John Woodcock: Two-tone coalition confuses the public

Welfare reform is the latest area in which ministers are attempting to demonstrate action this week - and the contrast in tone between tough-talking Conservatives and emollient Liberal Democrats is marked and deliberate.

John Woodcock: Two-tone coalition confuses the public
John Woodcock: Two-tone coalition confuses the public

After a weekend in which Conservative welfare minister Chris Grayling adopted a stridency reminiscent of Norman Tebbit to stoke up the row over the Government's controversial supermarket work experience scheme, a more measured Nick Clegg took to the stage to stress the positive opportunities in a job incentive programme for young people.

All governments demonstrate different shades of emphasis on particular issues. The effect of ministers' personal style in changing how policies sound should not be underestimated; nor should the impact of press officers who can distort the true impact of a measure to generate a particular headline on a particular day.

Of course, senior figures striking a different note within days of each other is certainly nothing new. But for past governments, the minister who went out second tended to be on an unofficial mopping up mission after the first attempt to communicate the policy went awry.

But the two parties in the coalition positively revel in striking a different note. I suspect Grayling will be entirely happy to be seen as a hammer of what he believes are the undeserving poor. Being accused of encouraging modern day slavery pleases his supporters on the Tory benches and positions him where he believes the majority of the public is on an issue that really cuts through. Equally, Clegg's notable absence of tough language in his own announcement about incentivising employers to take on unemployed people plays to his own base within the Lib Dems at a time when his personal poll ratings continue to drop.

But this is a tricky game to play. Get it wrong and the reaction could be confusion from the public. Ultimately, voters want to know where their Government stands on the big issues of the day, and they will only ultimately be convinced by results, not words.

John Woodcock is Labour MP for Barrow and Furness, and a former spokesman for ex-prime minister Gordon Brown

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