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You mention John McCain as disproving 'the politics of small promises'.

I would also suggest...

i. Barack Obama. His message of big change is overcoming Hillary Clinton.

ii. The inheritance tax cut of last October. Suddenly voters had a reason to come out and vote for us. We need to give them more.

"Straight-talking certainly brought McCain's presidential bid back from the dead. It might just be enough to give the Tories that elusive election-winning lead."

You make the assumption that the hares are the "straight-talking" ones. Making promises without thinking them through and not knowing whether we can deliver them is not "straight talking".

After the recent court case brought against Labour for the unfulfilled manifesto promise to hold a referendum all promises are worthless.We can only rely on past performance .

There might be something in this but there is a distinction to be drawn between "big" promises and "radical" promises. The former tend to be visionary and Labour traditionally uses them more than we have done. A case in point is the pledge to end child poverty, the causes of which are multiple. An understandable failure to deliver the vision does indeed result in voter disillusionment.

George Osborne's proposals on inheritance tax were successful because the idea is not broad and woolly but discrete and deliverable. It was therefore perhaps a "small" promise which proves that we should not shy away from radicalism. A flat tax, for example, would be easy to implement and have far-reaching benefits. Most importantly, we could point to the proven success of the scheme in numerous former communist states.

Michael Howard's election campaign was all about this politics of small promises...

Remember: "School discipline, cleaner hospitals, controlled immigration, more police and lower taxes".

He also said people don't want a date with destiny, only a date to see a dentist.

The future Conservative government should promise both big and small. The first term in office is going to be about damage limitation. In getting rid of the legislation that is holding back our police, business and our education system. Setting public finances on a health footing and restating Britain's position in international affairs. In rebuilding the country, or in common parlance, getting things back to normal.

The second term will be the time to introduce big policy to take the country forward for a generation. The first term is about building the base, the second term about building on the base with ambitious polices.

Politicians (no just Labour )do have a big credibility problem I believe. Therefore when making promises big or small it is necessary to explain how they will be achieved. That's how George Osborne was able to make his promise to cut IHT such a hit as he was able to show he could pay for it. If he'd said it would have been paid for by cutting waste I think most people would have laughed.
Blair promising to end child poverty or solve the problems of Africa was never credible but I did think he might have been able to succeed in some of his smaller promises such as ending the scandal of mixed sex wards in hospital.That he so completely failed is one reason why the public are distrustful of politicians.

Hague is entirely right. People have lost trust and faith in the promises of politicians. It can only be rebuilt with small steps.

Barack Obama doesn't agree with you David!

This is abit of a head versus heart debate. I think we need a bit of both.

The American election is an interesting comparison.
One Republican said,' My heart says McCain, but mt head says Romney.
I think the same analogy could be drawn between Hilary and Barack.
So far it would seem the heart is winning both contests.
But come 'the Crunch', will head [McCain] win out over heart[OB].

Whilst most American's are as disllusioned with Bush as we were with Blair, he did not start out with the same level of expecation and euphoria, coming after Clinton.
The British don't normally do the 'insiration' thing anyway and after getting burnt last time probably won't do so again.
If you are going to promise big here, you better make damn sure you can deliver it and people can see that you can. Otherwise it will backfire.
both cotest

James Forsyth at Coffee House has commented on this argument: "Many in Project Cameron worry that voters now hold politicians in such low esteem that big promises are no longer believed. Certainly, if the Tories promised to cut the basic rate of income tax by 5p in the pound while still funding public services at the current level the electorate would be sceptical, to say the least. But as Tim points out, one of the big lessons of the US primary campaigns is that voters once more want to believe in something larger than themselves. It is notable that the two candidates who exuded the most technocratic competence—Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton—have been bested by their more idealistic rivals, John McCain and Barack Obama."

More here.

"Barack Obama doesn't agree with you David!"

As far as I am aware, Barack Obama is not attempting to run for office in the UK, and therefore not involved in soliciting vote from the UK electorate.

Trying to extrapolate political strategies from the activities in foreign political systems makes as much sense as seeking to copy point blank the economic policies put in place to cope with a different economy.

Its nice to know someone reads my pieces.

I have been saying exactly that on here for the last 18 mths.

The Conservatives are only safe in victory if they can re-ignite the missing 10% of the electorate that has given up on the politics of the last 15 yrs. They are all Thatcher's children. They are what kept Major in office in 1992. They are our people. They are just not Cameron's people.

The mood in the country is one of acute frustration. Many of us desperately want to get rid of the disastrous Brown government - it's failings and its lies are a scandal. The Tories have exposed these admirably and have also analysed the problems we face. In short we have a reason not to vote Labour.

But the Tories have utterly failed to develop any theme at all or to inspire a positive vote FOR them. In 1950/1 Churchill saw the socialist straight-jacket around us and vowed to "Set the People Free". Maggie Thatcher moved millions into being home owners and shareholders. We can't even persuade the Tory party that they should at least acknowledge that taxes are too high and that as soon as possible should come down

It's the failure to project any coherent strategy or image. From an opposition we do not need day-to-day tactical initiatives - We need a theme - a DREAM!

Interesting debate and one where I agree with much that has already been said.

However, I disagree with those who believe that radical changes can be made to the core services provided by Government. Whether it be the economy, the education system, the health system or whatever, they are in a relatively fragile state and radical changes at this point could just as easily devastate these services as improve them. It is a time for stabilisation and consolidation. Small steps are required.

Furthermore, given the underlying level of distrust and disenchantment that the electorate seems to feel it is hard to envisage them believing big promises to reform public services.

One only has to consider the dominant theme of political headlines over the past few years, whether it be Cash for Honours, the breaking of manifesto promises, party funding, politicians expenses, quality and experience of politicians, discriminatory selection of politicians, electoral impropriety or whatever. The headlines are dominated with reasons to distrust politicians and it is perceived by many that there is little desire within the hierarchies of political parties to reform themselves.

Instead they conspire to further feather their nests (communication allowances, public funding of political parties) without real political party reform.

In addition isn't such eternal debate and consternation a waste of the very time and energy that politicians claim they have so little of and more importantly a complete waste of taxpayers money?

I believe so.

Therefore, it seems to me there is one area where radical change could be implemented with low impact on the running of the country as a whole, that could in time accrue significant benefit. That is of course reforming our political system to stop the general day to day abuse that is now seemingly so inherent in our political system.

As a first step one might consider how such things are controlled. At the moment it is the political parties who control the political system at all levels. They decide what is fair for themselves and not what is fair for the electorate. Isn't it time that such matters were taken out of their hands?

After all, using sporting examples, should the rules of Football, Rugby and Cricket be taken out of the hands of the FA, RFA or TCCB and given to the clubs and players?

Should sports clubs be solely responsible for the policing and punishment of offences within their sport?

Such ideas seem preposterous yet that is exactly the system that is in place for our political system. It's time it changed by taking the absolute control of our political system out of the hands of politicians and their parties. Not through petty bureaucratic tinkering (as has been undertaken repeatedly over the years) but by radical reform of the structure of our political system and associated party structure so that political parties have no longer have the final word in defining what that political system is and how it works.

Of course, that is the dilemma. Such reform would cause great upheavel and consternation within the political apparatus and as such would carry great risk. It would mean that political parties would lose real power.

What politician is both courageous and altruistic enough to address this?

However, if any party wants to be able to truly make a difference in this country the first step must be to sort out their own houses out and to do so effectively. I believe sufficient reform could be achieved within a single term of government.

By demonstrating that political reform has been achieved effectively in the best interests of the electorate perhaps then the electorate might take more interest and the negative media coverage might diminish.

Political parties might well then restore some of their credibility.

Otherwise, the electorate will continue not to believe in our polical parties and our political system and the country as a whole will continue to stagnate.

Iain Martin at The Telegraph has also blogged a response too: "Will the Tories dare to set out out an expansive vision of what they would do for Britain? Or should they concentrate on making a series of small promises, which do not add up to very much but will avoid frightening voters and might eventually exceed expectations? Those who advocate the latter approach, such as Oliver Letwin, are winning the argument over strategy in the Cameron project."

More here.

I agree with you, John Leonard at 16.07:

"However, if any party wants to be able to truly make a difference in this country the first step must be to sort out their own houses out and to do so effectively. I believe sufficient reform could be achieved within a single term of government".

To start with donations and loans; all such should be made to a Compliance Officer, who should not be allowed to accept them until the necessary checks had been carried out.

MPs' staff to be employed direct by the HoC.

A civil service Act to be passed to restore total independence from government.

A fully independent ONS.

There should be a greater focus on veracity when MPs build arguments on totally spurious - at times mendacious - facts and figures (e.g. Blair's reliance on the dodgy dossier to convince the tories that the Iraq war was legitimate).

Those will do for starters.

As for the pace of change, I believe the important thing for us is to get the three Ps right - People, Principles and Policies.
We have some very good people in the party at the moment, better on the whole than the government has but, as has been argued at length recently, many of us do not believe they are all doing the right jobs.

We can do the vision thing with our Principles: smaller government, local democracy, simpler taxation system, less bureaucracy, greater competence in managing government etc.

Detailed Policies will then emerge as we get nearer to the election.

David Belchamber

n one of these tinkerings at the edge will persuade a single voter to turn out FOR us. Any votes we get will be voting AGAINST the other lot (and by heck they need voting against!) . Where is the theme, where is the dream where is the sizzle!?

I could write a speech for Cameron / Osborne. --- "Taxation ? It's far too high and it's far too high because Labour ( Brown?) have always been the party of high taxation. But we are not, and as soon as we can get a grip on public finances an d get them back in the kind of order that Gordon Brown inherited from Kenneth Clarke, then I promise you, taxes WILL come down and our priority will be the low paid and industry to get our economy going again. We are in such a mess right now that we can't promise tax cuts immediately but, rest assured, taxation will come down"

It is important to be able to sketch out a vision for the country - this should be high level, optimistic and even inspiring. Thatcher and Blair did, Major couldn't, Brown probably can't and I think Cameron probably can (he just needs to unleash his genuine passion rather than faux PMQ anger a little more often)

From this should come a sense a direction and conviction. Beyond this specific promises are probably kept small, not least to avoid hostages to fortune or prematurely restrict freedom of manoeuvre.

At four of the last five general elections oppositions have tied themselves in knots with attempts to come up with specific tax/spend projections. It would be great if we could break out of this practice, though it may now be too ingrained in the political culture. Similarly, we should be aiming not to commit ourselves on how much to privatise public services or exactly which powers to take back from the EU, how exactly we will increse environmental taxation or indeed which countries we're prepared to bomb.

Intead we shold establish a narrative which lets voters know that we will put their interests', not the producers', first when it comes to their public services; believe that the EU has too many powers over member states; will match any environmental taxes with tax cuts, as we believe in sensible action to tackle climate change, not hairshirted whackery; and, will always do what is necessary to protect Britain's interests in the world, including standing up to the Islamist terror threat.

Specific promises will be needed. But when we make them they should generally involve an identifiable and tangible gain, and preculde and require as little of us when we are in government as possible. Labour' 1997 pledges weren't bad example:
- smaller classes for 5-7 yr olds: achieveable because of changing demographics
- no income tax rise: easy to achieve (always other taxes to choose from and income tax less crucial to the exchequer than popularly perceived), and more importantly it helped to neuter one of the outstanding fears people had of the Labour Party. Perhaps we could do something about raising real term NHS expenditure every year which would go beyond Labour, as they do only 3 year expenditure plans while still giving us plenty of room to slow the spending growth (though does run the risk of dragging us into having to make such pledges elsewhere)
- reducing time to court for young offenders: again easy, because you just prioritise it
- 250,000 young ppl off benefit and into something vaguely productive instead: Growing economy, bloated dole - not hard.
- 100,000 off waiting lists, through abolishing internal market. Awful policy but again hitting on the nail key public concerns.

All of these pledges involved an element of distorting priorities, but only seriously with the NHS one.

In Canada Harper too seemed to do well with something that was not a million miles from Labour, 1997. Funnily enough, perhaps Michael Howard's list was not specific enough (no numbers as I recall). But his bigger issue was not having the accompanying grand narrative.

CCHQ spy is right!

Steve Hilton and George Bridges ran Howard's focus groups and became rather obsessed with them. the result was these 'believable' and rather twee small promises.

It is no surprise that Hilton is still a great devotee of this strategy. My guess is roughly the same election campaign with immigration downgraded and green issues elevated.

Only small minds want small promises.

"Voters are ready for some straight-talking from politicians. We can't tackle every problem simultaneously but we might be surprised at the electorate's reaction to a political party that tells the truth."

I agree with that analysis, especially in light of the wide spread cynicism and downright distrust that has become prevalent among those that do vote, as well as those that choose to abstain.
Whether you believe that the Conservative party should make small but achievable promises or whether they should be bold with their manifesto is more an argument about a manifesto shopping list, with those wishing for wide sweeping and dramatic changes making their case against the more cautious.

It also depends on a strategy of gambling on a first term, either play it safe and try and deliver small achievable promises combined with getting to grips with government and managing it, or gambling a second term being a forgone conclusion thus enabling us to pull off dramatic changes in everything from the economy and taxation to public services in a relatively short time.

I would put forward a couple of warning caveats of being too bold with our promises. The state of the economy and the public finances, some how I don't think the civil service will be as glowing in their tributes to Darling/Labour as they were to us when Brown arrived at No11, in fact Osborne might use the same language as Brown was purported to have, but for different reasons!
The voters have to believe that you have a reasonable chance of being able to deliver what you promise before they will trust you. The whole government structure at the moment is knackered from the Home Office to the MOD, its tired, demoralised and running on empty from lack of decent leadership and management, many departments need to be overhauled and repaired from the bottom up before they can cope with the day to day things never mind anymore endless changes or targets.
The first government of any political persuasion that can make the creaking wheels of either the Home Office or the NHS for that matter move faster than a tortoise in their present state will have me believing that pigs might fly. In fact the only part of any of them that will be found to be effective will be the press office.

If Labour lose the next GE, it will be because of incompetence rather than a lack of bold idea's. If we lose again, or end up with a hung parliament, it will be because the voters did not trust us enough to be different from the last 10 years. They have had the headlines, they get them every week, the reality does not match up to the rhetoric.
They saw the previous Tory government starve public services during the tough times while Labour throw billions at selected public services on the back of slogans like "24 hours to save the NHS" and "Education, Education, Education". Neither delivered.
Just maybe the voters aren't having the intellectual airy fairy arguments about bold or timid policy direction, they simple want enough prison places, a bobby to occasionally walk past their door, a bed at their local hospital when needed and a community where they feel safe and everyone from the elderly to the very young feel valued and respected.

Yes ChrisD your last paragraph is precisely what they want. But they see no realistic prospect of getting it from any of the Parties, which is why so many don't bother to vote.

Labour's theory of it will all be alright if we just spend more money than the horrid Tories has been comprehensively exploded. The Tories it will be alright if we only cut out waste never got past Yes minister.

There is no hope there is only the unanimity of the three party fix. No one has a plan, not even a cunning one.

Actually that should read no one in CCHQ has a plan.... Everyone else has a hundred plans. Education vouchers, an English parliament, a referendum on the EU after a Royal Commission into it etc etc. The 2010 election is not the 2001 election, the electorate has moved on. Our leaders better hurry and catch them up.

Re the 'lost voters' thing. There's an article, somewhere on the 'Electoral Calculus' site that says Conservative voters are much less likely to switch to another party than Labour or Lib-Dems. Conservatives abstain.

I'd suggest that come election time, people look at the conservatives, they want to vote for them, but under Messrs Hague, and Howard they didn't think they were up to the job, so they abstained. I don't see that happening at the next election.

[Political Betting did an interesting piece on the received wisdom that voters swing towards the government at a general election. Apparently not, they swing towards the Conservatives.]

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