Monday, 30 March 2015

The British general election

This is the first of what I plan to be a series of posts about the UK general election in the run up to polling day on May 7th. I realise that this may seem rather parochial and as such may be of limited interest to readers of the blog from outside the UK. But I am not so sure that is so. Much of what is happening here has counterparts in many other countries. For example, there is a breakdown in trust in the political process and the emergence of new parties which are to some extent extremist (though perhaps less so than in other countries), and one consequence of this is that the result is far less predictable than at any other recent election.  Moreover, much of the context of this is the unfolding of the consequences of globalization and of the financial crisis. The other thing to be said at the outset is that this focus on politics may seem at odds with the focus of the book and this blog of the book, which is on organizations. But here I would just re-state one of the basic arguments of the book, which is the inseparability of politics and organizations.
In this first post, I’ll just make some orientating comments. The period since the early 1990s saw a remarkable convergence between the two main parties, Conservative and Labour, with both being committed to the neo-liberal order, even though one was notionally a party of the Right and the other of the Left. That is to say, both converged on globalization, deregulation and privatization or marketization of public services. The assumption of that convergence was that Britain would continue to be a two-party system as it has been for many decades, with the Conservatives holding on to all the voters whose views were further to the Right than its policies and Labour holding on to all those to its Left. That assumption didn’t quite hold, even at the last election in 2010, principally because the ‘third party’, the Liberal Democrats, garnered quite a bit of support, especially from the Left, not because they diverged from the economic consensus of the other two parties but mainly because they alone had opposed the Iraq War. The consequence of this was a hung parliament and a Conservative-LibDem government that enacted a programme of fiscal austerity.
Although that austerity programme is a defining feature of the current election campaign, it is in a way a sideshow. The proposition is that Labour wrecked the economy with ‘left-wing’ policies, and it was rescued by right-wing policies. But of course the economic wreck of the financial crisis was a wreck of neo-liberalism, which happened to occur when the notionally left-wing party was in power but would have happened in exactly the same way even if they had not been (as in the United States). Moreover, had Labour happened to have won the last election they too would have implemented a similar fiscal austerity programme. In effect, Conservative and Labour parties have become two rival management teams, not differing very much in ideology or policy. And at this election, too, for all that Labour have perhaps very slightly shifted leftwards under Miliband (though to nothing like the extent that the media portrayals of him as ‘Red Ed’ suggests), the alternatives are really only between the extent of continued austerity and a few percentage points either way on the size of the state and the speed of deficit reduction.
Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that the two main parties are only narrowly separated in the opinion polls. For what has happened now is that the assumption that voters had nowhere else to go but to that of the main parties to which they least objected has broken down. In Scotland, a social democratic Scottish National Party (SNP) has, as an unintended consequence of their failure to win the independence referendum, grabbed a massive chunk of the hitherto automatic Labour vote. In England, the anti-EU, anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has grabbed a chunk of the Conservative vote, and a part of the traditional Labour vote. Meanwhile, the Green Party has bitten off pieces of the Labour and LibDem votes. All three of these parties, different as they are, are very clearly alternatives to the neo-liberal consensus of the last 20 years. Each has fractured what were in effect the coalitions of the Conservative and Labour parties. UKIP fractures the nationalist/traditionalist and globalist coalition that Thatcherism created. The SNP and Greens fracture the social democratic and free market coalition that New Labour created. Yet the differences between UKIP/Green/SNP (and some potentially kindred voters in other parties) mean that there is no possibility at all of them forming a unified movement. Not the least of these differences are wildly incompatible notions within and between each of them as to the meaning of local/national and global/international. To put it crudely, UKIP are nationalist (on the EU, immigration and aid) and globalist (on defence and trade); SNP are nationalist (on Scottish independence and defence) and globalist (on the EU and immigration); the Greens are localist (on trade and defence) and internationalist (on aid and immigration). These differences become particularly acute in relation to the European Union (see my post here) and also relate to the tension between cosmopolitans and locals (see my post here).
In 1957 the American political scientist Anthony Downs published An Economic Theory of Democracy. It got taken up as an endorsement of a two party system such that each party would go to the centre ground and then take all the votes to its left or right. In fact, it only predicted that if certain assumptions about ideological consensus and the distribution of ideological views held good. In Britain, they have held until very recently. For example, in the two British elections (1955 and 1959) either side of Downs’ book Conservative and Labour parties between them secured about 99% of the vote on a turnout of about 78%. Even in 2010 they got 87% of the vote up to 96% with LibDems included, albeit on a 65% turnout. But for the forthcoming elections the current national opinion poll average is: Conservative 33%, Labour 34%, LibDems 8%, UKIP 14% and Greens 5%. And in Scotland the SNP is polling in the high 40% and Labour in the high 20% areas, pretty much an exact reversal of the 2010 election.
Outcomes are difficult to predict, but a Conservative or Labour majority government are the least likely possibilities. More likely are either a Conservative government pulled to the Right by reliance on UKIP or a Labour government pulled to the Left by the SNP. Either result would mark a significant moment in British politics and could have important ramifications for the wider world.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Inquiring into Inquiries

I want to pick up on something I mentioned in passing in my last post, namely issues of accountability and trust in public sector organizations. I’m prompted to do so because the other day I was listening to a news bulletin and several items were to do with the publication of reports by inquiries into various scandals or failures. There were reports from the inquiry into deaths in the maternity unit at Furness Hospital; the inquiry into the Oxford child abuse grooming cases; and in the US the inquiry into the Ferguson police shooting. The week before the news was dominated by inquiries into the Jimmy Savile sex abuse case. A couple of weeks before that the big story was the delayed report of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war, which has been running since 2009 and is itself the third public inquiry about the war, following the Hutton Inquiry which reported in 2004 and the Butler Inquiry which also reported in 2004.
Public inquiries are not a new thing, but the frequency with which they occur (in the UK) is increasing and their scope is becoming broader – moving away from being about specific events towards examinations of whole institutions and cultures, as with the Leveson Inquiry into the press. They have an obvious tactical attraction for politicians: by setting up an inquiry into a controversial issue it is possible to show decisive action whilst at the same time avoiding talking about it until the inquiry has reported, which in some cases may be a very long time, and by that time the political charge may have gone out of the issue, or the government has changed.
But I think that there is more at stake than political expediency. What is striking is how the increased use of inquiries goes hand in hand with the increasing emphasis on public sector accountability, so brilliantly described in Michael Power’s now classic book The Audit Society. One might have thought that this increased accountability would have obviated the need for public inquiries: after all, if organizations are more transparent, why would we need them? In fact, the obverse is the case, and increased accountability and transparency has eroded trust, exactly as predicted by the philosopher Onora O’Neill in her prescient Reith Lectures in 2002.
This is a new twist on an old question, formulated as ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?by the Roman poet Juvenal, but present also in Plato’s The Republic. Who will guard the guards? No matter how much public disclosure there is, it is never enough. Thus we see arraigned around public sector organizations regulators who check on them. But these regulators are themselves not to be trusted, and requiring further inquiry. Thus, for example, this week’s Furness Hospital report was concerned not just with the failures of the hospital but with those of its regulator, the Care Quality Commission (CQC). The CQC itself has been repeatedly criticised and has been subject - really, you couldn't make this up - to at least one major independent inquiry (the Rider Inquiry in 2012) into its operations.
So there is a kind of infinite regress here. All the time what is being looked for is an outsider or ‘independent’ person. But now even that it is a problem. The UK historic child abuse inquiry was originally to have been chaired by Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, but she was discredited as insufficiently independent because of her family connections. A new chair, Dame Fiona Woolf, was announced but she too had to stand down because of her ‘Establishment links’. Now, it is to be chaired by a New Zealand judge, Lowell Goddard. It’s not too difficult to imagine an inquiry into the decisions to appoint these inquiry chairs. It’s actually quite easy to imagine an inquiry into the use inquiries.
It’s no coincidence, I think, that the increasing stress on accountability and the increasing use of inquiries when things go wrong has been accompanied by decreasing trust in public institutions. We don’t even trust public inquiries any more, as was illustrated with the Hutton Inquiry which was almost immediately discredited, in large part because it had been ‘open’ in publishing its evidence which all too clearly did not square with its conclusions. A shocking thought, then: perhaps we trust more when we inquire less. Indeed, isn’t that what trust really means?