Brown's comeback

In all it was a well-executed speech for a Prime Minister under siege and as ministers and activists

Gordon Brown's Labour Conference speech was never going to be the 'make-or-break' point which many commentators were trying to engineer, but he certainly used the opportunity to take on his critics and win back the public. 

Progress's editorial (http://www.progressonline.org.uk/Magazine/article.asp?a=3379) in its conference edition of the magazine argued that the crucial thing the Prime Minister should do in his speech was to take responsibility for the government's mistakes in the last year, and the 10p tax debacle in particular. So it was good to see that he admitted early on in the speech that it was indeed a mistake and that taking the side of hard-working families will be a priority henceforth. It wasn't as explicit an apology as Tony Blair made over the 75p pension rise in 2000, but it was welcome nevertheless.

We also suggested that the PM should use his speech to argue that the government can no longer make the changes to Britain it seeks by governing by central dictat and that there needed to be a new contract between citizen and state. There was a reference to the changing role of the state when Gordon said: "Let us be clear the modern role of government is not to provide everything, but it must be to enable everyone." It was a shame, however that he didn't go much further than that.

There were other elements which suggested he'd listened to people's concerns. For instance it was a good move to pledge that as families have to "make economies to make ends meet" so the government too "will ensure that we get value for money out of every single pound" of taxpayers' money. Though he didn't go as far as we did and suggest that the size of Whitehall should be cut by a quarter or that the number of government ministers should be whittled down, but I guess he needs as many members of the PLP on the payroll as possible at the moment...

Progress has long campaigned for greater UK commitment to expose and act on the human rights abuses in Burma, Zimbabwe and Darfur, so Gordon's reiterated plea from last year's conference speech that the words 'never again' should not become "just a slogan" and should be instead "the crucible in which our values are tested" was welcome. But as in so many areas of government, the fine words of a speech are barely translated into practice when the stage set is dismantled. Let's hope that this year sees more action from our government in putting pressure on those regimes which think they can transgress international law without fear of retaliation.

I wasn't so sure whether the more populist measures in the speech might be storing up problems for the future. For example, while I can see why those suffering from cancer will see real benefit from the pledge to not charge for their prescriptions, won't this simply create even more inconsistency in an already byzantine system of charges and how do we respond to patients with other potentially life-threatening illnesses? More popular on the doorstep by far would have been to agree to abolish hospital car parking charges and telephone charges.

I also wasn't convinced that the move to charge migrants for use of public services will work in practice and doesn't it send the wrong signal at a time when our economy will increasingly rely on migrant labour? Are we ready to charge them for the use of schools and surely not for emergency health care?

But in all it was a well-executed speech for a Prime Minister under siege and as ministers and activists pore over the detail in the weeks to come, it may well provide the starting point for a wider debate about the direction of the government and party.

Jessica Asato is Deputy Director of Progress and a Member of the Fabian Society Executive.
GARY WATERS
Show Hide image

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