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We wouldn’t go to an amateur dentist so why are we suspicious of professional politicians?

There's a fear that politicians are merely polishing the surface, allowing the decay to spread.

Last week’s programme for Archive on Four on Radio 4 – Read My Lips: Why Politicians Speak the Way They Do – was subtly provocative. In purporting to answer the question posed in its title, the discussion developed into a skilful defence of the professionalisation of politics. The three principal guests – Alastair Campbell (Tony Blair’s head of communications), Daniel Finkelstein (political adviser to William Hague before becoming a Times columnist) and Frank Luntz (a pollster and consultant) – have all worked professionally with politicians to improve their ability to communicate. The presenter, Jonathan Powell, was Blair’s chief of staff. Only the satirist Rory Bremner stood outside the profession.

The programme responded to the popular perception that the political class is paralysed by spin doctors, “out of touch”, and unable to connect naturally and authentically with voters. Not so, apparently. Finkel­stein argued that politicians “are much more in touch than they were”, possessing an “acuter understanding of what the electorate can follow”. Campbell believes that, in response to the 24-hour media, “politicians had to force themselves to become clearer, sharper, more focused and on-message”.

Luntz paid tribute to a technology known as “the worm” or “dials”. As a politician speaks in public, a focus group provides feedback in real time, instantly converted into a graph that captures the popularity of each phrase. “Up or down, second by second, like or dislike,” Luntz explained, “it is a precise way to measure any communication by politicians.” This is the political equivalent of the stats now flashed on screen during televised sport: distance covered, passes completed, yards advanced, tackles made.

But does this kind of approach capture what it means to be a good politician? Or do the obsession with quantification, and the risk aversion that follows, encase politicians in a linguistic and conceptual prison, rendering them passive and inauthentic, simply churning out soundbites to tickle their audience’s prejudices, like bored but savvy GCSE students writing exam scripts merely to elicit the necessary ticks?

Luntz takes the opposite position: the problem with modern politics is that it remains too amateurish, not too professional. “If politicians spent more time, more care, thinking about the language they use, they would have a longer shelf life.” What Luntz means, surely, is that if politicians spoke more carefully, they would have a longer shelf life if (and only if) their opponents did not follow suit. In a zero-sum game – which captures the business of winning elections but not the art of government – if two opposing parties simultaneously develop the same set of communication skills and tactical tools, it does not increase anyone’s shelf life. Two political machines – each of them increasingly sophisticated, cautious and precise in its tactical pursuit of the votes it might win (and only those votes) – essentially cancel each other out.

This model offers a partial explanation of the current political stalemate in this country. The parties are so effective at defensive ploys, undermining any positive but potentially risky move by their opponents, that everyone is, in effect, playing for a nil-nil draw, perhaps hoping to nick a result in the penalty shoot-out (the election campaign).

Rugby union perhaps offers a more apt parallel. I am now resigned to the fact that old-fashioned line-breaks, in which attacking players evade the first line of tacklers – the moment when the pitch opens up, speed enters the equation and this fan feels as if he has been injected intravenously with champagne – are very rarely possible in today’s game. Defences are too good. The professional evolution of rugby – the drift defence, the choke tackle, the defensive hit in contact – have conspired against the sport’s most ecstatic spectacle: freedom in space. The teams are probably “better”. But is the show? I’m not so sure.

In one crucial respect the analogy with sport, introduced by Alastair Campbell, does not apply to politics at all. The purpose of sport, strategically speaking, is so simple that the term strategy is almost a tautology for an older, simpler word: winning. So the professionalisation of sport, though sometimes counterproductive to the spectacle, has unarguably raised the overall standard of performance. Today’s teams, broadly speaking, would beat the teams of the past. Sport is straightforward: everyone knows what winning looks like.

In politics, the notion of winning is much less obvious. The concept of victory can be divided into two spheres, not quite separate but certainly importantly different. First, there is the business of winning elections; second, there is the question of governing well. Although you can’t do the latter without first achieving the former, you can certainly excel at winning elections without being equally good at running the country. Given that focus, attention and talent are always finite, the decision to concentrate on one goal inevitably leads to there being less energy to lavish elsewhere. When we talk about the professionalisation of politics, usually we mean the professionalisation of the political message. But has there been a corresponding evolution and advance in delivering political fundamentals?

Read My Lips referred to the idea that we like professionalism in dentistry, so why not in our politicians? To take on the metaphor, perhaps we feel reassured that dentists are professional in the good sense because human teeth fall out increasingly infrequently. We can test the professionalism of dentists empirically. In contrast, we wonder if politicians are merely focusing on whitening and polishing the surface, allowing underlying decay to spread. Perhaps it is too early to tell. But that is the fear. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.