Cosmetic reshuffles can’t hide the yawning chasm where a plan for government should be

Neither Cameron nor Miliband seems serious about finding reasons why anyone with an existing inclination to one side should actually consider switching to the other.

The Prime Minister could declare war and no one would notice – goes an old Westminster joke, usually attributed to Tony Blair – as long as the announcement is contained in a speech entitled “Rising to the Skills Challenge”.

The point is not that Blair was an obsessive militarist (although his critics say he was). It is that worthy but vital things the government does go unreported. The Westminster news juggernaut doesn’t brake for policies that outrage no one. Journalists won’t read a speech about the skills challenge unless they are briefed by a reliable source that it contains a declaration of war.

Politicians complain about the lack of attention paid to policy while feeding the cult of personality. The recent front-bench reshuffles illustrate the point. Downing Street let it be known that personnel changes were being made to boost the number of women and MPs with northern accents speaking on behalf of the Conservative Party. Their elevation served a cosmetic function, rebutting the view of the Tories as a club for southern men.

If that looks like a denigration of the other talents candidates for ministerial office might possess, it is. They certainly aren’t there to make policy. Independent thought is seen in Downing Street as a kind of nervous tic – best ignored since it cannot be helped, while criticism only causes offence. David Cameron has got better at pretending to listen to his MPs but in reality he sets the Tory agenda almost exclusively in consultation with George Osborne and Lynton Crosby, the party’s election strategist. The value of a policy is measured by its utility as a weapon against the opposition. Does it neutralise an Ed Miliband attack or trap him on the wrong side of public opinion? No 10 aides boast that campaign strategy and policymaking are now inseparable.

In that context, the job of MPs and ministers is to receive and repeat the message: Conservatives are fixing the economy for the benefit of hard-working people, whom Labour betrays with mass immigration, welfare profligacy and debt. Most Tories submit to this regime because they like the punchy tone and because it makes a change from the pre-Crosby routine of rolling incompetence punctuated with civil war.

Only a handful of dissidents worry about the stultifying effect of monolithic messaging between now and the election. Crosbyism is not conducive to responsible government in the long or even medium term. It is a system for spiking Nigel Farage’s guns and fomenting fear of Labour in order, they hope, to scrape over the electoral finish line in 2015.

There is a parallel problem on the opposition side. Ed Miliband insists that his “one nation” vision is an agenda for social and economic transformation on an epic scale. His shadow cabinet reshuffle was meant to raise the profile of MPs who were elected in 2010, and so clean of contamination by the old clan fighting between “Blairites” and “Brownites”. The impulse to prove that those rivalries are obsolete is sound. The danger is that the price for doing so is burial of policy questions that Miliband deems divisive. At the top of that list is discussion of how, in practical terms, Labour would run big-spending departments without big spending.

Ed Balls has committed the party to Budget discipline. That doesn’t answer the question of what the state could be doing better, or not at all. Labour insiders say it is hard to pin Miliband down on that topic even in private conversations. His advisers insist that a “one nation” story will be told about fixing broken government as well as intervening in broken markets; just not yet. For the time being, public-sector reform is treated as a lower-tier issue; an obsession for the kind of people who read speeches about “rising to the skills challenge”.

But Miliband needs more than paper pledges of fiscal rectitude. People vote Labour when they don’t trust the Conservatives to look after schools and hospitals or to provide a social safety net. Many are less minded to vote Labour now because they accept the claims that there isn’t any money for schools, hospitals or social security and that the more pressing task is national belt-tightening. For that, they turn to the Tories. Miliband cannot separate the question of responsible budgeting from innovation in public services because being serious about one demands seriousness about the other.

The temptation is to gloss over that challenge. In the past few weeks, Miliband’s stock has risen. His pledge to cap energy prices proved that popularity is not the same as free-market orthodoxy. His battle with the Daily Mail over poisonous allegations about his late father proved that popularity is not the same as conservative reaction.

Those achievements may bring floating voters to look at Miliband afresh but their likeliest impact will be in giving Labour-leaning people new reasons to vote Labour. That is better than giving them reasons to sit at home or vote Liberal Democrat. In much the same way, Crosby’s aggressive message discipline will succeed largely in persuading Tory-leaning people to vote Tory, which, from Cameron’s point of view, is an improvement on watching them vote Ukip.

Still, neither Cameron nor Miliband seems serious about finding reasons why anyone with an existing inclination to one side should actually consider switching to the other. They claim to talk about the future while their opponent is wedded to the past but the future they have in mind is a campaigning construct – a sun-drenched Never-Never Land of balanced budgets, gleaming hospitals, well-policed borders, higher wages, lower bills, new homes, fairer taxes. And the real future, which begins the day one of them flops into Downing Street with a flimsy mandate and a manifesto full of show policies that were crafted to destabilise the enemy party or appease an unappeasable fringe? On that future there is silence.

Ed Miliband signs autographs as he attends the Pride of Britain awards at Grosvenor House on October 7, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt