Monday, 13 December 2010

Defining David Cameron's Government

The vote over tuition fees was won last week but the argument was not. There has been a failure in government to grasp the enormity of the problem in taking a complex argument and robustly communicating it to the media and the wider world. To a lesser extent the government seem to have taken the same view earlier this year with the proposed changes to benefits.

I realise just how hard it is sometimes, using the channel of the media, to get your message across in politics. However, it cannot be denied that there have been ample opportunities to go out and extol the virtues of the government's policy. These weren't taken so, instead of a discussion of how the country should fund education, the story became one about the Liberal Democrats. Politically this might have seemed like a fun diversion for restless Conservative backbenchers but, in reality, it was a lost opportunity to set a positive direction for the country.

At the heart of the changes to benefit entitlement and the level of tuition fees is work, future employment, life chances, but above all ambition. Or at least this is what it should be about. Both these policy changes have been opportunities for David Cameron to get over a positive message that he is for ambition, hard work and personal sacrifice.

On the flip side are those who have attacked the policies as not being 'progressive'. All too often these people hide behind the 'progressive' term; in reality they just want millions to continue getting something for free. In the government's messaging, and indeed at the heart of any policy, you need to look after the most vulnerable and at risk in society. All too often, however, this results in a defensive set of messages which are difficult to communicate. It is easier to sell something, to make your arguments compelling, if you are being positive. It is also easier if you use language and concepts that connect with people.   

Some commentators have said 'the squeezed middle' are still opposed to the tuition fee changes. The ill defined 'squeezed middle' are just the sort of people who should be powerful advocates of these changes, but the argument hasn't been made to them in a way that will resonate with them.

By any current definition I am middle class, however two generations ago my family were of working class stock living off the land. It was through ambition, hard work and sacrifice that my family were able to grow businesses and prosper. There was never any suggestion of relying on the state.

A more recent example is a friend of mine who put themselves through university, law school, bar exams (here and in the US) paid for with a mixture of debt, part time work and not a little effort. They come from a background of very limited resources but self belief and a willingness to 'get on' drives them. They have been rewarded with a great, and highly rewarded, career in law.

There are many people in Britain with similar stories but they are the kind who generally just quietly get on. These are the people David Cameron should be turning to as advocates for the coalition's policies but also as models of how he wants people to act in the future. Ambition and reward shouldn't be dirty words. They should be at the very heart of David Cameron's defining message.

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