If we can rely on anything in 2007, it is that the dismal state of political debate we now have in this country will continue. Philip Webster in The Times reports on the latest example of vacuous thinking:
The Government is to recruit 100 people to help miniters to shape policies on the public services for the next decade … The people, selected by market research organisations as a cross-section representative of the population, will be asked to put themselves in the shoes of the Government’s decision makers
The most terrible irony of this policy, is that it will propagate the problem it has clearly been devised to counter – that of a disconnection between ‘ordinary’ (whatever that means) voters, and the politicians who rule us. At its core, the idea assumes that politicians are not ordinary people, and necessarily so. This might be true on some levels, but if we have reached the stage where a politician is someone who, by definition, cannot know what ordinary people want, then I fear for our salvation.
True, there are policy-wonks and journalists, residents of the fabled ‘Westminster Village’, who have become MPs, but there are also plenty of politicians on the green benches who have also lived in what we might call ‘the real world’ (indeed, no MP would ever claim that this was not true of them).
Has the idea that our political representative should be somehow, well, representative of our views, gone out of fashion? I have always assumed that each MP had his or her ready-made focus group: We call them constituencies, and their members are a perfect representation of the public, a better barometer than anything emulated by market-research companies.
Picking a tiny group of people to advise ministers would seem to by-pass the in-built ‘sovereignty’ of the constituents. The views of the latter group are trumped by those of the former, and I forsee a situation where a stamp of approval from this advisory committee of ordinary people is taken as a sign of a successful policy… regardless of whether the policy has done any good in the real world. This would be typical. If public services are now orientated to the meeting of targets which signal success, rather than actually delivering successful services… it is somehow apt that this same, brain-dead principle is also applied to the act of governing itself.
How depressing. We elect politicians precisely so they can govern. We expect them to make decisions based on what they think our best interests are. In fact, making decisions is the only thing we ask them to do. Asking approval from a cabal of annointed wise men implies that those who currently hold ministerial posts lack the confidence to carry out this one task! If that is the case, the solution to the problem is to employ (i.e. elect) someone else who can do the job themselves, without outsourcing the task to an unelected panel.
Finally, the policy overlooks the crucial possibility that what is popular is not always what is right. Will a minister always take the advice of the panel? If so, then we have a serious democratic crisis on our hands. If not (and we already know they will not) then they are essentially just another group of unelected advisors. Why bother?
There is a horrible ‘meta’ level to this entire idea. It is as if someone in a focus group somewhere has suggested that “giving the public more of a say” would be a good idea, and this policy has been devised on that basis. It has not been created to actually influence policy, just to give the appearance that the government is in touch, and listening. If the government wishes to achieve this impression, it could do so much more effectively through parliament, its MPs and their constituents. As an added bonus, the general public may actually get to have more of a say in how their services are delivered. No extra layer is necessary.