1 February 2024
The real challenge.
By John Watson
Everything has its season. Empires rise and fall. Seasons begin and then pass. Hemlines rise and then drop. Political parties lose their way and then find it again.
We don’t need to read the Book of Ecclesiastes to persuade ourselves that the fortunes of the Tories are currently on the wane. A perfectly decent prime minister struggling to make any impact on policy with a crowd of “bastards” circling around him, sniping and positioning themselves for influence in opposition. Where have we seen that before? Do you remember John Major? In those days the fractious right undermined him on Europe. Now politicians of much the same right-wing stamp are attacking Sunak on his Rwanda Bill. It all feels so familiar and so tired. Meanwhile the electorate patiently wait for a chance to try a new political experiment. And they will, by a large majority. Those pundits in the press who say that things will be close are simply deceiving themselves or us. After all, who is interested in reading about the machinations once the game is well and truly lost? Sometime at the end of the year, or possibly early next year, Labour will be in government and there they will probably stay for the next 10-15 years.
What will happen to what is left of the Tories? Well, if you want a guide to that look at what happened to the Labour Party after Brown was bundled out. Foolish decisions were made about the leadership not once but twice and it was only when it became evident to everybody that the electorate would not stand for leaders from the far left that they moved back into the political mainstream. Then what about the Tories after the Blair victory? Hague, Duncan-Smith and Howard, three leaders in and out before there was a smell of power. So where does that point? A substantial bloodletting of course and then some leader drawn from the far right who electors would rate alongside King Kong in terms of suitability for number 10. Then another doctrinaire ass on the basis that it was the individual and not the policies which were rejected. Finally as the party recognises reality and Labour in turn becomes exhausted, back into power some 15 years or so hence.
That then defines the relevance of the two major parties. The Conservatives still have a job to do in terms of managing the country over the next few months, a substantial job too with Gaza and Ukraine on the boil, but as to long term thinking is all too late. Labour strategists will shape the future and it is to them that any lobbying or ideas need to be addressed. And new ideas are certainly needed.
It is tempting to think of politics as being defined by the way in which governments react to particular challenges. How will those houses get built? Is HS2 a good deal? What is to be done about the boat people? These are difficult questions demanding a political reaction and Macmillan’s comment that the difficult thing in politics is dealing with events certainly has truth. But at the moment these questions are dwarfed by fundamental issues as to how we actually run the country and how it is administered.
Take the interface between government and the public for example. There was a day when if you had a question about your tax return you could ring up a revenue officer and discuss what you should do. Not any more. Now officials hide behind the fact that the telephone numbers are not available and that phone calls do not have to be picked up. The result? Uncollected revenue when perfectly honest taxpayers give up and decide to forget about it. Try the social security people and you will see the same pattern but this time it is the public who do not get the benefits due to them. How has this happened?
Once upon a time, I suppose, a group of ministers decided that they would like to curry favour with the voters by saving money. That meant that instead of well-trained officials they could use computer programs which could be supervised by morons. The trouble is that morons are morons and they cease to work satisfactorily when matters become non-standard. That is the moment when the computer programs become unsatisfactory too so it all becomes too difficult and the best answer is not to be contactable.
Of course problems of this sort are not confined to the public sector. Grayson Perry famously received a power bill which anyone who was not an idiot would have realised was absurdly inflated. Unfortunately the only people who look at it were idiots and, had he not been as prominent as he is, “computer says yes” would have made the bill difficult to combat. The difference is that in the private sector the pressures of competition will tend to iron things out. Would you use the firm where you can chat things through on the telephone or the firm where your only communication is with an unresponsive website? Well I certainly know which I would prefer.
Still, in the public sector and certain monopolies there is no pressure to humanise the service and government is going to have to find a way of humanising it for them. It should not be impossible as the problem turns on a paradox. Reliance on computers is driven by a desire to reduce staffing while the country worries that AI means there will not be enough jobs in the future. Surely it should be possible to find a solution and now it is Labour’s job to solve it .
Then take the whole question of AI with all its corollaries such as identity theft and cheating in exams. That is an area drifting towards disaster and government regulation and enforcement will be needed at some stage.
One could go on and on. A rational system of healthcare preferences is needed, something which depends on fundamental values; at a more practical level we need a system of property taxation which encourages the over-housed to downsize. These are not questions of right and left but of finding solutions which work and that brings us to the elephant in the room, the systems through which politicians arrive at decisions.
Like him or not, it was impossible to hear the evidence given to the Covid enquiry without feeling a little sorry for Boris Johnson. There he was in the middle with conflicting forecasts, data which now appears to have been incorrect and all sorts of advice, much of it tailored to particular political constituencies. How to choose who to believe? Who to follow? Thatcher might have made a better fist of it but then she was a scientist. Boris was well out of his depth and changes of mind and inconsistency were the inevitable result.
So what should have happened? Should all our politicians be scientifically trained? No, even for fans of the Blessed Margaret a cabinet of handbag wielding clones cannot be the right answer. The decision-making process must have two stages. First analysis by officialdom and a clearly explained series of options. Second a choice between those options by the people’s representatives. That is how the system is designed to work and it depends upon the abilities of far-seeing but neutral civil servants to deliver the options to the politícians in a coherent comprehensible form. No doubt they generally do but it will be interesting to see from the Covid enquiry how consistent the advice received by Johnson actually was. Also there are disquieting noises in other areas with allegations of very senior civil servants being bullied by ministers. That may reflect badly on ministers but it raises questions about the quality of the civil servants concerned. It should be no easier for a minister to bully a civil servant than for a board of a public company to bully the chief executive. These relationships will need to be considered carefully in the light of the Covid enquiry.
The advent of a new government will inevitably be welcomed with a wave of populist demands as those who believe that they contributed to victory put forward their pet projects. Whether or not Starmer’s Labour makes a real contribution to the nation’s wellbeing, however, will depend not so much on how it deals with those demands but on how it addresses more fundamental questions of how our nation functions.