When people change their minds in politics it’s like an atom has been split: a huge amount of energy is released and things get very interesting very quickly. Former old Labour MPs willing to try modernisation, former Tory voters willing to give Tony Blair a go, formerly avowed Blairites shifting to Gordon Brown, ambivalent Labour voters shifting back to the Tories: these explosive conversions and many more create the craters and hills of the political landscape.
But few minds are changing today. The Conservative lines to take stand unaltered for eighteen months. How many supporters of either Miliband have since been persuaded that they went for the wrong one? The left Liberal Democrats’ evacuation – in more than one sense – on arriving in government seems to be complete.
So what was molten sets to stone and the arguments then follow the predictable path: but it was a global financial crisis/the NHS is in need of reform/you can’t spend your way out of a debt crisis/Rupert Murdoch is too powerful and so on. The effect of cuts on the economy. Banks. The NHS Bill. Welfare. Murdoch. Every Today Programme, every Question Time, every talking head unless it’s been one of Syria’s many particularly bloody days. If someone doesn’t have an opinion on these questions yet, it’s not because the opposing arguments have been kept secret.
The resulting boredom is the only reason I can think of to explain why the new views of Alex Hilton and Luke Bozier received such disproportionate attention in the last couple of months: I doubt even they would have thought that their changes of heart were a matter for Prime Minister’s Questions. They’re only interesting because they weren’t doing what everyone else still is: waiting to be proven right.
If you believe you’re shortly going to be vindicated – on anything from predicting what will happen to the economy, to believing that politician x will be loved by the public while politician y will be comprehensively rejected – then you entrench. Lob a few rocks to keep the media entertained and give your own supporters something to do, but fundamentally assume that you only have to wait for the day that is coming, when your rightness will become undeniable.
The public mirrors this inertia. Philip Gould wrote shortly before he died that “public opinion moves abruptly in stepped changes rather than in a continuous unbroken flow…. Most people will make an assumption, and will hold that assumption, despite countervailing evidence, until something tips or somehow snaps.” Right now, opinion seems to on one of those plateaus Philip described: the gap between Labour and the Conservatives has been shuffling around inconclusively for several months (Anthony Wells from YouGov has a good post on this here). Labour has a slight edge in the voting intention figures most of the time but consistently does worse on questions that are about the party itself.
It might be a predictable and artless way of playing the political game but that’s not a reason to avoid a static strategy (it is the reason why I’m bored of it, but it isn’t a good one). What should worry all the players is that they are leaving the initiative either to a decisive shift in the public mood or to whoever first tries a strategy that starts with “I got this wrong. But I’ve learnt”.
Our leaders all seem to be waiting for the confirmatory snap. It may come, but they are waiting for the public to do something that they are reluctant to do themselves.
Steve Van Riel