What’s the role for policy in winning elections?

For an IPPR fringe meeting at our Bournemouth conference, on the theme of what policy agenda would best appeal to the Blue Wall, I took the chance to talk about the role of policy more generally in election campaigning. You can either watch what I actually said, or read what I intended to say:

Thank you for the invite and it’s great to see think tanks, high quality newspapers and pollsters engaging once again so much more with the Lib Dems at this conference.

The best answer to that question, about what policy agenda the party needs, is to think about the role of policy in election campaigns specifically.

There are many important roles for policy in politics – for getting governing right, for being prepared in case you find yourself with a share of power, for being able to answer questions from the public consistently and clearly, and others.

But for winning votes specifically, the role of policy is often misunderstood. People often talk about it as if policy is the plot when in fact policy provides the props.

Let’s explain that.

There’s an idealised version of politics where people sit down with manifestos side by side, scoring up each page as they go and making a decision at the end on who to vote for based on which manifesto scored best.

But reality is very different. Reality is partly about a public which – for all sorts of good reasons – doesn’t spend that much time thinking about politics. A public among whom, for example, more than 8 in 10 couldn’t name a Conservative election slogan half way through the 2017 election campaign.

Rather, what matters hugely for winning over votes are competence and empathy – can you lot get things done and do you lot understand people like me?

That was true even with Boris Johnson, not the most plausible poster-boy for ‘people vote for competence’ you might think.

But that was the – dishonest – promise of his 2019 campaign – that he understood how fed up people were with the Brexit saga and that he was the one to cut through it all and get it over with, with his oven ready deal and his bulldozer driving photo op.

Reality of course caught up with him, but even his election win in the interim supports that point about how appearing to score well on competency and empathy are central to winning.

Which is why the role of policy is as a support, as the props to illustrate the plot.

Winning elections isn’t about a search for the magic match-winning policy that will have voters swooning.

Rather it’s about using policies to illustrate that empathy and that competence.

Policies are the vital and important props rather than the plot itself.

So for the Lib Dems that means the policy agenda that will work best – indeed, looking at the Parliamentary by-elections, is working best – is one that focus on those top concerns of people – cost of living and NHS in particular – and provides credible, tangible examples of how we’d make things better.

It’s why although there is so much to fix about the NHS, focusing on access to GPs makes sense. It’d be an immediate, practical improvement that shows an understanding of the difficulties ordinary people face and backed up by our policy team’s detailed work on GP recruitment and retention statistics to show how we can deliver it. 

That’s the route to showing competence, expressing empathy – and winning elections.

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