This morning, Theresa May tweeted this. She must have got up pretty early on a Saturday morning to make that nice infographic. Who’d be prime minister, eh?
What an excellent policy! I don’t know about you, but I don’t think of this kind of basic, decent move as something I would naturally associate with the Conservatives.
They don’t usually show much interest in tinkering boringly with the finer points of consumer finance to give us all a better deal. (They’re usually more interested in keeping their donors onside, often by shaping the financial system in their favour.)
So, this is almost certainly good news. Most of us have probably experienced unexpected surcharges on card payments at one time or another, whether it’s at your local cornershop or when buying train tickets online. This ought to cut that out at a stroke.
There’s one small problem with how Theresa May’s presenting this. And here it is: the UK government didn’t come up with the idea. It’s a requirement of the EU Payment Services Directive 2, which came into force in January 2016. Today (13th January 2018) is actually the last possible day for EU member states to enforce this part of the directive.
This is also key to the policy’s success. Because it’s being introduced as an integrated requirement across the 28 member states of the EU, the likelihood of companies raising prices to compensate, or stopping card payments entirely, is probably pretty small.
Armed with this information, we can now revisit May’s tweet. It can be read two ways:
- She, a Conservative prime minister leading a government whose sole policy is leaving the EU, is taking sole credit for an EU initiative that had nothing to do with her;
- She, a Conservative prime minister leading a government whose sole policy is leaving the EU, is associating herself and her government with the EU to such an extent that she is willing to use the first person plural.
I don’t know about you, but I’m plumping for 1.
Why does this matter?
This kind of failure to allocate credit for policies that actually benefit voters and society is a big part of why the UK voted to leave the EU. Voters see the benefits without understanding the process. (It’s also, incidentally, why people continue to vote for the Conservatives rather than the Lib Dems despite the coalition government’s most popular policies – on income tax, environment, marriage and even plastic bags – all coming from the smaller party.)
This is a huge problem in democracies the world over. Democratic governments generally don’t advertise, and that’s a good thing. And if they do, it’s generally to market new policies that are reliant on widespread public knowledge, an approach that often fails, and often because the policies are terrible.
Two recent examples are the Green Deal (a catastrophic failure where the government over-promised, rushed the policy out, and failed to market it, sometimes all at once) and the Help to Buy scheme (quite good take-up, but for a policy that actively exacerbates the housing crisis).
But that general lack of marketing means it’s political parties who market successes as their own, even when they aren’t.
A possible solution
I have been giving some thought to this problem of late. It seems to me that we need some kind of independent platform – maybe just a website – that details the source, development and impact of policies, and gives credit where credit is due.
Sure, not many voters would read it very often, but if done with sufficient quality and transparency, it would be a hugely useful resource during election periods – potentially making VAAs more accurate, and enabling journalists and broadcasters to refer to it.
Although there is a ton of money going into new fact-checking initiatives at the moment, these tend to be reactive. This would be one way to build a bank of accurate information that could also serve organisations like Full Fact, strengthening their ability to scrutinise.
It would be a major undertaking, requiring a number of permanent researchers and fact-checkers to aggregate the information, and then some savvy marketing and social media activity to promote its existence.
If you’re interested in helping to create such a website or platform, I have many further thoughts. Feel free to get in touch with me via the comments, Twitter, or Facebook.