We’ve all seen it before. The kids in the playground, arguing over who has more friends. The guilelessly arrogant teenage boys, showing off about how many girls fancy them. The media-savvy grown ups, who should know better, comparing the number of twitter followers.
Unfortunately, this ugly ‘I have more friends than you’ one-upmanship has entered Westminster political discourse, and it isn’t a very pretty sight. Ed Miliband wasted today’s PMQs – remember, the Government is reeling on its NHS reforms, and economic growth is still stagnant – by seemingly using all of his questions to reel off a list of health bodies who support Labour’s stance on the Health and Social Care Bill. Just as predictably, David Cameron retaliated with his own database of organisations who support the Government. So rather than a useful examination of Government performance and policy, or at least an enjoyable party political bunfight, today’s PMQs gave us nothing more than a stakeholder map of the nether regions of the health service.
This politics-by-proxy has been building for a while. It often rears its head at election time, when the parties frantically scramble to exchange endorsements of policy or leadership. At the last election we had the unedifying spectacle of the party leaders trading pet economists and businessmen to bolster their own policy positions in these areas, in lieu of actually setting out any detailed policy positions of their own.
Of course, as all good comms professionals know, respected third party advocates play a vital role in bolstering messaging and adding credibility to campaigns. But when the advocates themselves become the message, the issues get lost in a tit-for-tat numbers game. And that doesn’t help anyone. Least of all, a floundering Leader of the Opposition, who – presented with a political open goal – decides to read out his teamsheet, rather than play the ball which is lying invitingly at his feet.
Ed clearly has enough friends. If only one of them was able to advise him on effective opposition.