If we want politics to change, let’s make the first move ourselves.
My last post highlighted the difference between what political parties say and what voters think those parties will do in office…..
…..voters may end up opting for the party with the plan they least like (the Conservatives) because they think this party is more likely to end up implementing the plan they most like than the party actually promising that plan (Labour).
However, when it comes to political disorientation this pales into ordinariness compared to this Newsnight interview with UKIP MP Douglas Carswell. The highlights of the interview include:
- A positive assessment of the multi-cultural, multi-national nature of modern Britain
- The assertion that what people disparagingly call political correctness is generally simply politeness
- Warm words about the UK Muslim community
- A commitment to give the NHS whatever resources it needs to defend its founding principles
- An emphasis on the need for a politics of optimism and hope
Of course, the demand for a speedy EU referendum is there too, but overall one is left with two big questions – how can the two most high profile people in a party (Mr Carswell and Mr Farage) offer such contrasting images and to what extent are Mr Carswell’s views in line with that of his party’s core supporters? It feels a bit like having Ken Livingstone as the leader and Peter Mandelson as chief spokesperson, or perhaps Bill Cash as leader and Kenneth Clarke as the spokesperson.
This is all part of the tapestry of representative democracy but it also helps to explain the depth of public cynicism. In a world where an ever greater premium is placed on authenticity, the opacity and trickiness of our politics stands out even more. Another dimension of unreality lies in policy making; as the world has become more complex, fast moving and unpredictable the parties have – in a desperate and forlorn attempt to retain public trust – become more extensive and more specific in their promises.
In terms of fiscal policy, politicians have tried to close the credibility gap with ever more ingenious ways of pretending their hands are tied. We have had public pledges, Golden Rules, an independent Bank of England, the OBR and even last week’s fiscal responsibility legislation, yet still politicians fail to deliver. Perhaps they need to take the principle and make it more populist: ‘Ed Balls pledged today that if Labour’s misses its fiscal target, he will volunteer for I’m a celebrity, get me out of here with his fee going to help the squeezed middle’.
But moaning about politics is one thing, it is another entirely to do anything about it. After all one of the main reasons politicians aren’t straight with us is that we don’t talk sense to them. As Ben Page from IPSOS MORI famously said: ‘the British people are very clear about what they want: Swedish welfare on American tax rates’.
So I thought I’d offer a way forward. How about if we the voters were to define our own policy priorities? I don’t mean simply the top-of-the-head prejudices people tend to offer opinion pollsters. Neither do I mean broad values or aspirations, as everyone signs up to fairness, freedom and hard working families. I also think we should steer clear of single issue policies (like hunting, hanging or assisted dying) because that’s not what general elections are really about.
Instead my suggestion is that we all decide our top three broad policy priorities along with one currently on offer that we most strongly oppose.
I haven’t thought about this for long enough to give my definitive list but here goes as a conversation starter:
- Substantially improving the prospects of the least advantaged third of children to be top education priority
- Tax well off old people to improve social care
- An irreversible shift of power from Whitehall to city regions.
And my number one anti-priority:
- An in-out EU referendum.
My own list is not the issue. The point is that if we each had such a list it might force us to be clearer and more thoughtful about what we want. It would offer an invaluable shared starting point for political conversations between friends or strangers, and enable us to be more focussed and forensic in weighing up what the parties are offering. It might even give politicians the courage to stop trying to be all things to all people and say ‘if that’s really what you want, you shouldn’t vote for me’.
I am not sure whether we really do want more clarity or candour from our politicians, or a more informed and honest debate. Perhaps we just enjoy complaining. But if we do want change we should stop waiting for politicians and step up ourselves. ‘My mini manifesto’ could be a start.
Elections should be about which political party is offering the best plan for Britain. The truth is more complex and less edifying.
A few years ago a detailed historical analysis of the outcome of close elections between right of centre and left of centre parties offered an explanation of why the right tends to win. Surveying swing voters the researchers focussed not on the party’s policies but the voters’ perception of the risks associated with Governments not delivering their promised plan. The risk of right of centre parties failing to deliver was seen as cuts in public services and greater social division while the risk of left of centre parties not delivering was higher taxes and economic frailty. While many voters worry about the former, more worry personally about the latter. Thus the greater perceived risk of a left of centre party failing in office leads key voters to opt for the lesser risk of a right of centre party failing.
This analysis (annoyingly, I can’t find the reference) is highly salient to the coming election. For not only is it looking close and not only is there a substantial difference in fiscal policy, but our disenchanted electorate is inclined to believe that whoever wins will renege on their promises. Which takes us to the paradox that may yet determine the outcome in May.
When George Osborne published his eye watering fiscal plan in the autumn statement I was among many who felt it was not only disingenuous but politically misguided. Few serious economists think Mr Osborne can stick to his plan. Unless there is a serious uptick in the European economy such an intensification of the fiscal squeeze would be likely to reduce growth and thus be counter-productive. Also, as outgoing civil service chief Sir Bob Kerslake among others has argued, the proposed level of cuts is probably undeliverable; essential services would start to collapse. Furthermore polling is beginning to suggest that voters are becoming austerity-weary and don’t see tax cuts as realistic. The proposal that we not only have five more years of deep cuts but an extra dollop in order to fund a tax giveaway is surely electorally unwise.
In contrast Labour’s plan, while tough to deliver, looks more realistic. It is true, as the IFS said this week, that only closing the revenue deficit by 2020 is risky giving the possibility of a downswing in the economic cycle, but we are where we are and there is no realistic policy that would survive such a scenario intact.
In reality, both Balls and Osborne are resting their hopes not on their published forecasts and plans but on long awaited signs that economic growth is generating a fiscal dividend (the most important single data point between now and the election will be the Treasury tax take for January). All other things being equal, the Balls plan looks more growth-friendly than the Osborne plan.
On this basis many analysts assume that a Conservative election victory in 2015 will see a continuation of the last five years in which targets are continually missed and the deficit is cut much more slowly than the plan. In other words, if you vote for Osborne’s plan many experts think you will get something closer to Balls’.
Surely this means Labour’s economic and political strategy is stronger? Here lies the paradox. If the historical analysis is borne out, when the election is close and the voters assume no one will deliver their promises the key question is ‘which party’s risk of failure is more worrying?’. The answer to this favours the Conservatives. For while the likely risk of Osborne failing to meet his targets is that we end up with something like the Balls plan (the voters’ favoured option), the risk of Balls failing could be a fiscal crisis which could only be alleviated by substantial tax increases.
So (and I suggest you read this slowly), voters may end up opting for the party with the plan they least like because they think this party is more likely to end up implementing the plan they most like than the party actually promising the plan they most like.
The only answer for Labour is to double up on its promise of fiscal rectitude. Unfortunately for the opposition the kitbag of devices to do this is already pretty much empty. We have had written pledges, Golden Rules, an independent Bank of England, the OBR and even this week fiscal responsibility legislation, yet still politicians fail to deliver. All Miliband’s team can do is to bang home their commitment day in day out, explicitly saying that if growth goes off track it will be services not taxpayers that will be squeezed. But this would require a conviction and message discipline across the whole Labour frontbench which has thus far been absent.
For a political scientists it is fascinating to see whether the historical tendency for perceived risk to determine outcomes in close contests is borne out. For those of us who wish elections were fought on the basis of rational policies and authentic debate it is all rather depressing.
The world is full of ironies – perhaps the election campaign will be enlightening after all.
The closing chapter of the election story has begun but with four months until we reach the denouement, most of the audience is already transfixed with boredom. It is like a cycle pursuit race where the competitors go round and round zigzagging the track to little effect, looking nervously over their shoulders, while most of us take little or no interest until the final dash for the line.
Yet in Monday’s entirely predictable, largely pointless, activities there were reasons to think things might have to change. It is unlikely media and public opinion will tolerate another 13 weeks of dodgy dossiers, glib posters, crude caricatures and windy rhetoric. Like a pair of middle aged DJs, the Parties on Monday tried out their favourite hits and instead of being greeted by a jostling dance floor of excited journalists, their tunes were drowned out by a collective public groan. We want to hear fewer golden oldies and more new material.
Indeed, as the two big parties search for the crucial, elusive, two or three extra percentage points of voters they need, they may have reason, even at this late stage, to revise their strategy.
In any complex, dynamic contest the success of a move by one side depends on the scope of the other side to respond. In essence the Conservative pitch for 2015 was wholly predictable from the day after the Coalition was formed in 2010 with an extra ingredient added by the election of a new Labour leader: ‘Britain’s on the road to recovery, don’t let the people who created the mess get back in to office, especially as they are led by someone not up to the job’. The Conservatives still believe sooner or later this message will work for them.
There are two problems. First, while this message may damage Labour, it hasn’t so far done anything to get the Conservatives through the reinforced glass ceiling of 32 percent voter support. Second, Labour has had a lot of time to prepare its response. Ed Miliband’s performance on Monday was little more than competent and Labour’s policies still don’t add up, but Labour’s leader was at his most effective when attacking that core Conservative message as being both complacent and negative. If this attack sticks and Conservative spokespeople find that any talk of recovery is seen as evidence of being out of touch, the Tories might find it difficult to learn another tune in time for it to be heard by May.
Because Labour’s message has been far less consistent they may have more scope to develop it further. In writing a few days ago about appealing to the centre ground it seemed that Ed Balls might be signalling a change of strategy. But Miliband’s core message remains the same, reflecting his own convictions: ‘the fundamental problem for Britain is inequality and the key task for Government is to redistribute power and wealth from the few to the many’. Miliband sees most of society as the oppressed; recall how the underlying theme in all the case studies with which he dotted his 2014 conference speech was that – in the end – everyone, apart from Tories and fat cats, is a victim.
Of course, inequality is big social and economic problem for Britain and not just for those at the bottom, but, as Danny Finkelstein writes this morning, the Labour message has its own problems. On the one hand, most people – however hard their lives – do not see themselves as victims whose problems are fundamentally a function of the success of others. Second, if redistribution is the biggest priority, it demands extending the size and power of the redistributing agency – namely the central state; not a prospect that attracts many voters beyond committed social democrats.
In short both major parties are stuck with messages which are failing to reach out beyond their core constituencies. Right now they are adopting the response to not being understood of the Englishman abroad – waving their arms and shouting.
When we think about organisations – like political parties – it is often as lumbering beasts with a single mind to make up. In fact in the highest councils of these bodies there is usually a small group with different views vying for attention. In this group there will tend to be someone who consistently argues for a different, more experimental approach. When I was briefly involved in the campaign centre I tended to be this voice suggesting, for example, being more authentic and discursive, less predictable and adversarial. I was nearly always ignored and – I suspect – nearly always wrong.
But as the parties see the disdain with which their New Year campaign launches were received and as the polling returns once more confirm the limited appeal of their message beyond the already decided, maybe the voices calling for something different might start to get a fuller hearing. Those of us who would like an election campaign that goes beyond cynical pantomime can only hope so.
If we want to survive austerity, let alone improve places and lives, we must attend to the human dimensions of public service leadership.
During 2014 I have attended, chaired, or spoken at, countless meetings on public service reform strategy. Yet two of the most powerful examples of the possibilities of reform were spontaneous and personal.
The first was in a working group on reducing unemployment in an inner London borough. As facilitator of the group, I had insisted at an earlier meeting that the local providers of the Work Programme be invited to join our deliberations. This was rather against the instinct of the local authority whose members had a tendency to see the providers as untrustworthy and unhelpful private sector profiteers.
With the meeting trundling on and the various agencies staying within their comfort zones, out of sheer frustration I tried something new. I invited everyone in the room to speak directly to another person: ‘Tell them’, I suggested, ‘something they could do differently which would help you do your job of tackling unemployment’. After an uncomfortable silence it was one of the Work Programme providers who piped up. She described how several of her customers had received advice from the council’s welfare rights team and, as a consequence, had been able to secure a bit more money or to avoid having to join the Programme. ‘It’s not that I don’t want them to exercise their rights or get their entitlements’, she said ‘it’s just there doesn’t seem to be any message about the value of trying to get a job’.
All eyes turned to the rather fierce senior council officer. Her reply was powerful, something along the lines of ‘You are absolutely right. I am really glad you’ve raised it. I am going to go back and look at how we can change the remit of the team and the job descriptions of staff to put a much stronger emphasis on promoting routes to work’. This brief interaction released the whole room to start being a lot more open about their frustrations and aspirations. At last we started to move beyond the lazy, generic bleating about things ‘not joining up’ or ‘everyone working in silos’ into concrete issues, requests and commitments.
Then earlier this week I was invited to speak to and facilitate a meeting of the Essex Partnership Board (made up of public and voluntary sector agencies from across the county), chaired by the very direct and thoughtful council leader David Finch. In the first part of the meeting I spoke about collective impact methodologies; identifying a shared mission, agreeing key metrics, sharing out clearly differentiated roles and responsibilities, committing to high levels of communication and having a backbone organisation to hold the process together and maintain momentum. Everyone seemed keen, although perhaps more in principle than practice.
Then something startling happened. A leading officer of a local NHS Clinical Commissioning Group premised his/her comments (I have to be careful here as telling the truth about the growing winter crisis can be a career-ending move in the NHS) by describing the week he/she is having. In essence with norovirus on the move and flu figures starting to rise, the NHS is already at breaking point with long and growing waits for ambulances and in A and E, and a chronic shortage of staff and beds. One consequence is frail people being discharged to return to empty homes at midnight.
The officer was about to move on to the presentation when I merely expressed the palpable mood in the room: ‘how can we talk about the ambitious, collaborative principles of collective impact and then not apply them in the face of a challenge like this?’
Within a few minutes the CCG manager was surrounded by a gaggle of fellow leaders discussing what they could all do to help. One promised to co-ordinate a communication to all their staff about getting the flu jab and looking after the health of family and neighbours, while someone from the voluntary sector committed to directing more volunteers to A and E departments to accompany people home when they are discharged at night. The room was full of energy as the managers were powerfully reminded of the very reason they joined the public and voluntary sector in the first place.
Public service reform can often seem like a very dry and technocratic process. Of course, it is important to be systematic, to prioritise, to apply the best evidence of what works etc but, as I argued in a recent post, if our aim really is transformation (anything less will mean a declining public sphere) we will also need a different quality of leadership: seeing the whole system, creating genuine conversation and moving from reaction to co-creation.
Even beyond that there is, it seems, a vital emotional dimension. We live in a world of competition, public relations and 24 hour media; a world where expressing fear or vulnerability as a leader can feel very dangerous. In this world the most powerful way to turn a group of people guarding their organisations into a team passionately committed to shared action isn’t offering help, but asking for it.
The importance of today’s OECD report showing that rising inequality slows economic growth can hardly be over-stated. It fatally undermines free market ideology. While social democrats have in the past relied upon philosophical and ethical arguments for greater fairness, the world’s most respected independent think tank has now conclusively proven the instrumental argument: had inequality not risen over the last thirty years our GDP would be a whacking 8.5% higher and almost everybody in society (outside the top ten to twenty percent) would be better off. If they had any sense of shame the employees of free market think tanks and most university economics departments would surely be offering to perform hundreds of hours of community service for the poor in penance for their sins.
Will this research usher in a new era of social democratic hegemony analogous to the Bustskelite consensus of the fifties and sixties? More immediately isn’t this powerful ammunition for Ed Miliband, coming as it does soon after an autumn statement which was regressive (albeit marginally regressive) in its impact?
Things aren’t nearly that simple. If statistics determined the public mood we would be a lot less worried about crime and a lot more enthusiastic about Eastern European immigration. Instead when working class voters talk about a lack of fairness in society it is migrants and benefit claimants not millionaires or the Government that are most likely to be the target of their ire.
Anyway, it is all very well signing up to an outcome such as reduced inequality but something else entirely agreeing the measures to achieve that goal. For example, two obvious and relatively straightforward steps that would help – a higher and more progressive property levy and a set of measures to increase taxes on well off pensioners – would both probably be wildly unpopular.
The political problem for the left of centre is that when it talks about addressing inequality it always seems to involve the Government assuming more power in the form of spending or passing laws; what I call ‘the policy presumption’. This impression is reinforced by the sense that social democrats see a bigger state as inherently good thing and when we hear Ed Miliband (in his recent Party conference speech) tell us exactly how many extra new homes, new nurses and new doctors he would mandate from the centre.
Given the strength of the policy presumption it might be assumed that it must have served a useful purpose in the past. Looking across the last twenty or thirty years it is possible to put together a strong case for the opposite. This starts with individual policy disasters vividly described by Ivor Crewe and Anthony King in their book ‘The blunders of our Governments’, the poll tax, the child support agency, individual learning accounts and the private finance initiative are among the most well-known and expensive examples.
Then there is the overall record in the single area which has been most subject to the application of the policy presumption; public service reform. Since the mid eighties there has been almost constant top down reform of our education, health and criminal justice systems yet public service performance continues to be disappointing and productivity sluggish. Even when the last Labour Government was pouring new funds into public services, managers and front line workers were demoralised by the continuous stream of ever-changing instructions from Whitehall.
Finally, while most of this policy was said to be responding to public concern and demand, its implementation has been accompanied by a deepening and damaging loss of confidence in central Government and the politicians who vie to run it.
So, although it may seem trite, all these impediments to a commitment to act on inequality demand the same broad strategy.
In an influential piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, John Kania and Mark Kramer define the basic premise of collective impact:
That large-scale social change comes from better cross-sector coordination rather than from the isolated intervention of individual organizations
Almost as simple as the definition is the five step method they describe as characterising schemes in contexts as a varied as a city alliance to reduce childhood obesity and a major corporate social responsibility initiative to improve the lives of cocoa farmers in the developing world.
Collective impact relies on a shared mission between the private, public, voluntary and community sector participants. The mission then needs to be translated into a set of smart targets to which all the partners commit and which they then closely monitor. The partners need to agree clearly defined and differentiated roles and to commit to high levels of communication between them. Finally, there needs to a ‘back bone’ or ‘anchor’ organisation which focuses on maintaining the partnership and keeping it on track.
While collective impact schemes may look easier to develop locally, there is no reason why this approach can’t be adopted by a central Government; as long as that Government is willing to look beyond the policy presumption.
With the benefit of hindsight, Labour’s bold 1999 pledge (now effectively abandoned) to abolish child poverty is a good example of an important and radical initiative which would surely have been have been well suited to a collective impact methodology. Blair’s Government should have sought prior public support for the goal (it wasn’t even in the Party’s 1997 manifesto) and garnered commitments from all parts of society including disadvantaged people themselves. Instead the policy presumption turned what could have been an inspiring national crusade largely into a technocratic and unloved process of welfare reform designed by Treasury experts.
It is not that spending and rule changing are unnecessary, but social democrats too often see civic engagement as an optional add on to the transformative task of enacting policy. Instead progressives should see traditional policy tools as a supplement to the transformative work of civic mobilisation.
The OECD report offers a strong guide to the direction we should travel if we want to combine social and economic progress. What is needed is a new type of leadership – one that is adamantine in its commitment to an optimistic and progressive vision for Britain but open, inquiring, humble and adaptive in discovering how to mobilise the country behind that vision. I believe modern citizens are ready to respond to such leadership, but is anyone ready to provide it?