Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Behavioural politics, day 8 of 30

On day eight, it was the Conservatives' turn to get all the attention as they launched their manifesto.

The most notable aspect of this was the 'big idea' of giving control of public services back to the public - the "Big Society". In fact, the biggest difference between the Tory and Labour manifestos is that the Tory one has a big idea. The Labour document does not have much of a unifying theme while the Conservatives are clearly aiming to define a long-term vision for the country.

Will this work? I have my doubts. The Tories don't need to create a vision - their biggest advantage in this election is the visceral dislike many people feel for Gordon Brown. The more new ideas the Tories create, the more work they have to do to win people over to those ideas - people who could have been in their column by default.

Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home agrees - the manifesto should have been full of tactical, short-term, salient policies which would resonate with voters and draw a clear line between the two parties - or perhaps better, between Cameron and Brown. Instead it attempts to convey a quite abstract theme which won't instantly appeal to the majority of people. This power-to-the-people idea has been characterised as "Californian politics" - drawing mocking responses on Twitter from people in California who live with the consequences of referendum-style politics.

However, we might be wrong. The journalists certainly prefer this manifesto - one of the BBC's commentators claimed that it was much better than Labour's because of its theme, and Janet Daly in the Telegraph praised its coherence. And themes do work - in the long term - because they give us a narrative to believe in and that can give a party a sense of inevitability. The "invitation to join the government" is a clever idea, if they can keep it alive long enough for anyone to notice.

The question is whether the Conservatives have enough time remaining in this campaign to get the narrative embedded in the voters' heads. I suspect that the media will be looking for sharper, more instant stories than this.

And are the actual ideas in the manifesto any good? Well, I wasn't really planning to get into such matters in these articles - that's hardly the point of behavioural politics. But I must admit - it does actually sound quite good. The classical economist's division of labour argument suggests that most people should focus on their jobs and families and let experts get on with running hospitals, schools, social services and the army. But behavioural economics - for instance, Dan Pink's argument about motivation - gives us reason to think that public services may well perform better with a bit more involvement from the public. If Labour does win, I hope they'll pinch a few good ideas from the Tories - it's worked quite well for them in the past.

In other news:

  • UKIP and Plaid Cymru launched their manifestos too, distracting the BBC from the Tories a little
  • The Tory launch was in Battersea Power Station, apparently in yet another reference to Gene Hunt - a bit gimmicky for my liking but more interesting and less risky than the not-yet-open not-yet-officially-an-NHS hospital Labour picked
  • Labour's response to the Tory manifesto was predictable but competent - they claimed that there was a "hole" at its centre, of irresponsible, unfunded promises. They would have said exactly the same thing no matter what the manifesto actually contained. Quite rightly, since this is Labour's dominant theme of the whole election, and they need to take advantage of confirmation bias by hammering away on the same message.
  • Alan Sugar donated £400,000 to Labour, winning back a bit of social proof (see how quickly the national insurance topic has disappeared from the news?)
  • The Lib Dems have announced some tough policies on bank regulation, their credibility boosted by Vince Cable's untouchable economic reputation. But there have been a couple of wry comments about the joined-at-the-hip relationship between Clegg and Cable - can Clegg survive on his own?

Finally, the Conservatives made an interesting claim after their manifesto launch:
...we shouldn't read anything into the absence of tax relief for the video games industry in the manifesto - they still support it
Intriguing that it wasn't in the manifesto, then!

In the short run, it makes perfect sense. By keeping it out of the manifesto it's harder for their opponents to claim that the Tories' sums don't add up. However, they want to keep the beneficiaries onside - hence this "side letter" to reassure them that the tax relief is still real.

However, it does remind me of the infamous off-balance sheet liabilities that brought down companies from Enron through to the entire banking sector, and I am surprised they are leaving themselves open to this.

Overall, the Tories have given up the short-term advantage of their manifesto launch and must hope that they can win it back with positive coverage over the next three weeks. Labour's rating is equally low only because they haven't done anything themselves to definitively retake the momentum today. But the polls may be narrowing, with a range of gaps from 3% to 10% in four opinion polls on Tuesday evening.

We await eagerly the Liberal Democrat manifesto launch and, more importantly, Thursday's televised debate between the three party leaders. That will be when the campaign temperature jumps.

Rating: Labour 6/10, Conservatives 6/10, Lib Dems 5/10.

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