Why both picking popular political battles AND policy matters

This is a very short snippet from BBC Radio Four’s Today Programme which involves a discussion of a proposal from Labour’s Ed Miliband to use consumer power to ‘put manners on’ big business when it comes to anti competitive practices (see this excellent Coffee House post by Stewart Wood).

By the end it segues into a question of practicability. Steve Richards – one time editor of the New Statesman now a columnist with the Independent – makes a convincing case as to why it’s a good idea politically, then John Kay pours a judicious amount of cold water on that (though not the general thrust of the thinking) pointing out the critical value of policy.

Steve Richards: Opposition politics is partly an artform and policies are symbolic. Saying that you are going to get Which – identified by consumers as allies – on board is quite an effective message to send out.

John Kay: I really don’t think policies are symbolic. I really think they are about what you are going to do. And we need some practical [observations] about what you are actually going to do.

In Northern Ireland policy is almost always a matter for eternal inter party negotiations and interminable, secret debate around the Executive table rather than for political parties. One of the key reasons for that lie in the mandatory coalition arrangement which values stability over political agency.

The problem with it is that those negotiations tend to be about recycling of old grievances in a way which gives little space to new issues and new arguments if you like. The naissant debate over organ donation is merely the exception which proves the rule.

For me Richards and Kay etch out an important two part process: deciding on a signal political issue capable of striking a chord with the broader population; and then figuring out what you’re going to do in order to deliver that promise.

I suspect the current self destructive cycle will only be broken when someone (other than just Jim Allister) commits to taking matters of ‘policy’ seriously as part of creating an opportunity both for themselves as a political party and wider society.

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