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Tom Richmond: In pursuit of the perfect policies

Tom Richmond, a columnist for Tory Radio, on the fine balance between too much policy substance too soon, and too little too late.

‘Stand up, Speak up - The Nation's Dispatch Box’ is not the most media-friendly slogan ever to grace our political debates, but the strategy behind it is much more engaging.  By offering the public a chance to shape Conservative Party policy, David Cameron’s desire to distance himself from the top-down legacy of the Blair era couldn’t be plainer.

That is not to say that he is abandoning the work of his policy groups, who are scheduled to report back in the near future after 18 months of discussions.  By the mere act of creating these six groups, he wiped the slate clean of previous Conservative policies and gave himself the chance to take the party in a new direction.  It is worth remembering that ‘Grammargate’ was nothing to do with his Public Service Challenge committee and the deliberations of all the policy groups have been carefully guarded.

Strategy and image have become an intrinsic part of political life, something which David Cameron’s media background will presumably have helped him adapt to.  Giving the policy groups a free reign on researching and investigating the key issues in their specialist fields has put the Shadow Cabinet in a strong position for two reasons. Firstly, the policy groups are not technically part of the Conservative Party, despite having many conservative thinkers amongst their ranks, which has given David Cameron the freedom to continue his work elsewhere.  Secondly, David Cameron is under no obligation to turn their final proposals into policies – meaning that he can literally pick and choose the most enticing proposals from all six groups in terms of taking the party forward and reeling in the voters.  This puts him in a very solid position relative to the Labour Party who are unlikely to change their egotistical ways after so many years in power, even with a new man at the helm.

But this is no time for complacency.  Yes, these policy groups are an intelligent initiative and yes, consulting the public is a novel and potentially powerful tool.  Giving the public a voice in forming the policies of a future government would provide David Cameron with some much needed breathing space between his approach and that of the Labour Party.  However, a nationwide ‘dispatch box’ is not without its drawbacks. Consulting the public would be useful at a theoretical level, but compiling and analysing feedback received from comments on online forums will be an onerous task unless the policy groups expand their operations; gleaning the relevant material from hundreds of public meetings around the country will be just as complicated.  The final reports of the policy groups should supply enough political ammunition for the Conservative Party, at least in the short term, and let us not forget that the policy groups were open to submissions from members of the public from the moment they began.  Having said this, a new appeal for public involvement in policy formation should be welcomed.

Ironically enough, it is the original six policy groups which now pose more significant problems than canvassing public opinion.  Even though David Cameron is under no obligation to accept the proposals given to him, this does not solve the underlying problems inherent in being leader of an opposition party in the post-Blair era.  Tony Blair revolutionised the Labour Party leading up to the 1997 election without ever committing himself to many specific policies.  This worked in his favour for a significant period of time, but since 1997 it has inadvertently left David Cameron and his predecessors with a genuine dilemma.  The apathy amongst the British public in the wake of Tony Blair’s hollow promises might tempt an opposition party into concentrating on bold and audacious policies to erase the memory of how politicians have let them down in the past.  David Cameron is all too aware of how the likes of Michael Howard have tried this very approach with issues such as immigration and subsequently left the political arena with their tail between their legs.  An alternative approach would be to give policy formation a low profile and hope the Labour Party implodes in the meantime.  Although this approach has been perfectly understandable up to now whilst David Cameron has been ‘rebranding’ the Conservative Party, the sense of frustration from the public and media is steadily building.

The policy groups will undoubtedly give David Cameron a range of constructive proposals in his bid to become Prime Minister, but strategically there is still a lot of work to be done.  When it comes to publishing the draft programme for a Conservative government before the end of 2007, David Cameron must strike the perfect balance between too much and too little substance in his policies.  Too much substance and he has shown the opposition all his cards two years before the General Election and risks more conflict within his own party.  Too little substance and the public will turn away.  An unenviable challenge indeed.


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