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The real problem of politics

November 3, 2009 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Politics, Public policy, The RSA 

There are two articles worth reading together in today’s Times: Rachel Sylvester says that politicians have no choice but to accept in full the recommendations on their allowances due to be made this week by Sir Christopher Kelly. Her column concludes:

The real problem about expenses is that they have made it harder for politicians to show leadership about the things that matter far more. The verdict of the court of public opinion is too harsh on many MPs. But unless they accept it and move on they will never be able to convince the voters to listen to them on anything else’.

Turn back a few pages and there is Ann Treneman’s typically engaging Commons sketch, which has long been the paper’s only dedicated coverage of Parliamentary proceedings. It is Treneman’s job to encourage us to laugh at our politicians but it seems that any attempt she might make at belittling yesterday’s debate about the EU summit would pale by comparison with MPs’ determination to belittle themselves.

While all this is going on, the fundamental problem with our democracy is, if anything, getting worse. This problem is the gap between the world as it is and the world as the public thinks it is, or wants it to be – which, in turn, leads to an ever greater list of issues on which there is simply no honest position that politicians can adopt which does not risk public outrage.

Despite arriving late, Home Secretary Alan Johnson gave an interesting speech here yesterday (featured on Page 1 of the Times). As Michael Clarke, Director of RUSI, said in his thoughtful response, the Home Office, perhaps more than any other department, has to try to adapt to a fast changing and shrinking world. In so doing the department faces issue after issue, most created by aspects of globalisation, on which the public is profoundly ambivalent. Here are three examples:

• We want to know who is in the UK, to better enforce immigration rules and to ensure that people only receive the services and benefits to which they are entitled, but there is both scepticism and antipathy towards the national database which underpins ID cards.

• We want to reduce asylum applications and to return those who came here illegally or have not won the right to stay. Yet if we had befriended a Zimbabwean or Iraqi who had settled here with their family we would no doubt think it was appalling that they might be forcibly repatriated. In response to a question along these lines Alan Johnson told the Great Room that when some time ago the Home Office said that it would not return any fleeing Zimbabweans the number of applications from those who claimed to be from that country rose by 80%.

• We want our civil liberties protected but we would be outraged if a terrorist incident occurred which we felt could, by whatever means, have been avoided

It is not that these issues are irresolvable. Nor that the Government has always got its strategy right. Indeed, yesterday I left Michael Clarke and philosopher AC Grayling in John Adam Street agreeing that the Government had made the mistake of making the protection of lives more important that the protection of our way of life (which includes our rights and liberties).

My point is simply that these issues are difficult and that if we (or the press) are looking for simple and reassuring answers we are looking in vain.

This was one of the themes of my annual lecture last week. Here is an extract:

It is hard enough for politics to reconcile different interests and preferences in society but, now, a combination of the complexity of modern life and consumerist expectations mean that politicians face the challenge of reconciling conflicting interests and preferences in the same people. Generally, it is a challenge they duck. We have an economy and a public sector mired in debt. We have ambitious carbon reduction targets but no realistic account of how we are going to meet them. We are the fifth richest nation in the world but suffer high levels of child poverty. All this may be cited as evidence of how politicians have failed to face down the superficial and contradictory demands of voters.   

If we wanted people to see democracy as inherently about dilemmas, and trade offs, balancing interests within people, within society and across time, what might we do?

If you want to know what I think is the answer you’ll have to read or watch the whole speech…..


The cabinet’s big gamble

June 5, 2009 by · 10 Comments
Filed under: Politics 

Here, for what it’s worth, are my thoughts about this bizarre unfolding day of politics. First, expect the unexpected. Over the last two years no one predicted the huge swings of the political pendulum. Brown’s position was so strong in his first few months he nearly called an early election. He then went into free fall before starting to pull things back last autumn as the Conservative response to the credit crunch faltered. Then, in the last few weeks, in the wake of McBride and MPs’ expenses, Brown has taken Labour to new depths of support.

The last 24 hours are a microcosm of these wild swings. Listening to the radio last night after James Purnell’s resignation, the pundits were close to consensus that the game was up for the Prime Minister. But now with Miliband, Darling and Johnson safely ensconced in the big three jobs there is an emerging view that the Prime Minister may survive. Number Ten has a slew of major policy announcements on the stocks. Downing Street believes that if  Brown can maintain sufficient momentum to get through the next few days his chances of making it to the general election are pretty good. But if this sounds like prediction, ignore it – the one thing we have learnt over the last two years is that political pundits are less reliable than horse racing tipsters.
My second point assumes Gordon Brown survives. He will then be able to rely on the total commitment and loyalty of his cabinet. Unlike almost everyone else, I try to take a charitable view of politicians. So, I assume that those ministers who have long had private criticisms of the Brown set-up have stayed in Government because they have changed their mind for strong substantive reasons. To be propping up a Prime Minister simply from inertia, fear or career calculation would be hard to defend. This implies the Cabinet must now be made up of people whose genuine political judgement it is that Grown Brown can defy the odds and come through next year, presumably by a combination of visionary new policy, economic recovery and drawing the dividing lines with the Conservatives. 

Everyone in Labour ranks – including James Purnell – will hope those who have stayed have got it right, and given the swings of the last two years it is not inconceivable. But if they are wrong there will be nowhere to hide. After the Purnell resignation no one can say they didn’t have a choice.

So, on the one hand we have the possibility of another swing of the pendulum and the greatest political come back in modern Parliamentary history. On the other hand, if Gordon does stay and lose badly, Labour members could turn against the whole of its current leadership class. Few of the people then emerging as the architects of the post Blair-Brown Labour Party will be names widely recognised today.


Democractic reform: we still aren’t having the right discussion

May 26, 2009 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Politics, The RSA 

David Cameron’s lengthy Guardian essay about democratic reform is welcome, even if there isn’t much in it that is both new and a concrete commitment. As a long standing supporter of electoral reform, I also supported Alan Johnson’s call this weekend for a referendum on the day of the next General Election – indeed, I advocated exactly this policy in my blog a few days days earlier.

While it is important to debate the rules and procedures of politics I continue to believe that the bigger issue is the content of democratic discourse. My first RSA annual lecture, back in 2007, was about ‘pro-social strategy’. This is what I said:

The way we do politics not only reflects but reinforces a loss of confidence among citizens and communities about solving problems ourselves. The most disabling aspect of political discourse is the paradox (exploited by the news media) that Government is seen simultaneously as omnipotent and incompetent….

By creating a vibrant debate about common problems, aims and responsibilities,  pro-social strategy seeks to reinstate democratic politics as the process by which citizens give permission to their representatives to act on their behalf.

This shift in thinking is not simply about rolling back the state or taking politicians down a peg or two. The implications for government are not so much about its size but as about its ways of working. The implications for politics are not so much about politicians letting go as about citizens taking hold.’ Pro-social politics’ would not be seen in terms of conflict between us (citizens) and them (politicians). Politics would be about us and us and us.

‘Us’ because it would be about what we as citizens want to achieve and what we need to do to achieve it.

‘Us’ because it would be about recognising the different interests, views and resources of different parts of society and accepting the challenge of reconciling these differences rather than simply asserting our own demands and resenting any attempt by politicians to sort it out.

‘Us’ because this would be a process in which we would need to confront more fully the truth that we each of us have our own conflicting interests, views and aims. The apparent incompatibility of our own individual preferences is a growing characteristic of modern policy problems. For example, we want to fly cheaply and protect the planet, to see our children as home-owners but to protect the green spaces around our towns and cities……”

 As Ben Page from Ipsos-MORI often says ‘the British public demand Swedish welfare provision on American tax rates’. The real problem with politics is not the expenses claims of MPs, nor even the power of the Executive, it is that we are unable to have a grown up conversation about the challenges which politicians can only resolve if we work with them: notably, public spending restructuring, population ageing and climate change.

We the citizens are stuck in a bad place; increasingly unwilling to be governed but not yet willing to govern ourselves. Proposals for reform should be judged by whether they are likely to move us towards a more realistic and responsible  democratic discourse.


The lessons we shouldn’t learn from the Stafford NHS Scandal

March 19, 2009 by · 12 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

In less than an hour we have Health Secretary Alan Johnson speaking here on public health. I’m responding and his speech has just arrived so I will be brief.

I wonder whether we will get any questions on the terrible revelations about Stafford Hospital? When something goes wrong like this there is a tendency to look for system failures and to blame the Government. Sometimes this is justified, but in this case I’m not sure. Four points:

1. There is little doubt that overall the NHS is in a better state than ever before. If you don’t want to take my word for it read this leader in the Times from Monday (published hours before the Stafford revelations).   The big question is how dependent these improvements have been on extra money and what will happen now the money is running out. Mary Riddell is pessimistic in today’s Telegraph.

2. The NHS is a huge system. This alone means that at any one time something will be going wrong somewhere. Just think of any large organisation you’ve worked in. To draw conclusions about a whole system from the worst performer is as invalid as drawing conclusions from the star performer.

3. Setting and enforcing targets is a complicated business. It is easy to get them wrong. Policy makers try to avoid perverse incentives and outcomes, sometimes by generating even more targets. Any enforced target will be vulnerable to people either trying to rig the results or over-rigidly adhering to the target against common sense or compassion (this seems to be what happened in Stafford) But the fact that targets have these problems doesn’t mean they should be abolished. Again we have to look at the system overall and here the evidence is that targets have contributed to genuine improvements in patient care and accountability.

4. The best way to avoid disasters like Stafford is to make it easier for patients themselves to blow the whistle on bad care. The Government is doing this. It was a theme of last weeks’ public service reform document.  So hopefully, in future, scandals like this will be publicly exposed in months rather than years.

And we should beware those who use Stafford to call for a return to the good old days when doctors did what they wanted and were accountable only to each other. There is a piece in the Guardian along these lines this morning.  An anonymous doctor blames Stafford squarely on targets and central interference. Among the many things in the piece that don’t add up is the statement that the NHS was much better when it relied on doctors’ goodwill followed immediately by the allegation that targets are driving doctors to choose to let sick patients die in order to care for the less ill. So we are required to believe on the one hand that doctors used always to be driven by only the best motives and then a paragraph later that it takes only a target for these same doctors to abandon their Hippocratic Oath. 

Not everything is perfect in the NHS, tough questions should be asked of those who claimed to have inspected Stafford Hospital not to mention thsoe who awarded it Foundation status. But debate needs to be based on proper analysis not knee jerk response.