Grappling with government: how will we change our minds when the facts change?

Sky News’s Adam Boulton has an interesting take on this year’s Lib Dem conference:

… there is an overbearing sense of seriousness as the Lib Dems cogitate on the political hand dealt them after the last election. Far from glibly queuing to speak in debates, conference organisers report that party members are hanging back, wanting to listen to the explanations from the leadership.

It’s a perception that perhaps helps explain why there are relatively fewer requests to speak in debates, especially considering how much higher attendance at conference is this year. Most Lib Dem conference delegates choose only to speak in debate once they are sure of their arguments in their own minds — and there is certainly not that sense of fixed conviction at this stage of the Coalition. Rather, the mood is excited but sober, nervy but resolved, proud but insecure: all the usual paradoxes that greet a leap into the unknown.

One symbol, for me at least, of this more acute sense of seriousness is found in the party’s consultation paper, Party Strategy and Priorities, debated at conference on Sunday — in which there is an explicit recognition that, whatever policies we adopt at the start of government, it is inevitable we will need to adapt or even reverse some of these while in office:

How do we react when Coalition policies need to change – or don’t work?

Opposition parties are allowed the luxury of assuming that all their policies, crafted by experts and developed in debate, will work exactly as intended – with no hidden costs, unintended consequences or new perspectives. Unfortunately, experience of the real world does not always bear out these hopes. How should a mature party, confident in its principles, respond when policies and practice have to change?

As liberals we are all for evidence-based policy, for rejecting dogma in favour of pragmatism: so long as it squares with our principles.

The ultimate test of this will be the austerity cuts, staunchly defended by Danny Alexander yesterday. No-one — neither supporters nor critics — can yet know if these will work. Will eliminating the deficit in five years produce greater long-term gain in exchange for some short-term pain; will private sector growth expand to counter-act public sector contraction; will it be possible for the public sector to do more (or, more realistically, learn to make do) with less, while protecting frontline services for the vulnerable? The truth is we simply do not know.

The point has been made repeatedly at this conference that the vast majority of cuts being proposed would have had to have been implemented by Labour if they were in government. That while 25% cuts sound savage when baldly stated, the annualised rate of 6% a year is both less scary, and also little different to the 5% a year Labur were proposing. In other words, these economic issues are ones of acute judgement, not fundamental principle.

In the hyper-tribal political times in which we currently live, many politicians, commentators, citizens have re-discovered their long-dormant fixed and fervent opinions, are revelling in the luxury of certainty.

The rest of us live in the real world, where we anxiously hold our breath to learn based on the facts as they emerge, and work out how the tough and serious of business of governing can continue; how we can learn to think, reflect and analyse — neither triumphantly nor defensively — while also doing.

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14 Comments

  • Anthony Aloysius St 20th Sep '10 - 10:44am

    “That while 25% cuts sound savage when baldly stated, the annualised rate of 6% a year is both less scary, and also little different to the 5% a year Labur were proposing.”

    Surely precisely the opposite is true. Putting it in terms of 6% a year makes it sound less scary, but after four years a quarter of the budget is gone!

  • The point has been made repeatedly at this conference that the vast majority of cuts being proposed would have had to have been implemented by Labour if they were in government. That while 25% cuts sound savage when baldly stated, the annualised rate of 6% a year is both less scary, and also little different to the 5% a year Labur were proposing. In other words, these economic issues are ones of acute judgement, not fundamental principle… As liberals we are all for evidence-based policy, for rejecting dogma in favour of pragmatism: so long as it squares with our principles.

    This is where the Coalition can unravel. The Leadership of the party has got itself in all sorts of confusion over the cuts – and Conference up to now isn’t helping. The economic evidence hasn’t changed since the election – only the leadership’s political alingment. Why then are we still so unsure about where to go?

    Even now we’re spinning it awfully. Alexander is speaking to support the cuts; Clegg is briefing to the BBC that (a leaderless, rudderless) Labour party are winning the argument on cuts but that they were never designed to be dogmatic so they could be scaled back. The leadership’s line has been to state these as ‘Labour cuts’ – now the polling suggests that the public don’t agree with that we’ve changed our public line.

    What price that Alastair Darling + Gordon Brown are proved right over the correct speed and severity of the cuts? How will Clegg, Cable, Alexander + Huhne spin out of that?

  • Anthony Aloysius St 20th Sep '10 - 12:26pm

    “The ultimate test of this will be the austerity cuts, staunchly defended by Danny Alexander yesterday. No-one — neither supporters nor critics — can yet know if these will work. Will eliminating the deficit in five years produce greater long-term gain in exchange for some short-term pain …”

    But the point is that there are two aspects to this question.

    The first one involves the extent and speed of deficit reduction, and a judgment about whether reducing the deficit too fast will be counter-productive because of the depressive effect on the economy and the resulting reduction in tax revenues (and a hundred and one other more subtle factors). That’s really a question you can answer reliably only if you’re an economist – and maybe not even then. (We only know that the answer the party gave us to that question during the election campaign was very different from the one it’s giving us now – and apparently from the one it believed even then.)

    But the second aspect is about who is going to experience the pain, and who is going to reap the benefits. (And I wouldn’t be too sure about the pain being “short-term,” considering what Cameron has said about his desire to ensure that the public spending cuts are “sustainable.”) I would have hoped that this aspect would be paramount in the minds of Liberal Democrats.

    It’s a ridiculous over-simplification to present this as something which will either “work” or not. With regard to the first aspect, it’s a question of how close the government gets to the optimal answer, and I don’t believe there’s any way we will ever know that, considering the impossibility of knowing what would have been. With regard to the second, of course the government will have a choice about how the pain is shared out, and its actions will be easier to judge. So far, its actions don’t inspire confidence, as far as I’m concerned.

  • “The rest of us live in the real world, …” A person who believes that anyone who disagrees with him lives in some kind of fantasy world is a person who doesn’t live in the real world.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 20th Sep '10 - 3:31pm

    “Do you have a link to that quote?”

    Google shows it as the first result in response to the keywords:
    cameron cuts sustainable
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/aug/03/david-cameron-public-sector-cuts-permanent

    The context was that Cameron was asked to promise that when the economy had improved he would look again at what had been cut, and – in particular – restore fire engines that were “needed to support the public.” Remarkably, he refused to promise he would do that.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 20th Sep '10 - 4:35pm

    George

    You seem to be agreeing with me that the pain won’t just be “short-term.”

    But anyway that was just a small aside in my comment. My point was that it’s not just a question of whether or not the spending cuts will “work,” or whether the gain is worth the pain. It’s also a question of how it’s done, and in particular who the pain is inflicted on.

  • ‘Sky News’s Adam Boulton has an interesting take on this year’s Lib Dem conference:

    that’s surely a contradiction in term’s Sky news never has an interesting take on anything – they’re just the mouthpiece of R Murdoch – just like Fox News.

    I’m glad to hear the conference rejected the so called ‘free schools’ ie putting schools out of democratic local government controal and into the hands of pushy middle class parents to the detriment of the poor.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 20th Sep '10 - 7:09pm

    “I’m hopeful that there will be some amelioration of the pain for the poor.”

    That sounds pretty feeble.

  • charliechops1 21st Sep '10 - 9:12am

    There is no virtue in public expenditure cuts in themselves. What matters is achieving economic growth, increasing employment and tax revenue and sustaining investment for the future. In the course of this programme public expenditure must be reined back. According to the OBR there is no more than a 40% chance of the Coalition’s economic programme achieving its objectives: the greater the cuts the lower the probability. Of course, we don’t know the economic outcome. That’s the point. Why pursue policies that are not likely to succeed? And what is Plan B?

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