Why transformational politics is meaningless

I’ve been reading the debate in leftish policy circles about the extent to which Labour’s manifesto should be transformative or cautious with a puzzled expression on my usually urbane features. I struggle to uncover which side I am supposed to be on, or why.

The eyebrow is cocked,  the mouth pursed, the forehead furrowed. If we were students of physiognomy, dear reader, the conclusion you would reach about my character is that I was easily confused, perhaps simple minded.

The reason for my early onset aphasia? I don’t understand what this argument is about. As I’ve said before, I end up thinking it’s an argument we’re having to avoid an argument we don’t want to have.

I don’t understand the argument because it is a one-dimensional row in a three-dimensional political world. It implies that one can measure the ‘transformativeness’ of a manifesto or a government as a whole, which simply isn’t the case.

Let’s imagine a government that did one thing and one thing only. It replaced the NHS with a social insurance model. Every other element of British public policy remained the same. The Prime Minister instructs all other ministers to just do whatever the last government did, but for a bit longer.

How should we compare such a government with their opposition, which promised to increase the minimum wage by 50p, increase the top rate of tax by two pennies, using the money raised to increase the rate of building of schools, build a high-speed line to Manchester, increase child care support, and extend the NHS to include Social Care costs.

Is one big shift more or less transformative than a dozen smaller shifts? How do you assess this?

So the second dimension of transformation is breadth of reform, as well as depth.

The other neglected dimension is time. Our putative Social Insurance government might not last very long. If it did have other things it wanted to do, a revolt of the populace against the hated abolition of the NHS would actually reduce the transformative capability of the government to nil.

If you want to change a society, a single-term government is probably not the best way to do it1.

Without considering either the breadth or length of political transformation, trying to determine its extent is a fool’s errand. So discussing a preference for an overall transformative government, or one with a limited agenda is meaningless to me.

Personally, I’d like a government that had a clearly defined significant changes it wished to implement, and had both costings and timescales for those initial reforms so it could pursue them with confidence. It might also have wider ambitions, but it would recognise that without public consent for their initial changes, it would be very unlikely to be able to pursue those ambitions.  In some areas it might have ideas which it would like to try, but believe would require further testing and research to see if problems would arise.

For the next government, I’d like the initial, clear changes to be in the area of social care, housing, child-care, business infrastructure training and investment policy.  Each of those would involve significant policy changes, and major shift in government approach. Would it be a transformation? I have no clue, and couldn’t care less.

After all, Am I certain what the policy offer should be in these areas? Even here, No, not entirely. So I can’t judge the transformationality just yet.

For example, devolving Housing benefit to local authorities is very much in vogue at the moment, having first been proposed by the IPPR in 2012.

It is attractive – allowing local councils to negotiate down rents from big landlords and social housing providers. Yet I haven’t heard a good answer to the Shirley Porter problem. What would happen if Surrey, say, spent their housing money on a building a banlieu in Guildford, or renting block of flats in Crawley? If they than faced higher demand for housing support, would we find it acceptable for them to tell claimants they couldn’t offer rent allowances, or would we impose central control on their Council tax bills?2

Nothing is simple, and I’d rather a policy had such potential problems fully explored before being introduced. That way, you get to make changes stick precisely because you’ve been cautious and risk-averse. Wonderfully paradoxical, eh?

Should Labour offer therefore be a radical, transformative manifesto, or a cautious, limited one?

I have no idea, because the question is meaningless when judged one dimensionally.

I can see being happy with a manifesto proposing a near-revolution in social care, involving major reforms in housing and childcare, while being  broadly continuance in secondary education, defence and transport policy, while laying the groundwork for later reforms in those areas.

I have no sense of what a transformative policy offer is. Nor do I care.

I’ll be quite satisfied with a policy proposal that will address the main challenges we face in the immediate future, and won’t go so wrong that we can’t make more changes later.

  1. People will ask, ah, but what about the 1945 government? I think it’s impossible to judge the 1945 government effectiveness as a reforming administration without considering how the experience of Labour Ministers in the previous coalition, and how planning for post war policy was developed in that coalition, whether in education, health or housing. Indeed, you can argue that the experience of being in government also shifted Labour policy. For example, sections of the Labour party were more sceptical of the Beveridge report than either the Liberals or the tories, seeing it as a patch, rather than a fundamental solution. Ironically perhaps, they saw it as not being transformative enough []
  2. More prosaically, what if they quietly encouraged their social housing provider to offer awful housing in exchange for keeping the rent bill low, so over time claimants moved to Sussex and Croydon? []

2 Responses to “Why transformational politics is meaningless”

  1. Dan Garrigan

    Isn’t the debate as much about those who claim a cautious offer is more likely to win the election and those who think a more “exciting” offer is more likley to win the election?

    Whilst I can understand the don’t scare the horses approach given some of the electoral maths I think that if we are going to engage the electorate there does need to be something exciting in there. I think the Burnham idea re: Social care could be that thing.

  2. Quietzaple

    Can any manifesto stop Guardian writers from stabbing Ed Miliband in the eyes? Probably not.

    Demands for commitments on this that and the other abound, as though the more hostages to fortune are offered the better.

    More effort needs to be put into preparing for the 2015 slowdown/crash/why? It is not Labour ‘s fault and we should be preparing to convince on that, and to deny culpability for the past disasters the Tory/ LD / Ukip alliance wish to dump on Labour.


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