Way back in 1996, mainly because there was no other reliable moderniser available, I received a double promotion to became head of policy for the Labour Party. I recall the barbed congratulation of a colleague from the campaign team I was about to leave; ‘never forget, Matthew’ he said, ‘policies don’t win elections, balloons and whirly hats win elections’.
The relationship between the self-interested, competitive imperatives of politics and the public-spirited, technical foundations of policy making is subtle but important. In an era of polarisation and populism this relationship is deteriorating and could become dangerous.
Legitimacy is a critical success factor for any policy
From the perspective of a purist policy maker, focussed on maximising welfare through applying the best evidence, politics is a form of pollution. There are occasions and processes that fill policy makers with the trepidation of a furniture showroom manager facing over-excited children with grubby hands and a predilection for bouncing. Election campaigns, conference speeches and media-fuelled national alarms are all moments when the calm methodical world of the wonk is interrupted by political advisors demanding useful facts and headline grabbing policy ideas. It is when, in the memorable phrase attributed to Geoff Mulgan, the principles of ‘evidence-based policy making’ are replaced by the demands of ‘policy- based evidence making’.
Yet, the more pious and precious policy makers become the more campaigners despair of their inability to understand how the world works. After all, however brilliant the policy it will achieve nothing without the power to implement it. There are other, subtler, arguments. Studies of policy (Centre for Public Impact, 2016, PDF 1.3 MB) suggest legitimacy is a critical success factor. The public sense that a policy is ‘the right thing to do’ is generated more by the political arts of persuasion and coalition building than the objective assessment of facts. The social world is sometimes unpredictable and always reflexive. The fondness of politicians for polling evidence leads to them being accused of following public opinion rather than shaping it. But skilful and ambitious politicians can take people on a journey making what was once radical start to seem inevitable.
I have operated in both worlds and have succumbed to the indignation each side can feel towards the other. Ultimately, like the partners of a difficult marriage, the practitioners of politics and policy know they can’t live happily with each other while having, equally, to admit they can’t live without each other. What might save a fiery marriage from becoming toxic is some level of parity. But today, the noisy demands of politics seem ever more to drown out the quiet discipline of policy making.
Populism, polarisation and pessimism
The OECD has highlighted the danger of three ‘p’s; populism, polarisation and pessimism. Each in its way is inimical to the science of policy.
- Populism deliberately simplifies the world arguing that nothing works with the wrong tribe in charge and anything is possible with the right man.
- Polarisation drives people to favour dramatic transformation over painstaking reform.
- Pessimism is a loss of faith in incremental progress, despite the evidence that, in many areas of life, it continues.
As Michael Gove famously prefigured, the Brexit debacle, from the referendum to the unicorn derby that is the current Tory leadership race, has in many ways been testament to the growing power of political narrative and the diminishing sway of expertise.
Underlying these processes is what I have called ‘the solidarity deficit’ resulting from the characteristics of modernity exacerbated by a neoliberal ideology which scorns both egalitarian and conservative ideas of belonging. While the old political divides over who could run the existing system better or put more money in voters’ pockets were arid and often depressing, these were debates with a common denominator. The politics of the solidarity deficit are moral, tribal, visceral and intractable.
The first danger of all this is real and present. Politics simply becomes more and more detached from reality. From Mexicans paying for walls to comedians and actors winning elections, from the creation of an resurgent Anglosphere to climate change denial anything can happen, anything claimed, anything promised. Beyond a certain point, and it often feels we are close to it, there is a vicious spiral as every politician and party feels that cleaving to truth and objectivity is tantamount to a juggler choosing to tie a hand behind her back. For confirmation they need only recall the catastrophic decision by Theresa May’s team to publish a realistic and costed social care policy in their 2017 manifesto.
The second danger is even greater. When politicians win with dodgy facts and fantastical promises they have then to try to deliver. On the one hand, this can leave leaders taking risks which threaten not just their own populations but undermine wider international systems. We can see this in Trump’s escalation of trade warfare in the US and Erdogan’s willingness to risk bankrupting the Turkish economy to offer pre-election bribes. On the other hand, populists who fail to deliver have a ready justificatory script blaming enemies within and without for sabotage. This in turn can then be used, as it has in the US, Hungary, Turkey and elsewhere to justify circumventing or undermining the constitutional rule of law. Populism in power provides a continual risk of the drift into authoritarianism.
How could we encourage greater focus on policy substance?
What is to be done? In response to these trends and the longer-term evidence that voters can rarely even rationalise their choices through objective or informed criteria, there have been many initiatives encouraging the public to put policy issues in the balance with their more instinctive reactions to political narratives and personalities. From fact-checking services provided by national media outlets to websites like ISideWith, which help voters figure out to which party their opinions most closely correlate, these are worthwhile attempts to make policy a more important determinant of voting patterns. Still though, they rely on voters with the time and motivation to look beyond their prejudices and behind the campaign slogans.
I want to suggest another mechanism, using the RSA’s favoured democratic innovation; deliberation. The idea is that during every General Election campaign around 200 citizens, professionally sampled to be representative of the population, are invited to a two-day process in which they are asked to consider the most important aspects of the manifestos of the major parties. Supported by a group of balanced experts, and able to quiz representatives chosen by each party, the citizens would be asked to identify the main questions and concerns they have about the policies they have discussed. If such an exercise – which any citizen could watch unfolding live online – achieved some profile it could have several benefits.
First, it would encourage a greater focus in a campaign on policy substance. Second, given that deliberative methods are constructive and collaborative it might help cultivate a more positive tone to the wider campaign. Third, it would help to expose policies which seemed particularly hard to defend. Fourth, in forcing parties to justify their ideas to citizens in depth it might make it harder to then blame others if an incoming government faced the problems that had been predicted by the citizens panel. Of course, such an exercise would not on its own counteract the detachment of policy credibility from campaigning potency, but surely anything that might help is worthy of consideration?
Citizens panels take about three months to prepare so if this idea was taken forward most of the work of designing, recruiting, organising and publicising would have to happen well ahead of the election being called. It’s an idea the RSA would be happy to develop further.
Owain Service Riley Thorold
The RSA is partnering with a new organisation called Engage Britain to run a large scale, online conversation about the challenges facing the country.