempt to link the riots and the cuts on Newsnight last month was an example of how difficult it is to blame the cuts for everything.
Those outraged by the cuts most will vote Labour even if Sacha Baron Cohen was leader. Labour are doing well to hammer away at the coalition and particularly at exploiting the Lib Dems over tuition fees (although the fact Labour introduced them hasn’t been forgotten) as this is an issue that a lot of aspiring middle class teenagers (and parents) will be hurt by.
The point is this. Labour need an electable leader (as opposed to a left-wing Michael Howard) and a real strategy with specific policy to show they are serious. ‘Doing a Blair/Cameron’ and looking young whilst saying little will not return credibility and electability to the party. If Labour hammer away on a ‘broken economy’ they will certainly be presented by the coalition as the Brownite creators of the problem, but at least it will be a question that people will ask come the next election day. Am I better off than I was five years ago?