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Stephan Shakespeare

Stephan Shakespeare: Should politicians be leaders of voters or servants?

The Conservatives have taken a hammering. Their polling numbers are significantly down, and it’s right that alarms bells should be ringing. This moment brings a real opportunity for Ed Miliband to paint himself as more on the side of ordinary people, and – of greater importance – more competent. But the situation shouldn’t be exaggerated: the government long ago committed itself to a course that it believes would be painful in the short term yet right for the longer-term economy. It is bound to suffer blips. The biggest danger is that over-reaction turns a spot of bother into a real crisis. We start to demand ‘real leadership’ when we should probably be focusing prosaically on more competent management.

The temptation for politicians (and activists) is to think that the right message, the right gesture, the right policy about this or that would make a quick and decisive difference. That would be to forget just how much the electorate really loathes them, and therefore how little traction their clever moves really have. Consistently the electorate think of them, all of them, as self-serving and out-of-touch with the wider world. (That's probably a fair assessment, as it is of doctors, nurses and teachers, plumbers, businessmen and pollsters). Politicians enact for us on the public stage a boring kind of soap opera about our own contradictory desires. That’s their job. Of course they won’t be admired or liked.

The most interesting part of that public drama is watching them struggle with the two angels on their shoulders.

One angel says: “You have a policy, now stick to it. The public wants you to be a true leader, making the difficult decisions and seeing them through to the end. The public aren’t that smart, they need you to have vision. Be clear and strong and they will follow. It’s all about [Europe / Tax / Public services / Growth / Compassion / Whatever]”

The other angel says: “No-one really knows anything. There are Nobel laureates on both sides of every important argument. The wisest politician, advised by the smartest advisers, is still just guessing. Don’t cling to a position that could easily be wrong. Trust the people, listen to their experiences; compromise, use the wisdom of crowds to navigate the country to a good-enough place.”

You could see the two angels tugging at George Osborne on the Today Programme after the budget. He’d long been committed to no unfunded tax cuts. Yet he said he couldn’t support the new 50p band, which (he pointed out) brought insignificant revenue while harming growth. It follows logically that cutting it need therefore not be ‘funded’. Instead of removing what he had branded as a barrier to growth, he merely halved it, and not now, but later. That’s how – especially on the public policy level - we usually deal with those two angels: we split the difference between contradictory positions.

Forced to choose between Angel 1 (strong high-risk visionary leadership) and Angel 2 (smartly navigating public opinion), which would you choose?


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