Thursday, 13 September 2012

How Politics Corrupts Policy

After yesterday’s rant, I thought I’d bring you some calm reflection. Consider the way that politics is understood in the UK. Parliament is made of two great bodies of opposing ideas, made real in the form of two great political parties, facing each other in the caldron of public debate, separated only by the length of two drawn swords.

Sounds romantic, right? Principles forged into parties then refined by parliament. The only thing is that it’s probably not true. There is a large and convincing body of political science which considers the type of politics that a democracy has to be a product of the election rules that particular democracy has. Because we elect a single MP for a single area we are likely to have a two party system (for the geeks this is referred to as Duverger’s law). In countries like Germany, where they have different rules, there are lots of different parties, who always govern in coalition.

This has a fascinating implication. Every time you hear a party fanatic, be they Labour or Conservative, extolling the virtue of their world view, this view is not only the product of principled reasoning, but also of their picking a side in an artificial debate. Party allegiance is, for the most part, a similar process to that which causes a child who lives in Surrey to become a fanatical Manchester United supporter.

This is not to say that there are no other political ideas and perspectives out there. Marxists, Libertarians, Greens, Liberal Democrats (who knows what they believe) and many others all compete with each other for the right to be mocked or ignored by the general public. Yet power is always divided by the two parties which are the product of our election system.

Think about the consequences of this for the public debate around policy making. Instead of being implemented on merit, a policy must be acceptable to the artificial world view of one of the major parties. Questions which are by their nature managerial, for example how to improve school performance, are seen through an artificial ideological prism rather than a neutral process of cost benefit analysis. It can, and has, been argued that this process is why the government is sometimes an ineffective provider of services. A proper analysis of policy making requires a certain detachment from politics. It seems most unlikely that you will ever see that happen in the mainstream media, which is notoriously party political, and our public debate is all the poorer for it.  

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