Wednesday, January 24, 2007

We Must Keep the Politicians in Politics

I think I need to lie down. I have just read David Blunkett's column in The Sun and to my utter horror agreed with him - not once but twice. He believes Hilary Benn is the best candidate for the Labour Deputy leadership, as do I, but his second point is rather more profound.

In a rambling piece about how John Reid is wrong to want to break up the Home Office Blunkett makes a wider point...

"...The alternative to politics is officialdom. And there is a trend in all three major political parties to believe that if difficult questions of reform need to be answered without damagaing the credibility of politicians, they should be taken out of their hands. Trouble is, you simply can't. Just because someone has been appointed to some agency to make decisions doesn't mean they don't have political views. It means they have kept their head down or - even more damagingly - they have never had to make a decision in their lives. It also means that when they get it wrong they can't be punished by the voters, like politicians are...What we need is quite the opposite - a transparent, open political debate, with decisions taken by politicans who respond to voters' concerns, knowing that if they don't their careers can be ended with the stroke of a pen at election time."

Blunkett is absolutely right. Whenever I hear a politician saying "we need to take the politics out of [insert subject] I reach for the sick bucket. All they are doing is abrogating responsibility for clearing up a mess. And surely that is what politicians are there for. It's something that the Conservatives are just as guilty of as Labour and the LibDems. Liam Fox made an announcement along the lines of "let's take the politics out of the NHS" a few years ago. Just the sort of language that may appeal to the centre voter. But it's wong-headed. We cannot leave NHS reform to bureaucrats. It's for politicians to lead the debate on big issues like the NHS. If they can't do that then they shouldn't be 'in the arena' at all. Politicians must lead the debate and lead public opinion. Delegating responsibility to unelected officials is an easy way out in the short terms, but all it does in the long term is store up problems.

39 comments:

Neil Craig said...

PR support alert.

We cannot have a "a transparent, open political debate, with decisions taken by politicans who respond to voters' concerns" on anything on which the 2 1/2 main parties have taken a stand because politicians on both sides cannot speak without risking being told their party is (most grevious sin) divided.

We need genuine political debate & for that we need a multiparty democracy where there is almost always someone on each side. There should be a party that believes in Cameron's cuddly conservatism & for a nasty party of people actually willing to grow the economy (the same on the ex-socialist side) & give the public the chance to express a real opinion. We are not children & deserve a system that allows politicians to talk like adults.

Anonymous said...

Spot on Iain. What we need is leadership from politicians, but a form of accountable leadership that lends itself to listening to what the population actually want. Governing should be for the people, not in spite of the people.

javelin said...

He's having a swipe at Brownism - that is "power without responsiblity."

Priam said...

Is there any reason why local fire, health, or transportation etc. officials couldn't be elected? That is, in the same way Michael Howard proposed for local police chiefs at the last election?

I think we'd all like to see less top down dogmatic instruction from Whitehall.

Anonymous said...

I think the politicians have all been lazy ,they just want to bask in the glory of holding office and let the bureaucrats run loose without any controls ,these bureaucrats dont care they just say wasn't me gov ,and get their pensions , but saying that if Blunkett knew this why didnt he shout

Anonymous said...

It's easy to talk sense when you're out of Office trying to get back. Blunkett was a disaster when he had the chance.

GlassHouse said...

Iain, does this mean that you would support a Conservative pledge to reverse the independence of the Bank of England in setting interest rates?

Tone made me do it - he's a bad influence said...

Correct.
Brown's decision to give the Bank of England "independence"* in deciding interest rates created the precedent.
Now politicians are scrambling to keep the chauffeur driven Jags but ditch any responsibility for making the decisions that they are paid to make.

*Of course the B of E's inflation target can be changed by Brown at any time, simply by him writing them a letter to say so.

Benedict White said...

Iain, I am also becoming concerned that I find my self agree with David Blunkett. On most things he seems to make Ghengis Khan look like a raging liberal.

However here I agree for the reasons you state. You take the politics out of something not to make it better, but so you don't go blamed when it goes wrong. That is fundamentaly wrong and destroys accountability.

Chuck Unsworth said...

Blunkett's comments are his ususal political opportunism but, setting that to one side, he seems to bemoan the fact that politicians are no longer making the decisions. What on earth makes him believe that decisions are made by politicians anyway?

Most important decisions of this Government have been made well away from the debating chamber, and well before any presentation to the Chamber.

True, this is not untypical of many governments but the difference now is that senior politicians, who have taken note of the Prime Minister's approach, no longer even bother to answer properly to Parliament. The repeated failures to place documents in the Library, answer Written Questions, provide frank response, appear before the House to answer questions or debate is symptomatic of a devious manipulative government which is now on the run.

Blair's latest refusal to appear at the Depatch Box to open the debate on the Iraq shambles is a classic example of that. Blunkett has absolutely no credibility, personally or politically. Whilst he may occasionally talk some sort of sense, that is more by luck than good management.

Iain Dale said...

Glasshouse, no, because I was advocating it long before Gordon Brown did it. I think this is different to what Blunkett is talking about though. The B of E decision was a political decision. He did it for economic stability and it is probably his best decision as chancellor. But you can;t do it in all sectors. If you take politics out of transport, the NHS, education, foreign policy etc, what choice is there for the electorate. Why would they even bother to go and vote?

mark williams said...

A fair point regarding ministerial acountability from the twice-sacked from Mr. Blunkett, but easier to say when your ministerial days are over, or perhaps hanging around in the hope that someone else will be held to account and fired.

Anonymous said...

Paddy Ashdown made a similar point a few months ago on Question Time, after several people had proposed depoliticising the issue of climate change. His point was that it is a political issue, as further proven by UKIP's apparent move towards Global Warming-denying.

Julian H

Anonymous said...

THE Ministry of Defence’s new Whitehall headquarters will cost the taxpayer £2.3 billion to refurbish and run.

Who made this decision? who is accountable for spending my money on crap like this:

Luxury office chairs worth more than £1,000 for each of the 3,100 civil servants in Whitehall.

I would like to know who OK's this blatant waste of the taxpayers money when Children's Hospices have to rely on charitable handouts.

It stinks and it makes me sick.

Someone needs to be accountable.

Anonymous said...

THE Ministry of Defence’s new Whitehall headquarters will cost the taxpayer £2.3 billion to refurbish and run.

Who made this decision? who is accountable for spending my money on crap like this:

Luxury office chairs worth more than £1,000 for each of the 3,100 civil servants in Whitehall.

I would like to know who OK's this blatant waste of the taxpayers money when Children's Hospices have to rely on charitable handouts.

It stinks and it makes me sick.

Someone needs to be accountable.

Anonymous said...

We need to take the politics out of politics.

Anonymous said...

I agree - the Quango state has gone too far. Wales had a 'bonfire of the Quangos' for much of the reasons you give - but I don't know how successful it has been - there certainly seems to be plenty of cash being expended there post-devolution.

Anonymous said...

Tone made me do it - the outsourcing of politics in Britain goes back before the decision to separate the MPC from the Chancellor. PFI was essentially a Tory project and the privatisation of the railways was really an effort to distance the then Tory govt from the endless criticisms of commuters.

Blunkett is too creepy to make it easy to listen to him even when he's right - one just does not trust his motives. We do need more politics, not less, but it needs to be genuine politics with involvement in electing a wider range of public officials. Where public money is spent, there needs to be debate. This is what is not happening in the case of the railways, where vast amounts of taxpayers money are being handed to Branson and his ilk with precious little accountability. If you write to your MP about the state of your railway, you get a letter back saying "none of my business" from MPs of all parties. They all like to play this game.

Anonymous said...

Utter rubbish- we are living in officialdom. Politicians have been 'persuaded' since 1979 to centralise all power to Whitehall, which is run by the officials not by politicians. We have a core of bureaucrats that cannot even order half decent ammunition to our army in the field. Unless political power is returned to the cities and towns, where it properly belongs, the political process will wither and die. That means all officials of any note are ELECTED, Mayors, Fire Chiefs,Area Health Authorities and Chief Constables. Don't be seduced by Blunkett Iain he is a failed big government man. The Home office should be broken up tomorrow morning.

bt said...

"The alternative to politics is officialdom."
Maybe it is, to a lefty.
And since it's estimated that 80% of 'our' legislation and regulations are determined elsewhere and Parliament merely ensures enforcement, it looks as if the choice between these options has already been made.

There is also the argument/observation that politics creates officialdom, but let's put that on one side for the moment.

The real key to everything is how/why politicians make the decisions they do. The need to look different to the other lot, the urge to tinker (the most difficult political act is to do nothing, even when doing nothing is the most sensible option), the lack of on-the-ground experience of so many among those that form or enforce policy, the stridency of single-subject pressure groups that drown out the more measured opinions, all have a tendency to spawn policy change, regulation upon regulation, guidelines to guidelines. Reform is a recurrent favourite, despite the fact that 'reform' means to go back to what it was before. Never does, though. And very little of all this seems to ameliorate the problem much - or if it does, there often seem to be unintended consequences elsewhere in the system.

The truth is, there's no such thing as a quick fix, anymore than there is a free lunch. But they do keep trying. (I like the exchange between Mitterand and Chou-en Lai - "What do you think of the French Revolution?" "It's too soon to say." Collapse of French party.)

Politics should be a useful device for doing what is necessary. Poor turn-out and the disengagement of the majority from political activity or allegience suggests that politics as presently instituted is not up to scratch.

If the political system received the sort of attention (conflicting targets, screwed up priorities, cock-eyed funding and change enforced almost arbitarily, it seems) that the Health system gets, maybe it would concentrate their minds a bit and they'd spend more time on thinking than on rushing out to puff the latest initiative.
And we'd all benefit.

Anonymous said...

Blunkett is an evil man, you cannot trust someone who behaved as he did at the weekend.

We simply need to hold those elected are accountable. This comes from a seperate body to oversee constitutional reform. This should be forced on the winning party in return for a mandate at an election. NuLab have shown their true colours, OldLabour would be worse if they ever got near power. They havent been in power since 1978, 30 years of hurt would involve ugly retribution.

The Liberals have some decent policy but I just can't see them ever being credible.

So we need to refom the Tory's

Anonymous said...

I'd like to agree but given that an increasing amount of our government is run by bureaucrats based in Brussels with assistance from their proxies in the member states this is an irrelevant point. For example, who has greater input over fisheries policy now? The experts or those who accentually earn their living from the seas? Thanks to Brussels its the experts. And their is nothing any of us can do about it (apart from leave the Eu!)

Anyway democratic accountability means nothing if politicians do not resign when they make a cock up. This lot just tries to brazen it out. Most of the time they get away with it. Dangerous prisoners on the loose - not me Guv!

Anonymous said...

I dont think Politics has anything to do with running this country ,the politians think they do run it , but it's run by senior bureaucrats , god help us when we let the EU lot really start on us ,we'll be chipped ,id 'd ,pay to use our roads the list goes on

Stuart Bruce said...

Iain, stop saying sensible things. It's quite upsetting my real Labour core to agree with. Let's keep the politics in things.

Tone made me do it - he's a bad influence said...

Anonymous 12.19 said

"PFI was essentially a Tory project"
Whaaa?
So that's why its been pursued for the past 10 years.

As for the railways, I have little recollection of Harold Wilson offering to drive the trains when British Rail drivers phoned in sick/went on strike.

The logic of your argument is that everything should be re-nationalised.
Privatisation was implemented not so politicians could wash their hands of responsibility for industries. It occurred because Tory politicians genuinely believed that those industries would be better run by the private sector.

Anonymous said...

PMQs - Tony Blair refusing to answer a question as to whether Gordon Brown agrees with splitting up the Home Office. I am beginning to wonder if David Blunkett has finally seen which way the river is running. Especially as the Guardian says that Blair was looking 'deeply rattled', when asked about the loans-for-lordships affair.

Anonymous said...

The Druid - fishing should be left to the fishermen or the nasty horrid EU experts? Depends if you want your kids to still be eating cod in 40 years time. In that case, if you leave it to the fisherman, there will be nothing, since, as they proved in Newfoundland, the small businessmen who run the fleets will never put long-term survival ahead of quick profits. The result there has been the complete and utter removal of all cod from what was once the greatest cod fishery in the world, the Grand Banks. So sadly for all you Tory idiots, it's the EU experts, thank goodness. Except that the British government dithers (as usual) and rather than have to face down the petit-bourgois anger or some deranged fish-farmers, instead settles for them taking a "slightly reduced" catch, which will only mean that all cod will be eliminated in 20 years rather than 15. Current best estimate for total worldwide disappearing of all cod by the way is 2018. You wouldn't guess this from the long lines of cod packages in Tesco and Sainsbury, all priced irresponsibly. The consumer society and the markets alone cannot guarantee our future. The sad truth is that sometimes we need to listen to experts, hard though this is to take for the average Little Britonite Tory Johnny in his SUV.

Anonymous said...

Yes I entirely agree with this and it has a bearing on my bit about the disengagement of "politicians " with the demos.Evrything is poltiical and the atempt to claim some issue is not is always to win apoltical point by avoiding discussion.


Look at the entire operation of the EU. That is what taking the poltics out of management gets you

Anonymous said...

There's no mystery about fishing grounds. Look at how Iceland or Norway do it. National control. NO EU ROBBERY!!!

Anonymous said...

Well Newfoundland has always had serious economic problems, and people in desperate times do desperate things. The analogy with our fisheries is poor. But don't let me stop you from raising crude stereotypes whoever you are. They're amusing.

I do know a lot of Cornish fishermen well. They know how to manage the sea. Its been managed for centuries long before so called experts were let loose on us. The rot began fifteen to twenty years again when the Spanish were let in under the EU Treaty. They, and their factory fishing, are largely responsible for the over-fishing of our seas. I member speaking to fishermen on Newlyn quay who told me we were storing up trouble because the way the EU was allowing the seas to be fished. When environmental arguments were raised they were laughed out of hand. In the Council it was the national interest all the way. I suggest therefore that the damage has already been done by bien pensants like you. You have reduced a once thriving and sustainable industry to ruin with your politics and prejudices. An example of the crap government that the EU provides if ever it was needed.

Anonymous said...

The "EU Robbery" thing is rubbish - but yes, strong enforcement is needed. However, the bit you are missing is that in Norway and Iceland, fisherman co-operate with government "experts" and voluntarily sharply restrict catches - in return, their navies prevent other fleets fishing there. The British navy do not as they used to, due to cutbacks. Instead, the British govt rely on EU member state promises, which are ignored by national governments and fishing fleets such as those of Spain and France. Therefore what is needed is a combination of expert guidance (largely ignored by British fishing businesses and supermarket chains), strong enforcement (removed in Britain) and Europe-wide agreement enforced. (currently flouted by Spain and France in particular but also by non-EU countries).

Say goodbye to cod, it will no longer exist in a few years time. Nor will almost all sea fish in 25-35 years due to an overwhelming combination of maritime pollution and overfishing. Too much fish is already harmful to human health because of high concentrations of mercury coming from toxic waste dumping, plastic industries, vehicle and jet exhausts and ships.

Dr.Doom said...

I believe there is an example here to guide us.

There is a City in this Country that has elected politicians, but they have no power whatsoever and it is left to unelected officers of that City to run things.

I'm led to beleive that it is a disaster and has cause political mayhem and public dissatisfaction with local Government.

Doom.

Anonymous said...

People would not be calling for decision-making powers to be removed from Ministers in some cases if politicians did not abuse their positions of responsibility by allowing party political considerations - ie, how do we secure and retain power - to skew their duty to act in the public interest. Setting policy parameters, allocating budgets and then allowing experts to make decisions with accountability to Parliament but free of the corrupting influence of political parties would not be an abrogation of responsibility but a positive development that would go a long way towards restoring trust in the system

Anonymous said...

People would not be calling for decision-making powers to be removed from Ministers in some cases if politicians did not abuse their positions of responsibility by allowing party political considerations - ie, how do we secure and retain power - to skew their duty to act in the public interest. Setting policy parameters, allocating budgets and then allowing experts to make decisions with accountability to Parliament but free of the corrupting influence of political parties would not be an abrogation of responsibility but a positive development that would go a long way towards restoring trust in the system

Anonymous said...

I spoke to a UK fishing boat skipper a couple of years ago. He said his boat is boarded on average a couple of times of week while at sea in UK waters by the Royal Navy, while French and Spanish boats in the vicinity are almost entirely left alone because it's "too much hassle".

UK boats are constantly monitored by DEFRA while at sea with the usual gold-plated vigilance. If their tracking devices go faulty boats have to head for the nearest port immediately.

Swingeing fines are imposed on UK boats if they land a bit too much or the wrong type of fish. They have to throw back tonnes of dying fish back if its the wrong species - this is inevitable all the time.

French and Spanish boats land what they want back at friendly home ports.

Cameron's retreat from the fishing issue is sickening.

Anonymous said...

Yep I quite agree that we can't take politics out of the NHS or Home Office or whatever.

There's also another reason why we shouldn't. The unelected quango which would no doubt be saddled with managing the NHS would allow the appointment of yet more New Labour jobsworths and hasbeens, dependent on the government for their salaries. Government already has way too much partonage in this country as it is. Having worked for one of these boards, I know what a farce they are. To begin with, they are hardly accountable at all for the decisions they make, for a number of reasons. Secondly, the members are generally part time, sometimes a day or two a month, and are reliant on even-less-accountable civil servants to feed them info. Thirdly, they suffer from the usual problem of committee groupthink - you simply get what Churchill called the "sum of all their fears": i.e. lowest common denominator thinking.

The Home Office was good enough for previous governments. NuLab has made a disastrous mess of it and is now desperate to get rid of its responsibility. And as usual, the media, instead of exposing Blair and his bunch, as they would have done with Major in about three seconds, are giving them a ridiculously easy ride.

Trumpeter Lanfried said...

The EU is run by beaurocrats rather than politicians. The results speak for themselves.

No beaurocrat will ever say, out loud: "Our policy on [insert topic] has been a disaster, and must be reversed." Only politicians - in fact, only opposition politicians - can say that sort of thing. Which is why we need them.

Trumpeter Lanfried said...

Whoops! For beaurocrats read bureaucrats.

Voyager said...

What we need is Recall to hold politicians to account and to break the power of the party.

Say 10% voters can demand a fresh election any time during the MP's term.

It is time to break the party system before the country becomes like the GDR