The question, does politics matter, is perhaps particularly pertinent at the moment. After attending various hustings meetings, watching the leaders debates and question time on the TV and listening to some local radio debates on the general election, there’s no better time to ask whether or not all this ‘politics’ really matters or makes a difference? It’s a question that academics have been trying to answer for decades, with a wealth of literature in the political sciences and policy studies arenas addressing questions about why some issues receive attention, whilst others fade into obscurity? Who influences the agenda and how? Who controls what issues are dealt with? This debate becomes all the more focused during election periods, where issue competition is perhaps at its greatest.
I’ve spent the last few weeks delving into the agenda setting literature, looking at agendas and issues during elections, in party manifestos and policy programmes, to see what others have written about these issues. It’s clearly a good time to be doing this, as the process is playing out before our very eyes in the run up to the general election. So, what does influence what parties and politicians talk about in the run up to the election? What influences the content of their manifestos? To a point, you’d expect the main political parties to favour their own ideological agenda and hold true to their traditional policies and priorities. But you’d also expect them to respond to a range of other influences. According to the academic literature, party manifestos and policy programmes at election time are a function of at least four main influences:
- party ideology and tradition
- the immediate concerns of the public/voters and the media
- the long term priorities of government, and
- the current government programme
Because there are so many issues competing for attention at the same time, politicians and parties need to decide what to take notice of and what to disregard. They are influenced by different things at different times, and to a greater or lesser extent. The concerns of the public are, to an extent, reflected in the media, and attention is drawn to specific issues. But interestingly, there is also evidence to suggest that the current government programme and the last electoral platform of the successful party have a degree of influence over which issues receive attention in the new election period. As do the long term priorities of government, providing an element of stability around the core issues that feature each election period.
Competition for issues ownership may also occur, where different parties compete to illustrate they have the best solutions to the key issues that matter to the public. Take the example of housing policy at the moment. The housing crisis has clearly made it onto the political agenda and all the main political parties are talking about it and providing what they deem to be the most ‘appropriate’ solutions. You could perhaps argue that some of these ‘solutions’ are not workable, will make little difference and don’t address the root cause of the problem. Indeed, they could be seen as policies aimed at appealing to certain groups of voters, or symbolic policies maybe, that make it look like a party is taking the issue seriously. Or maybe they are just marginal changes that play around the edges of the issue, because actually the problem is just too difficult to cope with (or maybe the real solutions would just be too unpopular). Either way, politicians are taking notice of the issue, even if we are less than convinced by the policies proposed.
Other issues might get onto the political agenda because parties seek to emphasise the issues where their opponents are weak and they are stronger. This selective approach will draw on public concerns but will in addition focus on specific issues that reflect party strengths. This in turn often sees a shift in policy focus from the other parties who seek to respond to the platforms of their rivals. A good example from this election campaign can be seen in relation to the debate about austerity and the need to balance the budget – with Labour and the Conservatives both attempting to convince voters that their plan is best, with perhaps too little to choose between the two!
It’s also well known that public attention (and political attention for that matter) rarely stays focused on one issue for long. Issues, whether they are solved or not, tend to drop off from the public agenda when something more fashionable or interesting comes along. Politicians and parties need to respond to this ever changing cycle and be ready to react and refocus where needed. It’s also true that election campaigns typically focus on a small set of issues. This time, most of the debates I have watched and listened too, have been focused on immigration, welfare cuts and austerity measures, with housing, the NHS and taxation in there somewhere as well. There has been little debate about business or crime, as there was five years ago. The agenda has shifted, slightly.
Within this debate, there is also a discussion about who controls and influences the agenda. Is it the media? Is it the voters? Is it policy elites and powerful individuals/groups? What role do think tanks and experts play? And perhaps more importantly, what notice do the politicians take anyway? Once elected, do they actually deliver on all those promises and policy announcements they made in order to get elected? You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s never quite that simple. All sorts of other things influence what can and can’t be done. The process becomes one of balance between delivery on the party mandate and responding to short-term changes in public concerns, as well as dealing with the emergence of new problems. Alongside that, of course, is the need to be more realistic about what is possible, within time and budget constraints. So the question remains, does politics matter? I’ll leave you to decide!