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Tim Bale: Passing the Wednesday-Friday Test

Tim_bale Tim Bale teaches politics at Sussex University and is writing a book on the Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron. Here he looks at the tension between the "politics of power" and the "politics of support" for the Conservatives.

David Cameron must already rank as one of the most skillful leaders of the opposition this country has ever seen. In this respect at least, he truly is the heir to Blair.  But government, as Blair himself soon discovered, is a little more difficult.  The politics of support is one thing; the politics of power is another. The essence of statecraft is to reconcile and, ideally, to integrate them.   

As far as the electorate are concerned, ‘position politics’, structured by disagreements about ends, is giving way to ‘valence politics’ where the disputes revolve mainly around means.  Because of this shift from the politics of either-or to the politics of more-or-less, policies need more than ever to pass the ‘Wednesday-Friday test’.  They have to be eye-catching enough to attract attention right up to the day before an election yet feasible enough to begin being implemented the day after.

Meeting this need by creating a radical, comprehensive blueprint for government, however, can mean you end up over-prepared and under-prioritised, just as Heath was in 1970.  In any case, if one of your themes is to trust the professionals, leaving a little leeway for civil servants to interpret your ideas isn’t a bad way to get them on-side.

Trusting the professionals, of course, is one way a Cameron government would hope both to improve public services (the politics of power) and win new-found sympathy with the public sector middle classes who defected in their droves to New Labour (the politics of support). The other is to ease off on targets – the performance indicators that risk systemically distorting outputs and driving those charged with delivering services to distraction.

The problem is that the original rationale for targets still exists.  As public choice theorists argued, professionals are sometimes more concerned with protecting and promoting their own interests than those of the people they are supposed to serve.  Go too far in rolling back the new public management and you risk returning to the bad old days.  Conversely, some of the most distorting products of the target culture – raw-scored school league tables spring to mind – are often the most popular with today’s consumer-citizens.  Will a Tory government really cut back on that kind of thing?  I wonder.

The other big idea for the public services is to boost the involvement of the ‘third sector’ in welfare provision, substituting society for the state.  Good idea perhaps. But not one that can be transplanted lock, stock and barrel from across the pond.  In the US, participation in, giving to, and happily receiving help from, good causes is culturally ingrained in a way that it’s not in the UK .  Of course, cultural change often requires an institutional kick-start.  But cultural change is one of the easiest things for oppositions to talk about and one of most difficult things for governments to achieve.  British social attitudes stayed stubbornly socially democratic throughout Margaret Thatcher’s time in office and haven’t changed that much since. This needn’t be a counsel of despair.  But it should be a cold dose of reality.

Of course, welfare reform isn’t the only thing that the Tories have been advocating.  David Cameron’s other big pitch is (was?) the environment. But as the economy turns downwards we all start thinking more about saving ourselves and less about saving the planet. Trouble is, the planet still needs saving. A Tory government will have to find a way of persuading and probably obliging us to act in the collective interest on this one. This poses a challenge for the politics of power and support that the Labour government, for all its efforts, has never really come close to meeting. The same goes for the need to reconcile the need to meet skills-shortages and humanitarian commitments with assuaging public anxiety about immigration.  It also goes for the need to crack down on crime at the same time as correcting perceptions about its frequency and severity so exaggerated that they’re ruining people’s quality of life.  How would a Cameron administration do better?

Yet perhaps the most serious (but sadly the most predictable) mismatch between the politics of power and the politics of support faced by the next Tory government is on Europe.  Despite the agreement not to ‘bang on about Europe’, there exists a widespread assumption at all levels in the Party that, on taking office, it will move to somehow renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU. Many would call this fantasy politics.  It’s hard to see other member states consenting to return significant powers to this country either in isolation or as part of a coalition of similarly Eurosceptic countries. Indeed, such a coalition only exists in the minds of those who think that to imagine it is to bring it into being.

Wouldn’t that change if we were to hint at withdrawal from the EU? That would soon concentrate minds, wouldn’t it?  The only sensible answer to such speculation, as anyone with kids knows, is never threaten something you can’t (or deep down don’t want to) deliver.  Quite what David Cameron is planning to do in order to ensure that his government doesn’t come to grief on Europe, beyond relying on the power of prayer, I have no idea.  I only hope he does.

Likewise, ‘flag and family’ Tories who see a Conservative majority after the next election as an opportunity to begin rolling back the ‘permissive consensus’ had better think very carefully.  Any backlash would involve the articulate, educated and liberal middle classes who (thanks to Labour’s not altogether selfless obsession with expanding access to higher education) are a growing segment of society.  Their votes will be helpful to getting Cameron elected and crucial to keeping him there second-time-around.  They don’t see things in black and white terms, and it would be a mistake for any Tory administration worth the name to think differently.

In Britain at least, changes of government are precipitated not by a burning sense of right and wrong but by a vague feeling that things have gone too far in one direction and that some kind of correction is needed to bring things back into balance.  After a while, voters bank the good things a government has given them and look to the other party to deliver them from the bad things.  They got the welfare state from the Attlee government, for instance, but after five years of sacrifice they were longing to do some shopping.  They got something like full employment from a series of Labour and Tory governments but they also got inflation, higher taxes and over-mighty trade unions and so turned to Mrs Thatcher.  She and John Major sorted out those problems but kept health and education on such short rations that voters elected New Labour, at least in part, to build them back up again.

If successful statecraft is about reconciling the politics of power with the politics of support, it is also about understanding this ‘politics of correction’.  Stripping everything back, a government-in-waiting has to think about what it is that ordinary people – not dyed-in-the-wool supporters – dislike about life under the other lot and believe needs fixing.  Focusing on those things, not just in the run-up to but also in the aftermath of the next election, has to be Team Cameron’s first priority.  It need not be its only concern by any means.  After all, we should all make wish-lists once in a while.  We should always remember, though, that in the end it’s our ‘to-do’ lists that really matter.


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