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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…..


Eduardo and the architecture of morality

September 2, 2009 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Credit crunch, Politics 

There is a wonderful piece by Matthew Syed in this morning’s Times. It explores the controversy surrounding Eduardo’s dive against Celtic last week, which has now led to a two match ban for the Arsenal player. Syed recalls his own attempt to cheat in a championship table tennis game and how he was saved from himself by one of his coaches. Syed argues that rules, regualtions and video referees only take you so far. Sports need  moral code strong enough to weigh against the overwhelming desire to succeed.       

I would love to undertake research about the nature of moral dilemmas. Over the last year or so we have seen many episodes, ranging from Ross and Brand, to Sir Fred Goodwin, to MPs’ expenses, in which the public has reacted against what it sees as unacceptable behaviour. Yet there has been relatively little discussion of what might be called the ‘architecture’ of moral choice.

Like other aspects of behaviour, morality emerges from the interaction of three levels of personality. First, we have certain hard wired predispositions, both as a species and as individuals. The evolutionary psychologist, Marc Hauser, has shown a remarkable consistency across cultures of certain quite subtle moral distinctions. Also, people have a different capacity to exercise restraint depending on their physiology and socialisation (think, for example, of the problems sufferers of autism have with empathy).

Second, there are the cultural norms which frame moral choices. If in a society or sub culture there is a taboo attaching to a certain behaviour (drinking, gambling, eating dogs) it will carry a moral weight lacking in another cultural setting. A fascinating issue is the degree to which moral frames differ from organisation to organisation – for example a city bank or an NHS hospital. Third there is the conscious process of decision making in the face of a dilemma.

Very often controversy about an alleged moral failing concerns whether it is a cultural or organisational problem, or one that can be attributed to the immorality of the individual: did the MPs’ expenses debacle result from the culture of Westminster or the greed of individual MPs? (The answer, of courses is some combination of the two)

These are complex issues. It is not simply a matter of attributing causality across the three different levels.  Think of the famous study of theology students who had just discussed the parable of the Good Samaritan. When, immediately afterwards, the students were directed past a stranger in obvious distress there was no difference between them and students who had studied a different bible story. Instead, the key variable was whether the students were in a hurry. The determining factor was not people’s beliefs or prevailing norms but whether they had the ‘head space’ to be receptive to the empathetic signals which our brains are hard wired to generate.

I’m sure my readers can direct me to some good reading in this area. But beyond the theory, it would be great to use real life examples to explore more closely the moral architecture of a variety of sectors. How about starting with banking, sport, politics and the media.


Why good news is bad news for the Prime Minister

August 4, 2009 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

A couple of weeks ago I described Gordon Brown’s position as that of a unfancied shot putter in an Olympic final. He has had two no throws and has to get the next one right even to compete in the final round – a round few think he will win. 

More positively for the PM, I listed several factors that might give him a boost as he tries to survive. These included the quietening down of the MPs’ expenses storm, the major policy announcements he was planning to make before recess and the emergence of better economic news. The bad news for GB is that while events have gone broadly to plan it has made not a jot of difference to his poll rating.

The policy announcements in areas ranging from public service to climate change were treated reasonably seriously by the more thoughtful parts of the media. But no pick up in the polls. MPs’ expenses have largely disappeared from the front pages. But no pick up in the polls. And now the economic news is getting better. But still, so far, no pick up in the polls.

I suggested three other events that might help the PM. One was his ability to craft a radical, agenda-setting, Queen’s Speech. But given the indifference shown so far to his policy agenda, and the very limited time he has to get any measures through in the truncated final session, this looks like a forlorn hope.

This leaves two final straws of hope.  Governments generally recover a bit of popularity in the summer just because politics is not so much in the news. Also, GB can look forward to a conference designed by his beleaguered party to be a rally for its equally beleaguered leader.

But once again the optimism looks misplaced. Scarcely has the PM gone on holiday than leadership speculation has started to rage, with Peter Mandelson now being seriously touted as a new leader.

There can be no question that Mandy is the dominant politician in Labour’s ranks. If there is to be a change, on talent and experience alone he should be the lead contender. But, even now, and with him being in cahoots with sworn past enemies like Charlie Wheelan, he is a highly controversial figure. If Labour does change leader before the election it will be controversial enough, but to do so after a contested and possibly acrimonious leadership battle (say, between Mandelson and Harman), would surely snap the already thin patience of the electorate.

If GB is to be replaced there needs to be a candidate with overwhelming support from the rest of the party. So if the Mandy camp is serious about leadership it needs, quite apart from sorting Mandy a Parliamentary seat, to build some strong alliances with all wings of the Party. 

To do this while continuing to be seen as the person loyally propping up the present PM will be a challenge even for a man of Peter Mandelson’s substantial abilities.


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.


A new politics – it’s about content as well as process

June 4, 2009 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Politics 

I am quoted in this morning’s Guardian in a link to a longer piece. Here it is.

“The moment should be seized for radical democratic reform. This should include:

• Electoral reform so we get fairer outcomes and people can vote for their Party without voting for a person they dislike, and vice versa
• Devolving more power to more city mayors
• Greater use of high profile citizen forums with real power to recommend changes direct to Parliament 
• Greater transparency during policy formulation 
• A new second chamber including a third of the seats filled by ordinary citizens drawn by lots

But the problem is not just the processes of democracy it is the framing of political discourse. The era of consumer politics has run its course. For fifty years the deal has been ‘elect us and we will satisfy your demands as private and public sector consumers’. The problem is that the economic cycle means Government regularly fails to deliver and, more fundamentally, it turns out that our demands as consumers are insatiable; the more we get the more we want and the more angry we become if we feel let down.

Politicians in their turn are self pitying, trapped by the impossible demands of sixty million difficult customers. The MPs’ expenses saga exposes the story politicians have been telling themselves for years: ‘politics is impossible, it’s not fair, so I should be able to do what I can to make things more bearable’. And the competitive nature of politics makes is incredibly hard to reform. Every politician knows the system is bust, every politician wants to engage the public more honestly, but every political party would rather win on a 20% turnout than lose on an 80% turnout.

We need political leaders who ground their appeal on a citizenship democracy rather than a consumer democracy. This means moving from an ‘us and them’ politics in which we the people – egged on by a media which is little more than a disorganised conspiracy to maintain the population in a perpetual state of self righteous rage – make impossible demands. Opinion polls show we demand cheap flights and action on climate change; affordable houses but not built where we live; Swedish welfare on American tax rates. Instead we need an ‘us and us’ politics. This starts from citizens deciding what they want, citizens engaging with the trade offs between different interests and objectives, and citizens understanding the role they themselves must play in creating a better future. Occasionally, political leaders have this capacity to turn a problem outwards and make it one we all own – for example Obama’s speech on race last year. Cameron occasionally sounds like he has this in him but in the end he seems happy to win the old way.

How politics is conducted from the cabinet to the local constituency is profoundly dysfunctional, thirty years and more behind the way successful modern organisations run themselves. A new politics needs new institutions and new processes but it also needs a radically different culture, and a style of political leadership that is open, collaborative and emotionally literate. “


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