Happy New Year.
Amidst the sales, broken resolutions and last-gasp boozing, the starting gun has apparently been fired for the general election campaign. Sit tight for a drip-drip of policy announcements, quickening to a trickle when manifestos are released and then drumming inexorably down in a nuance-free, grid-choreographed, ennui-infused drizzle until May.
Cutting taxes, raising taxes, a thousand more nurses, several thousand fewer immigrants, spending more or less on this or that, clamping down, loosening up. Pledges, guarantees, triple locks, pilots and trailblazers. How much difference does any of it actually make?
This is neither an anti-voting rant nor a paean to the small state but an attempt to highlight how this question – of what difference state policy or state intervention is actually making – is often obscured by our political culture of ‘initiativitis’. The perennial quest for new announcement fodder makes political discourse more difficult to interpret and less anchored in reality, whether it’s allegedly pledging the proceeds of a bankers’ bonus tax five times over to fund different initiatives, or allegedly twisting the truth about deficit reduction. In communications terms, these allegations are themselves part of the patchwork of ‘initiatives’: negative attacks and positive pledges form the two-part harmony of the comms grid until the crescendo of the election itself.
And so in the same campaigning spirit – I can announce today that the best way to get my vote is not to announce anything. Publish a blank manifesto. Make the phrase ‘zombie government’ into a compliment. Law me no laws, pledge me no pledge cards, initiate me no initiatives. Just promise to do absolutely nothing for five years and evaluate the heck out of it.
At a stroke: regulatory stability for business. Space for the real drivers of progress and change – civil society, the professions, enterprise, social and familial norms, cultural trends and freak episodes of skill, luck and weirdness – to find their feet. And an evidence base for the impact of current policies that is comprehensive, robust, joined up across departments, and has a great chance of influencing future policy, as there would be very little else to talk about.
There are plenty of reasons why this is utterly impractical – yet doing nothing might, paradoxically, be quite interesting. And just as a thought experiment, it might throw up some useful questions to ask ourselves when those election leaflets float through the letter box, pregnant with promises. Where does Government actually control the levers to make a difference, and where can it merely rearrange the deckchairs in the face of larger geopolitical, economic or cultural forces? How does a simplistic, vote-winning pledge on one subject affect other aspects of how the country is run? And how can we find out the answers to any of this if we keep tinkering incessantly without seeking truly to understand the consequences?