Missions Aspirational

You have to feel for Michael Gove. Rarely has a document been freighted with as much expectation as the levelling up white paper, which has been promised in one form or another since 2019. But even as the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities was being given its new remit the spending shutters came down, ruling out new money – at least on the scale needed to radically alter hundreds of years of economic development.

Without new money the white paper sets direction rather than powering engines, though it does offer a few enticing hints of change. It promises, for example, to push devolution further and to bring some clarity and consistency to England’s idiosyncratic patchwork quilt of local government, and it celebrates the role of local policy-making. It even suggests that mayoral combined authorities and the Greater London Authority might bid for “sweeping further powers”, though it stops short of any significant transfer of fiscal powers.

And it does at least tell us what the government thinks “levelling up” is. At the core of the paper are 12 targets for 2030, heroically rebranded as “missions”. Advocates of mission-thinking as a way of galvanising action often point to John F Kennedy’s commitment to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. Note that JFK didn’t make 11 other commitments at the same time. But most of these targets are laudable, even if the lack of detail on delivery makes them feel rather “aspirational”.

It is notable that most of them focus broadly on national improvements in social and economic conditions – job numbers, productivity and pay, violent crime, wellbeing, pride in place, school standards, adult training and home ownership – rather than explicitly on closing the gap between “LondonAndTheSouthEast” and other regions, which can of course be achieved by levelling up or by levelling down. Essentially the missions argue that all should rise together, though several qualify this by specifying that the worst-performing places should see the sharpest improvements.

Some targets are more explicit in their focus on narrowing gaps. Public transport across the country is to be “significantly closer to the standards of London” by 2030, which is a slightly ambivalent pledge given the cutbacks being considered by Transport for London in the absence of a long-term funding deal. It also does prompt a raised eyebrow – can other cities, let alone less densely populated towns, really support services like London’s?

The focus on narrowing the gap in healthy life expectancies also stands out, though the detail remains to be filled out in a separate white paper on health disparities later this year. In the meantime, the question of what geographies you use to judge success will be vital. As previously remarked here, the difference between places within the same borough can be every bit as stark as those between different regions.

There is a little more meat in the two economic missions. One pledges to improve pay, employment and productivity in every area of the UK – which should be good news for London, where productivity growth has stalled in recent years. The other proposes rebalancing public expenditure on research and development (R&D) outside the Greater South East. This could be one of the strongest measures in the white paper. Public spending on R&D is heavily focused on the “golden triangle” of London, Oxford and Cambridge, and there is a good argument that this concentration is failing on the grounds of economic efficiency as well as fairness.

Rebalancing investment to where it can make a real difference both directly and through attracting private investment rather than insisting it is spread evenly throughout the country, could make a real difference. The promise of £100 million for three new “innovation accelerators” in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Glasgow suggests that the need for focus is understood. Any switch of resources from London to other parts of the UK is likely to feel harsh, but a rebalancing of R&D spending is worth contemplating as a way of building up the knowledge economy in other cities.

Much less helpful is the white paper’s restatement of the government’s plan to divert funding for housing away from the areas of lowest housing affordability – that is, London and the South East. Doing so seems to fly in the face of its protestations that “levelling up is not about making every part of the UK the same, or pitting one part of the country against another. Nor does it mean dampening down the success of more prosperous areas”.

Less money for affordable housing in London is not likely to be good for London or the UK. London’s housing crisis is likely to worsen, with one of two results or a mix of them. Either the capital’s economy will suffer, with consequences for the rest of the country, or living in London will become more exclusive, further detaching the capital from the rest of the country. Investing to lever growth into other cities is a worthwhile endeavour. Removing support for infrastructure in places that most need it seems short-sighted and even spiteful.

Originally published by OnLondon.

Book Review: Red Metropolis by Owen Hatherley

Owen Hatherley’s book springs from an honourable impulse – to rescue London from lazy stereotyping as an elitist hothouse of privilege, distant from the more authentic social and economic struggles of the northern cities. He aims to rekindle pride in London’s rich heritage as a radical trailblazer of social progress, and for the most part he succeeds.

Hatherley’s previous books have covered everything from the ersatz urbanism of Blair-era ‘regeneration’ projects, to the communist architecture of eastern Europe, to the commodified nostalgia of Cameron’s austerity years. Most recently he has focused his gaze on London (he is also editor of the fascinating Alternative Guide to the London Boroughs, published by Open House last year). A self-described communist, Hatherley began writing Red Metropolis in December 2019, and describes the book as an “attempt to write myself out of the feeling of numb horror” caused by Labour’s defeat in that month’s general election.

Red Metropolis is a work in three acts, focusing in particular on London’s perennial housing crisis and on public housing, one area of social welfare that has consistently had a local dimension. The first part traces the history of London County Council (LCC) from the messy politics and patchy administration of the late 19th Century to 1965, the second records the ascendancy of the New Left in the Greater London Council of the 1980s, the third looks (sorrowfully) at the record of the three mayors of London since 2000. 

The LCC took over from the unelected Metropolitan Board of Works in 1889, and for nearly twenty years, under a shifting “progressive” leadership comprising liberals and various left groups that would later merge into the Labour Party, was a pioneer of municipal socialism. Directly employed labourers built council housing in the Boundary and Millbank estates, which Hatherley praises for their “high-quality materials, urbanity and spaciousness”, and the LCC’s borough allies (including Battersea, where John Archer, the first Black mayor of a borough, was elected in 1913) built smaller-scale schemes such as the Latchmere Estate. 

The Progressive alliance faltered and the Conservatives dominated the LCC for the next 25 years, but by the 1920s, the Labour Party had begun to build a power base (particularly in the “Five Red Boroughs” – Battersea, Bermondsey, Deptford, Poplar and Woolwich). In 1922, Poplar councillors, led by George Lansbury withheld rates from the LCC in order to fund social programmes, arguing that it was “Better to Break the Law than to Break the Poor”. Thirty were briefly jailed in an episode which is a precursor to the 1980s rate-setting protests and the legal challenges to the GLC’s “Fares Fair” policy.

Poplarism stirred up persistent debates within the Labour Party between advocates of constitutional change and those seeking more direct action. Herbert Morrison, who dominated the London Labour Party from the 1920s, and led the LCC from 1934 to 1940, was a vociferous opponent of the latter approach. Morrison has been a controversial figure in left politics, at times criticised (like his grandson Peter Mandelson) for his focus on “electability”, but also for his model of ‘bureaucratic nationalisation’, with professional managers in control rather than workers themselves. 

Hatherley is more generous in his assessment. Even though 1950s schemes such as the Alton Estate are more to his taste architecturally than the “staid and stiff brick tenements” of the 1930s, he argues that Morrison prefigured the post-war settlement by offering free healthcare, building housing, schools and parks, and by establishing London’s own nationalised transport board, and also praises the sometimes-maligned Abercrombie plans that were developed in the heat of the War. Like Robert Moses in New York, Morrison remade his city, and made plenty of enemies along the way.

LCC puritanism – they built estates without pubs and Morrison wanted lidos closed at night to stop “people fucking in them” –was roundly rejected by the “New Left” leadership of the Greater London Council in the 1980s. Hatherley brings to life the carnivalesque egalitarianism of County Hall under Ken Livingstone, its corporate wood-panelled corridors thronging with punks, Rastafarians, gay rights activists, artists, radical feminists and communards. One of the ironies of the past 30 years is how the anti-racist and gay rights campaigns led by the GLC, which led to vitriolic tabloid attacks at the time, have become entirely mainstream, while its economic programmes, such as the “People’s Plans” for reindustrialisation of London’s docks, look positively quaint.

The importance attached by the New Left to community-based politics and participation above all things led, Hatherley argues, to its rejection of Morrisonian housebuilding programmes. Partly as a result of this and partly because the city was still depopulating through the early to mid-1980s, the Livingstone-era GLC built little housing and what it did build was often “twee and flimsy” – pockets of suburban semis that can still be seen dotted around inner London. The antipathy towards grand schemes led to renowned architects such as Neave Brown in Camden and Ted Hollamby in Lambeth being pushed out of their local authority jobs. (In another nice irony, the communist Hollamby went on to work at London Docklands Development Corporation, the epitome of Thatcherite laissez-faire urban policy).

Despite this, Hatherley sees the GLC’s record as a “social democratic Paris Commune” as a guiding light for the Corbynista left in 2015-19: “so successful was it that London’s governing body had to be abolished out of existence.” But he identifies a wider legacy too: the GLC’s focus on cultural policy was foundational to London’s 21st Century character, and its abolition in 1986 alongside the ‘Big Bang’ of financial services deregulation, helped define the politics and economics of London today. 

Hatherley is less impressed with – and I think less fair to – the three Mayors in City Hall since 2000. He gives Ken Livingstone and Sadiq Khan some credit, for transport projects and policies in particular, but excoriates all three for their failure to tackle London’s housing crisis. In particular he sees them as in thrall to a faustian pact with private sector developers to build affordable housing through Section 106 agreements, designed to mitigate the impacts of new development and to reflect the value created by the grant of planning permission. This approach, he argues, has fanned London’s red-hot property market, encouraged speculation by landlords, and widened inequality in the capital.

The narrative is powerful, but some details are smudged. Hatherley writes that Livingstone failed to define what “affordable housing” meant; but the 2004 London Plan gives broad definitions, and supplementary guidance published in 2005 goes into some detail in defining “social”, “intermediate” and “low cost market” housing, and specifying in what proportions these should be built. He says that the 2012 Olympics resulted in more social housing being lost than was built; but even the social housing provision in the Olympic Village (around 700 homes), exceeds the number that were lost at Clays Lane, the housing co-op that was demolished on the north of the site. And he damns Sadiq Khan’s efforts with faint praise, saying there has been “some encouragement” of councils to build housing; but Mayors need to agree affordable housing funding with national government and Khan has allocated £1 billion of the capital grants he has secured to councils to build 11,000 social rented homes.

But these and a few others are errors of detail. The central accusation stands, against the local government leaders who did deals with private developers as well as against the three Mayors themselves. In recent years the “cross subsidy model” of affordable housing provision, which has also been adopted by councils themselves as well as housing associations, has come in for increasing criticism: it requires rising prices to work, so fuels the pressures that it seeks to address, and creates an industry of opaque and gameable viability assessments. 

What else could the Mayors have done? Housing was explicitly excluded from their functions until 2007 (the GLA was designed to have minimal overlap with borough powers), and control over capital grants for affordable housing was only handed over in 2011. Restrictions on councils’ ability to borrow against their rent rolls in order to build have also only been relaxed in recent years. Hatherley reports Alex Salmond suggesting that Ken Livingstone should have demanded the right to charge more Council Tax on the wealthy to build more social housing, but the right to reform Council Tax was in the Scottish Parliament’s gift from the outset. It was never on the table for London. Two reports from the London Finance Commission, under Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan respectively, have sought more powers over property taxes for London but been studiously ignored.

The approach of the mayoral administrations could also do with some interregnal context. The abolition of the GLC (and other metropolitan counties) came near the high point of conflict between central and local government. As Thatcher was replaced by Major, more centrist borough leaders such as Haringey’s Toby Harris built consensus with businesses and across party lines – until 1995, there were separate membership organisations for Conservative and Labour boroughs. The 2000 version of Ken Livingstone was as much part of this détente as John Major and Tony Blair were. Even bust-ups such as the London Underground public private partnership were about the nature of private sector involvement in the running of the Tube, not the principle of it.

Red Metropolis is an informative, lively and punchy read, at once optimistic about London’s possibilities and angry at its realities. Hatherley brings to it his perceptive and humane architectural sense (equally damning of both the “chilly Piranesian grandeur” of County Hall and the “grub-like” City Hall), an ear for a quote, and an eye for the curiosities and ironies of London’s evolution. The captions under artless urban photographs (by the author and Daniel Trilling) provide a wry running commentary on the text, and on the persistent gaps between rhetoric and reality.

Hatherley closes by observing that, unlike the 1980s when the left captured Labour municipalities across the country but remained shut out from the commanding heights of the party, the Corbyn years saw the party’s leadership shift sharply to the left, without this being reflected in councils, which generally continued to be run by pragmatic/compromised (delete to taste) centrists. Even those, such as Haringey and Newham, that saw leadership changes during the “Momentum years” have failed to implement the Poplarist programmes that Hatherley would like to see. 

The final pages argue, uncontroversially, for more devolution, for decentralisation of government and for more openness to international examples, as well as for an end to growth and a more confrontational attitude towards central government. He believes that London government can acquire powers by staking claims – “Better Break the Law than Break the Poor” still. This is a high-risk strategy, though it did recently work when Mayor Boris Johnson decided to sack the Metropolitan Police Commissioner without the power to do so or reference to the Labour Home Secretary.

Red Metropolis is a salutary reminder of the sense of possibility that can and should infuse London politics, despite the conflicts and compromises that governing a city of nine million people involve. If London is in Henry James’ words “only magnificent”, this magnificence is partly the result of the striving and the strife so well described in this book.

[First published in OnLondon, 8 February 2021]

Good advices?

 [First published in Local Government Chronicle, 24 November 2020]

Choosing the right advisors is one of the most important decisions that political leaders make, as recent Downing Street dramas have illustrated. This is perhaps particularly true for the mayor of London, who unlike the prime minister or a council leader does not have the support of a party group, but only the watchful eye of a scrutinising London Assembly.

So, alongside City Hall’s expert staff, mayors need mates; their own people who can advise and represent them in such a huge city. The mayor of London can bring in 12 appointees, and the ways in which the three mayors to date have appointed and worked with their teams have been indicative both of their strengths and their weaknesses – as detailed in London’s Mayor at 20, a collection of essays, analyses and interviews looking back over the past two decades of the capital’s mayoralty.

When Ken Livingstone was elected in 2000, he came with a gang of advisors who had worked with him for many years – from the Greater London Council, from activism since then, from his parliamentary office. Most had worked with him when he had decided to run as an independent following Labour’s bungled attempt to fix candidate selection. Within weeks of his election, Ken had advertised posts as ‘policy advisors’, and many of these were filled by familiar faces.

The team were all broadly from the political left, albeit from different denominations; Simon Fletcher, Ken’s chief of staff and former parliamentary researcher, brokered agreement on priorities and positioning. The mayor used to describe advisors such as Neale Coleman, John Ross, Jude Woodward and Lee Jasper as being like ministers – with full authority to represent his views. The team was consistent through Ken’s two terms, with the mayor showing loyalty (and damaging his 2008 re-election campaign) when advisors became embroiled in newspaper allegations of cronyism.

Unlike his predecessor, Boris Johnson had no deep roots in London politics, and had only been an MP since 2001. There was no gang waiting in the wings when the ebullient loner was elected in 2008. Nick Boles, then Conservative MP for Grantham and founder of the Policy Exchange thinktank, worked with the new mayor to appoint deputy mayors.

The initial tranche proved shaky: one was prosecuted for fiddling expenses, another was found to have fabricated his CV, and a third senior advisor made comments on race issues that led to swift resignation. Tim Parker – a corporate restructuring guru appointed as chief of staff and first deputy mayor – left when it became clear that there wasn’t the scope or appetite for the application of his specialised skill set, and that Boris wanted to take decisions as mayor rather than acting as a media-friendly figurehead.

Other appointments were more stable, some becoming long-term Johnson allies. Munira Mirza, deputy mayor for culture and education, followed Johnson to Downing Street, as did chief of staff Eddie Lister, who is now temporarily filling the same role at 10 Downing Street. Lister, and Simon Milton the former Westminster City Council leader who preceded him at City Hall, took a relatively light-touch approach to policy co-ordination, leaving other deputy mayors, such as Stephen Greenhalgh, Kit Malthouse and Isabel Dedring, with space to develop policy positions, but also giving a looser sense of direction than under Livingstone.

If Sadiq Khan drew one lesson from Boris’s wobbly transition, it was not to make appointments too quickly. His deputy mayors were appointed painstakingly over his first six months in office. Senior local government figures such as James Murray and Jules Pipe, former mayor of Hackney, were appointed alongside former GLA officials Justine Simons and Shirley Rodrigues, and external figures such as human rights barrister Matthew Ryder, shadow transport minister Heidi Alexander and former Home Office special advisor Sophie Linden.

These appointments have been carefully judged, but the deputies are not close to Sadiq and his decision-making in the way that Ken’s were, or eventually Boris’s became. Less prominent are the inner circle of advisors who agree policy positioning: chief of staff David Bellamy, director of policy Nick Bowes, and communications and external affairs directors Leah Kreitzman, Paddy Hennessy and Jack Stenner.

The London mayoralty is an unusual role: it can be a springboard or a dead-end; it suits loners and mavericks, but requires constant coalition-building; it gives extensive powers of patronage and appointment, alongside singular accountability. It is a job to which the incumbent is elected alone, but not one which any mayor could hope to carry out alone. Appointing advisors and deputies is an early but critical decision, requiring trust and judgement. For a political loner like Boris Johnson it is a fraught business, and one that has given him a rocky start both as mayor of London and as prime minister.

You don\’t need a weatherman

At the end of \’manifesto week\’, it does seem as if a lacklustre election campaign has been overlaid on a significant shift in the centre of gravity of British political discourse. As John Prescott put it, what seems like an age ago, \”the plates are shifting\”.

There\’s been a lot of debate, mainly from the originator of the term, about whether Theresa May is a \’Red Tory\’. In an interview in today\’s Observer, Damian Green suggests something rather different. His old friend is not a great political theorist, he says, but a meteorologist, who can sense changes in the climate of public opinion and react to the modern world.

Many would argue that a leftward shift in public opinion is long overdue; the wonder is that it didn\’t happen earlier, given the crisis of financialised capitalism ten years ago, and the growing perception of inequality since then. We\’re through with shock, denial and anger, and are now ready for a new deal, which promises to tame and temper capitalism for the public good. Ten years may seem like a long time, but almost as many years passed between the crises of the late 1970s, and the emergence of purple period Thatcherism after the 1987 election.

And, of course, the shift in rhetoric and discourse may not signal an actual change in behaviour. Just as New Labour shrouded redistributive policies in veils of prudence, the Conservative government that most people expect to see elected in June may enact traditional Tory policies while paying lip service to kinder capitalism.

But the opinion polls published today give pause for thought. Labour still has a mountain to climb, but has narrowed the Conservatives lead from around 20 points to 13 or less. Labour has made much of the Conservative reforms of social care (a small shimmy in the right direction, imo), and perhaps this \’nasty party\’ framing is hitting home.

But I can\’t help wondering whether, in trying to colonise Labour territory, the Conservative manifesto hasn\’t scored a more significant own goal. In signalling a leftward shift, has the manifesto given voters permission to think what was once unthinkable, that free markets are not always the best guarantor of prosperity? And if you start thinking that way, you might even think a bit further: if you\’re going to clamp down on executive pay, why not think about setting ratios? If caps on fuel bills, then why not renationalisation? Just as Labour suffered, until John Major\’s goverment ran out of steam, from looking like a pale shadow of conservatism, why would people vote for a half-arsed version of the interventionist social democracy offered by Labour?

Socrates and Charlie Hebdo

Culture Secretary Sajid Javid got shot down in twitter-flames this week for referring to Socrates\’ writings, when defending freedom of speech following the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  The thing is, as any classically-educated fule kno, that Socrates didn\’t write anything; that was Plato.  Cue lots of sneering. 

Well, fair enough, though the two philosophers are more or less identical for all practical purposes: Plato didn\’t write anything but dialogues in which Socrates was the speaker, and Socrates\’ philosophy is only recorded in Plato\’s writings.

More interesting, to me anyway, was the thought that even if Socrates was executed by the Athenians for his atheistic opinions, and his \’corruption of the young\’, he was far from being a believer in democracy and free expression (indeed, his association with shady oligarchs may have been one of the factors that led to his downfall).

For example, Socrates would almost certainly have banned Charlie Hebdo.  In his discussion of the just city, The Republic, Socrates presents it as one governed by a paternalistic \’guardian-class\’ of warrior philosophers.  Later in the book, Socrates expounds his theory of ideals (sometimes \’forms\’, but I think \’ideals\’ is less confusing).  Put very simply, everything that we see in the universe takes its identity from its imitation of, or resemblance to, a metaphysical ideal.  A table is a table in as much as it resembles the ideal Table; something is good in that it resembles the ideal Good.

This theory explains why, controversially, Socrates exiles poets (and depending on your reading, other artists) from his Republic.  Their art is an act of mimesis, imitation, but worse than that – it is an imitation of an imitation.  My depiction of a table is a poor copy of a poor copy of the ideal Table.  Socrates also suggests that art, particularly effective art, inflames the passions, and is therefore inappropriate material for his serene and ascetic guardians.  Anyhow, one way or another, the artists have to go, and certainly the publishers of satirical magazines would have had to go with them.

Socrates\’ conclusion troubled Victorian admirers (who had been happily going along with the rule by warrior philosophers up to that point), and it worried his interlocutors too; Socrates admits uneasiness with his conclusion, and challenges them to find counter-arguments.

I was reminded of this stipulation when listening to a man being interviewed about the prohibtion on images of the Prophet Muhammed last week.  Generally, this prohibiton is understood in terms of the strictures against idolatry found in the Old Testament – we shouldn\’t confuse workshipping a God with worshipping an (imperfect) image (like the Golden Calf or the Fish-tailed God Dagon, whose followers are so enthusiastically smitten in the Bible).

The interviewee went further, explaining the prohibition in strikingly Platonic (or Socratic) terms: Muhammed was such an excellent, virtuous and handsome man, indeed the ideal Man, that any attempt to portray him is bound to fall short of the reality, and will therefore represent a slander on him.  Plato (or Socrates) could hardly have put it better himself.

To be honest, I\’m not sure what this shows.  Perhaps it is a) that if you throw enough classical education at people, some is bound to stick (however imperfectly) even 25 years later; b) that if you follow any metaphysical theory far enough, logic will lead you down some curious cul-de-sacs; c) that those who die because of expressing their views are not necessarily liberals; and d) that irrational prohibitions are not the exclusive preserve of the abrahamic religions, but can be found in \’rational\’ Greek philosophy too.

Now the Party\’s over

Party conferences have always been an acquired taste, but this year\’s (even without the McBride and Farrage sideshows) have seemed particularly remote from reality, alien rituals conducted by an alien species.  But is this just the latest chapter in the slow decline of mass party membership, or is something else at play?

The Guardian\’s John Harris, former chronicler of BritPop and historian of new Labour, has been worrying for some months at how the Conservative Party has lost touch with mainstream conservatism, continuing to promulgate the neoliberal nostrums of open markets and free trade, deaf to a crescendo of grumbling from its once core vote.  Outside the capital, in \’Alarm Clock Britain\’ (or whichever new-minted de haut en bas descriptor the narrative-mongers have come up with), Harris finds that open markets and globalisation are not viewed as paragons of efficiency and creators of wealth, but as destroyers of jobs and harbingers of instability.

Harris\’s argument was echoed in Aditya Chakraborty\’s analysis of falling party membership (and the takeover of the Conservative Party by financiers), and in the Guardian\’s reportage from Aldi in Worcester, the front line of this new class war, where shoppers proclaimed themselves either terminally disillusioned with all politics, or tending towards UKIP.

My reading habits are admittedly partial, but I don\’t think this us just a left argument:  Peter Oborne\’s broadsides at the metropolitan political class are aiming at the same territory. The politicians at their press conferences look increasingly like medieval clerics debating transubstantiation, while the peasants ponder plague and turnips.  The detachment goes beyond silly shibboleths about who knows the price of a pint of milk, a loaf of bread, a litre of superstrength cider, or whatever 21st Century staple politicians have to pretend that they buy.

Once you start to look for it, you can see this rancorous detachment everywhere.  You can see it in the \’below the lines\’ comments in newspapers.  These may invite provocateurs, trolls and other people with nothing better to do with their time, but there is a toxic undercurrent of resentment too.  Sometimes expressed through racism or xenophobia, but sometimes simply presenting as a profound hostility to the political class, and an establishment that is seen as interested only in feathering its own nests.

The sense of alienation is polymorphous, and perhaps hard to analyse clearly, but it\’s harder still to see where it is going.  The crowds are not out on the streets in the UK, and the protests of the Occupy movement never went far beyond St Paul\’s Churchyard, so will disgruntled citizens flock to marginalised parties of the left and right that diverge from the shared internationalist outlook of the mainstream parties, as Seumas Milne has suggested? Will unrest and violence erupt, maybe targeted at immigarnts and other easy targets as it has been in Greece?  Or is a more profound change underway?  It seems almost absurd to pose the question, but is Disgusted of Droitwich a British manifestation of the discontent that erupted in Taksim and Tahrir?

Writing in the latest LRB, David Runciman argues that the oil shocks and decaying industrial capitalism of the 1970s gave birth to what we now call neoliberalism, though it was years if not decades before the baby was named or its moment of birth identified.  Flip forward 35 years, and ask whether the crisis of the past five years is a blip in the narrative of neoliberalism triumphant, or the beginning of something new.  If the latter, pace Yeats (it is National Poetry Day tomorrow, after all), \”what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?\”

Policy-based evidence making?

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For someone with my politics, reading research from the Institute for Economic Affairs is never less than bracing, not least when you find yourself in sneaking agreement with it.  The recent IEA report – Quack Policy – Abusing Science in the Cause of Paternalism by Jamie Whyte – takes a robustly sceptical cleaver to a herd of sacred cows: minimum alcohol pricing and lower speed limits, for example, fail to trade-off their supposed benefits with the pleasures of drinking and the convenience of driving fast.  In many cases, Whyte argues, policy-makers start with their paternalistic opinions and prejudices, and then find the evidence to support them.  Policy-based evidence making.
At first sight, basing policy on evidence rather than prejudice, blind faith or ideology seems uncontentious, a \’no brainer\’ even.  But I don\’t think that scepticism about evidence-based policy should be the reserve of the type of people who will be harrumphing that there is no evidence for man-made climate change until the flood waters start lapping round their ankles.
Evidence-based policy has its roots in the concept of evidence-based medicine, which responded to the tendency of medics (alarmingly commonplace until the 1990s) to base interventions on custom and practice rather than any clinical data about what works. 
The elision from choosing cancer treatments based on their demonstrable impact on specific physiological circumstances, to choosing policies based on predictions of human behaviour is not smooth, however.  To start with, policy interventions are rarely based on controlled, randomised scientific trials that can isolate cause and effect from other factors.  Even where a good result seems to have followed a specific policy – the reduction in heart attack rates following the ban on smoking in pubs, for example – the causal links are not simple.  People and societies are more cussed, diverse and chaotic than cancer cells or bunions.
But there is a more fundamental sense in which evidence-based policy worries me.  It takes the politics out of policy, and creates a technocratic world where efficiency and value-for-money are all; where white-coated analysts can dispassionately assess solutions, tinkering with the apparatus of incentives, nudges and penalties to perfect citizens and society.  Tony Blair’s 1997 mantra – “what matters is what works” – was not just a financier-friendly disavowal of socialist dogma, but also a retreat from conviction politics (until their re-appearance after 9/11).
Evidence-based policy may have progressive aims (safer roads, better health, lower re-offending, fitter, happier, more productive people), but this managerialist approach excludes discussions of principle, of morality, of big ideas.  It cloaks opinions behind assertions of scientific fact. This focus is also inherently conservative; it is about tweaking the current system to optimise the way it moulds individuals’ actions, rather than considering whether it is the system itself that is rotten. 

The attraction of laws

Tbings fall apart and you wonder – increasingly – whether the centre can hold. Just as one part of the Government is offering to repeal laws on demand, in the name of \’cutting red tape\’, other ministers are promising to introduce some of silliest-sounding laws in history: a law to guarantee a level of overseas aid equivalent to 0.7 per cent of gross national income, and a law to put the \’military covenant\’, which recognises the sacrifices made by the armed services and commits to fair treatment, on a statutory footing.

The issue is not fair treatment for service personnel or to generous overseas aid. Both are laudable aims. But neither needs laws. Proper treatment of the armed services is a budgetary and administrative matter, as is overseas aid. These laws will not create new offences, new rights or new statutory powers. So why take parliamentary time up with them?

Three explanations suggest themselves. One is that the Government is grand-standing; using legislation to make these administrative commitments is simply a way of underlining their importance, of inscribing press releases on vellum. A second explanation is that the Government is simply trying to wrong foot any of its successors who would want to govern differently; what they could do by fiat, they will make their successors do by law (or face the consequences of trying to repeal legislation).

A third explanation is perhaps more disturbing, if less cynical. As our constitution forms the executive from the legislature, it must be easy to confuse making laws with governing the country. This must pose a particular problem to a Conservative/LibDem coalition. They are pledged to roll back the frenzied law-making of which they accuse the previous government. But they can\’t stop legislating, any more than a shark can stop swimming as it sleeps. Making laws is what Parliament does, what governments do. So, instead of seeking to meddle in the every day behaviour of citizens, they have turned their gaze inwards, and apply the harsh discipline of statute to themselves and their successors.

The lost art of keeping a secret

The foundation of British democracy is the secret ballot, no?

Voting this morning, I noticed something that had niggled with me previously (though I am far from being the first person to have noticed it). When I gave my name and address, a man tore me a ballot paper from a book, and the woman with the list of addresses read out a number to the man with the book, who wrote it on the counterfoil.

Didn\’t this mean that they could look at my ballot paper, and identify how I voted by cross-referencing with my electoral roll number, I asked? Yes, answered the Presiding Officer, but only on the orders of an Electoral Court, which was a very rare occcurrence. So the local authority would keep, indefinitely, a record of how every local elector had voted in every election? Yes, but it was kept safe.

The Presiding Officer was a thoroughly respectable looking gent (handlebar moustache, book about lancaster bombers), so I didn\’t pry further. I can also understand why some records are necessary, to test allegations that large numbers of ballots have been handed out as job lots to candidates\’ families and other such malfeasance.

But this secret recording of individual voting patterns still seems a bit rum. I am no more paranoid than one should be, but a lesson of modern times seems to be that all data is eventually leaked and/or fed into government databases. You can easily imagine the security services making a strong case for (limited, of course, checked and balanced) access to such information, so they could identify potential menaces to society voting for \’extremists\’.

We should, I suppose, feel glad that we don\’t live in a repressive surveillance state, that would abuse and misuse such personal information. Shouldn\’t we?

Who needs remote control?

It\’s commonplace (and generally inaccurate) to suggest that left and right are meaningless labels, that ideological differences between Labour and Conservative have evaporated, that we are all thatcherites now. Though the Coalition has outflanked Labour in its liberalism (it would be hard to imagine how to be more authoritarian, without introducing martial law), their economic policies are pretty dry, neo-con even.

But if clear blue water is visible in terms of content, an even more dramatic difference in style is becoming visible. Today, Ken Clarke is reported as criticising his colleagues for their tendency to leave ministers hanging when their policies prove controversial. Witness Andrew Lansley\’s \’pause to listen\’; witness Caroline Spelman\’s forced retreat from privatising forests.

The Coalition lacks the discipline and control mechanism of a strong Number 10 policy unit, endlessly second-guessing ministers and re-writing their policies. Ministers are free to announce pretty well anything they like – however radical, daring or plain mad it may be – but are also free to take the blame alone if they get it wrong. In this darwinian policy competition of rugged individualism, the fittest survive and the laggards are thrown to the wolves.

By contrast, for all its embrace of market capitalism, the Labour government stayed true to its collectivist roots. Even as Tony Blair became more and more presidential, the approach was stalinist: to borrown Bagehot\’s terminology, the \’dignified\’ trappings of collective cabinet government stayed in place, while the \’efficient\’ mechanisms of sofa government dictated policy throughout Whitehall.