Wednesday 24 September 2014

Ed Miliband and wheeze-itis

The very first party conference I ever attended was the 1982 Liberal Assembly in Bournemouth.  There, squeezed into a crowded and sweaty room, I heard Adrian Slade's brilliant performance as Roy Jenkins, in front of the very uncomfortable man himself.

I believe Jenkins later described the experience as the least comfortable moment of the Alliance years.  Hard to believe that, actually.

Among Slade-as-Jenkins' best lines was the phrase "our great crusade to change everything - just a little bit".

I was reminded of that today on two occasions.  The first was reading an absolutely beautifully written and elegantly argued pamphlet by Giles Wiles and Stian Westlake, proposing a break-up of the Treasury.  The pamphlet is published by Nesta and includes this description of the Treasury's role in what they call government 'wheeze-itis':

"The power of Treasury spending teams, combined with the short-term nature of Budgets and Autumn Statements encourages a tendency towards policy wheezes, where a long-term approach to policy-making would generally be more productive."

I entirely agree with that.  It is paradoxical that the high-minded Treasury should be the cause of such short-termism, but that is one of the side-effects of centralisation, as the report The End of the Treasury argues so convincingly.

Then along came the evening paper with the lead story about Ed Miliband's speech.  A hypothecated tax on 'mansions' to pay for more than 30,000 new NHS staff.  There was something desperately depressing about this, and I believe the clue to why lies in Miliband's Jenkins-esque campaign to change everything, just a little bit.

It wasn't that any of these objectives were mistaken, but of all the big ideas he might have come up with, this one has a staggering inability to leave the key problems we face unscathed.

Will it tackle the imbalance of regional finances (no, the focus on property tax which shifts so much economic power to London will remain)?

Will it tackle the property bubble? (maybe on homes above £2m, but otherwise no)?

Will it tackle the structural difficulties in the NHS, its focus on pharmacalogical treatment rather than prevention, its obsession with one-off interventions rather than tackling chronic ill-health (no)?

It will, in short, leave most of our difficulties exactly the same, but it's a good soundbite.

It reminds me horribly that the UK system of government is the sum total of all the last generation's wheezes and quick fixes - with the possible exception of public services, which are regularly dug up by the roots to make sure they are still alive.

I remember sitting across the table in Whitehall in the early years of the Blair government and being told by a senior official that what they wanted was 'big ideas'.  I was briefly excited by this, until I discovered it was a delusion - they actually wanted small ideas. The smaller the better.

This slightly world-weary blog post is critical of Labour, because this is somewhere where they always end up.  But it is only fair to point out that every party has their besetting sin when it comes to developing policies.  The Conservatives certainly have one ("I see no problem").  So do the Lib Dems ("well, I wouldn't start from here if I were you").

What is infuriating about Miliband's speech is that this particular example of wheeze-itis is so obvious in its origins.  It was so obviously cobbled together in a focus group that it almost still shows the signs of the bourbon biscuits eaten during the event.

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1 comment:

Francis said...

David, Don't know if you have come across 'Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness' by Frederic Laloux.

Looks as if it might be up your street. There's an interesting blog post about it here -