Monday 17 August 2015

On the politics of compromise

I don’t often write directly about party politics on this blog, because mostly I’m talking more about the process of policymaking than its moral positions.  And perhaps that’s true of this post too, but it is written in direct response to the way the Labour leadership debate has been conducted.  It’s not a direct commentary on particular candidates or other public figures, and it could be seen as a call for all of them to up their game.

I’ve often said on this blog that policymaking is about compromise, and the same must be true of politics more generally – for even when it seems that nothing’s being done, that’s a policy in itself.

But compromise, particularly at the moment, seems to be a dirty word – or at least one that’s probably misleading for what I want to try to say.  Really, the point is that all policies are (even if not consciously) a weighing up of inevitably competing positions and priorities.  There will be trade-offs.

Some of these trade-offs might involve cost (how much can we spend on crash barriers, medicines, school buildings, or how much do we want to prioritise the environment over economic growth), but for others it’s simply about balancing one legitimate priority against (many) others.  To take an example from a field I know something about, how can prescribing methadone to reduce the harm from injecting illicit drugs be balanced against the desire to support people to ‘recover’ as fully as possible from substance use issues?

What I’m trying to say is that by talking about ‘trade offs’ I don’t mean that Jeremy Corbyn’s policies – or those of Kendall, Cooper or Burnham for that matter – are ‘unrealistic’, as some Labour grandees seem to want to do.  I just want to point out that they will involve a trade off with some other potential priority, whether that’s conscious and spelled out or not.  Of course that potential priority might be written off as unimportant, but that’s easier for a big picture discussion of growth versus climate change than it is for the detail of adult social care policy, for example.

But there’s a bigger point about compromise and politics.  I see it as inevitable that not all people agree on the ends of politics, let alone the means.  Otherwise, we might have found a unifying political theory by now, but not even liberalism has managed that with its attempt to bypass any attempt at unity.

So no policy will please everyone.  Of course some views would disregard popularity, but some concept of popular appeal is important if you’re interested in power, which is the only reason a person is interested in politics (even if they, quite reasonably, think power doesn’t entirely reside in government).  It’s revealing that the campaign teams of both Andy Burnham and Jeremy Corbyn have been desperate to point out that their candidate has widespread popularity and electability.  Despite what some Labourites might think, the Corbyn campaign isn’t simply an attempt to sit aside from the mainstream of political debate and feel self-righteous.

And here’s my point: the Labour Party is itself, inevitably, a compromise.  It is an electoral coalition for the purpose of forming governments.  This isn’t its only function, but it’s the key reason it exists as a political party as separate from – or alongside – ‘the labour movement’.  The Conservative Party is a compromise too, for that matter.

Just as we haven’t got one unifying political theory we can all agree on, neither have the major parties.  They can’t be neatly categorised according to the classic axes of political theory.

Alcohol and drug policy is one area where we can see this clearly.  The Labour Party can’t decide whether minimum unit pricing of alcohol (MUP) is a progressive measure that will reduce alcohol-related harm amongst the most vulnerable, or whether it’s a way of targeting some people’s pleasures while leaving richer people’s untouched.

And the Conservative Party can’t decide whether liberalising alcohol licensing or drug laws is the right thing to do because it’s economically and socially liberal, or whether intoxication and visible carnivalesque behaviour are undesirable and therefore should be cracked down on as part of a socially conservative agenda.

These aren’t new problems.  James Nicholls has written very clearly about how the politics of alcohol highlights these liberal dilemmas, and the issue of alcohol for Labour Party politicians was laid out clearly in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists over 100 years ago.

And yet, so far, these parties have tended to hold together.  Yes, there has been the SDP, and Douglas Carswell has chosen to see UKIP as a genuine libertarian alternative to the Conservatives (though I’m sure plenty of UKIP voters and party members would disagree).

Politics involves trade offs at some stage.  Our political and electoral system tends to place these at specific stages, but they’re still there.  In some other countries the compromise is made after an election, when a programme for government is put together by several parties accepting portions of each other’s manifestos.  We had our own experience of this after the 2010 election, and it didn’t end well for one of the compromisers.

(You could argue that 2015, with the exception of Scotland – or perhaps particularly in Scotland – was a turn back to clear two party government, rather than an endorsement of coalition or a further fracturing of political loyalties.)

The British electorate largely know they are voting for a compromise rather than their perfect party – but (under current electoral arrangements) they prefer to know what compromise they’re likely to get before they vote.  The compromise is effectively put to them as the programme of the two biggest parties, which are already ‘coalitions’.

There are other ways to conduct politics, of course.  We could vote for our ‘perfect’ party and spell out our compromise option through an alternative vote system.  We could have many parties with more coherent and tightly defined programmes for government, and then see negotiations set in after the election.

But I would suggest that parties, as a collection of people, and the expression of a collective will, cannot be wholly of one mind.  Those compromise manifestos not only cannot satisfy every voter, or even just the voters of that party; they cannot fully satisfy anyone.  Its policies will be a series of trade-offs, and the selection of policies will be a compromise rather than a perfect, complete vision of one mind.  That is the nature of living with other people.  (Unless, of course, you’ve found you’re living in a society where you never disagree with anybody – that would be interesting to know about, but it certainly wouldn’t be interesting to live in, or even human.)

Even smaller, ‘purer’ parties can’t achieve perfect agreement on a programme for government.  (I would argue that even an individual human being isn’t capable of that level of coherence and consistency, but that’s an argument for another day.)

So let’s not have one politician written off as a compromise candidate or another as an unrealistic idealist.  Compromise does not inevitably mean Tony Blair or David Cameron, any more than purity of principle and thought means Jeremy Corbyn.  There are compromises other than those made by the 1994-2010 Labour Party – but they will be compromises.  The trade-offs are made by everyone, or will be later.  The question is about the relative priority given to certain principles or priorities.

To paint compromise – as particular Labour members of all backgrounds and preferences have done during this campaign – as being one specific thing, infantilises political debate.  Reasoned, balanced, publicly-supported policies are not a bad thing – and they could come from any of these candidates or none.

Not a single candidate is ‘perfect’, but then there never will be a single ‘perfect’ candidate or policy platform for everyone, so let’s stop pretending this is a battle for head or heart, realism or perfection, and get on with some proper discussion.  Blairites don’t have a monopoly on realism, and Corbynites don’t have a monopoly on leftwing morality.  My ideals, my compromise, my realism are quite different from anything I’ve seen so far.

It seems a travesty to argue that what we could call consensus politics should be defined by Tony Blair, when the period called by that name is precisely what he was most keen to distance himself from.

Now what are the candidates’ positions on minimum unit pricing anyway?  That might actually be illuminating about their principles and priorities…