It’s ideological, Captain
In political terms ideology typically conjures up negative images for many, often linked to Nazism, Fascism or Communism. In this sense, ideology has been interchanged with demagoguery.
It is this confusion of terminology within the political class and commentators alike that means that ideology has given way to pragmatism or, colloquially, ‘whatever works at the time’.
But without ideology, principles and beliefs what is the point of a political party or, indeed, separate political parties? Without differentiation of ideologies, the country becomes a one-party state manifesting the demagogue which we so fear, and democracy is eroded and destroyed.
Previous UK political leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair had a set of principles, which would these days likely be described as an ‘agenda’, to bring about reform. You might not have agreed with them, but at least you knew what you’d be getting.
But to avoid appearing ideological, modern politics has become detached from the needs of the country.
Focus is given to management speak so that policies are referenced by their diversity, inclusion, sustainability, best practice, added value, and stakeholders. Yet ideology does not have to be radical, nor some vision of utopia. Simply a set of beliefs and values to provide structure for society; to explain, inspire and motivate towards a view of ‘what ought to be’, or at least ‘what could be’.
But suspicion of ideals and principles has led to short-term politics, and policies guided by headlines rather than long-term strategy. In this way, politics has become devoid of ideology. It instead demonstrates a presentist approach, most recently highlighted by Liz Truss who wanted to be viewed as a 21st-Century Thatcherite ideologist, only to perform a series of U-turns which only showed her total lack of conviction.
Richard Reeves wrote in the New Statesman in September 2004 that “ideology is a dirty word…without ideology, the role of politicians is no longer to persuade, merely to sell”. Truss had neither the skills to persuade nor the inclination to sell her ideas.
It also shows that politicians and their policies are shaped by external factors. Bill Clinton’s political adviser James Carville said “I used to think that if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the president or the pope…But now I would like to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody.”
In the 1980s government policy shaped the markets. Now the markets shape both government policy and the government itself. So it begs the question: who’s in charge?
We often hear of ‘evidence-based’ decision-making. But from a political viewpoint it removes the necessity to argue whether a policy is right or good. In this way, political leaders have abdicated responsibility for the effects of policymaking. Opposing views are neutralised by the ‘research shows’ mantra. If a policy is successful then it’s a political triumph; if it doesn’t work then they were just ‘following the science’. Ironically, and paradoxically, political ideology has given way to an ideological reliance on science.
And it means that without genuine belief in what they’re doing, politicians’ arguments are not about substantive policy differences, and reminds me of the Groucho Marx quote: “These are my principles. If you don’t like them I have others.”
With little or no ‘skin in the game’ the decline in attitudes towards policy means that rhetoric is dialled-up instead. Think of exchanges between Mark Drakeford and Andrew RT Davies over the NHS. The questions remained unanswered but the petty pugilism garnered the biggest audience the Senedd has ever seen. Political discourse has been exchanged for personal discourtesy.
Surely it would be better for politicians of all stripes to explain ideas and goals to the electorate, not speak in soundbites and bat away criticism by hiding behind the findings of the latest focus group.
Rhetoric has replaced rational argument. Democracy has been replaced by technocracy, emphasising rules and processes, with ideals an also-ran at best. Party leaders state that their proposals are ‘costed’ (or not in Truss’s case), while policies are ‘evidence-based’ representing ‘best practice’. Leaders no longer want to govern but ‘deliver’. In this way policy is merely designed to see us through the short-term, not to improve society in the long run.
With the main political parties moving to the centre in an attempt to win over the electorate by isolating the fewest number of voters, attention is paid to announcements of how much public spending is planned. The bigger the spending the better – all spending is good. But little if any attention is paid to what the policy, and its related spending, is meant to achieve.
The NHS has become the nation’s biggest and most expensive political football. But right now, would Labour or the Conservatives argue to reduce spending on health? Record amounts are being spent, but on the run up to a general election both main parties will contend that they can and will spend more on it than their opponent pledges. So political focus remains on inputs (money) not outcomes (better health, improved efficiency). And it becomes increasingly difficult to tell one party from another.
The absence of ideology means that politicians prioritise by press release. So while ‘record spending’ might appease some, it does nothing to answer the public’s question about what is being done to, for example, reduce A&E waiting times.
Nobody in the street will say ‘what we need to do is spend an extra £100 million pounds on the NHS’. When buying something, you or I would look for the cheapest price (particularly these days) rather than brag that we’ve spent a fortune on it. But if politicians could convince us that an extra £100 million meant we could, for example, get a GP appointment in the same week rather than sometime in the next two months, then the benefits are clear.
Government will also speak about outputs – more doctors, more nurses. (Although they won’t mention that in Wales we’ve lost a third of our hospital beds since devolution, or that there’s a four-year wait for a hip replacement, or that high sickness levels in some areas counteract the additional staff taken on.)
Inputs (budgets) can be directly controlled by government. Outcomes are complex and depend on factors beyond ministers’ control. Spending money becomes both the means and the end itself of a policy. Success is measured by how much is spent, not what it achieves.
The quality of care provided by those additional nurses or that extra funding is far more important than simply raising the staff headcount. But that would involve changing how things are done – far easier to just throw money at ‘the system’, hope it sorts itself out, and move onto the next soundbite.
The pandemic, furlough and the energy price guarantee are all examples of huge government spending. Those who understood such large sums in the first place have now become immune to the size of the monies spent.
So with public spending coming under ever greater pressure, it is vital that political debate moves away from the amounts being spent (or not) and instead looks at what we want to achieve.
In short, we need politicians who possess beliefs and ideals. Parties that stand for something. Policies that define the type of government you want to elect. People who can lead, not simply follow (the science, etc.) and absolve themselves of responsibility.
It’s time that principles and beliefs meant something again. That votes are not just bought with pledges to outspend the opposition. That the art of persuasion through rational argument replaced overblown rhetoric. That ideology, combined with sound policies and principles, is something to be proud of – and vote for.
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