A man was assessing his divorce a decade after it occurred, on the eve of his second wedding. A friend asked why his first one failed. It was, he said, because he neglected the scales. Every single interaction with his spouse sent her one of two messages – that she was the most important person in the world to him or that she wasn’t. He’d sent the latter message far too often.
The above comes from self-help guru Dale Carnegie, but the parable’s parallels for politics are worth contemplating. Fantastic writers like Danny Finkelstein rightly note that political commentators often obsess about personalities and events which are of no interest to the man on the street. As the Fink notes, the two things driving the political agenda are the lack of money and the lack of an outright majority. Everything else is background noise created by characters the public don’t recognise while even the biggest set-piece events (like Budget day) fail to resonate that widely.
I think the scales offer a different perspective that’s worth considering. Every day, with every action, this government tips the scales one way or the other with voters on two vital issues – does this government stand for people like me and is it competent to act in my best interests? These are fundamental drivers of voting patterns and here the little things matter – not just because it all adds up, but because little things can become big things (think pasty tax). Attention to detail is what good design and communication of policy requires.
The challenge for this government to ensure the scales are tipped the right way is enormous, greater perhaps than for any other, and it hasn’t always managed it. But at PMQs before Christmas, the PM referred to two policies, neatly communicated, that tip the scales in the right direction. The richest in our society pay more every year in tax under this government than the previous, while increasing the personal allowance means a full-time worker on minimum wage has seen their income tax cut in half.
But in truth, some of the things I admire most about this government result from occasions when it has (deliberately or not) ignored the scales theory. Cutting the top rate and taking on the NHS reforms tipped the balance the wrong way, but represented leadership for the long term. We wait to see if these will balance off in time.