Tuesday, 24 September 2013

I'm taking leave...

...though not of my senses, I hope.

'Public Policy and the Past' is now going to take a bit of annual leave, but it'll be back on Thursday 3 October, when we'll still be talking about governance, politics, polling, history, Higher Education - and the build-up to the Ashes in Australia.

See you then!

Monday, 23 September 2013

Tatty little policies that add up to... very little

Our society faces a lot of challenges. An ageing population that will test our resources to the limit. Globalisation that's been straining our welfare states. Debates about the proper or desirable level of immigration. The question of whether we should remain in the European Union. You can pick any of them, and you could argue the toss about what to do in an honourable and a decent way.

But all too often what we've got right now is a politics of the little things instead - nudge-nudge wink-wink politics that sent messages about non-problems, just to grub up a few votes.

Take four 'debates' from recent weeks. The first is Health Ministers' decision to write to the General Medical Council about Muslim medical personnel who wear the full face veil in the NHS - an 'issue' about which there have never been any complaints, and which might involve precisely zero women anyway. Not content with that, the Health Secretary (above) then made sure that he said that, while as a Minister he couldn't do anything right now, personally he wouldn't want to be treated by a woman wearing a veil - a nasty old piece of line-drawing and gesture politics that didn't involve him actually having to do anything.

Here's some more. Vans that shuttle around bits of London saying 'illegal immigrants, go home' - a total waste of taxpayers' money, designed to make it look as if the Government knows what it's doing on immigration while it goes up. An 'innovation' that now won't be making a return, after the Liberal Democrats put their foot down. And what about the idea that the police could put you in a 'drunk tank', and charge you to come out? Another total dud, reminiscent of Tony Blair's infamous 'march hooligans to a cashpoint' debacle in 2000. British people have deep-seated and fundamental problems with alcohol. Instant fines of a few hundred quid will not solve them.

And then here's one from the Opposition: the 'policy', if one can dignify it with that word, that companies who hire non-EU workers will have to take on the same number of apprentices. What earthly connection is there in those two decisions? Why should a company who hires a Russian computer expert be made to take on a computing apprentice, when another company who's left with a not-quite-so-able Spaniard or Italian are told they need do nothing? Workplace training and immigration are two completely separate issues, and this attempt to mix them up is like putting jelly in your scrambled eggs: horrible.

It's governance by stunt, concept and tiny little gimmick. It's the politics of the Special Adviser - that fresh-faced band of political high-jinksers who think every technical idea is a great old wheeze. In alliance with a lot of politicians who've never had a job outside Westminster or Whitehall, or who haven't seen the outside of an endless round of activist meetings and party conferences for a long, long time. Who are easily sold on clever-sounding junk, until someone points out that it's been tried before. Or that it won't work.

And once you've had to sit through these four examples, by turns tawdry, ludicrous and threadbare, you have to conclude: it's not getting us anywhere.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The electoral snowglobe begins to clear

So here at Public Policy and the Past we spend a lot of time wondering about the outcome of the next General Election, due in May 2015. We look at international examples. We study the numbers. We make predictions, our latest being that an overall majority is probably out of the Labour Party's reach.

But we also look historically at the question - in order to get a better sense of the problem's scale and scope. That's the problem with most political journalists, actually: reacting (quite properly) to every scandal and every twist and turn in the political battle, they don't stop to look around themselves at the electoral landscape itself.

So where have we go to now? Well, the electoral snowglobe is starting to clear. Some of the elements of the next election are beginning to fall into place. Let's mix our metaphors, shall we? As the arrow flies in the air, its target becomes clearer and clearer. If we sat behind it - remember that faux-exciting scene in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves? - we'd see its objective resolve in front of us. That's what's happening now.

Labour's lead has been decreasing, and there's some room for it to fall further. But that process was always a bit exaggerated, and seems to have stopped for now: the party's numbers have stabilised again in the high 30s. For now, that seems like the bedrock of the party's support: left-leaning Liberal Democrats having defected en masse to Ed Miliband's party, it's going to be difficult to squeeze them down below the mid-30s. That means Labour will make gains in 2015. We don't know how large they'll be, or whether Labour will be the biggest party - not yet. But they're going to move forward.

Now let's look historically at the question of the Government's, and the Conservatives', polling performance. The first thing to say is that Labour aren't doing all that badly, actually, by the standards of past Oppositions. Most of them were doing worse than Ed Miliband's party is now, just over three and a half years out of power; a cheering thought, perhaps, as he endures his terrible personal approval ratings.

The second thing to say on this is that, if the Conservatives are to get close to an overall majority in 2015, they're going to have to move further from their current mid-Parliament polling trough than any government has moved in modern times. It's a tall order, and they're probably not going to manage it from here. Add in an additional complication - the 'stickability' and popularity of local Liberal Democrat MPs, who the Conservatives are going to find it hard to shift - and the best David Cameron can realistically hope for is to be the biggest party in another Hung Parliament.

So there we have it. Not really a revelation, but it's good to have things quantified. Recent talk of 'Conservative advance' and 'Labour collapse' has been overdone. The likeliest outcome? A Hung Parliament, with the two parties quite close to each other in terms of seats.

We'll continue to keep you updated as the snow clears. Or the arrow nears its target.

Monday, 16 September 2013

David Cameron and the art of non-Renaissance non-self fashioning

Take a look at the video of David Cameron defending Britain against Russian officials' private jibes, taken a couple of weeks ago during the antagonistic and rather confrontational meeting of the G20 in Moscow. They'd said Britain was just a 'small island' (which it isn't, actually). Mr Cameron begged to differ.

Some of you will find it rather endearing. Some of you will find it cringeworthy. The Prime Minister is nothing if not good at PR, and he represents a strain of rather watery and laid-back, but certainly patriotic, conservatism (and Conservatism) that in this respect probably matches public opinion fairly well. Every leader has to have a shlock store somewhere.

But - as many more qualified to spot the similarities have pointed out - the really interesting thing is the way in which Mr Cameron was channeling Hugh Grant in Love, Actually. For those of you who aren't so hot on your early 2000s rom-coms, that was a rather fluffy and sappy Richard Curtis comedy in which a new British Prime Minister stands up to an American President with a very similar hymn to the virtues of a nation that's still 'great' by virtue of its film and music industries and its sporting achievements. David Cameron clearly ses himself, or wants us to see him, as a bit of a Hugh Grant - slightly bumbling, perhaps, but with his heart in the right place.

Literary theorists call this self-fashioning - a spectacular idea about the Renaissance for ever associated with the Harvard English academic Stephen Greenblatt, who starting in the early 1980s has really defined the way in which Renaissance figures wore the right clothes, had themselves painted in certain ways, made sure they had the right books, and so on. You don't have to do this sort of thing consciously (though fifteenth and sixteenth century noblemen often did): it can be part of an ethic, an ethos, a way of seeing and being that comes as a package.

And Mr Cameron's way of seeing is this: he's standing up for Britain in a very tough old world, drawing on just about every warmed-over cliche he can get his hands on. Though he wouldn't want to be seen as too strident or too pushy - an image that the diffident actorly persona of Mr Grant allows him to purloin. It's rather pleasing, in a way, to be reminded that our leaders have the same memory bank as we do: that they like linguistic fast food and the oratorical equivalent of a microwave dinner just as much as we do.

Leaders do this sort of thing a lot. Ronald Reagan, that actor-turned-politician, was a master of the art. His jibe at a moderator trying to turn off his microphone - 'I am paying for this microphone, Mr Green' - was a classic example. Almost exactly the same line had been used by Spencer Tracy in State of the Union. Reagan had probably stored up the verbal missile - or, if he hadn't, he was half-remembering something he'd seen and liked, up on the flickering big screen.

The Prime Minister's audience might only have been able to think back to Love, Actually. But Historians don't forget that sort of thing.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Four lessons from Australia's election

Australia's election of a centre-right Coalition government has got plenty of conservatives pretty excited. Why, they shout, a proper conservative can win! By rejecting gay marriage, while promising lower taxes, less regulation - and a few giveaways for the middle classes. What a coup. British Labour in particular, in the midst of their own poll downturn and with their leader facing pretty nasty personal numbers square in the face, might well mope at the fate of their Australian Labor counterparts.

But wait. It might not be like that at all. Let's look a bit deeper at that Australian election result and have a think about what it might mean - especially for the UK. As we do so, it'll become clear that the situation is slightly more complex, and rather stranger, than it at first appears.

Unpopular leaders can win elections. Not so long ago, Tony Abbott (above), now Australia's Prime Minister-elect, was regarded as something of a loser. Not by everyone, mind you. But the numbers were against him. He was one of the least popular Opposition leaders in Australian history - ultra-conservative, socially gauche and, well, a bit weird. Not for nothing was he called the 'Mad Monk'. Now look at him. As Mike Smithson of Politicalbetting has pointed out again and again, UK voters elected Ted Heath and Mrs Thatcher despite liking their opponents a whole lot more. Mr Abbott just proved the theory once more. So Ed Miliband, Labour's leader in Britain, might just perk up a bit.

The electorate are unpredictable. There's a strong anti-incumbent feeling out there. Basically, voters think that all politicians are liars. They've got a bit of evidence on their side there, of course - though no more, and probably quite a bit less, than they ever had. But they're not keen on any of the big established parties in the developed world, and they're making that quite clear. Australia's Senate will now contain representatives from the Sports Party and a pro-motorist party that no-one seems to know anything about. A mining magnate's new populist party will be represented in both the lower and the upper chamber. Anything can happen these days - even, perhaps, an MP or two from the UK Independence Party.

There'll be strange swings all over the place. Zoom in for a moment on Australia's seat-by-seat results, and you notice an effect that's becoming evident across the democratic world - differential swings that look like electoral crazy paving, from 10 per cent to Labor to (a more usual) 10 per cent swing towards the Coalition. Local effects - the quality of candidates and the salience of micro-issues - are going to be more and more important. Come election night 2015 in the UK, some very marginal Conservative and Liberal Democrat seats are going to be retained while some 'fortresses' are swept away. Labour will probably lose seats even if its vote goes up overall. That's the way politics is going everywhere.

The Greens might hang on in Parliament.
Britain's Green Party must be pretty worried about their only Parliamentary seat - Brighton Pavilion, the sort of socially liberal and laid-back place that always looked most likely to deliver such an upset. They've been losing ground to Labour there recently, including on one 11 per cent swing to their Labour opponents in a recent council by-election. The Greens were, similarly, slataed to lose their own Australian MP - their deputy leader, Adam Bandt, who sits for left-leaning central Melbourne. The result? They held on comfortably, hugely increasing their vote. Some voters will say 'there ought to be at least one Green Member of Parliament in the House of Commons'. Others will like their charismatic MP, Caroline Lucas. Either way, on this evidence, she might well hang on.

There you have it - Australia's reminded us again that the electorate are rather more grown-up, unpredictable, volatile and perhaps a little more environmentally conscious that they're often given credit for. Which are all rather cheering thoughts, really.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

What went wrong with Universal Credit?

Universal credit. Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear. Where does one start? The Government's flagship welfare programme, designed to roll six benefits into one, has come in for a withering assessment from the National Audit Office today. The NAO charged the project with being (among many other things) overly ambitious, badly managed, poor value for money, chaotically administered, and just not very well thought through.

No-one likes crowing. But what did 'Public Policy and the Past' say about Universal Credit, all the way back in February 2011? Let's remind ourselves of our pithy judgement at the time: 'quite likely to crash and burn'. Any why? Because it was and is a good example of 'hierarchical thinking', top-down decision-making that starts from a set of principles and then won't adjust them when they smash into reality.

It's a sad outcome in many ways, actually, because some of the concepts involved are worth fighting for. Simplicity, for one thing - merging lots of payments into one. And helping the Government send very clear signals that work will pay by disassembling some of the complexity that inevitably adheres to all systems left in place for any length of time.

But the detail... Well, it's been a cavalcade of laughable Keystone Cops-style adventures, really, and they've done no-one any good, and brought no-one any credit. Let's have a look at some of the public policy clangers that have been dropped.

Believing that you can't be wrong. Iain Duncan Smith (above), the Secretary of State in charge, is a strong-minded, principled and absolutely committed Minister. He's in a powerful position in his party. He spent years in the political wilderness building up the Centre for Social Justice, and he's now putting the ideas he incubated there into effect. Unfortunately, they won't work. But he can't now turn aside without a complete (and perhaps resignation-inducing) loss of face. So we're stuck with Universal Credit until at least election time, after which Prime Minister Cameron can move him on.

Going for the 'big bang'. Everyone always knew that Universal Credit could never be made to run at once, everywhere. But the Coalition thought that it could be up and running next month. Next month! Either there's some seriously powerful drugs in the water at the Department of Work and Pensions, or this was always a fantasy plan, just sketched in the diary to keep Ministers and backbenchers happy. The Heath Government's negative income tax plans in the early 1970s - a similarly ill-fated McGuffin that drained comparable levels of energy - was also supposed to happen in one Parliament. It didn't. It died on the drawing board, though with slightly less bleeding than Universal Credit. The switchover is now supposed to be complete by 2017. Here's a quick prediction: it'll probably never happen.

Refusing to admit your errors. We all know it's hard to admit when you've dropped a brick. You lose confidence in yourself. Other people laugh at you. You have to go back over your workings. But Ministers have just blamed civil servants for the failure of Universal Credit - a trick Duncan Smith used today, but which just doesn't wash. He's in charge. He's insisted on ramming it all through - in the face of leak after leak from among top mandarins who know that he's just digging himself in deeper and deeper.

Believing in the promise of Information Technology. Minister after Minister has fallen into this trap, from the time of Tony Benn's tenure at the Ministry of Technology in the early 1960s. Just trust this hardware, the consultants say; just look at these glossy keyboards and screens; simply push a button. Er, no, that's not how life works, actually. Especially when you're dealing with low-income and often-vulnerable adults who are supposed to be 'lobster potted' through all this, never to be allowed to return to offline benefits. Horrendous story after horrendous story is now emerging of staff employed only to sit and work all the technicalities through with claimants. It's humiliating. And it's a waste of staff time.

There you go, then. Too much political commitment. Too much speed. Not enough humility. And too much confidence in what computers can do for you. That's a pretty long list, really. And if you're reading this in the UK, it's costing you your hard-earned cash, right now.

We'd all be better off going out and throwing some banknotes down in the road, because at least someone would then pick them up. And that'd make everyone smile a bit. At the moment we're just standing around a bonfire of our own money. And fuming.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The Lobbying Bill: more bad law

The problem with the UK Parliament is that it's become a sausage machine for bad laws. You name them, we can pick them out. The absurd, unworkable (and very expensive) idea that landlords will check your documents? Rubbish - and quietly being dropped. Lords reform? It went down in flames. Life for dangerous dog owners who maul people? Wrong in principle, and unlikely to work in practice. Universal Credit? Roadkill - as we always said it would be. Actually, roadkill is unfair to small animals who get hit by cars. But that's another story.

The point is that we have too many laws. They're often composed of a series of knee-jerk reactions. They're badly drafted. They leave massive loopholes. They're sloppy. Unintended consequences proliferate. Ministers and civil servants have to go back over them - thus creating the need to pass even more legislation. Everyone knows this to be the case. Civil servants know it. The Cabinet Office has just published a paper about it. Even the Church has complained about it.

Today's Parliamentary consideration of the Transparency of Lobbying Bill is a case in point. Frankly, it's a dog's dinner - except that I wouldn't feed it to my dog. If I had one. It's supposed to regulate lobbyists, establishing a register of who they are and what they do - as well as capping their spending in an election year. So far, so relatively unproblematical. But read on. Unfortunately - and you really could not make this up - about 80 per cent of actual lobbyists will be exempt. The groups that will really be affected? Britain's charities and trade unions, who are defined as 'lobbyists' for the purpose of the Bill - a concept that most of the public would have a hard time with. Ministers, perfectly plausibly, say that they have no intention of restraining the activities of such groups. But creating powers that you arbitrarily say you won't use is a very dangerous principle, and it's alien to the principles of liberal democracy and the rule of law - the reign of measures, and not men. Even the neutral Electoral Commission has voiced a series of concerns about this hastily drawn-up and shoddy piece of nonsense.

This one should be junked right away. You can write to your MP about it if you want.

But what might we do to stop such debacles happening again? A 'yellow card' system from Parliamentary Select Committees, which would ask (or then force) Ministers to go back and think again. Since each party's MPs are appointed to those committees in roughly the numbers that they sit in the Commons, the Government should still get its business - more slowly. Another one? Civil servants should be free to raise their concerns with those Committees, anonymously if needs be, without fear or favour of disciplinary action - the very definition of a 'public interest immunity' in action.

One thing's for sure: if we don't do something soon, we're going to be deluged with more and more rackety old legislation. Whitehall mandarins will blush with shame: then new Ministers will just pass a load more tat to patch up the problems with the old lot. And on we'll go.

Is that really in anyone's interests?

Monday, 2 September 2013

Post-Ashes reflections (II): sometimes close isn't anywhere near


Statistics can mislead you. Often they're selected deliberately for just that purpose. More often people confuse apples with pears. Even more often, the raw material on which they're based is just inadequate for the purposes they're being called on to serve.

They can also be used inappropriately, to show that things are big when they are small - or that sporting contests have been close when the two sides (or participants) have actually been light-years apart.

Take this year's cricketing Ashes contest between England and Australia (above). You know what? It wasn't close. England won 3-0. They might have won only 3-2, had the weather not intervened at Old Trafford and the Oval, but we'll never know. But they won. And nothing - absolutely no other overall result at all - ever looked that likely.

But look at the batting and bowling tables, and things look a bit different. Let's take the six batsmen who scored the most runs first. Four of them were Australian. The top six wicket-taking bowlers? Three of them were Australian, too. Or what about the top six batting averages? Er, three Australians again.

The Australians had the better wicket-keeper. They had the best bowler of the series. And yet still they lost - in a slow-motion landslide that sometimes made them appear ragged indeed, and on a few occasions actually made them look pretty foolish.

Why? Because whenever England were challenged - when they were forced out of their increasingly disliked and annoying stupour - they roused themselves to sharp displays that swatted the opposition aside. Ian Bell, the batsman of the series by a mile, scored so many runs that he made the difference of run totals on his own - and against all the opposition bowlers, too. They knew how to seize the moment - how to win the critical sessions and hours that turned most of the games - a capacity that's very, very hard to capture in data tables and graphs. Then they fell asleep again.

This gap between what the statistics appear to show, on the surface, and what they really illustrate when you've sat through hours and hours of this stuff (someone had to) is a very wide one. It reminds us of the chasm between popular perceptions of the 2012 US Presidential election, in which Mitt Romney was 'close' to President Obama, always 'closing the gap', with the reality. If you've forgotten, it was this: Romney was always just behind, and he stayed there. A hundred polls showing that you're one per cent behind will still mean that you lose, 98 or 99 per cent of the time.

That's what it was like in the Ashes. Australia were at the races. But they never looked like they had a winning ticket.