TOP goes for a walk
Gareth Morgan has a point. I know this may be an unpopular view, but hear me out. Last week Morgan announced that The Opportunities Party, which he founded, is folding. Displaying all the political skills that failed to take his party into Parliament, Morgan lashed out as he exited, saying that TOP failed because voters are “fat, content and complacent.” That’s not the bit I’m going to agree with.
We do have a problem with developing good research-backed policy.
TOP prided itself on its evidence-based policies—research-backed solutions to the challenges facing New Zealand. “It’s the evidence, stupid,” could have been its campaign slogan, but Morgan and TOP have concluded that there just isn’t enough appetite for this sort of offering. Here’s where I think they have a point. We do have a problem with developing good research-backed policy.
Exhibit A is the recent report on youth offending and our high imprisonment rate, from the office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor. It shows clearly that early intervention programmes can prevent and reduce youth offending. This is not news; we have known this for at least the last 20 years. And yet, political debate about criminal justice is too often a competition to see who can posture hardest about being “tough on crime” with policies like three strikes. Frankly, that makes me nearly as bristly as the moustachioed Morgan.
Can we avoid rehashing the same conversation for another 20 years? I think the answer is yes, if our political leaders give us better options; but that will require, y’know, leadership. Here’s where we can learn from TOP’s mistakes.
Leadership means setting a vision and influencing others towards that vision. TOP had a vision, even if it was more technocratic than inspiring. But they lacked influence—not surprisingly, just parading your expertise and telling people they should do as you say isn’t likely to get them to follow you, especially with the campaign flavoured by Morgan’s view of voters. Research on when people take cues from leaders (and would-be leaders) shows you also need to create affinity and win trust, for example because voters can see your values and interests and recognise that they share them.
If we want better youth offending policy, politicians will have to craft a new vision and sell it in a way that relates to voters’ real concerns.
So if we want better youth offending policy, politicians will have to craft a new vision and sell it in a way that relates to voters’ real concerns. People have legitimate concerns about crime and their safety, and correct moral intuitions that wrongdoing deserves punishment. Our political leaders could make the case for investing in early intervention by pointing out that preventing future offending, and helping current offenders onto a new pathway, will actually be the most effective way to keep us safe.
In other words, those politicians will have to exercise leadership in a way that Morgan, and TOP, failed to do. Of course, influencing others is hard, but it’s essential for anyone in politics who genuinely want to make a difference. After all, if no-one’s following you, then you’re not providing any leadership. You’re just going for a walk.