Professor James Mitchell: facing political reality

Written by James Mitchell on 14 April 2016 in Comment

Political parties should avoid making promises before the election that they may come to regret after it

Scotland faces significant public policy challenges over the coming years. Scotland’s ageing population is not looming on the horizon but presents challenges – and opportunities – that are already with us and set to become more pressing.

Economic uncertainty will create challenges for long-term planning, affecting the range of public policy options available to any Scottish government in the foreseeable future.

Major fiscal challenges lie ahead as demand for services increases while public finances decline.


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A key problem underpinning all of this is the difficulty in predicting the precise nature of these and other challenges.

Forecasting demographic change and revenues accruing from tax changes is hazardous. Adding in the tendency, verging on a rule, that political parties look for calculations to suit their immediate purposes means that we must treat claims about the sums involved with care, if not incredulity.

The early years of devolution coincided with significant growth in public expenditure in common with the rest of the UK, along with reasonably good growth and economic stability.

Scotland’s political parties were as one in promising more public goods, buying into the myth that the era of ‘boom and bust’ had been brought to an end. Pouring money into services was possible and easier than designing good policies.

In that period, the parties fought to claim credit for policies that at least some now seek to disown.  It was not unknown to receive leaflets from a number of parties each claiming credit for the same policies enacted in the first few years of devolution.

The unstated assumption – if any thought was even given to it – in these early years was that money would continue to flow. Devolved institutions became spending machines and the design of efficient public policy was neglected.

Interests may create policies but policies almost invariably create interests. Whatever the merits of care for the elderly, free tuition fees, concessionary transport, free prescriptions etc, these all come at a cost and once in place are difficult to reverse.

These are not one-off policies but commitments that once established need to be funded into the future. What might have been affordable in the good times might not be afforded long term, but it is almost always harder to reverse a policy than create it in the first place.

Parties engaged in a bidding war in efforts to appeal to sections of the electorate. And the sections that attracted most attention were those with the highest propensity to turn out and vote.

James Craig, Northern Ireland premier in the interwar period, is infamously associated with the claim that Stormont was a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people.

Since its establishment, Holyrood might equally be described as a middle-class parliament for a middle-class electorate, though few, if any, of its members would dare admit it.

The most self-consciously left-wing (with an emphasis on self-consciously) are usually the most un-self-aware in this respect, largely because it has involved middle-class welfare policy prescriptions rather than direct cash payments.

There have, of course, been policies designed to address inequalities and efforts to improve the life chances of the least well off.

However, there can be little doubt that middle-class Scotland has had little to fear from the mythical ‘radical Scotland’.

And middle-class Scotland continues to assert its interests in protecting its policy gains. Niche parties might ignore this section of the electorate but no party intent on forming or being part of a government can afford to ignore these voters.

But it is glib to portray parties that have pursued this electoral course as right-wing sell-outs. It is too easy to accuse parties of dishonesty, speaking left but acting right, as this avoids serious analysis of the conundrum faced by parties that are caught between aspiration and electoral reality.

Parties that ignore this conundrum are destined to remain niche. Purist politics are the politics of impotence.

The era of easy choices is over. Harsh choices will have to be made, regardless of the outcome of the election or indeed Scotland’s constitutional status.

New powers are coming to Holyrood but it is delusionary to imagine that this alone will solve Scotland’s long-term challenges.

Much discussion of the new fiscal tools assumes that new levers will be available that can be pulled to release pots of gold that will magically and immediately remove problems. The reality is a lot more complex, though engaging with complexity runs contrary to the simplicities of electoral politics.

The media’s capacity for serious policy analysis has declined as devolution bedded in and social media has not yet come close to filling this gap. Policy tropes that have driven devolution have been accepted uncritically.

Elections are far from being moments of political deliberation; they close down much serious political debate. Issues are presented in black and white when most policy prescriptions require nuance and trade-offs.

The public are spectators in this gladiatorial battle between parties, media and various interest groups. Leadership is abandoned in favour of followership, though there is often confusion as to what the electorate thinks.

Polls, focus groups, impressions on the doorstep and intuition feed into what parties understand about the electorate. Policies and positions are announced rather than discussed.

A politician who dares to offer a position even slightly at variance with her or his party becomes the focus of feverish opposition and media commentary.

And a leader willing to consider that she might be willing to change her mind on a matter of substance is soon forced to ‘clarify’ her views.

The pressure and bitterest reactions come from within the party. Elections are simply not a time for deliberation.

The black and white world of policy pronouncements encourages a focus on policy inputs and heroic claims.

Each time a party promises 1,000 more anything – nurses, teachers, police officers – and promises to protect/increase spending on some public service, it does so with little consideration for the opportunity costs involved and makes heroic assumptions as to the consequences of such commitments.

It is likely that 1,000 more anything would improve a service, but whether any 1,000 more is the best use of scarce resources is a wholly different matter. Alternatives are crowded out in the pursuit of a headline. Rounded numbers of such precision should make us suspicious.

But such commitments do, of course, make memorable headlines. 1,000 more sounds like a firm commitment to tackle a problem.

Every promise to protect NHS spending, for example, warms the hearts of party activists and many in the health service but in an era of public financial constraints runs shivers down the spines of local government and other public servants.

All parties are signed up to a shift towards prevention but writing a winning preventative manifesto is difficult. It is far easier to grab a headline by focusing on simple input messages.

Efforts to square the circle by using new tax powers suggest a crudely mechanistic understanding of fiscal powers. Few policies have no unintended consequences.

Claims are made as to the sums that will be raised by changes in taxes that should be treated with considerable caution. The notion that putting up a tax will generate some easily calculated sum of money permeates the thinking of parties.

Debate on taxation has been more symbolic than meaningful with bizarre interpretations of proposals in some quarters.

There has been some bizarre commentary trying to place parties on a left-right scale according to their tax proposals. While we should be grateful that the parties are debating use of new powers, we should hope that manifestos acknowledge the complexities involved.

The best hope for the future may be that parties will desist from making too many promises in this election they will come to regret.

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