Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The paralysis of power

Good article by Philip Collins in today's Times Online.

This tendency to elevate political positioning over action will, in time, be the diagnosis of what went wrong. Labour had arrived at a series of defensible policy positions. It had a to-do list and a decent set of arguments about what it was for. On every issue it dropped them like litter to the ground.

That's quite a clever analysis - whether you think Labour were right or wrong in their "defensible policy positions" it is quite accurate to say they at least had some and that they were prepared to put forward a decent argument in their favour.

The Conservative Party then moved gingerly across the spectrum and, behaving like an Opposition, Labour defined itself against what the Tories said. So it is that Labour now finds itself just to the left of sensible on everything.

Again, quite accurate - the Conservative Party has been drifting ever leftward since the days of Heath and, as Collins points out, Labour moved that little bit more to the left to accommodate them. I wouldn't say that the Conservative Party moved "gingerly", though - they marched across the political divide with considerable vigour, in my opinion. Collins goes on ....

It is no coincidence that the Blair Government slowly came to the same conclusions on public service reform that the Major Government had come to. A decade of trying to flog improvement from the centre ends in the conclusion that nothing more can be done that way.

This is the "paralysis of power" which I mention in the post title. It comes when a government has done all it can to improve things and, usually after around a decade, they reach a point where they are unable to do anything more. In part this is due to the simple fact that they've run out of ideas, but mostly it comes with the dawning realisation that for all their posturing, statistics and rhetoric they've often made things worse rather than better.

Labour reached that point before Blair left. Of course they know their education "reforms" over the last 10 years has led to a decline in standards. Of course they know that crime has spiralled and that the public have lost confidence in the police or justice system to deal with it. Of course they know that the NHS remains stretched to breaking point despite all the resources pumped into it - they pretend otherwise, but they know all of this and more.

They come to power full of grand "progressive" ideas based on five year plans - and after ten years realise it's been a fruitless exercise. At that point it is better to do nothing rather than screw things up even more. The retention of power becomes more important than what you do with it. It happened to Thatcher, but her response was to keep trying - which led to the Community Charge debacle and, ultimately, to her removal by those Tories who were hell bent on retaining power purely for the sake of it.

It's also worth noting that, as Collins suggests, the Tories and Labour are now virtually interchangeable.

A few years ago, I took the Conservative manifesto for the 1997 general election, deleted all the insulting references to the State that would never appear in a Labour document, and circulated the expurgated text as if I had thought it all up myself. My colleagues in Downing Street thought it was an accurate but uninteresting account of the Labour Government's policy. They were mystified as to why I thought it worth sending round.

For me, this is the biggest worry we have at the moment - the erosion of our democracy. Democracy isn't just about one person, one vote and universal suffrage - God knows plenty of authoritarian governments have had all that. Democracy is so much more than just voting and one of the things it requires is a genuine political plurality - a real alternative between political approaches from parties that have a realistic possibility of winning an election.

If you don't have that, then you effectively have a one party state - and that means we're much closer to the "police state" that Dame Stella Rimington warned us about yesterday. It's no good just saying "it can't happen here" - it can and will if we let it.

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