Capable, competent and credible is how a leader seeks to be seen. Arguably, the first two aspects are personal and Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn are both facing challenges there with the public. Laughter and scorn from some audiences perhaps the most telling response to date.
Credibility, though, tends to be based more on the policy platform pursued by the party. Yet in that both are also appearing incredible in public eyes. Just as concerning is that as the bidding war has escalated, it’s debatable whether the pledges are either deliverable or in some cases even appropriate.
As the two contenders have gone head-to-head the stakes have increased. 20,000 police officers say the Tories, even more say Labour. Raising the stakes Johnson committed to 50,000 nurses. Reacting, Corbyn pledged millions in compensation to WASPI women. And on and on its seems to be going.
To be fair, in every election pledges are made and met by a sceptical public. But party manifestos are scrutinised by press and political opponents, along with others in public life, as well as being closely read by civil servants who’ll have to deliver the policy platform. They can be challenged by experts at the time or more often return to haunt administrations in future years. It’s why policy officers agonise over every line and party leaderships have heated debates on priorities.
It’s an inbuilt brake on outlandish, never mind downright fraudulent claims.
Governments can try and fail or policies prove impractical to deliver but the policies have invariably been carefully considered and costed. This time seems different. There’s more than a hint of hope over expectation – some are untested and others simply a direction of travel.
Promises have to be sustainable and are normally expected to have been published in the manifesto with supporting costings to back them up. In both those areas Johnson and Corbyn have come unstuck. No wonder it’s being met with derision by commentators and experts. Meanwhile the greater the bidding war and upping of the ante the more public scepticism, if not open disdain has grown.
Sleight of hand
For with each of those issues the public would probably say absolutely and even more please. But they’re also aware that certainly the Tory government and sometimes even previous Labour administrations have presided over the cuts or policies that have resulted in the current situation.
The public isn’t stupid. If they’re so essential and the party’s so committed to them, then why were they not there anyway or were they allowed to be run down in the first place? It certainly affects the credibility of the pledge. Boris Johnson’s response to questioning that he was only the Mayor of London at the time has as much validity as saying “a big boy did it and ran away”.
The Tories’ commitment to 50,000 nurses began to unravel as soon it was confirmed that the number included retaining almost 20,000 who were due to be leaving. That both looked like and was a sleight of hand that was frankly going to be obvious from the outset. Just how they thought it wouldn’t be queried leaves commentators, never mind Joe Public, incredulous.
Similarly, Corbyn’s pledge to WASPI women had been absent from the Labour manifesto launched just days before and was limited to say the least in explanation on funding. Many whilst welcoming the commitment will ask why if it was so pivotal it hadn’t been headlined in the flagship document and subjected to rigorous financial testing.
Moreover, from a policy perspective there’s increasing doubts from those in the front line of service delivery whether these pledges are sustainable or desirable. Police numbers do matter but there’s a throughput time to train officers. It takes time to recruit and get them out on the beat. Meanwhile immediate action on funding youth services is required in England, if the explosion in knife crime is to be addressed. Balancing the two whilst heading in a general direction’s maybe a better use of resource.
Similarly additional nurses are to be welcomed. As with police officers extra colleagues will be appreciated by hard-pressed front line staff. But likewise restoring cuts in social services that have resulted in bed blocking’s equally vital.
There’s a manifest injustice being faced by WASPI women but how are they to be compensated and how is it to be calculated? The detail’s lacking.
All that has made all politicians, increasingly incredible in the public’s eye and there’s growing cynicism about all politicians which is harmful to democracy.
But there’s also an issue in public service delivery where there are other pressing areas and perhaps even better options than the headline figures trumpeted.
Kenny Macaskill is the SNP candidate for East Lothian