Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 6 April 2009

Does politics really have to be like this?

I have posted before about how the full weight of the government is used to come down on suggestions that do not chime precisely with what the government want to do.

This post on Coffee House yesterday from Fraser Nelson has me again wondering if politics has to be played out the way it is at the moment.

From what I can see, Michael Gove has made some suggestions about how we might want to consider implementing some of the policies that Sweden have apparently successfully followed for the last few years regarding schools. Irrespective of the individual merits or otherwise of the proposals, what has happened is that Jim Knight, a minister has come out and ripped into the proposals claiming the plans would involve cuts, that they are risky, divisive, that the Tories would allow schools to wither and die and that it would lead to a lottery that would benefit only the few.

As far as I can tell, the suggestions merit sensible debate, unless you think that the current system, or whatever the government's latest policy is (it changes fairly frequently) is unquestionably absolutely right, with no need for any debate. At all.

Of course, this is how politics is done in this country. One party has a policy and the the other parties rip into it pointing out how it is completely wrong. Whichever party forms the government basically does what it wants irrespective of the arguments.

Isn't this one of the main problems we have at the moment in this country though? Whoever is in government does not really listen to opposition. There is the odd occasion where they do, when it is close to election time for example but even then it is the few thousand floating voters in swing seats that they focus on. Also, when public anger bubbles over e.g. on fuel prices in 2000 or on the 10p tax hike last year. But by and large they stick their fingers in their ears, shout "La, la, la, la, not listening" and do as they please.

And the Tories are exactly the same. I remember in the dying days of the Major government how minister after minister would tear into Labour for having the temerity to suggest that workers in this country might be able to earn a minimum wage rather than be exploited. It would cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of jobs we were told, the country cannot afford it, we were assured, any argument to maintain the status quo was mustered. Of course all the apocalyptic predictions never came to pass and the Tories quietly adopted the minimum wage as policy a few years ago.

I wonder if one of the problems is the completely adverserial nature of debate in the political sphere. Many MPs were part of debating societies at university and the job to be done here is to argue a case and to win the argument. It is embedded deep within our judicial system also. I think that this attitude is so prevalent that the odd occasion when a politician tries to step outside the bounds (e.g. Cameron's call for no more "Punch and Judy" politics - how long did that last?) they almost immediately fail because everybody else is still playing the same game.

I think politics in this country would be much better if there was actually proper debate. Watch a government minister or opposition spokesperson on Question Time or whenever they are being interviewed next time and see if you think they are really listening, or whether they are calculating how to rip into their opponent's policy in the most effective way irrespective of the merits of their proposals.

Oh and one last thing, I know we Lib Dems can sometimes be guilty of this but from what I can tell we are the best certainly of the 3 main parties at actually engaging properly with an argument. It is one of the reasons I joined the party.


Jock Coats said...

I heard of something emanating from the US that might be apposite here. In the case I heard about it was to do with drugs policy but it could apply to all sorts of stuff that could be "tribal" or personally controversial for individuals expressing a view one way or another.

Policy people are suggesting an "anonymous straw poll" on Capitol Hill. Members of both houses are allowed to vote anonymously on an opening proposition - say "the war on drugs is failing". Apparently most people in Congress would agree that it was, but not necessarily what to do about it and would not want to put their individual heads above the parapet to introduce even the possibility of a debate in case the media and their electorate and their other backers make assumptions.

But by having this anonymous majority in favour of holding the discussion, it apparently makes them feel as if they can be more honest in the ensuing debate knowing that there is a majority who believe the status quo is part of the problem.

It seems like a really simple way of trying to get a mature debate going in the first place, which is the real sticking point in the way we and they seem to work.

Matthew Huntbach said...

A problem is that the Coffee House article really is complete nonsense. When I was a councillor I discovered that LEAs have almost about what goes on in their schools, which disappointed me as I have quite strong opinions on that. The article is based on the premise that LEAs are the dominant force in saying what goes on in schools. Anyone who gets that wrong is really so ignorant of the basic facts here, that one can hardly trust anything else they might say, and it's difficult not just to be rude to them.

Mark Thompson said...

Jock - interesting idea which I have heard before. It would be sad if it had to come to something like that due to the cowardice of our politicians. Also, it would be the MPs who would need to introduce it and that would involve them accepting that the current system is broken.

Matthew - I was not commenting particularly on this story it was more on the modus operandi of politicians, particularly those in government to pour scorn on any suggestions or policy ideas that are not 100% aligned with their own views. I suspect there is merit in the Swedish system - it certainly warrants a fair hearing I would say - but all you get is completely negative spin. The truth is that Jim Knight doesn't know if the system proposed will work and it seems to me that he doesn't much care as long as he can muster arguments to knock down his opponent then it is job done as far as he is concerned. I don't want to be governed like this any more. I am very, very tired of it.

Oranjepan said...

Radical politics can be very divisive, so the skill of the politician is in how they win the argument.

The 'anonymous poll' is perhaps a real icebreaker which may well enable an adult debate.

Still I'm not convinced that consensual politics has any fewer weaknesses than adversarial debate, just different ones.

For example the government got into serious over Iraq because the Conservatives didn't provide any opposition and all internal opposition was sidelined - it was left up to the media and little old us in Parliament, so it became impossible to have a vote where a change of direction was ever a remote possibility.

Mark Thompson said...

Oranjepan - I am not questioning that an important part of politics is winning the argument. I am also not arguing that we should have consensus politics. I too get annoyed when I hear people ask why politicians can't all agree with each other - proper politics requires differences of opinion.

What I am trying to argue in my post is that the very fabric of political debate in this country (certainly at a national level) is broken. Surely the point of debate is to thrash out ideas and come to a conclusion as to what is the best course of action. That often doesn't happen. Instead what you get is the "line" decided behind closed doors and then any arguments raised by opposition or media is stamped into the ground, irrespective of its merits simply because it is not exactly the same as whatever the policy being pushed is. You can see this happen all the time and the example I linked to is just one instance of it.

It seems that politicians are afraid that if they are seen to backtrack or modify their policies even one sliver then they will be accused of being weak. This is not an ungrounded fear as the media and opposition politicians are usually the first to screech "U-Turn!" or "Gaffe!" on the odd occasion when a politician appears to be listening to reasoned argument and hence changing his/her position. They do it to themselves and the political classes are their own worst enemy.

But this is all part of my point. The system of political debate is broken. Why is it so hard for politicians to listen to reasoned argument and change their position accordingly? It should not be hard, the mechanisms should make it easy. At the moment they do not and it seems that any politician who even tries to operate in a less juvenile and more sensible way gets clobbered.

Oranjepan said...

I'm not far off from you, so maybe this is a bit of an artificial debate. Still, it provides a demonstration of the subject at hand.

I'm not convinced that 'the very fabric of political debate in this country is broken'.

Political debate exists because flawed policies need fixing - the fear of scandal is an omnipresent threat to those in office as it shines a light on exactly where the flaws are.

Start from the alternative premise that not all change is change for the better and with hindsight you may conclude that occasionally resistance to change is desirable.

That's a deeply unfashionable line now that Obama's is in the White House, I know, but trends aren't truths - they change too!