A theory in progress: Managerial vs transformative politics

More new ideas will lead to the Political Compass folding itself into the higher dimensions.
More new ideas will lead to the Political Compass folding itself into the higher dimensions.
So, this is a rough outline for an idea I’ve had about how to understand and interpret some bits of British politics. I’d appreciate any comments on it, just to know if it’s worth thinking and working on further, or if it needs to go onto the great pile of big ideas that didn’t work.

Beyond the more obviously ideological axes we arrange politicians and parties along (left-right, authoritarian-libertarian etc) I think there’s also an axis on a scale I’d refer to as managerial-transformative. (Another name would be conservative-radical, but I’ve tried to go for something more neutral, and less confusing, as we shall see)

Managerial politics are based on improving things as they currently are through processes of gradual reform. It’s not a blind acceptance of a status quo, with no desire to change it, but more a belief that surface level reform of a situation is enough to make it work better. It presents itself to the public as a vision of competence – the idea behind ‘valence politics‘ – saying that the basic system is fine, it just needs to be run better than it is now.

Transformative politics, on the other hand. say that the system needs to be radically altered in order to achieve anything. This could be because the system was designed badly in the first place, or has just become unsuited to present times and conditions. Transformative politics are about bringing in a whole new way of doing things, not just making small changes to the old system. It presents itself to the public as a change and a break in the existing order of things.

It’s worth noting that these are an axis, not two alternatives. Politicians and ideas can tend to one side or the other and have different opinions on different subjects, though there is a general tendency in which side people present themselves as being overall.

Until historically recently, British politics had followed a rough pattern of alternation between the two poles. Managerialists would run the system until the problems within it became too much for it to continue, at which point power would be won by the transformatives, who would bring in a raft of changes to the system in order to renew and refresh it, be it the Great Reform Act or the NHS. After a while, though, they’d run out of things to transform – or start transforming things that didn’t need it – and they’d lose power to those who would now come in on a promise to manage the new system better than they did (in some cases, these would be the same people who’d managed the old system, but had since accepted the change and were happy to manage it).

The problems we face now stem from this system starting to break down in the 1960s and 70s. Up to that point, the Tories (and their ancestors) had generally been the party of managerialism, while Labour (and before them, the Liberals) had been the party of transformation (in this case, bringing in ‘the white hear of technology’). However, the Tories of the 70s, instead of promising to manage Labour’s changes better than they could adopted transformative ideas of their own – Heath’s ‘Selsdon Man’ and then Thatcherism. This led to the confusion of 70s politics, with Wilson and then Callaghan trying to sort out the mess they inherited, rather than pushing transformative ideas of their own. This then led to the full switch of Thatcher’s government bringing in big changes to the system, followed by Major’s attempts to maintain them and finally Blair being elected. Blair represents both both the end result of the switch that began thirty years before – a managerialist claim to be able to run the changed system better than its creators – and a switch back to the old system, promising to make radical changes to the system. Is the failure of New Labour down to people thinking they were getting something transformative, and instead ending up with something managerial?

The problem we have now is that just about every party now contains a mix of managerialists and transformatives. They can sit in similar positions on the conventional political scales, but are radically opposed on the managerialist-transformative one. However, because our political system is still built on the idea that there’ll be a steady oscillation between the two poles of that axis, things have started going wrong on a more frequent basis. In some areas, new ideas get piled on top of new ideas, with no time between them for them to be managed and allowed to bed in, while others remain stuck in the same mindset they’ve had for decades or more, no one willing to break away from the managerialist consensus.

So, that’s the rough shape of my idea – is it worth exploring further, utterly pointless, or have I just reinvented a wheel that someone else had already explained with much more detail and accuracy?

Worth Reading 178: Condemn the New Prophecy!

Managerialism vs Innovation – “Does management’s pursuit of efficiency crowd out innovation?” asks Chris Dillow, wondering if creating small productivity gains through managerialist efficiency is driving out bigger gains that can be made through innovation.
On politics and the ‘common’ – Alex Marsh on the changing style of political rhetoric and what it shows about our political culture.
A world without work – How might we adapt to an automated future?
I used to lead tours at a plantation. You won’t believe the questions I got about slavery. – People really don’t understand the past, part 94.
London 2025 – How the city is becoming just another meaningless point for the globetrotting hyper rich, content to live from the spoils of corruption elsewhere.

‘We must destroy democracy in order to save it’

postdemocracyIt’s still only February, but we may have a winner in the Silliest Idea Proposed In A 2015 Political Column contest. Step forward Australian Herald-Sun columnist Tom Elliott with this:

There is a solution. Let’s agree on a set of truly important problems — mounting debt, population growth, lack of jobs, rising health care expenditure, inefficient welfare and an inadequate defence force — and appoint a committee of eminent and competent Australians to sort it out.

A benign dictatorship if you will.

This committee would consist of experts in their fields without political axes to grind. It’d need at least five years to complete its tasks during which time elected governments could administrate, but take no major decisions.

There is of course a giant paradox in the middle of this proposal in which he fails to actually consider by what sort of process people might come to agree what the ‘truly important problems’ are, or how they might go about appointing the ‘committee of eminent and competent Australians’ who’ll do something about these problems. One might suggest that this could be done by a process in which those who want the job of running the country set out their idea of what they think the problems are, how they’d solved them and then the public – perhaps through some kind of voting process – could choose between them.

(He also appears to believe that Britain suspended elections several years before WW2 began, but we’ll let that slide)

The thing of interest here isn’t that someone who imagines he wants a dictatorship can only express that in democratic forms, but rather the discontent with the notion of democracy itself. It’s the sort of thing that flares up occasionally, usually in late night talk and often couched in democratic terms like this. The thought is usually expressed not in needing a coup or anything as vulgar like that but as a desire for a strong leader who’ll cut through the crap and get things done (the same sort of arguments that are often used to advocate for elected Mayors in Britain). It’s the typical frustration at ‘the system’ that somehow blocks problems getting solved, coupled with a belief that all problems are easily solved by putting the right person in place to do it.

In short, and perhaps fitting more with the times, what’s proposed isn’t so much a coup as the installation of a new model of management. It’s perhaps a legacy of the cult of management that pervades so much of our modern experience, that the assumption isn’t regarded as completely laughable. We hear so much about how a change in management will supposedly rescue an organisation, that it’s not too much of a stretch to assume that the same rules must surely apply to how the country is run – bring in some ‘experts’, and they’ll magically find the answers that no one else has been able to. (I think I’m obliged by blogging law to link to Chris Dillow at this point)

However, while this is a silly column, it doesn’t mean that it’s not revealing something interesting about the state of political discourse. It shows that we’ve reached a point in the cycle where it’s acceptable to muse on whether there may be more efficient ways to run things than democracy, which is something that often follows big economic crises (see the 1970s and 1930s for more). Just as we’ve seen European governments replaced by technocrats and overseen by troikas, the notion is that the forms of democracy can stay, but the actual distribution of power will be changed completely – or, in some views, the true distribution of power will be revealed as the deep state rises and exercises its power overtly. Just as Colin Crouch argues with his idea of ‘post-democracy’, we’re not likely to see any sudden, dramatic or violent end to democracy, more a gradual whittling away as the technocrats and the managerialists take more responsibilities away from the democrats for safe keeping. We’ll still get to vote for whoever gets to tell us the bad news, but the real decisions will be made far away from us.

Does it have to be like that? No, but I’m getting the feeling that we’re going to need to begin to properly fight that vision of the future if we’re going to prevent it coming about.

Where is the hope?

For an affordable increase in your gruel ration, vote!
For an affordable increase in your gruel ration, vote!
I don’t always like being proved right. When I wrote about hope earlier this week, there was still a little part of me that thought I might be proved wrong and things might turn around. Our politicians might all have suddenly been infected by a desire to spell out positive visions for the future, but sadly the virus that does that doesn’t exist in our universe as yet, and all we get is the drab and the banal.

Yet again, we got more slogans to add to what sounds like an attempt by a particularly uninspired management training weekend to come up with the most generic slogans possible, things that are too bland to be included in mission statements. ‘Finish the job and finish it fairly’ is the latest attempt at non-differentiation from people who’d advertise tea by claiming it was less caffeine than coffee, but more taste than water. If all you can do to distinguish yourself is claiming ‘slightly different than X and Y, but not by too much!’ then is it any wonder no one wants to pay attention to you?

That’s why we end up with headlines like this. Look, I know the Important And Serious People who write newspaper columns and hang around the Westminster lobby like nothing more than to talk about the deficit and the minutiae of post-election taxation rates, but “Lib Dems propose £8bn in tax rises to reduce deficit” is not a message to excite or motivate anyone. Rather than promising a better nation, it’s merely asking people to work as though they were in the early days of a better budget strategy. It’s expecting people to be somehow inspired by the rhetoric of managerialism, despite all the evidence suggesting that it’s the last thing that inspires people. People like to leave work behind at the end of the day, and a politics that represents all the worst of it isn’t going to inspire anyone.

I’m not going to claim that previous Lib Dem general election campaigns were examples of unalloyed genius in political campaigning, but they at least gave people something positive to latch on to as a promise of better days to come. Now, there’s no one doing that, and instead the election is threatening to turn into a series of dull people reading out PowerPoint slides comprised entirely of the dullest buzzwords possible, then wondering why all the audience has slipped out to go to the pub.

Worth Reading 90: Touched by the hand of Cicciolina

Lecture to Oxford Farming Conference, 3 January 2013 – Mark Lynas explains how he moved from being anti-genetically modified food to being in favour of it. He makes an interesting point on how environmentalism can be extremely pro-science on issues of climate change, but then ignore it on others.
Obesity & ideology – Chris Dillow has an interesting take on how Labour’s inconsistent authoritarianism can be explained by managerialism.
Lib Dems, welfare and the art of negotiation – Very good piece by James Graham on the party’s current problems.
Lance Armstrong Wants To Tell Nation Something But Nation Has To Promise Not To Get Mad – From The Onion a couple of years ago, so yes, they’ve clearly been anticipating reality a long time before it happens.
Addressing the Daily Mail and James Delingpole’s ‘crazy climate change obsession’ article – The Met Office point out that James Delingpole is wrong much more often than they are.