Philip Whiteley's Blog

April 8, 2010

Why are politicians not interested in learning how to run things?

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 12:23 pm

The recent passing of Michael Foot coincided with the shocking spectacle of Blairite former ministers caught on camera desperately trying to sell political access and favours in return for cash. Stephen Byers boasted of having received corrupt payments to set up a deal that cost tax-payers £500 million. Then he recanted and claimed he’d made the whole thing up – he was exaggerating his influence in order to deceive a private company into paying him £5,000 a day. So that’s all right, then.

The coincidence made me a little nostalgic for the days of Foot and Margaret Thatcher, when politicians entered Parliament primarily because of their beliefs. If there was too much ideology 30 years ago, there is too little now. Indeed, there is none. In the forthcoming election, David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown will present themselves as being better stewards of the economy and of public services. As Simon Caulkin pointed out to me recently, there’s no real ideological difference between them, so the capacity to manage things better is all that they have to sell. Strange, then, that none of the parties shows the slightest interest in the theory and evidence behind governance and management.

For Foot and Thatcher, theories of leadership did not matter so much; their ideologies put the emphasis upon the structure of ownership and the constituencies that held more sway. For today’s parties, it’s all they have to offer, yet they have nothing of substance to say on the subject. Opposition parties, for example, frequently state that there are huge inefficiencies in public sector management. Indeed, there are. There are also huge inefficiencies in private sector management, particularly in merger activity, but that’s another story. Why, then, are they uninterested in how such inefficiencies arise, and in the evidence and ideology that could show them how to improve services while saving billions from the public purse?

Instead of confronting this issue, they just go shopping for ideas and initiatives: an education policy from Sweden, a policing idea from New York. If schools have just been brought into local authority control, let’s take them out again. Let’s do another restructure and re-branding of some Government department. Public organisations have been shuffled around like chess pieces in this manner for the past 20 years; actually contributing to the chronic inefficiencies that we have to endure. The Conservatives are currently proposing to centralise the PAYE tax collection service, one of the few systems that works efficiently, and hand it over to the banking system.

The problem comes from abandoning old ideologies without forming a new one, and without even knowing why you’ve scrapped the old one, other than a vague feeling that it’s become unpopular. Modern political parties, certainly in Britain, are essentially branches of the marketing industry. Nearly all of the focus goes upon presentation, mood and avoiding gaffes. Yes, you have to have a few ideas or policies, but any old ones will do.

The so-called fringe parties, collectively grouped into ‘Other’, encompassing the enlightened if somewhat over-zealous Greens, the UK Independence Party and the truly disturbing British National Party, are growing in popularity. Perhaps this is because, for all their incoherence or, in the case of the BNP, sheer fascism, they do at least believe in something. ‘Other’ enjoys around 10-12 per cent support, despite receiving almost zero per cent media coverage. Perhaps, in 30 years time, these will be the three main parties, and Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives will have merged (making most of the mistakes organisations make in complex mergers).



  1. Hi Philip
    Nail on the head to say political parties are just about the marketing. The problem for me here is that ideologies and beliefs and religions and sciences are more marketing than reality too, or were, until people got bored of their utopian unrealisation, saw through their theories of everything, ending of poverty etc – or more crucially, woke up and realised that even when an ideology (or party) changed places, nothing actually changed. Same mistakes. Same excuses. In fact, it strikes me that that’s the real problem – and in some part exposes the only reality here. In many ways, the parties are – and always have been – puppet shows. Puppet shows that have just had to adjust from punch and judy to the X factor. They can’t really live up to their promises. Never could. They don’t have the power. They can talk the talk, but behind the parties the system just ticks on and makes them walk to their tune. The system (banking, aristos, royals) lets them keep us on the edge of our seats (or drowsing on the couch) with their us versus them rhetoric. But even without the ideological window dressing, they (and us now, hence our penchant for radicals) know that their part of something that won’t let them actually do anything. I’m too young to be cynical (maybe too young not to be), and I’m not swayed by green’s or fascists, but a red, blue and yellow vote for me – ideology or marketing spin differences or not – is just my way of saying to the system that I’m still willing to pay for the show. Which I’m not. A merger here then would just be another show. Not the last. There’s always the possibility of the boy band splitting up.

    Comment by Stuart Shaw — April 8, 2010 @ 4:37 pm | Reply

  2. Stuart

    I partly agree with you – thanks for your comment; but ideology can be a force for good. I’ve just been reading Team of Rivals, the biography of Abraham Lincoln, and the ideology of democracy led to the abolition of slavery. We really would still have slavery if political parties hadn’t organised themselves around better principles. It’s possible to take this further, and to have an ideology of enlightened leadership and governance, treating organisations as entities that consist of people. But I despair of seeing that in current political parties.


    Comment by felipewh — April 8, 2010 @ 5:50 pm | Reply

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