It's unaccountable corporations, not socialism and the state, that the public loathe

In whipping itself into a frenzy over Miliband’s plan to freeze energy prices, the right has turned a blind eye to mounting revulsion over private firms.

Judging by certain Tory op-eds, you could be forgiven for thinking the Red Army has been given permission to water its horses in the River Thames. On the loose is a fanatical "demagogue [who] wants to fuel tensions and the politics of envy", according to City AM editor Allister Heath. Britain is on the "road to tyranny”, according to Iain Martin of the Telegraph.

Believe it or not, red revolution is not imminent, and Lenin remains safely encased in his mausoleum in Red Square. Over in Cuba, Raul Castro is pressing ahead with free-market reforms, and to my knowledge there have been no recent sightings of the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Mild-mannered Labour leader Ed Miliband has, however, pledged to freeze energy bills for 20 months should his party win the 2015 election. And these days, that’s apparently all it takes for a red scare.

At some point during the past 30 years, the mildest hint of social democracy became a symptom of innate Jacobinism. Fastened like glue to a dogma which dictates that one can never interfere in markets without catastrophically distorting them, the fact the country escaped financial catastrophe five years ago only because of massive state intervention has entirely passed the right by. A Labour leader has said the state must intervene to ensure that people can adequately heat their homes; therefore the country is on the road to serfdom. Such is the level of public debate in much of the Tory press.

In noisily whipping itself into a frenzy over Miliband’s plan to freeze energy prices, the right has turned a blind eye to mounting revulsion over private firms bloating and sating themselves on public money for the benefit of the few who are good at guessing on the stock exchange. Not only is public opinion increasingly at odds with socialism for the rich - in 2010/11, Network Rail, the private owner and operator of most of Britain’s rail infrastructure, was subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of £3.96bn - but voters are significantly more red than 'Red Ed' when it comes to state intervention in the economy.

In 2009, for example, data showed that 31 per cent strongly supported the renationalisation of electricity, gas, water, railways and telecommunications, with 36 per cent slightly supporting renationalisation. According to a ComRes poll taken earlier this month, 69 per cent wanted energy renationalised.

The trend is similar in other sectors of the economy too. Seventy per cent are against the sell-off of the Royal Mail, according to a recent Sunday Times poll, while 53 per cent believe private sector involvement in the NHS undermines the health service. As for the railways, a poll conducted last year found that over half the public supported full nationalisation, with even Conservative supporters preferring nationalisation to the status quo (Mail on Sunday stalwart Peter Hitchens wants the railways returned to public ownership, for crying out loud).

The politicians’ mantra of public bad, private good has become just that: an empty mantra, espoused by a political class that is increasingly at odds with the views of those they are supposed to represent.

The mistake would be to draw from this an unrealistic, romanticised image of old-style state ownership, which in reality could be just as unaccountable and inefficient as the very worst of the private sector. Despite what his detractors say, Ed Miliband is not advocating a return to state ownership, nor is he planning to introduce 1970s-style price controls; he is proposing a freeze on the price of energy lasting a mere 20 months. In other words, a very temporary brake on fat cats getting fatter while the elderly shiver in homes they can no longer afford to heat (in March of this year, five Centrica executives pocketed £16.4m).

But public enthusiasm for a reassertion of government control over essential services should give the left heart even if it would be a mistake to pretend that it is 1945 all over again. Public disaffection with the private ownership of large natural monopolies provides ample public space to promote other, more democratic models of ownership in which workers participate fully in the running of their enterprises and, just as importantly, have a say when it comes to divvying up the profits. Democratic socialism, I believe it is called.

Appropriately, it was Karl Marx who once wrote that the tradition of all dead generations "weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living". In this respect, the zeal for privatisation that reached a zenith in the 1980s has left an indelible impression on our political elite, many of whom came of age during Margaret Thatcher’s enthusiastic attempt at dismantling the post-war consensus. While the public has long since moved on, many conservative commentators remain marooned in the 1980s, instinctively horrified by a reality that sits uneasily with many of their most basic assumptions.

Today it isn’t corrupt bureaucrats or incompetent state managers that people are fed up of, but private sector fat cats who jack up the prices of things we cannot do without and then hold the country to ransom when anyone has the temerity to question it. No wonder Ed Miliband was so quick to reply in the affirmative when asked if he was "bringing back socialism": he might well be on to a vote winner. 

EDF, one of the "big six" energy companies that control 98% of the retail market. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

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