Monday, 19 April 2010

Behavioural politics, day 13 of 30

Finally on Sunday, there was a new political issue to talk about, other than whether Nick Clegg is as loveable as he seems.

Unfortunately for the parties, it wasn't an issue of their choice. A group of Sunday newspapers have contrived to blame politicians for the eruption of an Icelandic volcano. Politicians are wasting time campaigning while a million British people are stuck abroad, seems to be the message. Nobody is sure quite what Brown or Cameron can do to get volcanic ash out of the atmosphere, but no doubt they should be doing something.

So the Tories have released an eight-point plan for tackling the problem, and Brown has convened an emergency meeting or two to decide on the government's actions.

It's not obvious what the political fallout (ahem) from this will be. The Tories have the advantage of being able to propose plans without having to implement them; while the government has the advantage that its statements will actually be listened to, because they will actually be implemented.

It also raises a question for election law - the government presumably will have to be careful to limit its actions to those necessary for tackling the problem, but should not allow concerns about electioneering to restrict what it does to help resolve things.

So how have the parties responded?

  • The Conservatives have raised the idea of a "Dunkirk style rescue effort" - clever imagery - but have oddly chosen this moment to warn that border controls might be too strict! Not quite in line with their typical policy position.
  • The government has indicated it will use Navy ships to help get people back home. A logical idea but raises the risk that they will be perceived to have reacted too slowly - surely ships will take a day or two to get anywhere and another day to get back. And how much capacity will really be available? This seems more like a symbolic action than a real solution.
  • The Tories have called for private transport operators to be prevented from raising prices. It's not clear how this could be done except through moral pressure. But it's likely to be a popular call, as it pushes those fairness buttons - people really are outraged by upward-sloping supply curves (another post on that subject is coming later).
  • From the Lib Dems - almost complete silence, though their transport spokesman Norman Baker has agreed that companies should not "cash in" on increased demand from returning travellers. Nick Clegg's children are stuck in Spain and he says that "like so many other people...we'll just have to wait". Maybe he just doesn't want to rock the boat - the longer he can stay ahead in the polls, the more people will believe in his chances of doing well in the election.
Labour has the opportunity to come off best from this if the problem is resolved quickly - whether by them or by geology and weather. But it's too early to say whether anyone will benefit politically.

Ratings: Labour 6/10, Conservatives 6/10, Liberal Democrats 5/10.

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