Monday 31 March 2014

The vital importance of thinking in politics

Like everybody else, I have no idea what will happen at the next general election.  As a Lib Dem, and therefore congenitally optimistic, I believe the party will do a great deal better than most commentators expect.

I realise this is wishful thinking, but it is at least what usually happens.

Looking back on these peculiar years when the Lib Dems were so unexpectedly in government, three things occur to me.  One is that it has been a traumatic experience for the party as a whole, managing to hold together in the face of intense pressure, and doing so rather better than our coalition partners.

Two, it has also been staggeringly frustrating.  But that is the prevailing experience of government these days - things are unexpectedly difficult to achieve.

Three, I have personally learned an enormous amount. I've only been on the very fringes of government, apart from the half year I spent in the Cabinet Office doing an independent review on choice, but - perhaps even despite myself - I have found myself looking very intensely at a handful of policy areas.

I have felt myself shifting from a broad wishlist of progressive ideas, all somewhat vague, to a much deeper knowledge about what might be possible and how.

This is rather a smug thing to say, I'm afraid.  But it was a discipline I badly needed.

It has also made me think about the absolutely critical role played by thinking about policy, in detail and in depth, over a long period of time.

Lib Dem policy-makers had barely thought at all about the two most contentious areas in the coalition government's programme in its first year - the economy and the NHS.  As a result, they found themselves largely powerless in the face of detailed policy positions, well-rehearsed and well-considered.

Because there were effective Lib Dem ministers at the Treasury and Department of Health, they have clawed themselves back to a position where there could be a genuinely shared policy - quite different, for example, to what the Conservatives would do governing alone.

The Green Investment Bank has been a Lib Dem achievement, but it was also an extraordinary struggle.  And for the same reason: the details had not been worked out and the policy was vulnerable to obstruction from Treasury insiders.

But there are counter-examples too.  Steve Webb is a kind of walking think-tank, and you can see exactly what can be achieved when you have really considered an issue by the transformation he has wrought to a pensions industry which has kept their customers lazily captive for decades.

It also helped perhaps that he was happy not too take the personal credit for it.

So here is the problem.  One place it is almost impossible to think is in government.  It is particularly hard to see outside the Whitehall tramlines when you are in an office in Whitehall.

The Liberal Democrat party barely has any resources for detailed thinking, though the Liberal Voices project funded by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd has certainly provided some.  I've found myself working in detail about how a local banking infrastructure might be created quickly to rebalance the UK economy.

But there is a great deal more thinking to do.  Including by me.  

The Cabinet Office is trying to revolutionise policy-making with their Open Policymaking project.  I have been wondering whether the Lib Dems ought to attempt something along similar lines - experimenting with much more open policy-making processes, on very narrow issues, bringing in the wealth of experience from the frontline and doing it as transparently as possible.

I have a feeling you could do more in-depth thinking in a a two-hour round table than you can in months of struggle by party insiders.  But it has to be an intense and practical focus on a very narrow area.

But the party ought to do it soon, before they are flung unprepared into another five years in coalition government.

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