Imagine you are walking through a market. As you head along the busy street, eager stall-holders are trying to attract your attention. The first one calls out, “Roll up, roll up and let us lend you money for a deposit on your first house!” A second one cries, “If you come over here, we will freeze your fuel bills for two years” while a third says, “Free beer for everyone forever.” Depending on your perspective, all three are attractive promises. All three have certainly caught your attention.
Party conference season has once again shown us that it isn’t all about the party faithful ploughing through policy but about how a party presents itself to the media over a four day period and, most importantly, how it grabs the headlines.
After all, we know that the Conservatives have a myriad of policies and the Help to Buy scheme is only one of them. But enabling young people to finance the purchase of their first home is a vote-winning proposition and when it appears as a headline it attracts attention.
Equally, there are few who would not be interested in reading about energy firms being held down on fuel costs, even when the complex reality of putting this policy into practice has put the political pundits into overdrive. Yet we would be naïve to imagine that the political parties are able to dictate headlines; rather, it is collusion between politicians and the media. They both want to attract the people’s attention, for different reasons, and therefore both want to promote the policies most likely to engage the reading and voting public.
Tucked in neatly behind the headline is the instantly memorable saying which condenses the key message: the sound bite. David Cameron said, “As prime minister I am not going to stand by while people’s aspirations to get on the housing ladder are being trashed…If we don’t do this it will only be people with rich parents to help them who can get on the housing ladder – that is not fair, it is not right.” In this way, standing up for aspirational home-buyers sounds like a moral crusade rather than a Government policy.
Ed Miliband said, “I am not willing to stand by…The next Labour government will freeze gas and electricity prices until the start of 2017. Your bills will be frozen, benefiting millions of families and millions of businesses.” Once again, the implication is that standing by, doing nothing, is morally reprehensible while taking action is for the greater good.
If the stall holder offering free beer wants to vie with the others for attention, I would therefore suggest he learn lessons from the political masters. He should stand squarely at the podium, look earnestly at the camera and say, “I am not prepared to stand by knowing there is a free and unlimited supply of free beer available without offering it to you, my dear friends and supporters; to do so would not be fair or right and would affect the happiness and prosperity of millions of aspirational beer drinkers everywhere.” That should win him a few votes.