Can politics stop promising things?

Progress have published an excellent pamphlet from a range of Labour politicians and thinkers on creating a ‘politics of solutions’ for the next Labour government.

All the serious policy ideas are well worth reading, but my job was to try to explain why focussing on the practical, the workaday and the concrete, far from being a betrayal of vaulting political ambition, is the best way to persuade a sceptical and doubtful audience of the value of risking change.

I love politics, but I hate the political habit of constantly promising wonderful outcomes as if practical achievement was a mere consequence of good intent, rather than a difficult and ever-endangered process subject to pressures that no politician, party or government can entirely control.

This stems from a desire to leave the impression that politics and politicians are all-puissant, able, for the best of reasons, to solve all your problems, when in fact government is only one force in a rapidly changing, complex and inter-related world. In such a world, steering government to do things even a little better is extremely hard and often requires tacking in unexpected directions.

This means a culture of promises leads, inevitably, to broken promises, which in turn leaves politicians trying to convince people not to notice they are standing in the wreckage of past broken promises as they hear bold new pledges from the next generation of ambitious political leaders.

Since almost nobody believes these promises, this leads to political stalemate and tedious debate, as apportioning blame and inducing fear becomes a far more effective political communication strategy than making promises that aren’t believed.

Further, if big, baggy promises carry little weight, it becomes attractive for reforming politicians to retreat from these into either moral posturing or the sort of political philosophies which offer grand ambition underpinned by incomprehensible vacuity. In government, both turn out to be poor tools for meeting real needs.

I argue instead for a politics which recognises the weakness and vulnerability of  politics and politicians, accepts that change is hard and complex to deliver, and focusses on the practical, gritty, delivery of concrete reform.

My argument is that such a politics represents a far better translation of political values than continually trying to convince the public with promises about outcomes that are likely to be all three of meaningless, disbelieved, and ultimately broken.

Anyway, do have a read. For those who are rather partial to big, vaulting ambitions, I try and buy you off by quoting from both the 1945 and 1979 manifesto’s of successful, promise-allergic governments.

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