Friday, 18 December 2015

Corridors of power

For what will probably be my final post of the year I return, as no doubt I will many times next year, when it is likely to be held, to the UK Referendum on EU membership. For those interested in the global economic context of organizations, but also in the way that decision making happens in both politics and organizations, the current ‘renegotiation’ is fascinating.
The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, is seeking to renegotiate the terms of UK membership so as to be able to recommend to the British people that they vote to remain in the EU. The terms he is seeking, even if achieved, will not in any way change the minds of those in his own party and beyond who are implacably opposed to EU membership. And although I disagree with their opposition, they are absolutely right to see the renegotiation as a charade. Even if it succeeds, it will not in any substantive way change the terms of membership. So what is it about?
The answer is that it will enable Cameron to say to his party and voters that a deal has been struck that they can support. The more there seem to be huge difficulties and conflicts over getting the deal, the better it will be in terms of making that case. This is widely understood within the political class, the media and informed observers. So the only way that it can be successful is by its appeal to those undecided and/or only mildly anti-EU voters not following events closely and who only tune in during the run-up to the referendum (currently widely expected to be held in June 2016). They will hear that there has been a fundamental change and – if things go to plan – will vote to stay in.
Since I am strongly in favour of Britain’s membership of the EU I hope this works. But it is a risky and in many ways unsatisfactory strategy. It’s risky for two reasons. First, if Cameron doesn’t get even the limited deal he is seeking it won’t have much credibility. Second, it’s by no means guaranteed that those voters it is designed to appeal to will hear this message, rather than that of the campaign to exit. But it’s unsatisfactory because it repeats the errors of the past in failing to make a positive case for EU membership, and just trying to bamboozle a semi-detached electorate into making a half-hearted choice.
Outside of the government, the embryonic campaigns are both, to varying degrees, in trouble. Neither is as yet a single organization (although that will change when the Electoral Commission identify and fund the campaign groups). The ‘in’ campaign is dominated by Lord Rose’s (former head of Marks and Spencer) rather dull, accounting approach, stressing the benefits of membership for businesses, although something more sparky and populist is offered by Alan Johnson’s leadership of the Labour Party’s campaign. And the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, remains at best lukewarm on British membership, a major danger for the ‘in’ campaign. Meanwhile the ‘out’ campaign is openly wracked by conflict between rival groups, a key issue being the extent to which Nigel Farage, the populist but divisive anti-immigration leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) will figure. Just today, UKIP’s only MP suggested that Farage should stand down as his party’s leader.
As readers of this blog will know, I was recently in Paris and whilst there had several conversations with people who expressed bemusement at the fact that this debate was even happening in Britain, and certainty that the outcome would be a vote to stay in. I am not sure that this is true, or at least that the vote will be decisive enough to prevent the question to continue to be raised. Opinion polls suggest that the result will be very close, although there is an interesting divide between internet polls (suggesting a close result) and telephone polls (suggesting an easy win for the stay in campaign). This may reflect the fact that the anti-EU movement (at least as regards UKIP) has a very well-organized online presence, and that views within the general population are rather different. It also seems likely that, unsurprisingly, the answer depends on how the question is asked.
Leaving aside the EU issue, I’m struck by how much of this has parallels with how decisions get made in organizations. Often there is a small group of highly involved and committed people on different sides of the argument, and a larger group of more or less uninterested or ambivalent people. Similar techniques are used of taking decisions and discussions to various forums and then bringing them to other bodies to make a final decision, with all the detail having been decided elsewhere. It is a perennially fascinating process about which much has been written in the organization studies literature. But, to bang on about another of my hobby horses, nowhere more insightfully than in the novels of C.P. Snow such as his 1964 masterpiece Corridors of Power.
As I said earlier, I will for sure be returning to these issues in 2016. In the meantime, a very Happy Christmas and New Year to all those reading this blog.

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