Public attitudes and political leadership
Ed Miliband, speaking at conference earlier today, explained ministers' vision for how policies should be developed in the future,
"We need a Labour Party that can reach out again, changing minds and attitudes on issues from child poverty to climate change. And we need to recognise that real change in communities only comes when people are part of it. Whether it is a new zebra crossing, getting drug dealers off the streets, or better youth services, we can only do it by being rooted in communities we serve. As a local MP I say to people: I can't solve the problems on my own. I need your help."
There's a lot of truth in that. But what makes me nervous about this line of argument is that it can let politicians off the hook. The responsibility for changing public attitudes about child poverty or climate change doesn't lie just on MPs, but nor does it just lie with grassroots activists and campaigning groups, with politicians only taking action once opinion polls show that a majority of people have been convinced. This shift in responsibility is implicit in Miliband's speech, and explicit in speeches by government ministers who claim to want to do more about child poverty, but feel that they need 'permission to redistribute'.
In fact, as research has shown, people listen to the leaders of the party that they support for cues on what to think and feel about the central questions of the day where there is no obvious consensus. When issues like climate change get talked about, people draw on arguments which they've heard which sound sensible and by people who they trust.
This can lead to big shifts in public opinion over a matter of a few months. In the USA (where distrust of politicians is at least as high as in the UK), opinion about American involvement in Iraq was equally divided in July 2006, after three years of vocal grassroots anti-war campaigning, but weak and mixed messages from the Democrat Party. It was only after this point that Democrat candidates starting to attack the President's Iraq policy and outline a clear alternative. By November, public opinion, including amongst the politically vital Independent voters, had shifted and was heavily anti-war. (This example taken from Drew Westen's excellent book, 'The Political Brain').
On both of the causes which Miliband mentions, climate change and child poverty, Labour leaders have offered mixed messages and policies over the past few years (and still find it hard to publicly justify effective policies such as paying higher benefits to families). On the economy, health and education, where ministers have been clear about what they are trying to do and why, they have built a strong consensus, which even the Tories are paying lip service to. It would be hard to argue that this consensus was created by local people and local communities - it was created by Gordon Brown and a small group of his advisers, and then modified and deepened with the responses from local communities and activists.
There are a lot of people at the moment who are worried about the gap between rich and poor in this country, and crime and anti-social behaviour amongst (and suffered by) young people. They instinctively don't like the rhetoric about the 'broken society' being pushed by Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron, but don't have a clear idea about what the alternative might be.
In the Comprehensive Spending Review, Gordon Brown has to decide whether or not to commit an extra £4 billion per year to reducing child poverty (mostly on increases in cash benefits to families), or whether instead to abandon the commitment to halving it by 2010. If he chooses to spend the money, and to explain how reducing (and ending) child poverty will help reduce the problems which worry people and what else needs to be done to tackle poverty, then it offers a clear alternative, and will quickly change minds and attitudes about child poverty, as people talk about his proposals with each other in their communities.
Policy shouldn't just be decided by politicians and then handed down to the people. But nor should politicians just read opinion polls and listen to which lobby group can shout loudest. Instead, a different kind of relationship is needed, where politicians are in touch with the people that they represent, but also have a duty to make use of the power that they have, and take the lead in suggesting and implementing solutions to problems.