Saturday, 3 April 2010

Behavioural politics

There has been a very clever policy announcement from the Tories today.

Imagine you worked in Conservative Central Office and you wanted to buy some votes - I mean, to allocate public resources in the way most popular with the voters.

Imagine you announced a £1 billion tax cut. It would be easy for Labour to paint that as irresponsible; and the benefits (£20 per person or £50 per household) would be too small to make a difference in voting intention.

Imagine instead then, that you decided to announce £1 billion of public spending. It would be hard to target the spending in such a way as to create a big enough incentive to influence enough marginal voters. And more significantly, it would do major damage to the "cuts and efficiency" brand you have carefully built during the campaign.

So what have those smart policy inventors come up with instead, for the same price?

They're going to compensate investors who lost money in the collapse of Equitable Life. With a single announcement they push four buttons:
  • catering to our innate desire for fairness
  • paying out (to some people) a salient amount of money - one big enough to be worth changing your vote for. Even if you aren't one of the recipients, you can still empathise with the impact it will make on the lives of those who are
  • reminding people of the current government's failures - it hasn't yet got round to sorting out the compensation which it has agreed to pay out
  • creating an implied comparison with banks which have been bailed out. Of course the government chose not to rescue Equitable - to avoid creating moral hazard - because it was no threat to the system. But in the context of the banks which have been saved, the government's lack of action on Equitable could look stingy.
All this for a policy which may not actually cost very much - because it might just involve accelerating payments which will eventually have to be made anyway.

The appeal to fairness is the most powerful of these effects. Just listen to these excerpts:
"If more than 30,000 people had died waiting for justice in any other situation there would be rioting on the streets," [Mark Hoban, Conservative treasury spokesman].
...the pledge to act to end the injustice for policy holders [Daily Mail. Er: warning, Daily Mail article]
The Equitable Life action group has not always been as complimentary about Mark Hoban but they seem happy now.

There are a couple of further points to note on this:
  • The Tories have said that the payouts will "take into account the impact on the public purse" but that they will not be means-tested. This could be interpreted uncharitably as a transfer from poor to middle-class and rich policyholders - but means-testing is another effective hot-button phrase, as those whom it affects tend to see it as a very unfair policy.
  • The people paying for it - taxpayers who are not Equitable policyholders - will barely notice. In my case, between personal and company taxes, I'll be contributing about £200 towards this £1 billion, to compensate people who - like Icesave investors - chose to put their money in a risky high-return fund. If the Tories would tell this story, the policy might be a little less popular.
  • Given the lack of clear substance behind the announcement, it could have been a fairly anodyne story. The Telegraph and Mail have therefore done the Tories a big favour by running with it. But the party does get some credit for this, having invented a policy tailored precisely to the audience and attitudes of those newspapers.
Congratulations are due to the Conservative press/policy office for designing a policy which perfectly takes into account a range of behavioural and cognitive effects.

Is behavioural politics the next big trend?

1 comment:

PunditusMaximus said...

Politicians have always been way ahead of economists on these issues, if only due to evolutionary processes and trial-and-error.