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Making change happen

CHARLES CLARKE: Hard-headed policy analysis, not fantasy wishlists, will win back public confidence in politics



We have all just experienced a general election campaign marked by stunning promises, enormous aspirations and giddying financial assertions. All the parties combined their own fantastical rhetoric with withering and often dishonest attacks upon the character and credibility of their opponents and their plans. It was all pretty depressing, however you feel about the final outcome.


What was notably lacking from all parties was clarity about the ways in which they would implement the ambitions which they were happy to trumpet.


Their manifestos – by convention the places where the parties would set out both their goals and the mechanisms by which these would be put into effect – were all almost bereft of any detail about how the policies would be carried through. The information which electors, and indeed any informed commentators, needed in order to make their judgements of the promises of the opposing parties was simply absent.


Over the last five years or so this absence of detail and process has come to characterise democratic politics in many countries where ‘fake news’ and sharply targeted social media, rather than open debate and the contest of ideas, now characterise the political fight within a sharply partisan media.


The traditional discussions and debates, for example those on the left between ‘revolutionary change’ and ‘Fabian gradualism’, have now given way to a simple contest of aspirations, hardly challenged at all in open debate.


This developing lack of connection between over-optimistic desires and policy delivery is highly dangerous for the stability of democracy since it builds a serious disconnection between the desires and ambitions of the people and governments’ actual achievements. This fuels cynicism and distrust at precisely the time when confidence and a demonstrable sense of purpose are so essential.


Excellent past examples of raising false expectations can be seen in a highly contested and incendiary field of policy – immigration: Gordon Brown’s infamous pledge of ‘British jobs for British workers’ and David Cameron’s utterly dishonest and unimplementable pledge to ‘reduce net migration to less than 100,000 a year’.


Neither of these commitments were ever capable of being implemented and of course they never were, not even close. But the fact that they were stated by authoritative prime ministers led people to the not unreasonable belief that they were attainable. And so expectations were raised, built up and then dashed, with cynicism increased, anger at the failures more manifest, a sense of ‘establishment conspiracy’ enhanced and political alienation of substantial numbers of voters signally increased.


Such mistakes laid the basis for the 2016 referendum which millions of those alienated voters took as their opportunity to strike back at those who had misled them and their political conduct. That Brexit decision sent the country down the slippery slope of removing many of the roots and foundations of our democratic political and parliamentary culture.


This process has intensified at the 2019 election. Cynical manipulation, such as the Conservatives’ creation of doctored videos and their own ‘factchecker’ twitter link , has deepened.


And all the parties have made enormous, almost unimaginable, spending pledges. The ‘magic money tree’ has been reinvented with a vengeance, including everything from 20,000 extra police officers and the abolition of student tuition fees to unfunded reductions in national insurance and universal free access to broadband. This fantasy wishlist can only lead to policy failure and disappointment.


So it is beyond time to re-establish the Fabian tradition of well thought-out policies and well thought-out routes to putting them into effect.


That is the best way to stand against fake news, against the ignorant and vicious denigration of ‘experts’ and for a politics of integrity. From Labour’s point of view it is also the best way to challenge the perceptions of Labour incompetence which was a core reason for the party’s extremely poor performance. It is worth recalling that throughout Labour’s long history the party has only been able to claim the electorally vital mantle of economic competence between about 1996 and 2008, though at some points, for example after ‘Black Wednesday’ in 1992 and in their adherence to an economically incoherent Brexit, the Conservatives’ deep incompetence has mitigated Labour’s weakness.


So what steps should be taken to build a programme of reforms which can really be implemented and restore confidence in politics? The journey from policy speech to Green Paper, then White Paper and then legislation and implementation is long and difficult. Reform can only be successfully carried through with top-class preparation.


First in each policy area the problem to be addressed needs to be clearly identified. There should be precision about the reform’s goals and intentions, with no confusion of ends and means.


This needs accurate language to ensure transparency. So, for example on taxation, it needs to be recognised that a commitment not to increase the standard rate of income tax is different from a commitment not to raise the overall level of taxation. Or on school performance a commitment to reduce the number of poorly performing schools is not the same as increasing the number of children with good GCSE results. Reducing NHS waiting lists is not the same as lowering the number of deaths from cancer or cardiac failure. And reducing levels of crime is not the same as employing more police officers.


In all of these cases, and many more, increased public spending may well be neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for making change happen. In some cases, increasing public spending may not change any outcomes at all. And in many areas increased public spending will only make a difference if accompanied by substantial reform of the way in which services are delivered.


Second, once the policy goal has been clearly stated, its proposed solution needs to be lucidly set out. Ends must not be confused with means. The function of institutions and organisations must always be guided by their current or future purposes and not their past roles.


This is very tough since there will probably be strongly differing views about how best to achieve the policy goal: Nationalisation or regulation? Stronger local government or new national agencies (such as the ‘National Education Service’)? Increased taxation or borrowing money? and many more such dilemmas.


Then, third, we need to be clear that we do properly understand the challenge of implementing the solution which has been identified.


There will always be strong vested interests which need to be either placated or overcome (remember Nye Bevan’s ‘stuffing the doctors’ mouths with gold’ to get to the goal of establishing a National Health Service in 1948). And in a modern democracy the power of an oppositional vested interest is even greater. The losers from any reform will always be far more vocal and committed than the potential beneficiaries.


And, particularly since the enactment of the Human Rights Act in 1998, it is essential for any proposed policy reform to analyse and then successfully circumnavigate whatever legal constraints there may be. In our globalised world no policy reform can succeed without understanding the international dimension, which is more pervasive than some think.


And finally, fourth, any reforming government needs to be clear how it will address the vicissitudes of the political process, notably the precise parliamentary arithmetic in a context of lower levels of party discipline than in the past, a weaker manifesto framework than used to be conventional, a more activist House of Lords, and a sensationalist media with diminishing space for reasonably rational and objective policy discussion.


These four steps can be daunting for any reforming government. It is very difficult to sustain reforming political energy and creativity within a political system based on adversarial politics and the duty of an opposition to oppose. Mistakes will inevitably be made which will debilitate and erode confidence. There is certainly a good case for building a more consensual political system but we are a long way from that now.


The best way of minimising these risks is to start from a hard-headed policy analysis in all fields, on the basis which I describe above. This is what the Fabians have demonstrated throughout their history, most notably in preparation for the Attlee administration.


That analysis, rather than overblown and overoptimistic policy pledges, is the best way for Labour to re-establish the confidence of the population, to end the pervasive cynicism about politics and to regain the democratic power to rebuild the strong society which this country now needs even more than before this general election was called.

Photo: flickr/European Union 2014 – European Parliament 


Charles Clarke

The Rt Hon Charles Clarke was the Labour MP for Norwich South from 1997 to 2010. He served as education secretary and home secretary. He is now visiting professor in politics at the Policy Institute of Kings College London and in politics and faith at Lancaster University

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