Behind The Political Crisis, We Have A Problem With The Machine Politicians Have To Work With

Before we get too maudlin at the state of our own politics’ inability to deliver, here’s a useful broader view on how technocratic institutions are failing politics in general is leading to high signal/low impact populism:

One reading of what led up to Brexit is that mainstream politics simply ran out of steam. Coalition government left even fewer options on the menu. Imprisoned by a system that didn’t appear to listen to them, what mattered most to a large group of voters was a truer sense of choice, a genuine element of agency. The consequences of exercising that choice were secondary.

The politicians that have prospered in recent months have been those that put policy choices on the table that others won’t. “He’s only saying what others think,” is a familiar refrain of Trump, Farage and Corbyn supporters. New personalities and policies are the political equivalent of pumping the economy full of money. They are a source of fresh thoughts, new arguments.

In politics, as in economics, pumping in more money is not always a good idea. If there is no supply to fulfil it, all fresh demand does is substitute for what’s already there. What if ideas and policies aren’t the problem? What if, when it comes down to it, our institutions can’t deliver on any of them?

Failure to deliver is the now unspoken terms around which Stormont’s latest collapse revolves. Much of that is owing to the collective past of both the DUP and SF as rabble rousers and accustomed protesters. Some of it however arises from the state of a Civil Service too accustomed to running to its own needs and agendas: eg, the spike originating not, as the media falsely suggested, with DUP SpAds but with departmental officials.

This is a general problem of disconnect between a politics desperate to signal harmony with voters (sometimes at all costs, up to and including giving a truthful account) and a machine too busying protecting its own interests.


  • aquifer

    For the right and sado-monetarists, downsizing of democracy is the prize. So why did New Labour not introduce proportional representation and funding of political parties while it could? The only crime in politics is stupidity.

  • Croiteir

    Because First Past the Post tends to a two party system, so why change if you are one of the two?

  • Nevin

    “here’s a useful broader view on how technocratic institutions are failing politics”

    technocratic: relating to or characterised by the government or control of society or industry by an elite of technical experts.

    Andrew Greenway in that article highlights the lack of technical expertise in our bumbling bureaucracy. He suggests that ‘a place that can accommodate a broader set of motivations from prospective and serving public servants; rather than one that rewards only lifers, generalists and congenital snag-hunters’ is still only half the answer.

    Private Eye maintains a running commentary on the lack of expertise in public governance as well as the ability of industry to target senior civil servants who can provide inside information that will help it to continue to extract dosh from the public purse.

    Redaction is just a simple example of a lack of such technical expertise.

  • Nevin

    “a general problem of disconnect between a politics desperate to signal harmony with voters (sometimes at all costs, up to and including giving a truthful account) and a machine too busying protecting its own interests.”

    As I highlighted in my Belfast Deficit blog the looseness in our governance makes it very difficult to discern both the connect and the disconnect between ministers, SpAds and senior civil servants.

    This other blog focuses on the difficulty for senior civil servants as to how to handle investigative journalists who look beyond government press releases:

    The attached Newsletter article appears to conflate a number of (hopefully) separate issues in a rather unhelpful way.

    Is there a case for the Minister, me or Anne writing to the editor in an effort to untangle the issues or should we have Sam McBride in for a briefing to try and build his understanding, or are we better to say nothing?

    Perhaps the Permanent Secretary should have invited Sam to give him – the PS – a briefing!

    Governance overall needs opening up. The Office of the Information Commissioner should insist that Departments provide Model Publication Schemes so that anyone can easily search and peruse agendas, minutes and officers’ report in order to offer constructive comment and, if necessary, sound the alarm.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Aye, but that’s not going to work out well for them for the next 20/30 years. I for one am not looking forward to a couple of decades of tory misrule, although on the plus side it is one of the best reasons for an independent Scotland (and a good one for NI leaving the union too).

    Labour will be effectively dead as a party in Scotland after the May elections, depriving them of the possibility of almost 60 seats in Westminster. Electoral boundary changes to be brought in by the tories will deprive them of a few more. The inability to unite behind Corbyn and his inability to lead and control his party effectively plus Labour’s now decades-long proclivity to be in some ways more tory than the tories or to vote along with them, does note bode well for electoral choice in the UK.

    The UK Empire must die.

  • Croiteir

    I agree with all of that, but do you really think that Labour under Blair had the foresight for this? Who would have done anything different in that position?

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    It’s not so much the foresight that was missing, as the ability to plan for different eventualities in the future. But you’re right, they were in a bubble of their own impregnability, and had their own welfare rather than that of the country as a whole in mind.

  • Jeremy Cooke

    And should be extended into local government as well

  • Nevin

    Jeremy, it would appear that the Office of the Information Commissioner is incredibly passive at all levels of public governance.

    [Adds] I had some success back in 2011 with Northern Ireland Audit Office reports and they are now user friendly.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    It seems to me that politicians have always lied to varying degrees at varying times, on varying subjects, in common with the often linked propagandising of newspapers, but now there is much more information available for people to make up their own minds. The invasion of Iraq was a good example – despite the best efforts of the right wing politicians on all sides, and the establishment supporting press, a large section of the public were never convinced of the existence of WMD’s. But they were convinced of the mendacity of the pro war voices.

    A current example is the recent poll by Lord Ashcroft which shows Nicola Sturgeon and Angela Merkel to be the two European politicians surveyed in Scotland who had positive ratings. You would not gather that from Ashcrofts own summary of the results, or from the Daily Mail’s reporting of the survey, but anyone can see the actual figures themselves, which leads in turn to a negative judgement on those reporting when they disagree with the actual figures.

    This of course depends on a certain amount of education on the part of the consumer – “there’s a sucker born every minute”, hence Trump and Brexit, but it is harder now for the parties of corruption to get their own way. The other current effort over Assad is riddled with gaping holes already. Only the willing believe.

  • Reader

    Nevin: Andrew Greenway in that article highlights the lack of technical expertise in our bumbling bureaucracy.
    So we need proper technocrats if we are going down the technocratic route. Or better politicians if we are going down the political route.

  • Jeremy Cooke

    But councils still hide behind “commercially sensitive” excuses – if you want to do business with the government in any form you should have to accept that all the details are put into the public domain; secrets breed corruption.

    Why are councils in England compelled to video and release all meetings and why isn’t that imposed here? Too many of the political class learn too many bad habits too early in local government.

  • Nevin

    Just think of all the free expertise that, say, folk on Slugger could make available to them if there was open governance.

  • Nevin

    Both, Reader. Obviously we also need a better informed electorate.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Wrong Mick, the problem is the politicians.

    Politicians who don’t want to work, don’t want to make the choices needed for the good of their communities, will fail to make any political system work.

  • aquifer

    Delivery is a problem when people are recruited on the basis of a low risk job for life. Doing stuff is risky, postponement awaiting a change of regime, or doing de minimis, is easier and will often pay off. And bureaucratic bullies rise to rob the initiative of the willing, and irrespective of expertise. We need fewer generalists, a lot of services can be bought in as required, and buying requires the clarity of purpose that is too often missing. Transparency is a super safeguard for sure. Incompetence leaves the cupboards full of skeletons, and early retirement often throws away the keys. Ed Straw, brother of Jack, worked in government for a while and wrote this:

  • aquifer

    The problem is parties without the funding to seek real talent. Sectarian opportunism and pressing the flesh get the wrong people elected. Maybe people don’t like to vote for people much smarter than they are.

  • Brian Walker

    Mick, A prolonged impasse would surely demonstrate a fundamental lack of interest in taking charge of our own affairs compared to what passes for politics here. Goverment requires that the common interest in some form wins out in the end over sectional politics. The choice of the day wins out until the next time. You can’t make a new choice if you bring the house down.
    It was hoped that making rational choices would produce political dividends all round but this seems to have been a fond hope. Even mentioning this writes me off as hopelessly naive and out of touch .

    In the south we see the requiments of government prevailing even over water charges, however tortuously, in what is currently a very fragile state of their politics..

    In contrast , it looks as if our lot would rather live with for example the next stage of welfare austeriry this time rather than get together to mitigate it again. I don’t see Tory direct rule departing from Tory welfare cuts and doing another Evason.

    The civil service have to operate within a rational policy envelope that finds it mightily hard to contain the stalling, fudges and shady deals of power sharing as we know it. They stretch the limits of any known government procedures And so we have overmighty spads and RHI.

    Assuming the Executive resumes I see no alternative to a more steered form of devolution which was implied in the review and monitoring system behind the failed Fresh Start. Policy choices in key areas should be set before them by the two governments which they can amend, reject or accept. It would be a sort of half way house between full self government and direct rule.

    In a second election I see only a shapening of sectarian tensions which produce an even worse outcome than whoever “wins”.

    Have I got that completely wrong? Am I missing somthing here? I admit to feeling exasperated when confronted with what people fondly imagine are terribly clever arguments but strike me more as the growing pains of intelligent but delinquent children.

    Are they really squaring up for the Armageddon battle over Irish unity or is this just the sham fight? Do they have any idea themselves? Do the Brits have any idea how dangerous the situation could quickly become?

  • Kevin Breslin

    GAA teams and amateur boxing clubs don’t have the funding either.
    Grassroots politics is an amateur game but any professional from another sphere in life can get involved if they have the time.

    Indeed the public engagement with politicans can give politicans a lot of the “intelligence” they need to do their jobs. We should help who we vote for by letting them know what they can try to do for us.

    I don’t think the stalemates are due to a lack of intelligence, more of a lack of a will to find compromise.

  • Jeremy Cooke

    They don’t have to listen to the likes of me, probably best if they don’t, but I’m entitled to listen and watch them, and to enquire into every aspect of what they do with my money and in my name.