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Stephan Shakespeare

Stephan Shakespeare: The proportion of political news that matters is very, very small

Sometimes I go a whole week without picking up any political news (or indeed any news at all outside of the business I run). When I then go through my Twitter feed - a small assortment of science, art, economics, football and new media feeds plus a handful of commentaries from my political friends - I'm often surprised that so little has really happened in Westminster. Things which mattered on Tuesday are forgotten by Monday. Only by staying away from it for longer periods of time can one appreciate how small is the proportion that matters, how very large is the 'noise-to-signal' ratio.

About two years ago, YouGov introduced daily state-of-the-parties polling. I didn't want a poll to be a special occasion anymore, I wanted it to be a continuous background measure. It was a controversial move: surely polling couldn't be interesting, if it was done every day? That, for me, was part of the point - to end the false interest so often aroused by meaningless blips of random variation. When pollsters reported only once a month, a two point movement this way or that was often taken to be a front page headline-worthy story suggesting that some minor incident had significantly changed the situation. By seeing the daily numbers averaging out to very flat trendlines, we see how little of the passing political show really makes a difference. The truth is boringly revealed: people don't rate it as very important. They don't feel much effect from all that huffing and puffing.

Vast swathes of the public - including highly engaged, intelligent young people like the ones around the table of a recent lunch I was at - registered nothing about the incident of Dr Fox,  or even the Euro referendum debate, and the only politicians they can name are Cameron, Osborne, Clegg, Boris and Ken. Of the ones who do follow political events, very few are ever moved to adjust their voting intentions.

In this real world of big noise and tiny significance, it's painfully hard to change things. Those who hang out on political websites want very much to see movement. But what is it like to be in the shoes of the leading players, who feel how little scope there is for decisive action, especially in the difficult areas that matter most to us? Even in business, as the boss of a company, it's hellishly hard to have a big effect. That's why we feel profound respect for someone like the late Steve Jobs - such a shaping intelligence is very rare at any time in any field.

My friend Tim Montgomerie has launched a series on 'Majority Conservatism', to promote ideas that might win the Tories a bigger lead at the next election. I think he's right on most things. I think if his plan were followed, the Conservative vote would probably start to increase steadily. But I sound one note of caution: you must also address the process, how one develops strategy while in government and how one organises its implementation.

I was recently at a dinner in Cambridge with someone who had been a very senior figure in the Blair government, from its start to finish. When I asked him how you do strategising while in government, he explained that it was almost impossible. Everyone in Downing Street is constantly reacting to events, beset by the small-but-urgent. So you bring in new people, precisely to stand back from the continuous avalanche of detail, to think the big thoughts and plan the high road forward, to exert some desperately desired longer-term influence; but they also, immediately, become drawn in and entangled in the effort to control the ever-engulfing moment-by-moment mess. So now you have even more people, even more energy pulling in slighty different directions.

While his description was familiar, the equanimity of his conclusion surprised me: you simply cannot develop strategy, genuine strategy, while in government. You shouldn't expect to. Sound management is a pretty good target.

So the question is not only 'what strategy?' but 'how strategy?'. Can a good strategy for government ever be developed by people currently involved in governing? And if not, how else should it be done? How do you stand outside, and have an effect inside?


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