How and why politicians are avoiding the ‘most difficult’ decisions


Why “we have to take difficult decisions” doesn’t go anywhere near tackling the hardest questions of all

I’ve reached that point where I now want to unpick this “difficult decisions” line to take. Politics and policy-making is full of decisions. Some of them are relatively straight forward, others are not – and for various reasons. One might be related to the scale of the challenge. Others might be related to taking on a powerful vested interest. Others might simply be because there is not enough information needed to make an informed decision, but one where you have to make one anyway. On the last of these, warfare throughout history is full of them. eg positioning your forces in a certain place because your ‘hunch’ (rather than evidence from intelligence) says that’s where the enemy will attack.

On the current system

The mindset of the last Labour administration tells us a great deal of how we got to where we are. That administration used revenues from taxation along with borrowing to spend on programmes that alleviated the worst excesses of capitalism. Remember that this was an era where ‘light touch’ regulation was seen as a good thing, and heavy regulation was continually presented as ‘red tape’. This mindset was very similar to what one of my former economics’ professors said in his defence of capitalism, saying that governments should not do anything to stop the accumulation of wealth by people at the top – rather they should focus on bringing the very bottom up to a minimum standard.

This still feels like the mindset of many politicians today: can we get back to a system where we have that balance between light-touch unfettered capitalism while raising enough money through taxation to pay for things that stop violence on the streets?

The limits to this current political and economic mindset

I’m calling it a mindset because it reflects some of the manufactured consent created by the print media and some of the louder more aggressive individuals within the public policy debate. This came up on Newsnight over a survey showing younger people are more likely to back spending cuts. Unfortunately the debate never unpicked the issue of manufactured consent & the impact of media headlines over an extended period of time. Furthermore, the framing of the debate was very much within the mindset of using tax revenues to soften the impact of the worst excesses of our current system.

The best illustration of the policy limits of this mindset is with housing benefit payments to private landlords. With rental prices and a housing shortage in London and the south-east of England, housing benefit payments that have ultimately gone to landlords in the private sector rose from £1.6billion for 2009 to £2.1billion for 2012. I crunched the numbers from the January 2013 spreadsheet, Table 4 here. They are approximate figures – multiplying the average award in each sector by the number claiming in each sector, then summing them to get the annual total. (Happy to have the workings unpicked/corrected if I got some things wrong). My overall point with this is that the continued rise in housing benefit payments to keep pace with rising private sector rents is unsustainable. Where politicians are wrong is to assume that by setting an artificial cap on payments, you’ve solved the problem. All you do is create new problems elsewhere. Yet their mindset reflects the only two levers that politicians believe they have: fiscal (ie tax and spend) or legislative (regulate stuff).

Difficult decisions – but where is the positive vision for the future?

The ‘difficult decisions’ TV politicians have told us need to be taken are the ones where the world is full of numbers with currency symbols. One thing that is missing from all of the mainstream politicians is a positive vision for the future. I can’t think of any that have been able to clearly articulate a vision for where our society – local, national and global – can be in 5-10 years time in terms any other than negative. I can’t think of anyone who has been able to articulate what we might be able to achieve, what the barriers are to achieving them and how we might overcome them.

Difficult decisions – but are they negatively impacting on the friends & families of the decision-makers?

To put it bluntly, ‘does the minister have to look in the eye every day the people who are going to be severely impacted by the decisions he (as it most often is) is taking?’ Does he have to look in the eye the school leaver faced with a choice of racking up eye-watering amounts of debt, or will the children of his social peers ultimately end up in jobs that will repay those loans or be bailed out by parents? Does the minister have to look the grandmother in the eye who has to move out of their childhood neighbourhood because of changes to the benefits system, breaking up extended social and family ties? Or are the grandparents of his social group own their homes outright and are thus not affected by the changes? Does the minister have to look in the eye the people on the growing hospital waiting lists or do his social peers benefit from private health insurance? Does the minister have to look in the eye the children who are educated in outdated dilapidated buildings in run down parts of the country, or do the children of his social peers benefit from parents that fight tooth & nail to get into over-subscribed state schools, or are educated privately? Does the changing price of food and fuel really impact the minister, or are his social peers insulated from such costs by expenses accounts, company cars or paid-for rail season tickets?

Things look a little differently when put in that perspective. When you’ve struggled – and/or continue to struggle day-to-day, and/or live with those that do on a regular basis, it changes your outlook on life.

So…what are the ***really*** difficult decisions? Well…here are a few

On the theme of housing – in particular in London & surrounding areas, one of them is acknowledging that the supply of housing is very limited – and will remain so. Therefore with a limited resource, London as a city cannot afford to host the international jet-set with multiple homes and apartments in the centre that they only use for a few days a year. London and surrounding areas cannot afford to have new homes marketed primarily abroad given the existing shortages – as articulated in this parliamentary debate. So where are the policies that are going to tackle this? Or are developing and implementing such policies decisions that really are ‘too difficult to take’?

The merits and funding of High Speed 2. I’m in favour of it in principle, but the delivery has been awful – as has the argument of the political case. On funding alone, I’d have made the case for a levy on domestic internal flights and corporate jets to pay for some of HS2 and an improved rail network generally. (Or at least commissioned some in-depth research to estimate how much could be raised over what period of time and with what impact). But is placing a levy on such flights a decision that is ‘too difficult to take’?

On tax avoidance and tax evasion, sorting out the UK’s overseas territories and crown dependencies. My argument for all of these is that the executives and legislatures for all of these are far too small to cope with the amounts of money being transferred there. Yet there is very little movement from anywhere regarding overhauling the constitutional arrangements that the UK has with these ‘statelets’ (for want of another word). How much of Cameron’s G8 pre-summit with their executives will bear fruit? Or is any decision to overhaul the constitutional arrangements between the UK and such territories & dependencies a decision that’s too difficult? Furthermore on taxation & multinationals, have we got to the stage where the EU needs to have formal tax-raising powers on firms that operate in more than one EU country? Should that be how the EU raises its revenue rather than relying on government transfers from member states? Or is that a decision that’s ‘too difficult to take’? (Especially in the current political climate).

What about breaking up some of the dominant firms across a number of UK markets? Banking, retail, supermarkets – some of these firms by their very size are anti-competitive. Large food manufacturers swamping confectionary markets with lots of brands is an anti-competitive tactic – & on that alone the Kraft takeover of Cadburys should have been vetoed. This is the difference between being ‘pro-business’ and ‘pro-market’. Being ‘pro-business’ benefits the businessmen (it nearly always is men) because both the owners that sell and the buyers that buy the firm benefit – at the expense of citizens. Regulating the market to ensure it functions properly requires regular adjustments to ensure no single firm gets too much power. That means vetoing big corporate takeovers. It also means backing communities where they don’t want their seventh supermarket convenience franchise or yet another cloned outlet on their doorstep. But is clamping down on such brands a decision ‘too difficult to take’?

Finally on climate change. Business and Energy Minister Michael Fallon was right to criticise Labour for doing very little on energy security over its time in office, but in a climate change context is completely wrong to go ahead with the development of fracking – in my opinion. The reason being that there is a policy inconsistency with expanding fracking while trying to reduce climate change emissions. Anything involving the possible release of methane is risky as it’s a gas that has a far greater impact on global warming than carbon dioxide.

“Crikey! Those really are difficult decisions for politicians!”

For those in the current mindset, absolutely. Who would take on big food multinationals, the banks, corporate media, big transport/airline corporations and the house builders all at the same time?

Linking to Geoff Mulgan’s talk on think tanks in Cambridge

Puffles (*frowns*) at another all male panel. #DiversityFail
Puffles (*frowns*) at another all male panel. #DiversityFail

The former head of Tony Blair’s Strategy Unit, & now chief executive of NESTA, Geoff Mulgan came to visit Puffles at the end of June 2013. He delivered an interesting talk about think tanks – but one that didn’t leave me particularly happy about where we are with them, how they function & what the future holds regarding the development and implementation of policy ideas. (I also called out the organisers for having an all-male panel too). The bit I was interested in was how think tanks were funded – along with his comments that too many focused on short term horizons rather than at big picture social improvements. Important given that in 2011 Ed Miliband has claimed that our current generation of young people will be the first for a very long time who will end up worse off than their parents.

Talking about who funds think tanks, the website Who Funds You? makes for interesting viewing given Mulgan’s remarks on how to get ideas up and running. You can either write a book, write a pamphlet or invent an institution. Think of how many ‘think tanks’ or policy organisations have sprung up from seemingly nowhere. The reason why that remark was interesting was that, independently it chimed with what I wrote about using social media to shine a spotlight on lobbying. The following paragraph in particular.

“Let’s say money was no object and I wanted to go about lobbying for something or make some noise about my political beliefs. How could I go about it?”

If you didn’t want to use a professional lobbyist, you could go about setting up a new organisation – like a mini-think tank. You could then follow this up with:

  • Hiring staff – in particular those that will ‘look and feel the part’ in Westminster
  • Send said staff to every other event going in Westminster – it raises your profile
  • Analyse and respond to the debates and discussions going on in whatever areas you are interested in
  • Host events yourselves, inviting the great and the good to be guest speakers, putting on good food and fine wine at the same time
  • Publish reports and pamphlets
  • Network bigtime – in particular with up-and-coming political researchers, civil servants, academics and journalists
  • Get quoted in the media
  • Get yourself invited onto a Whitehall group of ‘key stakeholders’ in your interested policy area

…and then grow. And grow. I’ve seen examples of organisations from both centre left and right wing political perspectives do this. It’s not a party political point, it’s a Whitehall and Westminster political cultural point.

Unfortunately for activists on the mainstream left, their opponents on the mainstream right are better at this – they understand that so much is about personal friendships and contacts far more than it is about the content of your ideas. Wonder why so many representatives on such organisations end up on TV panels even though they have next to no research, frontline delivery or academic expertise? Exactly.

“The decisions that politicians are taking are still difficult ones though, aren’t they?”

It’s strange though. If they took the even more difficult decisions, their potential to have an even greater positive long term impact would be far greater. Dare I say it they might even leave something behind that many politicians can otherwise only dream of:

A political legacy.


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