Ethical renewal to banish that fin de siecle feeling

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 15/10/11]

The Cash for Questions scandal and the associated perception of endemic sleaze contributed to the demise of the Major government. It ushered in a period of institutional renewal. The Committee for Standards in Public Life was established under Lord Nolan in the mid-1990s to keep an eye on MPs’ conduct. Similarly, the expenses scandal contributed not only in some small way to Gordon Brown’s demise but also to a substantial minority of Parliamentarians exiting stage left. It led to the end of self-scrutiny as the processing of MPs expense claims passed to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Equally significantly, it heralded a new government promising a new cleaner, fresher approach to politics. How quickly such promises turn to dust.

These were scandals afflicting tired governments. If we think about the significance of Cash for Questions or the expenses scandal, they did not really go to the heart of the business of governing. Cash for Questions was about some relatively inconsequential backbenchers receiving inappropriate payments for asking questions in the House. With its imagery of allegedly dodgy businessmen and publicists handing over brown envelopes of used notes to elected Members it caused outrage and played well in the media. But its impact upon the course of policy or the practice of governing was arguably relatively minimal. In the light of current experiences it all looks rather tame. Similarly, the expenses scandal exposed many MPs as greedy, grasping and out of touch, but it did not speak directly to the way in which policy is made.
The situation we face now has far more serious implications for government. Read more of this post

Caring diddlysquat about democracy

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 27/09/11]

One of the less pleasant characteristics of the Coalition government is its cavalier attitude towards transparency, accountability and Parliamentary process. This is part of a more general impoverishment of democratic practice.

We hear reports of serious, but relatively small scale, issues such as Ministerial advisors using private email accounts for Government business in order to evade oversight and avoid Freedom of Information requests. We have last week’s news reports of the proposed scheme of Ministerial buddying with big business. This is a scheme which, in many other contexts, would be condemned as tantamount to formalising the corruption of the political process.

The Government is not above ignoring the letter and the spirit of good Parliamentary practice. Examples proliferate. Read more of this post

Penurious progressives

There will no doubt be much soul-searching at this week’s Labour party conference. There will no doubt continue to be subtle – and not so subtle – attempts to distance the party from the legacy of the Brown government and its cataclysmic electoral implosion. Without, of course, suggesting that it is therefore inappropriate for some of Brown’s closest associates to be leading the party to a bright new dawn, whether red, blue or purple.

The biggest issue on the agenda is the party’s stance on the economy. How can it regain credibility for its stewardship of the economy, given the perception among much of the electorate – successfully promulgated by the Coalition – that the poor state of the public finances in 2010 was almost entirely attributable to Labour’s uncontrolled largesse with other people’s money? Personally, I don’t buy the narrative that it was all Labour’s fault. But it doesn’t matter whether it is accurate or not. It is the one that the party will have to neutralise if it wants another sniff of power any time soon.

Yet, there is a different way of thinking about the problem. And it perhaps highlights the scale of the challenge the party faces. Read more of this post

Economics as a vaccine against economists?

On Friday a quote from the great Cambridge economist Joan Robinson was circulating on Twitter:

Purpose of studying economics – to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists

In fact, the full quote is:

The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists.

This pretty much sums up the spirit in which I teach economics to policy students, so I thought it was worth a Retweet.

But it triggered a bit of deeper reflection. Read more of this post

The Dorries distraction

What is Nadine Dorries for?

Obviously she is very much for reducing the number of abortions. And, it would appear, is the willing purveyor of any amount of nonsense in pursuit of her objective. Today Channel 4′s Factcheck blog has her bang to rights. Dorries has made a number of apparently evidence-based claims in a newspaper article about the damaging effects of abortion. It turns out that the claims are less than scrupulous in their handling of the relevant evidence. Critics would no doubt say this isn’t the first time Dorries has been exposed in this way.

But in many ways being charged with abusing evidence is irrelevant. Dorries, one would surmise, isn’t really interested in the evidence one way or the other. My guess is she feels that deploying evidence is a way of giving an argument rooted in zealous religious belief a veneer of credibility and respectability. She’s just not very good at it.

More interesting is the vested interest argument being used against Marie Stopes and BPAS. Read more of this post

Could the riots be the beginning of the end for the Coalition?

Today I was idly wondering whether the way in which the Government responds to last week’s riots could turn out to be pivotal for the Coalition. Possibly the beginning of the end. Why might that be? I was pondering what makes Liberal Democrats distinctive.

If you think about Liberal Democrats on a left-right political axis then the Party’s identity is perhaps rather indistinct. It encompasses a broad range of opinion. It stretches from the left of the Social Liberal Forum, which would appear to share common ground with the remnants of the left wing of the Labour party or the Green party, to Liberal Vision and beyond which occupy parts of the political spectrum where it is hard to tell a Liberal from a Libertarian at twenty paces.

But if you look at the Liberal Democrats on the authoritarian-liberal axis then they are hugely distinctive from the other major parties, which share a strong authoritarian streak (although Labour is perhaps less clear what it thinks on this point than it might appear, as discussed here on Liberal Conspiracy today). The only party that comes close to the Liberal Democrats on questions of human rights and civil liberties is the Green party. The only comparable area of divergence between the Liberal Democrats and the other major parties might be constitutional reform.

This is, I think, why things might start to unravel. Read more of this post

Governing in the private interest?

The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerated the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself. That in its essence is fascism: ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or any controlling private power.

Franklin D Roosevelt

Anyone interested in the health and sustainability of liberal democracy should be concerned if the levers of government come under the control of concentrated, sectional interests. That is the case whether the interest is corporations, the military, trades unions, bureaucrats, or organised religion. By happenstance such situations may result in benign government with a concern for the broader interest. More typically they result in government not for the many but for the few.

The merits of pluralism have been much debated. Political processes in which all have the potential to prevail, on the basis of the strength of the case they can make, capture something important about the nature of liberty. They are the antithesis of systems in which entrenched and powerful interests systematically shape and dominate the agenda. It is a topic close to the hearts of Liberal Democrats. Genuinely pluralist political practice remains something to strive for. Its attainment is by no means assured and precarious at best. But it is nonetheless a noble aspiration.

These thoughts crossed my mind at 3.30am this morning as I was enjoying some bonus time awake courtesy of rather too much late night caffeine.

While I was waiting to see if sleep might revisit I read the recent Democratic Audit report Unelected Oligarchy: Corporate and Financial Dominance in Britain’s Democracy. And the content is alarming enough to keep a good democrat awake at night all by itself. Read more of this post

Is nudging enough?

Rene Kinzett, one of my fellow contributors over at Dale & Co, posted Nudging or Nannying last weekend. The argument was perhaps a little cryptic, but the point was that relying on the subtlety of trying to “nudge” behaviour in the right direction is not an adequate policy response to certain types of problem. His example of treating rickets among young women who for cultural reasons do not have enough exposure to sunlight is an interesting one. He referred to minimum alcohol pricing, a policy being introduced in Scotland, and banning smoking in cars carrying children, a policy being introduced in Wales, as more conventional regulatory policy that will help those on the edges of society, when nudges are judged inadequate.

A couple of comments took Kinzett to task for this argument. One made the point that nudge theory is being preferred for developing policy at the moment because it has been shown to be more effective than traditional regulatory approaches. It was also arguing that no one is suggesting that nudge can be used in isolation and should be combined with other mechanisms to deliver better social outcomes.

It seems to me that these comments miss the mark in at least a couple of ways. Read more of this post

Policy and evidence – the homelessness episode part II

Last weekend the Observer ran with the story on welfare reform and homelessness. A senior civil servant at CLG had written to the Prime Minister warning that the Government’s proposed welfare reforms could result in – among other negative consequences – 40,000 additional homeless households (as I discussed here). This raised questions about a Government willing to ignore its own evidence and the accuracy or otherwise of Ministerial statements to Parliament. Subsequently Grant Shapps has dismissed the 40,000 figure because it was based upon “out of date” information and didn’t relate to current government policy. He also announced a £20m fund for integrating homelessness prevention services, rolling out a model that has worked in London to the rest of the country.

A passage in yesterday’s blog by the Guardian HousingNetwork Editor caught my eye: Read more of this post

Pressing on with NHS Reform – a less than rational process

The central question in the current debate over the Government’s NHS reforms is whether the “listening” exercise taking place during the recently discovered “natural pause” in the legislative process is genuine or symbolic. Concerns that the exercise is cosmetic will only be fuelled by an article in yesterday’s Guardian which cites a letter from David Nicholson, the Chief Executive of the NHS, who suggests that the implementation process should press ahead and that there is a need to “maintain momentum on the ground”.

The article includes a quote from Hamish Meldrum from the BMA who states that the BMA has:

… always maintained that changes in the NHS must not anticipate the legislative process and lead to irreversible decisions.

I’ve no idea whether the BMA have always maintained this position. But this quote highlights something very significant about the way policy is currently developing in this field. Read more of this post

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.