Saturday, 5 July 2008

Will children's shoes become a priority?

With a general election two years away and the economy suffering deep torment I wonder whether we are likely to see a change in priorities from the major parties.

When the people are feeling good about the economy you do not grab their attention by saying "we propose more of the same" and you do not grab their agreement by saying "you might think it's working but it's actually a mess", the reaction to such policy announcements from the crucial Mr & Mrs Average is "it's working nicely for me thank you very much, kindly go boil your head".

Similarly, the once fertile ground of immigration had become pretty stony. Mr & Mrs Average are concerned about immigration if it either threatens their financial well-being directly or results in benefit scroungers bumming a free ride off the good British taxpayer. In recent times there has been enormous immigration from, in particular, Eastern Europe and the public's reaction appears to have been generally favourable. Mr & Mrs Average could suddenly get a plumber at an affordable price. And when they chatted to their new plumber they found he had not dragged over six generations of spongers in a large suitcase, rather he is sharing a small flat with five other chaps and sending home every penny he can; his intention being to return to his home country in 3 or 4 years once he has earned enough to buy some land and a car and saved enough spare cash to build a house. Perception of "immigrants" as a class was affected by these direct experiences and the perception was that immigrants were a benefit not a burden.

Politicians must often deal with perceptions rather than concrete facts because Mr & Mrs Average's perception of what has caused them to feel better-off is hard to dislodge by quoting statistics and academic theories. It is entirely logical and fair for them to presume that a sense of well-being and bon homie is caused by the government's policies, after all they now have no difficulty paying for their children's shoes whereas before it was a burden. Even if a theory or a statistic might make them think the government is in error, they will only accept that proposition if they are also satisfied that the alternative offered will make things better - always keep tight hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse.

So other areas had to be addressed in an attempt to tap the public mood and swing it in favour of the proponent of a new idea. David Cameron appeared to tap the public mood with his emphasis on so-called environmental issues. This was entirely understandable while Mr & Mrs Average were satisfied with the economy, he had to find something they were worried about and portray himself as the man who can allay their fears. While the only message being received by Mr & Mrs Average was that the seas will soon engulf us all, concern about their children's prospects was always likely to influence them in favour of the eco-friendly candidate.

But nothing brings a dose of reality and balance like a great big slap in the wallet. All of a sudden Mr & Mrs Average see prices rather than tidal waters rising fast, fixed-rate mortgage deals rather than fluffy animals becoming extinct and ordinary families rather than gas guzzling fat cats being hit with punitive motoring taxes. Because they have to live real lives in the real world their priorities will change, marginal issues will be downgraded in importance, economic policies will be examined more carefully, a more critical eye will be cast on the government's record but through all of this their children will need shoes.

We have recently seen an announcement that £100billion must be spent on such quaint oddities as wind-power generators. Yes, that is £100,000,000,000 of real money. Mr & Mrs Average remember that only a few weeks ago the government was criticised from all quarters for borrowing £2.7billion to pay for their miscalculation of the effect of abolishing the 10p tax rate. Suddenly 37 times as much must be found, that is another 37 tax increases identical to the increase required to pay for a partial cure for the appalling consequences of one of Mr Brown's ego trips. Mr & Mrs Average ask "is it really necessary? what is the real risk from global warming?" They become instantly more skeptical about Saint Al of Gore because a warm and fluffy policy has turned into a massive burden which will cause them to make real sacrifices. And it is all against the background of what they have been told about the economy. "You told us it was ever onwards and upwards Mr Brown. You told us there was no boom or bust just steady irreversible growth. You told us we could plan for the future because everything was stable. We did what you said and now you expect us to pay HOW MUCH?"

The winners at the next general election will be the party whose priorities match those of Mr & Mrs Average. "You must suffer so we can save fluffy polar bears" will be met not with a polite "kindly go boil your head" but with a stern "bugger polar bears, our children need shoes." Blaming the need to spend £100billion on an EU directive will be answered by "bugger the EU, our children need shoes." Children always need shoes.

Mr Cameron should do exactly what brought his party to power in 1979, he should reflect the concerns and perceptions of Mr & Mrs Average. The most successful single message Mrs Thatcher ever put across was that government budgets should be run like household budgets. Mrs & Mrs Average accepted that message because their children need shoes and shoes have to be paid for.

Let the government roll-out its hugely expensive eco-wonk initiatives. These will appear one-by-one not as a coherent single package because they want to show themselves as a party with new ideas, particularly when being accused of staleness. Stand back and say "we are looking carefully at every aspect of this issue". All the while there will be more and more properly researched scientific evidence undermining aspects of Saint Al of Gore's sermon. The time will be ripe, probably 6 to 9 months before the election, to say that the people are hurting too much and it is irresponsible to commit endless quantities of taxpayers' money to a cause which is now questionable.

Mr & Mrs Average will love it because their children need shoes.

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