Politics is not so dissimilar to listening to a piece of music. People, by and large, do not pay attention to the individual notes. They simply tune into the final masterpiece.
This explains why every time you pick up a newspaper or turn on the news, you will inevitably hear the phrases, “long term economic plan” and “cost of living crisis”. For Westminster insiders these slogans are often ridiculed as meaningless soundbites. Yet when it comes to the wider electorate, these phrases could make the difference between election victory or defeat.
Why is repetition so important? Because the large majority of the British public are not listening. They have lives to live, work to do, friends to catch up with. Funnily enough most people do not have time to tune into Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday lunchtime. By reinforcing a predetermined view that the Conservatives are the only party which is able to manage the public finances responsibly or that Labour are the party that stands up for hard pressed people struggling to get by, political strategists hope that when it comes to election day, voters will remember these slogans.
There are, however, a few set piece moments every year where people do tend to sit up and take notice of what our elected representatives have to say. The Budget (or in reality the day after) is one. When it comes to the price of petrol, the cost of a pint or how much of your wages the government is going to gobble up in taxes, the public tends to tune in to the detail.
The same is true as the country heads closer to a general election. The advertising billboards, direct mailshots and party canvassers tend to jolt people into action. That is why this year’s party conference speeches are so important for all three of the main political parties.
Ed Miliband will have the first opportunity to set out his vision of a fairer Britain in Manchester at the end of September. Labour conference usually falls the week after the Lib Dems but this year Clegg will be last out of the blocks (rumour has it that the Lib Dem conference organisers forgot that their initial date clashed with the Scottish referendum – hardly ideal from a news management perspective!).
Miliband can go one of two ways. He could play it safe and reinforce the need to crack down on perceived market abuse in various sectors of the economy. Undoubtedly his speechwriters will have their sights on the energy market and their golden policy – the price freeze. He could attack the Conservatives on the NHS. He could talk about the need to ensure that everyone shares in the proceeds of economic growth. Or he could do something counter intuitive – something that the public might not be expecting.
How about setting out plans for state party funding? Would he be brave enough to lay down a challenge to the other parties and declare that the best way to clean up politics is less reliance on the trade unions or wealthy individuals? To bring up the topic of state funding for political parties would be a huge risk but it would certainly raise some eyebrows in the media and among the voters. It certainly wouldn’t be as easy to label Miliband “Red Ed” if he made that a key element of his speech.
The Prime Minister has an altogether different challenge. Buoyed by strong economic figures, Cameron and his Conservatives should be in a positive mindset as they arrive in Birmingham for their conference. His speechwriters, however, will be careful to ensure there is no gloating.
The key message will be – ‘don’t hand the keys back to the guys who crashed the car, we’re still not out of the woods yet’. The PM will remind people of the precarious state of the economy the Conservatives inherited and the measures that have been introduced such as making work rather than benefits pay, raising the personal allowance for people on the lowest incomes, freezing fuel duty, increasing the National Minimum Wage, introducing greater flexibility in the pensions market. These are all great achievements but the public will want to know what to expect from a future Conservative government.
The trick for Cameron and his team is to link the boost in national economic growth to a better future for the individual voter. GDP alone might not get the Tories the votes they need in 2015. One idea to boost wages while increasing private sector job creation would be a cut to employers’ National Insurance. This would enable firms of all sizes to take on more staff, boosting productivity which would lead to higher wages. Putting more money in people’s backpockets sooner rather than later is critical to the success of the Conservatives.
Nick Clegg will need to deliver what in American football lingo is termed a “hail mary”. In other words he has nothing to lose by announcing something big in his conference speech. There aren’t many ideas that would cut straight through to the public. One way of making people sit up and take notice of the Liberal Democrats would be a mass distribution of RBS shares. Only last week the bank reported its highest first-half profits since its 2008 taxpayer bailout. By allowing every taxpayer the chance to own their share in a reprivatized bank, Clegg could legitimately say that the Liberal Democrats have promised to give everyone in the country a stake in the economic recovery. Creating the largest number of shareholders ever seen in the UK would certainly demand front page news coverage.
Over the summer expect to hear the negative campaigning ratchet up. Labour have hinted that they will go after the Conservatives on the NHS. The Conservatives will undoubtedly question Labour’s fiscal credibility as well as Miliband’s own leadership credentials. These forays are part of the mood music and they do help reinforce predetermined stereotypes that people may have already. But if the political parties really want the electorate to pay detailed attention then bold ideas in the autumn could offer them the best opportunity.