Tough on the outside, soft inside

The perfect political policy is one that appeals when described in a soundbite, but requires no substantive change. Nick Clegg hits it on the button with this example of a special tax for the ultra rich. Clegg thinks the concept will appeal to most voters – because they aren’t ultra-rich, because the amount of wealth sounds unnecessary. 

The advantage is that the policy is relatively empty. There’s no definition of ‘ultra rich’, and the tax he is proposing is only 20% – way beneath the current top tax rate in the UK of (an incredible) 50%. So if he can ever work out how to apply the tax to people he says already avoid tax, he’s not really hurting anybody.

This is an example of “ideals policy”, or you could call it “opportunistic policy”.  Clegg is largely posturing. He’s not serious. He’s using the policy as a statement about his ideals and philosophy on life. He’s telling voters he’s with them in spirit, rather than with the very rich people.

This sort of politics is not as successful as politicians think it is. They get media coverage, because media needs content, and political chatterers are paid to chatter about it.  Politicians think they’ve made a hit, and they start thinking about the next “ideals policy”.

The tactic is weakened by widespread sub-conscious awareness of that this is a game. The ultra-rich, who-ever they are, know Clegg is playing for political points, as the formulation of his concept indicates he’s not serious about really taxing them.

The public see these policies rise and fall continuously, so they don’t really expect Clegg to carry it out. The manner of delivery of the relatively unformed concept is signalling that it’s a political toy, not a serious policy.

In New Zealand over the weekend, Labour opposition Leader David Shearer did something similar, but he is playing a slightly longer game. His aim is to use an opportunist policy as a tool for a longer game of embarrassing his opponents.

The idea of selling land to foreigners, especially Chinese / Asians has long made a great many voters uncomfortable. Shearer has mooted a policy whereby sales of such land will only be allowed if they can be proved to  “substantially” add to exports, jobs or economic growth. He’s going to place it as a private members bill. He knows the Bill has a small chance of getting into the House, and then it’s easy for the Government to knock it back. But during that time he can use the popular idea to make public life a little bit more difficult for the Government. Shearer is likely to feel uncomfortable with the economic and xenophobic implications of the policy. But he taking a small gamble that he will never have to implement the policy. It’s actual use is just part of the political game – to indicate to voters that he’s with them, and not the rich foreigners. 

It is ironic that professional politicians quite regularly play with populism to gain support during electoral cycles, but are rarely serious about doing what the public want.

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