After the frantic campaigning and deal-making, what next? The financial markets and 24-hour media are already calling for urgent action and instant solutions from the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government. The economic crisis demands such an approach, they argue. But are quick fixes really what we need? Would we not be better off with a complete change of pace in the way we do politics, geared towards the considered, consensual, long-term reforms that our fractured economy and political system need? Politics should be slower. That may test the patience of news junkies, but it would bring real benefits to Britain.
The question is: will we, the voters, allow our politicians to shift down a gear? Promises of immediate solutions have become de rigueur. And rather than admit to the powerlessness of government to provide these, politicians stoke public expectations, implying that social ills, economic problems and even democracy itself can all be sorted out in double-quick time.
One accusation that can be thrown at Labour justly is that, over its 13 years in power, it became addicted to spinning the wheel of politics ever faster. The new government should learn the lessons from that period. Three decades ago, most ministers remained in their post for at least three years (of a four-year term). Now, the average ministerial tenure is just 16 months. The Department for Work and Pensions, for example, has had eight secretaries of state come and go since it was created in 2001. Compare this with the average tenure of a head teacher (six to seven years) or a local authority chief executive (four to five years).
The result of this ministerial merry-go-round has been a perpetual cycle of new faces. It is no longer unusual to find ministers being reshuffled just as they get to grips with their brief. The “lucky” ones make their mark through rapid initiatives or new legislation – but they are rarely around to see their ideas through (or take the blame if they go wrong). Even government departments come and go. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills lasted little more than 23 months.
With so little time to make an impression, Labour ministers found that they were under enormous pressure to initiate policies. Programmes were refashioned or jettisoned before they had been evaluated. The charity Action for Children calculated that Labour introduced more than 300 initiatives, strategies and acts of parliament affecting children and young people between 1997 and 2008. It described this approach to policymaking as “volatile, wasteful and reactive”. The same might be said for other areas of policy; the UK parliament has passed six criminal justice acts since 1997, one for every Labour home secretary appointed in that period.
The frenetic pace of ministerial activity also accounts for the rapid increase in parliamentary decision-making by secondary legislation, in the form of statutory instruments (regulations, rules, orders). About 3,500 statutory instruments are passed each year, totalling roughly 12,000 pages of legislation – more than double the volume passed by parliament 20 years ago. This has led to questions about whether parliament can fulfil its duty to scrutinise legislation, and whether governments can monitor if new laws are being implemented properly. A House of Lords committee inquiry last year expressed concern that so little time is spent reviewing whether regulations work, and provided copious evidence of incidents in which poor implementation had led to ineffective or even damaging outcomes.
The preoccupation with the fast and new plays havoc with front-line professionals’ ability to do their job. The time needed to bed down any initiative is entirely at odds with political time frames. The electorate is invited to judge politicians’ impact every four or five years; given their limited tenure, ministers judge their own contributions in even tighter time frames. Yet programmes such as Sure Start are only now beginning to yield results after 12 years. It will take 18 years for the Child Trust Fund (an IPPR idea), which the Conservatives have pledged to restrict tightly to the poorest families only, to come to fruition. Perhaps the fund will have positive benefits, but it seems we can’t wait that long to find out.
The pace of politics is also born of a need to feed our 24-hour media, which, at times, appear to dictate the speed of decision-making. The media pressure on ministers to take action in the event of a tragedy is immense: witness the former home secretary Alan Johnson’s decision to ban mephedrone 13 days after newspapers ran stories about the deaths of two teenagers. The last senior drugs adviser to resign, Polly Taylor, expressed frustration “that there is little more we can do to describe the importance of ensuring that advice is not subjected to a desire to please ministers or the mood of the day’s press”. The news media threaten to undermine good policymaking, leaving politicians little time to weigh up the merits of a decision.
Clearly it is futile to expect the tide of 24-hour media to turn back. Besides, there are occasions when a fast pace is desirable – how much better that politicians and Treasury officials did not take a weekend off in October 2008 instead of dealing with the banking crisis. Indeed, at times politics can feel painfully slow. As anyone who has worked on a government white paper knows, often a huge amount of displacement activity takes place before real decisions are reached in the final stages.
Yet the inability to think beyond the next electoral hurdle encourages politicians to take a limited view. As the playwright David Hare put it, they are in open competition to think small. In his autobiography, the ex-MP Chris Mullin quotes a former cabinet secretary’s advice to new ministers: “Remember, you are not going to be there for long, so don’t try to put the world to rights – have two or three modest aims.”
If the new government is serious about making a coalition workable, however, this will require a different set of skills. Designing Britain’s economic future, establishing our place in the new world order and responding to the threat of climate change hardly lend themselves to quick fixes. Slow, patient, collaborative efforts will be necessary.
So we urge David Cameron, as the new Prime Minister, to promise less legislative and ministerial change and to focus on a long-term commitment to seeing ideas through. Rather than ratcheting up expectations about what might be achieved in its first 100 days, or rushing through an emergency Budget, the new government should spend its initial phase listening and debating with the public about the changes we need to make to our economy. Cameron should plan to keep his ministerial team for a full term and sack members only if they are manifestly incompetent. The House of Commons should agree a limit to the quantity of legislation it can scrutinise effectively in one parliamentary term. The major long-term issues facing Britain that require consensus, such as climate change, social care, pensions reform and national security, should be considered
by expert cross-party working groups, charged with coming up with consensual decisions that will last through the next 20 years, and not just the next spin of the political cycle. Such plans would bring about a marked change in our style of politics, one that would be for the better.
It could be done. Countries with more sustainable economies and better-balanced societies already do things more slowly, often through a more devolved style of politics. In his recent book The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy, Raj Patel documents how the Mexican Zapatistas are practising slow politics, using village-wide assemblies and rotating governing councils to draw all community members into decisions about local governance.
As Patel notes, genuine democracy takes time. And while few would relish the endless meetings that dominate local party politics, the recent surge of interest in community activism – highlighted by the impact of groups such as the Citizen Organising Foundation – could be a sign of slow politics in action.
Britain may not be ready to leap from centralised policymaking to Zapatista-style politics, but, on our way to a more democratic system, politicians would do well to consider why we have allowed politics to become so frenzied. On election night in November 2008, Barack Obama outlined the challenges facing the United States and cautioned: “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.”
After the heavy demands of an election campaign and coalition-building, Cameron should take inspiration from these words, and demand a slower way forward.
Lisa Harker and Carey Oppenheim are co-directors of IPPR