Two themes occurring separately and together in weekend media commentary were the state of politics and the state of Ed Miliband. In relation to the former, commentators have quoted the Hansard Society’s annual survey of political engagement showing the lowest recorded figure for the percentage of the public saying they are interested in politics (42%). In relation to the latter the so called ‘summer of silence’ and the resulting sniping from various Party figures is being worked up into a silly seasons leadership crisis.
For what it’s worth, my own take on the electoral picture is that very little of significance has changed. The predominant public feeling remains ‘none of the above’ and there is little or no sign of either of the two parties making any significant incursions into the territory of the other.
True, when confirmation came of economic growth, Labour looked wrong footed (itself a bizarre message failure) but Miliband’s focus on living standards is wise given that most families will be worse off in 2015 than 2010. And while the Labour leader’s personal ratings are grisly, in the face of UKIP pressures and the unrepresentative nature of their own activist base, the Conservatives are running the risk of seeming to abandon the middle ground.
For two years I have been telling anyone willing to listen to ‘buy Cleggs’. Whatever the Lib Dem poll ratings indicate, their incumbency skills mean they are unlikely to lose many seats in 2015. Given that ruling parties rarely if ever increase their share of the vote at subsequent elections (sorry Dave) and that leaders rarely if ever fully recover once the electorate judge them not up to the job (sorry Ed) the likelihood is that the voters will plump for a centre right Coalition or a centre left Coalition rather than choose a clear winner.
All of which leaves me saying this year exactly as I did last. There is a crying need for one of the party leaders to use the new political season and their conference speech to disrupt the miserable stasis that is English politics. Without such boldness it is difficult to see any of the parties making much headroom in the next election. Yet, all the signs are that none of them has the capacity or motiation to find either a message or a way of communicating it which lifts them above the fray and makes a connection with the 58% and rising who think politics is less important than the price of fish.
Given that nothing has changed and that nothing seems likely to change, it is reasonable to ask why I bother writing about it. The spur was a clever piece in the Observer yesterday by Catherine Bennett. Bennett identifies a syndrome which she terms ‘I only had the prawn cocktail’, referring to those people who refuse to share the bill after a meal out on the grounds that they ate less than other people.
She quotes arguments that only graduates should shoulder the bill for higher education, only train users should be expected to stump up for subsidising railways and only parents should pay for childcare subsidies. The details of the argument can be contested – in each of these three cases it is still the case that the taxpayer at large contributes substantially – but the deeper point concerns the apparent inability of politicians to summon up a case for the common good.
Yet without some account of the common good and, what is more, an account which sees that good extending into our responsibilities to the future, democracy is nothing more than exactly what its critics have always warned of: an ugly and unequal fight of self-interested causes to rig the game, articulate grievances and mobilise populist indignation. Indeed, it is interesting that the policy which has the greatest credibility among voters (even if they don’t always like the consequences) – austerity - is the one which is most often couched in terms of social responsibility as well as voter self-interest.
The tragedy in Egypt is an extreme case but it shows the frailty of democracy in the absence of some notion of shared national interest and common good. We aren’t on the road to Cairo, nowhere near it, but unless our leading politicians try to aim higher not only will the greatest ambition of the parties be partial victory in a game of ‘who’s least worst’ but we will soon be recalling that 42% figure with fond nostalgia.
Perhaps no six words have done as much damage to sensible policy making as these: ‘beer and sandwiches at Number Ten’. Not only does the phrase encapsulate an idea of social partnership as a cosy labour movement cabal, but as it was coined in the seventies (ironically, as an attack by Labour’s Harold Wilson on Downing Street meetings hosted by Conservative PM Edward Heath) it is also linked to a time of trade unions overreaching their legitimacy and ultimately creating the context for Margaret Thatcher to hasten their long decline.
Whether we use the label social partnership, industrial partnership or corporatism, the UK’s aversion to this way of governing policy and organisations has held pretty firm ever since – which is a pity. For not only have just such arrangements survived and indeed thrived in other countries (most notably Germany) but there are strong reasons to believe that some form of modern partnership is exactly what we need right now.
In part this is because at times of adversity we need to find ways to share out and legitimise hard choices, but it is also in line with the steadily growing enthusiasm among some Coalition ministers for a form of industrial policy, an enthusiasm which was evident again today in Vince Cable’s speech. A third ingredient may be a general shift in boardrooms away from free market fundamentalism, as witnessed this morning by news that Barclays plans to get out of the tax ‘structuring’ business. I even think the great British public – most of whom were either not alive for, or don’t remember, the Social Contract of the mid 1970s – would be receptive to the idea that Government could work with business and employee organisations to develop a plan for long term economic renewal, and that all companies (not just a few mutuals) should be encouraged to engage employees as partners in shared enterprise.
The barrier to this possibility getting a serious airing takes me to the one of the problems with political authority, which I may touch on in my RSA annual lecture tomorrow. David Cameron may share his party’s long running hostility to any sniff of corporatism, but were he to float such an idea, even in the most modest of terms, he would no doubt be shot down in flames by true blue forces in his own party and among the opinion formers of the Telegraph, Spectator and Conservative Home. I suspect many in the public would admire the PM if he reached out beyond his natural supporters (this was after all the style of his early leadership) but, as last week’s reshuffle suggested, this is not a fight he relishes right now.
For Ed Miliband the problem is that industrial partnership is only possible with intelligent, moderate and authoritative trade union leaders and if such beasts exist they are doing a great job of hiding it. The TUC is the closest we have to the kind of trade union organisation which could participate usefully in developing a tripartite industrial strategy but the Congress has always been weak in comparison to its largest members, something which trade union consolidation has only exacerbated. Miliband could, of course, call for trade union leaders to wake up, smell the coffee and act in the interests of the country and their members, not just an activist core. Again the voters would probably be impressed but, like Mr Cameron, Mr Miliband probably doesn’t have the appetite or security for this kind of battle with his ‘allies’.
There are, of course, perfectly intellectually robust arguments against any form of corporatism, but perhaps the most urgent reason at least to discuss some new economic partnership is the sense in post- Olympic Britain (grab it now, it won’t last long) that we can still be a nation which pulls together. That the narrow and rigid base of our major political parties makes such a debate so unlikely is not unconnected to the reasons public faith in politicians is at an all-time low.
A small moment of controversy at yesterday’s Scottish Renewables conference concerned nuclear power.
Guy Doyle, Chief Economist of the Energy Unit at Mott MacDonald, presented findings from a major research project on the costs of various sources of energy. As he said, this is a very inexact science given the range of important unknown variables like the cost of oil and gas, improvements in renewable technologies, the upfront cost (including cost of capital) of new power stations, not to mention heated debate over the externality costs which should be attached to different forms of energy. However, using the most robust assumptions available, Doyle argued that new nuclear still looks like one of the cheapest sustainable energy sources in the medium (2020) to long (2050) term.
In questions a young woman asked: ‘given that Siemens have pulled out of the nuclear industry and given the problems France is having with its attempts at new nuclear, aren’t the industry’s prospects and any hopes for new cheaper, safer types of nuclear swiftly receding?’. Doyle responded by saying that Russia, China and South Korea all seemed to have quite economical nuclear for their home market, but the question remains over whether a combination of public opinion, stricter regulation and access to investment funds might kibosh plans for an expansion of nuclear in the UK.
No doubt the questioner will feel her doubts have been confirmed by today’s news that EON and RWE have withdrawn from the project to develop a new nuclear power station for Anglesey. As Robert Peston points out, the Coalition’s reaction – which is to argue that the other projects are still on track – may be too sanguine. The nuclear sector wants more certainty about future income streams, but certainty is something in short supply right now.
Much in the energy sector is on hold until the conclusion of the Government’s already delayed Electricity Market Review. The review has to achieve the difficult balancing act of keeping prices (and subsidies) down, while securing supply and delivering on carbon reduction targets. The sector and its investors say they want predictability above all. But the more the Government provides long term price guarantees the greater is the danger of tying itself into unnecessary cost when prices, stocks and technologies change.
Standing back, there is a connection between the nuclear story and lengthening queues at petrol stations. Our immediate need for energy is absolute and visceral. In the short term, we panic and protest if we think we will be without fuel, and even minor power cuts are a reminder of the utter dependence of modern life on the steady flow of energy.
As a policy problem, energy is one of the toughest containing many of the ingredients for challenging decision making; acting for the long term, managing unquantifiable risks, balancing public private collaboration with the need for competition etc. Public attitudes pose another difficulty; policy makers face unrealistic expectations and under most scenarios need to encourage significant behaviour change, particularly around demand management. Yet the energy debate tends to be dominated by energy wonks, vested interests and people sitting astride a very big hobbyhorse (peak oil conspiracy theorists on the one side, pathological wind farm haters on the other).
I had a brief deep dive into energy during my time in Number Ten when Tony Blair decided it was a key strategic priority (this was the beginning of a shift in official thinking about nuclear). This convinced me both that energy – clearly and honestly explained – is an issue which can engage any thoughtful citizen and that raising public awareness is an important part of element of making good policy.
As David Cameron tries to put Number Ten lasagna and Gregg’s pasties behind him, and perhaps seeks to place the fuel ‘crisis’ into a wider perspective, he could do worse than making energy policy a major public talking point.
‘Sell the sizzle not the sausage’ goes the old advertising phrase. Political strategists too have been creative in exploring the stretchable space between substance and message. As a former member of the New Labour junta I am hardly in a position to complain, but the Coalition publicity machine does seem to have gone into a super-fast spin cycle since the New Year.
There is a good example this morning. Normally in Government when ministers are told there might be a problem they will ask their officials to check the facts closely before admitting anything publicly. It is interesting to see the logic reversed as it has been this morning by Chris Grayling, the employment minister, and Damian Green, the immigration minister. Writing in the Daily Telegraph the ministers give the clear impression that there is a major problem with migrants illegitimately claiming benefits. The ministers’ article gets a predictable front page splash with the implication that this problem of benefit abuse involves 370,000 people.
But as a searching interview of Chris Grayling by John Humphries revealed on the Today Programme, the evidence of actual wrongdoing is much, much smaller. Indeed of the 370,000 only 2% were found to be making fraudulent claims. There is a large batch of cases in which the claimant is yet to be fully identified, but on the surface at least, there isn’t any very strong reason to think the proportion of fiddlers will be much higher in this group.
It is unusual for ministers apparently to seek to alarm the public about an existing policy, but even more odd when the factual basis for the concern seems so tenuous. Two of the Government’s vulnerabilities right now are unemployment (which is high and rising) and immigration (which is also high and rising despite a high profile Coalition commitment to reduce it). In the short term, at least, it isn’t clear Government can do much to put either trend into reverse.
Put the two challenges of rising unemployment and immigration control together and the populist script writes itself. Facing this danger – reinforced by the continued toxic salience of immigration in opinion polls – ministers may well have decided that it was vital to show they were getting a grip on the issue. I will leave others to decide whether presenting the public with alarming, but arguably misleading, statistics is a price worth paying to pre-empt allegations of complacency.
The Grayling/Green article is the second high profile example of the Coalition volunteering concern about its own policies. The first was David Cameron’s recognition of the inequities of removing child benefit from households containing a higher tax payer. I am not for a moment doubting the sincerity of the Prime Minister’s concern but it is noteworthy that not only did the Chancellor almost immediately confirm his intention to implement the change but, as Gavin Kelly pointed out, it is hardly credible that Mr Cameron has only just noticed a flaw (namely that a household with a single income of £45k will lose out while one with a combined income of £80k might not) which must have been apparent from the very first time it was floated by officials.
There is no reason why ministers cannot acknowledge problems with their own policies, indeed it could be seen as welcome candour. But aspects of both cases (the ministers’ apparent indifference to the impression created and Mr Cameron’s ‘discovery’ of the perverse impact of benefit withdrawal) suggest that the Coalition has of late been listening rather too carefully to the spin doctors’ advice.
Given the tough policies it is pursuing the Coalition’s popularity is holding up pretty well and most of the media continues to give it the benefit of the doubt. In these circumstances spinning can feel like an easy game to play. But as the weather of public opinion changes the political wicket takes spin less and less well.
Regardless of disagreements about the pace of spending cuts, there is no question the Coalition is trying to do something tough and brave with its austerity programme. Given the pain being suffered by ordinary folk, the credibility of the Government is important not just to its political aspirations but to national morale.
Modern politics inevitably involves creative communication, but selling a sizzle will stop being such an effective strategy once people start noticing the frequent absence of sausage.
Yesterday the Prime Minister and leader of the opposition, being the clever types they are, took it in turns to put each other on the defensive. Mr Cameron attacked Mr Miliband over Labour’s stance on public sector strikes while Mr Miliband condemned Mr Cameron on youth unemployment. Business as usual in Westminster, meanwhile, out in the world the gloom deepens.
In the short term there is the unfolding European sovereign debt crisis (today saw yet another failure by European leaders to agree a credible collective strategy). Major British banks are still highly vulnerable to default so any idea that the UK will be sheltered from the collapse of the Euro is almost certainly wrong. In the medium term we have no realistic path back to the kind of growth that would enable us to manage down national, corporate and family debt without years of pain or the ever present risk of a slide back into recession. As he prepares for his autumn statement next week, George Osborne’s scope to make choices may be restricted to deciding in what order to put the bad news.
Over twenty years as a policy analyst and commentator I have tended to disagree with people who claim public services are getting worse. The problem is usually that they are not getting better as fast as we would like, or that they have fallen behind comparable services in other sectors. But now we are beginning to see genuine deterioration. This is not just in those non-statutory areas, like libraries, youth and community services which have borne the brunt of local government cuts. Monday’s EHRC report on domiciliary care was just the latest in a string of damning reports. The prospects for vulnerable older people are clearly deteriorating and there is no foreseeable reason to expect this process to stop. Whatever steps are taken to improve public service efficiency and engage volunteers in the community, further years of austerity are likely to see this decline in service levels and social outcomes spread to other core areas of provision.
In the face of the crisis and the danger that, in time, declining living standards and services will lead to social conflict and even political extremism, we desperately need national leadership on a different plane to that on offer right now. Leadership to give us hope and a sense of national purpose. Leadership to challenge us – from the self-serving overpaid company executive to the apathetic unemployed youngster and every one of us between – to be part of a national mobilisation to protect our most vulnerable citizens, keep our communities going and show the creativity, collaboration and risk taking which must be the foundation for economic success. Imagine a society in which almost everyone had a story to tell about what they were doing to help the nation pull through.
But when it comes to political rhetoric we are all so jaded that this leadership will not come from conventional oratory. Our political leaders need to go miles outside their comfort zone. In particular they need to recognise that political point scoring and playing to their own dwindling band of party loyalists is not only irrelevant but an abdication of the duty of public service. If they don’t we might eventually reach the same depressing conclusion as the Greeks and Italians and seek to replace politicians with technocrats.
Like all my blog posts this is no more than shouting in the wind. Perhaps it’s time I took my daily pill and had a nice lie down. It’s not as if I know concretely what it would take for our leaders to convince us we should respect and respond to them. But I think I would know if I saw any sign of it happening. It might start with greater humility, more recognition of the inherent uncertainty right now in all policy options, a willingness to work across party lines, the courage to appeal concretly and directly to the nation even at the risk such an appeal will initially fall on deaf ears.
Every politician I know says they came into politics to serve and to make a difference. That’s why I tend to defend the political class even when it’s friendless, like over expenses. But desperate times call for desperate measures. Over the years, I have heard so many politicians say they wish they could break out of the binds of intra-party trade-offs, inter-party adversarialism and media management and find a way of connecting with the public.
If not now, when?