Paul Dundon’s Weblog

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A little cheese and a little whine

Market Research and Party Policy

1.

I have a proposal for a new constitutional arrangement. It is called Monarchy Moderated by Market Research, or M3R for short. I’ve yet to work out a detailed proposal, but in broad brush terms, the idea is this. We disband the legislature, and replace the Cabinet with appointees of the Crown. The rest of the executive remains intact, with the monarch holding ultimate executive and legislative authority.

To moderate this state of affairs, the crown will conduct continual market research to establish the best policies. Scientifically selected panels will be used to evaluate legislation from conception through to and beyond implementation to assure that it is an optimal match for the preferences of the population considered as a demographically balanced whole. Ministers will have the power to introduce emergency legislation which bypasses this process but it will only remain in force for six months by which time appropriately researched legislation must be put in its place.

There are many benefits to this system compared to our present one. The monarch would be able to provide strong and consistent leadership. There would be no periods of political uncertainty around elections. The monarch could build a cabinet of the best and brightest without concern for political allegiance and the civil service would function with greater continuity and consistency of direction. Legislation and policy would balance and reflect the interests of all rather than serving those favoured by one particular party. For the first time we would have a government bound to reflect the will of the people, and strong enough to implement that will.

2.

M3R is, of course, a reductio ad absurdum of a trend which has become increasingly prominent in British and American politics over the last 25 years, in which voters are seen rather like customers choosing a brand of washing powder. This “politics by focus group” uses all sorts of techniques borrowed from market research to drive and inform policy development. Of course, these techniques are not used exclusively, but market research results are somewhat the Trump Card in the policy development game.

This has gone tidily hand-in-hand with a rethinking of citizens as customers of the state – paying their taxes in return for services. Thus, as policy formation has taken on the stylings of commercial product development, political discussion has focussed on who will pay and what they will pay for. Even the banking crisis – which should really have provided a focal point for some deep soul-searching across what now counts as the political spectrum – has now become simply a question of when the tax-payer will get her money back.

The approach is seductive, not least because it offers some sort of assurance that policy will reflect what people actually want. Yet as we have stated it in the M3R proposal, it is clearly unacceptable. What, then, is the problem?

One objection we must address immediately is that, in reality, the main parties have unmovable blocks of support at each end of the political spectrum, so that in fact the parties court the approval only of those in the centre, who are willing to shift their allegiance. Politics by focus group as it occurs is not an exercise in listening to the people but in listening to the floating voter. Our reductio, however, does not have this problem – M3R canvases the opinion of the whole population and is, in this respect at least, superior to politics by focus group as it is actually practiced. Yet it still sets our teeth on edge; so why? There are several reasons, some more transparent than others.

Perhaps the least obvious is that M3R rests on a twice-articulated division of the state into an "us" and a "them", between rulers and ruled. When the rulers consult the ruled, by that very action they affirm both themselves and their subjects in those roles; and in the same way, those roles are entrenched still further when the rulers take on the business of government over and on behalf of the ruled. There is no question here of mobility from ruled to ruler, or of participation, either legislative or executive, of the ruled within the process of government.

In M3R, the dividing line is set by the Crown and, of course, in reality the lines are slightly more fluid. It remains the case, though,  that substituting market research for a genuine involvement of people within the policy making process serves to keep power in the hands of the few.

The second problem is one of identity. As a citizen of this country I am more than a taxpayer and more than a consumer of state services – I am someone whose wellbeing and success are intimately bound up with the wellbeing and success of his fellow citizens. Our thirst for justice, social and otherwise, begins with a recognition that we are all, at some level, in the same boat; it grows from seeing what we have in common with our neighbours and those further afield. Progressives are advisedly cautious of jingoism, but the a sense of common identity and common purpose serves the progressive cause well, and we erode it at our peril.

The third, and perhaps most striking reason, is the absence of leadership. If political parties do no more than follow the whim of the electorate, then there is no point in having them. The job of a progressive party is not to implement as much social justice as the electorate happens to want, or even as much as it will stand: it is to make the case for social justice, for fairness and for equality, and to make it resoundingly and convincingly.

3.

This post was not inspired by, nor intended to coincide with, the recent Demos survey, but given the timing, it would be remiss of me not to tie the two together.

Demos offers two headline conclusions: that Labour need to reinvigorate democracy along the lines of the Big Society agenda, and that Labour should be willing to make cuts to public services. Whether the Demos data actually supports these conclusions is a question I hope to address in a later post. Even assuming they do, however, I still think the Demos report should most usefully be consigned to the shredder.

Labour should indeed re-examine its commitment to and understanding of democracy, but it should do so because it’s the right thing to do. It should recognise that the internal centralisation of control which was needed to respond to the crisis of the early eighties is now out of place and that the consumer model of democracy popularised by the right over the last 30 years is now not just flawed but visibly so.

As part of that, Labour should be defending public services and progressive taxation, not in the hope that it will court voters away from the coalition parties, but because it’s the right thing to do. It’s useful to know that that position doesn’t appeal to all voters, because it tells us whose minds we have to change, where we have to have the argument, and who we have to convince. But it is up to us to win hearts and minds for our cause, not to change tack because hearts and minds are not already ours.

Peter Mandelson once said that politics was exclusively about taking, and keeping hold of, power. One can see, given the history of Labour during the Thatcher years, why he might hold that view. The world has moved on since then, however, and is ready for a progressive politics with more substance, one based on principle instead of pragmatism. It’s time to stand up for what we believe in, to make our case, and to provide leadership – moral, intellectual and political -  in moving beyond the present mess of global capitalism. We are not going to do that by following the whims of the floating voter.

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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