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25 April 2015

Political Leadership

Tag(s): Politics & Economics
This is the sixth and last of my pre-election blogs. I chose for my first five the NHS, immigration, education, Europe, and the economy. According to one BBC/Populus poll in January the NHS issue is number one followed by the economy, immigration, welfare and jobs. However, this kind of analysis suggests that the election will be decided on issues or the policies that the parties are offering in response to those issues. But just as I argued in my blog on the economy that politics has trumped economics so I think that personality has trumped policies.

The question of who is the next Prime Minister seems to be the one that dominates the media. But the British system is a parliamentary system, not a presidential one. In republican countries with elected presidents like the USA or France voters vote directly for a president. They may at the same time vote for other representatives, congressmen or senators and indeed in the USA they might have a whole slew of elections on the same day down to the local dog catcher but each of these is discrete.  Each produces a winner, even if this may be after extensive legal consideration as in the 2000 election when George W Bush beat Al Gore after the Florida election was controversially decided by 554 votes in 6,000,000 cast.

In the British system we only vote for a local Member of Parliament. When those votes are totted up there will be a party with more MPs than any other. If that party has an overall majority the Queen will invite its leader to form a government. If the winning party does not have an overall majority then other things may happen. The incumbent may try to carry on as Prime Minister if he can obtain enough support from other parties. Or he may resign and the leader of the opposition will be invited to try to form a government with support from other parties. With the passing of the Fixed-Terms Parliament Act in 2011 the new government has a full five year term unless either it loses a no-confidence vote or two thirds of the House vote for an early general election.

So in this time of uncertainty there is an almost unhealthy focus on the leadership. Much of this has centred on the idea of a TV debate. Traditionally the role of debate in parliamentary elections was very important. With no TV MPs debated with their challengers in public meetings. Even after the advent of TV this continued for a long time and I recall in the 1966 General Election my sister and I went to our local church hall to attend a public meeting addressed by the sitting Conservative MP for Cheadle, William Shepherd,  and his Liberal and Labour opponents. Shepherd had regarded the seat as safe and was a bone idle MP. The Liberal candidate Michael Winstanley was charismatic. Known as the TV Doctor he was a convincing public performer. He won the election easily.

Until recently there was no British tradition of TV debates. Even in the US, where they were probably invented, the well-known fact that Kennedy outperformed Nixon on TV while listeners on the wireless called it even and the 1960 election was won by a knife edge meant that noone wanted to repeat that until Reagan challenged Carter in 1980. I was then living in the US and could not believe the low quality of the “so-called debate”. Asked how he would increase expenditure on defence etc while reducing taxation Reagan said "My advisers have studied this and we have a plan.” There was no further challenge to this feeble statement.

There was no appetite for this in the UK until recently. Tony Blair refused to take part in a debate knowing he was likely to win the elections any way and could only lose by taking part. However Gordon Brown, facing almost certain defeat in 2010, agreed to a three way debate with David Cameron and Nick Clegg. The consensus is that Clegg came out on top. As Leader of the Liberal Democrats he could appear apart from the two main parties knowing that he would never have to deliver on his promises. However, this boost to his popularity did not last long and in the actual election just a few weeks later the Liberal Democrats lost 5 of their 62 seats.

The idea that a voter can judge who would be the best Prime Minister by his performance in an artificial TV debate is absurd. Indeed it is difficult to know why they should. The Parliamentary system is sound in theory. Elect the best man or woman locally and he or she can get together with their colleagues and sort out who is best to lead the country. One only has to look at some of the results of presidential elections in republican countries to see how misguided these systems are.

We have had one non-debate between Cameron and Miliband when Jeremy Paxman earned the first part of his £300,000 fee from Channel 4 for this year’s General Election by making Cameron squirm over the number of food banks. Then we had another quasi-debate between no less than seven party leaders but the structure of this was difficult to understand. As well as the three main political parties the Scottish National party with its five seats was represented; so was Plaid Cwmru with its three seats; so was the UK Independence Party with its two seats and the Green party with its one. But the Democratic Unionist Party with its eight seats and Sinn Fein with its five were not.

The consensus is that Nicola Sturgeon came out on top. She is the new leader of the Scottish Separatists, now First Minister of Scotland with its 5.3m Scots with no responsibility for defence, foreign affairs etc ,and was recently offered a pay rise to £144,687, more than the Prime Minister with 64m people to look after. What is going on?

All the four leaders of the main parties have negative polling i.e. positive impressions minus negative impressions. In the latest Ipsos Mori poll Cameron is -16, Miliband -31, Clegg -36, and Farage -12. These numbers move around but not by much and are unlikely to move much in the next two weeks short of some unexpected horror.

Cameron is a poor tactician. His handling of foreign policy has been weak with a failure to build support over his important issues, particularly in Europe. He consistently falls to tell the British people what they need to know. I recently had dinner with Lord Bell who reminded me that Cameron’s so-called real world experience at Carlton TV was in public affairs.

Miliband is one of the most inexperienced, aspiring Prime Ministers we have ever had.  His only previous experience of leadership was as a hopeless Secretary of State for Energy.  At the age of 40 he was the youngest leader the Labour party had ever had. He seems totally unprepared for the position of Prime Minister.

Clegg has paid a huge price for going into coalition government but is doing his best to show the leavening effect his party has had on a Tory government. He has handled the role of Deputy Prime Minister with some skill rejecting a portfolio to concentrate on maintaining stability but in this campaign is struggling to both attack the Tories and defend his own record. His own constituency is at risk.

Farage is a clever operator who maintains a consistent position on the key issues for him while wobbling on other issues not central to UKIP’s cause. UKIP has identified that there is a large number of voters, typically older and less educated,  who were traditional supporters of either of the two main parties but feel their concerns about immigration have not been recognised.

Disillusionment with the main parties is driving voters to seek alternatives and in some cases their choices are barely rational. Membership of the main parties has fallen catastrophically while single issues can mobilise vast numbers. Over one million people signed a petition to stop the BBC firing Jeremy Clarkson for his unacceptable behaviour. The best that can be said for this is that voters are judging their leaders on their values, not their policies.  But as a marketing man I know there is a conflict between giving the customer what they want and making a profit. In politics this translates into making sure we live within our means. Politicians are obliged to prioritise without piling debt onto their heirs.

It seems to me that people have themselves to blame. The key to politics is to engage. Leaders need to engage the voters. But if voters don’t like what their leaders are saying they, too, need to engage.

If you think the Tories are the only ones who can be trusted to run the economy but are still the nasty party then get engaged and tell them why they should be more liberal in their social policies while staying firm on the need to encourage private enterprise to generate growth.

If you think that a moderate Labour government is most likely to protect those who can’t defend themselves then get engaged to stop them destroying the engines of growth in the economy that finance the welfare state.

If you think that the Liberal Democrats can play a balancing role in the centre of British politics limiting the excesses of both left and right then get engaged and stop them lurching to the left and undermining this position.

If you think that Britain is best outside the EU then get engaged with UKIP and stop them appearing racist in this perfectly tenable position.

If you think that Scotland is best outside the UK then get engaged with the SNP and stop them trying to achieve this in a dangerously Stalinist way with no possibility of paying its way in the world.

If you think that Wales is best outside the UK then get engaged with Plaid Cwmru and ditto.

And if you think that our present environmental policies are putting the country and the planet at great risk then get engaged with the Green party and stop them trying to destroy the economy in the process so that our own way of life is even more at risk.

I am a member of a political party, you can probably guess which one. But I don’t support everything they say and do. I do get engaged by making my views known. During this election campaign I am receiving a daily missive purportedly from one or other of the leaders. When they say something that is palpably untrue I write back and challenge them. I do get replies though I’m not claiming any success in changing their claims.

The fact is they all tell lies. The former president of the European Council, Jean-Claude Juncker, confessed: “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.” For anybody who believes in robust democracy, Juncker’s opinions are disgusting. But he has form. Referring to the Greek meltdown in 2011, he remarked: “When it becomes serious, you have to lie.” 

To illustrate my point that personality has trumped policy I suggest you try out a website that invites you to select from a range of policies offered anonymously and then find out who you actually support. You may be surprised.

In this election social media may play more of a part than ever before. According to one survey one in three (34%) Britons aged between 18 and 34 have changed their vote from one party to another based on something they have seen on Twitter. As always Winston Churchill had it right. He once said “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

Copyright David C Pearson 2015 All rights reserved

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