SPEAKER’S LECTURE – ‘MINISTERS AND POLITICS IN A TIME OF CRISIS’Palace of WestminsterJune 19th, 2012
When I was first invited to give this lecture, the title proposed was ‘Ministers and Parliament’. I had in my mind’s eye a discussion of the great Parliamentary clashes, and what they tell us about the scrutiny of the executive. Jack Straw always insisted to me that the safest place for a Minister when he or she is in trouble is the floor of the House of Commons. I thought we might test that thesis.
Then the title was changed to ‘Ministers and Government’. My immediate reflex was to examine the changing constitutional and administrative pressures on Minsterial life. Such a lecture would dwell on how changes like 24 hour news, the Freedom of Information Act, social media have changed the balance between the two main aims of any Minister – survival and making a difference. But to be honest, I don’t fancy that lecture. If you want to know how to handle an epidemic of bird flu when you hardly know the difference between a turkey and a chicken, or if you want to know how to make friends with Mrs Clinton, you’ll have to chance your arm in the Q and A.
Instead I am going to talk about Ministers and Politics. And because I am in Opposition, I hope I am allowed to talk about Shadow Ministers and politics – and how they become Ministers.
There is a temptation to tell political war stories. But I am a bit young for the memoirs, and these are serious times for Ministers and politics. We meet when there is one overwhelmingly important issue in national political life. I am talking of course about the economic crisis. The figures speak for themselves. We now know that we are not just in the slowest recovery from recession for a century, but in fact have re-entered recession. We know that even according to the optimistic OBR assumptions national income per head will not reach pre crisis levels until 2016/17. Politics is dominated by what government is going to take away not what it is going to give. We face wrenching questions about how to pay our way in the world, and how to do justice to those who cannot. And for all the schadenfreude about the problems of the Euro, its potential fracture is a massive threat to our living standards.
The truth is that the 2008 global financial crisis and its aftermath have changed western political life in a more fundamental way than is yet appreciated. Two years ago, in the course of the General Election campaign, the question was first raised of whether Britain was facing a Greek style meltdown. I argued that the greater danger was not an acute Greek tragedy, but a chronic Japanese drama, where we spent a decade struggling with anaemic or no growth. That is what we face.
Tonight I want to look at the implications for politics of this enduring economic crisis. I will leave three points for you to take away:
- That the lesson of political history is that politics is more volatile in a time of crisis – so the next election is up for grabs
- That big ideas will emerge – so Government and Opposition need to fight the natural tendency to focus on tactics in order to compete in the battle of ideas
- That this economic crisis is not an excuse for postponing political reform, but a reason to develop it and deepen it; we actually need a proper political reformation.
Lessons of the 1970s
Let me start in South Shields. In my constituency last week I was talking about the challenges facing the country. Someone came up to me after the meeting and said: “This is really frightening”. What she meant was that the issues were grave and complex; added to that, she thought the government was clueless.
Leave to one side the partisan element. The truth is we haven’t seen anything like this economic crisis since the 1970s. Then, we had the debate about ‘fiscal crisis of the state’, the rise of separatist parties in the form of the SNP and Plaid Cymru, the birth of extremist parties like the National Front. The sociologist Daniel Bell claimed in the middle of that decade that the nation state ‘was too big for the small problems and too small for the big ones’. There was even a name for the crisis: “the ungovernability thesis”. Britain, it was claimed, was too divided to be governed.
It was also a time when Britain seemed to be on the receiving end of power plays in the Middle East, when we seemed at odds with Europe even after we joined the EEC, and when a Conservative Prime Minister was castigated for being aloof from his backbenchers and out of touch with the country. I wonder if any of this sounds familiar?
It’s actually quite eerie. I was brought up in Leeds in the 1970s and remember Bruce Forsyth dominating the Saturday night schedules. There was even a drought. All we need is a comeback tour by the Bay City Rollers and the circle will be complete.
The parallel is not exact. For example instead of labour challenging the prerogatives of capital, no one can seriously argue that with 17% of the private sector workforce unionised trade unionism is too strong in Britain today. Instead of the crisis of governability coming from a challenge to government authority at home, it comes from the weakness of governance abroad.
But I think there are enough similarities to try and draw out the political lessons for today. There are at least four.
The first is obvious: politics is much more uncertain in times of crisis. Younger listeners may not know this, but Governments can actually lose elections before they win three in a row! In the 1970s there were four Prime Ministers and five governments in 9 years. For me and my party, this is great news! In 2015 Labour can win the General Election and Ed can be in Downing Street. But my own sense is that the Labour leadership are right to warn against trying to default into power. Reassuring ourselves that all is well and that if we hold tight to old verities the electorate will realise the error of their ways – and there is always a market for this in both main parties - is the most dangerous plan of all. Voters in a time of crisis can swing from government to opposition, that is true, but they can also desert the mainstream parties. And crises produce a flight to safety in politics as well as in financial markets. Jim Callaghan was immensely popular even in defeat.
The second lesson is that even in the 1970s, at a much more primitive stage of globalisation, domestic economics and international politics are interwoven. In the 1970s British people felt humbled by Idi Amin and the IMF. Henry Kissinger confided to Richard Nixon that he found Britain’s reduced situation pathetic.
We shouldn’t be surprised to get reports today from European capitals that there is fury about British lectures on the future of the Eurozone. It’s not just that we are semi detached from the European project. It is that we are conspicuously in economic trouble ourselves.
Many people are breathing a sigh of relief that we are not in the Euro. Me included. But precisely because we are not in the Euro we need to be the people thinking about how to ensure Britain is not left on the sidelines when the EU moves forward to a more federal Eurozone.
The Prime Minister says that we are moving into a world of flexible networks not rigid blocs. He does not wish the EU ill, but he doesn’t see it as central to the future of our country. I disagree. We live in a global village, but that village is made up of different neighbourhoods. And a country weak in its neighbourhood is going to be weak globally. That is the danger we face at the moment.
For me it was the economics not the politics of the December Fiscal Pact that were the problem. We should be arguing that the Euro is a product of the European Union, and needs to respect the rules of the EU and the interests of all its members. And to retain our position of strength within the EU we need to be on the front foot on issues like economic reform, energy, foreign policy. The rest of Europe actually wants a strong British voice on these issues.
The third lesson is that economic stress spills over into social and industrial disorder when politics leaves a vacuum. I was living for a year in America during the fire strike of 1977/78 – but I remember the social studies teacher, Mrs Fogg, telling her class of 8th graders how lucky they were not to live in Britain. And I remember watching the 1981 riots as a 16 year old London schoolboy and thinking that the country had broken down. I don’t say last year’s riots were caused because not enough people were listening to ‘Today in Parliament’. I do say that a lesson of the 1970s is that people take power into their hands when they feel there is a political vacuum at the top. This is a point to which I will return.
Fourth, crises can bring radical ideas from the margins to the mainstream. Crises are the incubators of big ideas. The greatest prize in times of crisis goes to those who develop a telling break from a failing model of economy and society - not those who seek to resuscitate an old model.
The two economic crises of the 20th century were the parents of dramatic changes in the political centre of gravity in western economies. The 1930s spawned welfare capitalism – a new social contract in which full employment paid for public services and welfare benefits. And like it or loathe it, the mix of monetarism , deregulation, privatisation did emerge from the 1970s and define the 1980s. These were serious new ideas. By contrast the SDP split from Labour had profound political implications – but in terms of ideas it felt less like a break with the past than, in the late Ralf Dahrendorf’s telling phrase, “a better yesterday”. This it seems to me to be the danger for the Tory right today – dreaming of the things that Mrs Thatcher failed to do, when economy and society have moved on.
The point is that in times of crisis the premium is on conviction and strategy, not positioning and tactics. The 2008 global financial crisis has changed economic debate in western economies in fundamental ways. Keynesianism is back (outside Germany). Industrial policy is back. The IMF is back. The intellectual heavy lifting needs to be anti austerity – because the acute financial sector and state sovereignty crises cannot be resolved without growth. But it also needs to be pro reform – because the chronic challenges of demography and competition cannot be escaped. This is why Ed’s responsible capitalism agenda is the right one.
The machinery of government can help. I was disappointed that the current Government have abolished the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit – a really good innovation of the Blair years. The recent report from the Public Administration Select Committee shows one of the consequences. It says “We have little confidence that Government policies are informed by a clear, coherent strategic approach, itself informed by a coherent assessment of the public’s aspiratioins and their perceptions of the national interest”. Interestingly enough the respected but cautious Atlantic Council said in a report on British foreign policy in the run up to the Nato Summit the government “has yet to develop a coherent strategi vision for the UK’s role in a changing global landscape...British foreign policy vision and strategy remain unclear.”
This creates space for the Opposition. But while government faces the perennial tug of tactics at the expense of strategy, Opposition faces the challenge of developing answers when there seem to be plenty of votes in anger. For all the noise of daily politics, this is where the next election will be decided.
If these are the lessons of the 1970s, there is one seismic difference that is relevant. It concerns the political conditions in which the economic crisis has to be addressed. The 1974 Labour manifesto talked of a “crowning test of our democracy” in confronting the economic perils facing the country, but there was little thought that the political system itself needed reform. Today we do not have that luxury.
All of us here are active in or committed to politics. We have a degree of mutual respect for each other and for the system – hopefully not eroded by listening to this lecture. But beyond our circle, trust is low and declining. For many people politics is broken. Probably more broken than the economy. The recent Hansard Society report documented not just disengagement but disaffection, not just misunderstanding but mistrust, not just confusion but contempt.
The latest British Social Attitudes Survey reports that in the last 25 years the percentage of people saying that politicians put the national interest before party interest has fallen from 47 per cent to 20 per cent. The percentage who say it is not worth voting has risen six fold (to 20%).
There is no one source of malaise. Nor is it confined to Britain – across the democratic world there is gridlock and disaffection. But there are some acute elements here. Deference used to be greater than other countries, and its decline has been more precipitate. The resistance to change in the structure and practice of central government and Parliament has been dogged. The expenses scandal was sapping. To cap it all, no one, not the Government nor Opposition, not the Bank of England nor the FSA, warned the public about the danger of the biggest economic crisis for eighty years. No wonder people are sceptical.
Let me give this a more practical face. Last week I was visiting a community project in East London. It is impossible to overstate the degree of frustration felt by professionals running schools, businesses, community projects at the episodic, half-baked, impatient, misguided, bureaucratic nature of political engagement with and national discussion of the lives of local people.
Ministerial reshuffles corrode any sense of relationship. The civil service is top down in a bottom up world. The legislative process is byzantine and ineffective. Policy from long term care to airports to GM foods is an untouchable third rail.
This is exacerbated because economics and politics are today pulling in opposite directions. The economics points towards more sharing of sovereignty at international level; the politics is inward-looking not outward-looking. The economics says that we need more labour mobility; the politics says the opposite. The economics says that we need creditors as well as debtors in the global economy to bear the burden of adjustment; the politics of that is very difficult. The economics says that we need to rebalance the welfare state from our debts to the old to our legacy to the young; but needless to say the politics of that are very tough.
So while it is true that both parties need to think afresh to provide the answers that the public want in respect of the economic crisis, so they both – we both - have a responsibility to ensure that the cause of political reform is not lost at precisely the time it is needed most. The big idea coming out of this crisis needs to be political and not just economic.
There is gridlock in the US. Deadlock in the Eurozone. And here the idea of elected city mayors is seen in the Westminster Village as a big change, but has been rejected by the public as offering more of the same. The structure of the House of Lords is living proof that our system is better at continuity than change – and now there is the argument that political reform is a luxury that we cannot afford. The Leveson Inquiry has all but bypassed the shared responsibility of politicians and the public for the quality of democratic dialogue.
The Path to a Reformation
So my plea tonight is that we do not allow political reform – in fact political reformation - to fall victim to the economic crisis. I would make no claim that a single reform is the answer, still less that I have found all the answers. But there is clearly a problem; and there are clues to the answers if we are willing to seek them out.
The world in which our constituents live is marked by pluralism, flexibility, empowerment, risk-taking, new forms of cooperation, above all trial and error. For a range of reasons, good and bad, that is not our world. Parliament, policy-making and the party system have – the Monarchy aside – changed less than any other part of national life in the last forty years. And that is a problem.
Imagine political parties focussed between elections on mobilising their resources to help people tackle the issues that matter to them. It wouldn’t just help the country, it would help the parties! I have spent some of the last year and a half trying to work out how to turn politics from looking inwards to looking outwards, from treating voters as cogs in the wheel to making them part of the political drama. Movement for Change is a small voluntary organisation with a big idea – to train 10 000 community leaders over four or five years to lead change in their communities. The founding idea is simple: action creates hope rather than hope creating action. It is where the labour movement started and where it will find its renewal. So when people come together to get get the living wage paid on their university campus, put in place a new zebra crossing, change recycling arrangements, or engage bouncers in night clubs to tackle violence against women, they don’t only make change but build confidence in the political process.
It is early for lessons. But one is obvious. There is more capacity in communities than ever before. At the moment the political process too often shuts it out. In fact it can be a source of renewal. The Big Society was actually onto something but in my view fell down in the zero sum game it proposed between government retreat and civil society renewal. If it is true that the Government have given up on it, I hope we in the Labour Party pick it up and run with it.
Imagine that we didn’t just preach subsidiarity in the distribution of power in Europe, but actually practised it at home. We cannot allow the defeat of the mayoral leadership model in referenda around the country to become the death knell for the devolution of power to cities. Here is a striking fact: 65% of global GDP and 85% of technological innovation takes place in just 40 urban centres around the world. We need to learn the lesson.
I am passionately engaged in the debate about youth unemployment...we all know that there are different needs in different parts of the country...we need to devolve power so the right combination of carrots and sticks, welfare and education, childcare and transport, mentoring and job guarantees is available in different parts of the country. I know less about housing... but as Graeme Cooke of IPPR is pointing out in a pamphlet this week it cannot be right that the biggest driver of housing policy is decisions by the DWP about Housing Benefit, whose cost will rise to £24bn by the end of this Parliament. Surely it is worth offering our cities the chance to design housing policy for themselves, with their share of national funds in their hands to decide the balance between subsidising rent and subsidising new build. The housing market is different between Manchester, London and Newcastle. Let’s recognise that. I am not a transport expert, but the Manchester Combined Authority shows the way: isn’t transport a case for devolution too, integrating local road, rail and bus funds for decision making at city regional level.
The 1970 Tory manifesto said “central government is overloaded”. But since then government has become more loaded. The benefit of reversing this trend is not just better policy. It would also free up the clogged arteries of Whitehall.
Imagine that Parliament is ahead of debates not behind them, talking about the political, economic and social issues that people are talking about. Just think if every week we had moments of candour and insight like that provided in the backbench debate on mental health last week. Don’t tell me Parliament’s reputation would not be enhanced.
The history of this place is special. And the ancient history is of Parliament asserting itself against the executive. But in truth, because our government is drawn from our legislature, the history of the last 100 years is of a Parliament under the thumb of government not its master. Select Committees can mitigate against that. So can backbench debates. So can the Speaker – and I for one support the way this Speaker is using Urgent Questions to make Parliament a place that does debate the issues of the day. But we need to drive relevance and connection to the public through all aspects of the House’s work. Here is one example. Topicality – through open questions - makes PMQs work. But although Ministers come to Parliament every day to answer questions, three quarters of the topics are notified to them in advance. Yet in my experience, it is only the topical questions that make Ministers sweat. In my view we should make all questions open, topical and therefore challenging.
Imagine if there was a sensible democratic dialogue about the future of the country in the media. Question Time and Any Questions are practically the only places that bring politicians and the public together – yet to my point about local government and cities, neither programme has any record of a single local government leader other than the Mayor of London being on the show.
There is of course no singular ‘media’...and over the next decade it is going to become even more pluralist. The print media is in decline. It accounts for less than 10 per cent of the time consumers spend on the media. It is resolutely focussed on competitive survival. Internet and social media account for 30 per cent of people’s media time. That is too diffuse to be driven by democratic responsibility. That leaves TV and radio. They are key to this – accounting for 60 per cent of media time. They need to assert their own independence from the newspapers. And if I was choosing the next DG of the BBC I would be more concerned by their ideas for renewing our democracy than their view of the admittedly poor coverage of the Jubilee river pageant.
There’s a whole separate lecture about consent and engagement at international level. You’ll be pleased to know that is for another time. But we shouldn’t just imagine change in our domestic political space. We should make it happen.
The challenge for Ministers and Shadow Ministers today is harder than for thirty years. It is incrementally harder to survive and harder to make a difference – because nothing is private, because society is fragmented, because politics is dyspeptic. It is qualitatively harder because we are living through a once in a generation set of policy and political challenges.
The key to success is to remember the twin diseases identified by Gerald Kaufman in his famous book How to be a Minister – departmentalitis and governmentalitis. The former involves losing the wider view, the latter becoming a pale imitation of your permanent secretary. Both prevent the perspective and drive that are crucial to the effective exercise of power.
The point of the 1970s comparison is to say that the country faces choices the like of which it has not had for a long time. My argument today is that the economics will not be resolved without political reformation of a profound kind. Reform of government; reform of parliament; reform of the political parties; and reform of the way we do politics. I say this because I have learnt it.
We elect a government of politicians, not an administration of technocrats. But government for the people needs to be complemented by government by the people. That is why I have made my theme tonight Ministers and Politics, because without good, inclusive, empowering politics, there is no successful government.