Professional politicians fail when they try to appear ‘normal’.
The UK Pasty saga in the last weeks of March heated up many politicians, but left the public cold.
It started with a Government plan to change the VAT status of pasties. Pasties are like pies; a commonly easily eaten hot food of pastry wrapping unknown innards.
The immediately obvious and attractive bureaucratic silliness was that a pasty’s tax status depended on its relative heat. So the matter quickly transformed into an issue of whether the Government really understood the role of the pasty in ordinary life.
The Minister, George Osborne, got the ball rolling when he admitted that he couldn’t recall when he had last eaten a pasty.
The political ramification was obvious: he was completely unaware of the impact of a universally ridiculed tax on food enjoyed by many people (the important implication was that it is enjoyed by unsophisticated, ordinary, perhaps working class, people).
First lessons: 1) the small stuff matters to voters, and 2) think ahead on the public reaction to everything you do, and prepare a response
Osborne’s cock-up put his leader and Tory PM, David Cameron, under pressure. Cameron felt he needed to show the common touch, but with a little reality. Trouble was, the pasty he recalled eating was at least two years ago from a shop since closed.
Sensing a political opportunity along the theme of working for ‘ordinary Britain’, Labour leader Ed Miliband set up a photo opp where he bought a pasty and denounced the tax. The trouble was, he plainly looked uncomfortable in the shop, and never bought a pasty himself. It was even unclear whether the pasties were being bought for him – well, he’d be a little worried about incurring the wrath of health zealots…
More lessons: 3) under pressure, never make stuff up on the spot 4) don’t try to pretend you’re something you’re not, especially if you’re a poor actor 5) cheap shots are going to bite you back at some time.
So, does it matter that politicians have the ‘common touch’.
Yes, I think it does – for reasons I will cover in depth another time. But it must come naturally.
Professional politicians need to find their own identity. Modern politicians are often in search of an identity while they’re on the job – and end up doing silly stuff. The result is embarrassment. The very worst thing a politician can do is create a situation where voters feel uncomfortable and awkward for them.
A higher order piece of advice which this issue gives rise to, is that politicians should be wary about corrupting policy with mucky short term politics.
The genius of the New Zealand sale tax, the GST, is that is universal. In other countries, like Australia and the UK, politicians have made all manner of sector-appeasing tweaks for short term political gain. The long term political result is costly administration, tax avoidance, and a constantly bleeding issue.
BTW: Here’s a piece from the Guardian discussing whether politicians really should eat pasties.