Save politics – write your own manifesto

January 21, 2015 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Politics 

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.



Vote Osborne get Balls?

January 16, 2015 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

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.


Could Dave Smashey and Ed Nicey please play some new tunes?

January 7, 2015 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Politics 

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.


The biggest deficit – leadership

December 3, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

George Osborne’s autumn statement appears to be is a sophisticated package; written to maximise advantage to the Conservatives with a strong ideological undertow, but also containing a popular top line policy – on stamp duty – that has already commanded cross-party support.

Although, along with just about every other commentator, I don’t think the Chancellor can actually deliver the targets of spending reduction he published yesterday, the statement confirms what we already knew: unless we start very soon to see a substantial fiscal dividend from economic growth, public services face many more years of trying to meet growing demands and rising expectations with frozen or falling budgets. Indeed the statement adds an extra year to the austerity horizon meaning major cuts will still be being implemented in the immediate run up to the election after next. Bu already, for local services in particular, the fat has long gone, the flesh has been sliced and the vital organs are starting to fail.

Mr Osborne’s unwillingness to recognise this or to accept any responsibility for how his strategy will impact on public servants and citizens is an abnegation of his responsibility as a public servant, albeit one that will be echoed by other political leaders with no desire to disturb voters with difficult truths. The survival of the public domain relies on a further significant shift of responsibility from the state to the citizen. Political expediency and the failure of the Big Society means no national leader will be inclined to ‘fess up to that before next May. If we need a different order of public leadership in these challenging times we will have to focus elsewhere.

Over recent days I have looked at public service reform from a bewildering number of angles. I attended the first national conference for the Government-funded ‘What works centres‘. I chaired a Parliamentary roundtable event on design for policy. I also chaired the launch of the Public Service Transformation Challenge Panel report, sponsored by DCLG.

On top of this I was MC of an event to publish the final report of Islington Employment Commission and the keynote speaker at the launch of the Croydon Fairness Commission. Finally, I chaired the second in our series of seminars held in conjunction with the global education services provider Pearson to discuss the idea of efficacy, this time in the context of school improvement.

Normally this would provide material for several blog posts. For while there was value in all these initiatives I have misgivings about each. The general approach of the What Works centres is overly technocratic (which is perhaps inevitable) and lacking a convincing model of change (which is less excusable).

The design for policy approach is fascinating and progressive but can feel overblown given the paucity of powerful examples of impact at scale and that, on closer inspection, design for policy isn’t all that different from the best examples of traditional policy making.

The recommendations of the Public Service Transformation Panel were hard to dispute but the report didn’t really get to grips with why implementing them seems so hard and, anyway, the idea of ‘transformation’ is surely a misnomer for a set of practices – a focus on citizens and more effective inter agency collaboration, for example – which need to be seen not as one-off changes but as a continuous discipline.

It is heartening that local authorities like Islington and Croydon are looking to provide a broader convening role focussed around the needs of citizens. However, in practice (and it is too early to speak for Croydon) I find that councils have rarely thought deeply enough about how to provide a qualitatively different kind of leadership, one that is based on influence and generosity, not control.

And while I continue to be impressed by Pearson’s commitment to ensuring that their products and services improve people’s lives through learning, it is clear that efficacy is a more powerful tool for asking questions than providing definitive answers. (Indeed, Pearson’s growing awareness that efficacy is not about imposing a single ‘one best way’ perspective on complex challenges contrasts with the rather reductive world view of the What Works initiatives.)

As I rushed from initiative to initiative the sense that something fundamental is lacking in them all grew and grew. The length of time since my last post is witness to my inability to put my finger on what that something is. Now I think I may have found it. My colleague Anthony Painter (who leads the RSA’s growing portfolio of work on institutional reform) directed me to a new paper published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. ‘The Dawn of System Leadership’ is by the impressive team of Peter Senge (recently interviewed in the RSA Journal), Hal Hamilton and John Kania.

The article helped me identify that missing ingredient. In short, the need for a different order of leadership, something to which reformers often pay lip service but which I see little sign of being fully appreciated. There are two contrasting problems with a focus on leadership: first is that it reinforces a hierarchical model of change, second that ‘leadership’ is a proxy for an ill-defined bundle of virtues – commitment, wisdom, authority. The value of the Stanford Review paper is that it provides a compelling and concrete account of the components of the kind of leadership needed to solve tough problems; problems like reforming public services in a context of shrinking budgets and rising demands.

Senge et al identify three core capabilities:

• The ability to see the larger system

• An ability to foster reflection and more generative conversation

• A capacity to shift the conversation from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future.

Exhorting a new paradigm is all very well but why might we hope for new leadership? Through their own experience and the many case studies they cite the Stanford authors argue that the hunger for system leadership and the human capacity to provide such leadership is growing. This perspective chimes with the progressive human development theories of figures like Robert Kegan and Ken Wilbur.

The problem is not our receptivity or capacity: it is the organisational forms and norms that put huge barriers in the way of system leadership and, more profoundly, blind us even to its possibility.

Senge et al summarise their argument in one sentence:

The deep changes necessary to accelerate progress against society’s most intractable problems require a unique type of leader – the system leader, a person who catalyses collective leadership.

Although this insight is negatively articulated in the ever growing disdain of citizens towards the political establishment I don’t expect it to be acknowledged anytime soon in the actions and rhetoric of national politics. Yet, without system leadership in our services and localities the next few years will see the public domain hollowed out ever further.


And the winner of the nostalgia contest is…..

November 21, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Politics, Public policy, The RSA 

Of the many unflattering comments I received on school reports one of the most memorable was: ‘O Levels are for the mediocre and accordingly he passed’. An echoing phrase came to mind when listening to the coverage of yesterday’s by-election: ‘politics is for those seeking to recreate the past, accordingly UKIP won’.

As regular readers will know, the RSA has a new worldview (if you like pictures here’s the animated version). We call it the Power to Create and it is necessary for my argument to recap its main points.

…..Today we have unprecedented opportunity to fulfil the ideal of every citizen living a creative life. This is possible because citizens are becoming better educated and more cosmopolitan and because they increasingly aspire to greater autonomy and self- expression. It is possible also because public, private and civic organisations are beginning to understand that their survival and success depends on tapping into the creativity of citizens, clients and customers. Both of these processes are hugely facilitated by technology, particularly the social web; the greatest accelerator of mass human creativity in world history.

But there are barriers too: Inequality and elitism which deny people the tools of autonomy, meaning and creativity – basic financial assets, data and intellectual property, social networks; the logic of educational institutions and hierarchical organisations which too often treat creativity as the exclusive domain of the few; and a politico-technocratic model which sees citizens as the objects not the subjects of social change.

I try to talk about the Power to Create in any speech I give. While I find it goes down pretty well with young people and the open minded, progressive folk who make up the RSA Fellowship I observe another response when I am speaking to politicians or those who work for them in local or national government.

Whether or not they agree they don’t see the RSA’s analysis as relevant. This may be partly because the critique of hierarchical organisations and traditional policy making is too radical, but there is a stronger source of resistance: Our political class and those who serve them have largely given up talking about the future.

As a former Labour representative and official I find this particularly depressing. Whenever Labour wins power – 1945, 1964, 1997 – it is in part because it has articulated a story of the possibilities ahead. It has described an exciting future and has successfully argued that social democratic values and methods are best placed to seize the opportunities (and address the threats) of that future. Yet today’s Labour Party seems remarkably incurious and unenthusiastic about the 21st century and the deep trends in technology and in human capability and aspiration that could define that century. Tellingly, the most developed critique of Miliband’s direction comes not from future gazers but in the nostalgic nostrums of ‘blue Labour’. (The craven abandonment of progressivism by mainstream and reforming Conservatives is powerfully condemned by Philip Collins in today’s Times).

This is not an argument for blind optimism. From Vladimir Putin to antibiotic resistance, from climate change to the polarising tendencies of financial capitalism, there are many things to worry about, many things we need strong leadership to help us tackle. But you don’t inspire a team only by talking about the fear of defeat. It is through painting a vivid picture of possibility that we gird people’s loins for the hard choices necessary to make that future possible.

As any strategist worth her salt knows, the most important skill in politics is defining the battleground. Most people are uninterested and unaware of policy – except when it goes badly wrong. What matters much more is who defines the problem and thus steals a march in claiming to have the solution. But if the problem is defined as the modern world the winners are those who seem most determined to abandon it.

While politicians are often rather vague about technology and out of touch with the young, I have never known a political class so uninterested in the medium term future as the current crop. Sure, politicians occasionally visit silicon roundabout and genuflect to the billionaire internet whizz kids, but this is tourism not proper exploration or analysis.

And so politics, rather than a fight for that future, is fought on a different terrain – a battle to recreate the past, a past moreover that never really existed.

Who knows how successful UKIP will be in the next election, but if politics continues to descend into a nostalgia competition all bets, indeed, are off.


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