Wednesday, 19 September 2018

A combination of fussbucketry, economic illiteracy and the denial of liberty - welcome to Conservative policy-making

Conservative policy-making is in a bit of a pickle. It's not that there isn't any thinking about policy just that the thinking seems rooted in focus groups, the received wisdom of government policy wonks and a seemingly obsessive desire to be liked. The best place to start in explaining this is a set of "principles" set out by centrist Tory think-tank, "Bright Blue". These principles purport to be an encapsulation of something called 'liberal conservatism'. Now, leaving aside the slightly oxymoronic nature of the tag (Americans would probably pop if they were faced with such an apparent contradiction), it seems that the nice folk of Bright Blue have confused having an activist state with 'liberalism' - here's a couple of examples:
We should be open-minded to new thinking, applying solutions to public policy problems on the basis of good ideas rather than tired ideology.
Markets are the best way of allocating resources, but they can be inefficient and inequitable, so government and social institutions can help correct market problems.
Both of these statements doubtless tick the box for bureaucrats and assorted inheritors of Blair's actualist ideal of "what matters is what works" but they are essentially illiberal and, to make matters worse, contradictory. Describing your positioning as 'liberal conservative' is a statement of ideology even if, like Blair did, you adopt a sort of rhetoric that denies ideology while promoting an approach that sees government intervention as central to policy. Bright Blue are ideological in the same way and it is likely that their policy proscriptions will involve the state intervening in the interactions of private individuals - the very antithesis of liberalism.

This illiberal position is underscored by the essentially anti-market stance of Bright Blue's "pro-market, not free-market". If you are a liberal then the free part of free market is the bit that matters - liberals should be making markets more free not believing that government can "correct" market problems. These contradictions and confusions can only result in similarly contradictory and confusing policy proposals. Indeed scrolling though the titles in Bright Blue's library, there is a sense that the environment and climate change, human rights and how capitalism is in some sort of crisis seem to dominate. I may be doing an injustice but I've a feeling that, while these things matter, they are not the basis for a cogent conservative position appealing to the wider electorate.

From this same camp - a sort of slightly squishy centrist world where policy gimmicks dominate - comes Onward, another conservative think tank. It's the brainchild of Neil O'Brien MP (who used to policy wonk for George Osborne when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer) and they are a step ahead of Bright Blue by looking at something that does seem to matter - housing. The problem is that, having identified the problem (there aren't enough houses), Onward sets out proposals that seem designed to make development less likely. After all the cost of land is a big chunk of the reason why we don't building enough houses where people want to live but nowhere in its proposals does Onward set out any way to reduce the cost of land. Instead O'Brien tells us that the high land values are a boon because we can tax them and use the money to build "vital" infrastructure (although it's not so vital that private-funded initiative delivers it).

In truth Onward and O'Brien are trying to square the circle of needing development while pretending this can be done without building on green belt sites. O'Brien also gets confused between landowner and developer (a common problem with the public but one a bright young MP who worked at the treasury shouldn't be making): "(a) thing that drives my constituents mad is the way that developers make a killing when they get planning permission..." says O'Brien when it isn't the developer who cleans up on the land value but the landowner who the housebuilder bought the land from. The only impact of infrastructure contributions, a sort of CIL on steroids, would be to make development more costly, more slow and, in a lot of locations, uneconomic.

Onward has the jump on Bright Blue making proposals that, while they are entirely counter-productive, at least reflect the fears and concerns of likely Conservative voters. The problem, however, is that Bright Blue and Onward assume that the resolution to policy challenges must lie in action by government - tax this, regulate that, control the other - and most commonly by central government. For all Bright Blue's talk of institutions, the only ones they seem to feel matter are the institutions of state - local, private and civil society institutions can be commissioned by the state to deliver policy, there is no sense that those institutions can do the business without requiring the direction of national government.

Policy development in this centrist Tory world seems to consist of manufacturing crisis and then setting out proposals to resolve the crisis, proposals that almost always require significant government intervention, new laws, new taxes and bans. Mark Wallace at Conservative Home, in what amounted to a cry of pain, described the current Conservative obsession with banning things and concluded:
"...meddling in people’s lives might temporarily satisfy some politicians’ itchy need to “do something”, or to paint themselves as go-getters, but the cumulative price is to paint the Government as increasingly dour, gloomy and authoritarian in both tone and policy. Some positivity, some joy, some creation of new opportunity and liberty would not go amiss."
I fear that this pain will be ignored - even attacked - by those developing policy for Conservatives. We are stuck in the world of "something must be done" with the finest example being the new "Obesity Strategy" filled with pettifogging fussbucketry like trying to get Sid's Caff on the A49 to count the calories in his full English breakfast. Even worse there's its pretence that somehow these proposals are based on evidence when they're just another list of nannying gimmicks from astroturf campaign groups like Action on Sugar - ban ads, force manufacturers to reformulate, stop offers like two-for-one, and ban sweets at the checkout. Plus taxes, more taxes and yet more taxes.

Yet, as I noted in criticising the New Puritan Left, the response from ministers when challenged on this is to say that we're doing it to protect the NHS - asked about the obesity strategy's fussbucketry by Phillip Davies, the current public health minister replied:
“This is a publicly funded health service that we all believe in and all love. If we want it to celebrate its 140th birthday, we need to protect it, and that means getting serious about prevention and stopping people coming into the service and getting sick."
The same lie as the left's new puritan nannies - the NHS is under strain and it's your fault because you're too fat, you drink to much and have too many bad habits. All followed up by proposals for bans, controls, taxes and regulations to make you change your bad behaviour. It's a lie - obesity isn't rising and NHS costs are going up because we've got better and better at staying alive. Everyone - even the NHS - knows this, ignores it and proposes a new bunch of nannying, fussbucketing interventions that amount to a nudging us with a baseball bat.

To close the loop here, the same goes for housing. Everyone knows that the problem is that we've spent 30 years or more not building the homes we need resulting in hugely over-valued housing, sky-high rents, homelessness and a resentful young generation. And we also know that the reason we've not built those houses is our planning system, a system that's now wholly-owned by NIMBYs and BANANAs. Yet nobody does anything beyond tinkering for fear of upsetting those (few) constituents who moan to Neil O'Brien about heavy vehicles delivering to development sites or (a loud handful of) campaigners fighting hard to protect a bunch of ugly buildings in a derelict airfield because 70 years ago some brave Americans flew bombers from that field.

There is almost nothing about current Conservative policy-making - whether in think tanks or inside the government - that gives me, as a conservative, any confidence. Our core values of localism, self-reliance, community, enterprise and liberty have been swamped by technocratic solutions based on questionable evidence devised by bright young things with barely the first idea about the communities those policies will affect. It's not just fussbucketry, although that drives me mad, but also the ignorance of basic business economics and the belief that freedom is somehow a 'nice-to-have' rather than something absolutely central to what we believe as conservatives. The next generation of policy will be set by these people and it will be a putrid combination of fussbucketry, economic illiteracy and the denial of liberty. It won't be conservatism.



Anonymous said...

The housing crisis is simply about supply & demand.

If you have net immigration at levels equivalent to a city the size of Bradford every couple of years, yet you don't provide the accommodation and infrastructure for them, then the supply/demand equation goes well out of balance, further worsening as every year passes.

Issues of development, planning and Nimbyism are secondary, mere consequences of the root-cause, but useful 'fog' to distract from the real issue.

The only way that housing will ever cease to be in crisis is for the supply/demand equation to achieve equilibrium - and that's a very different political problem to solve, way beyond the pay-grade of local councils and councillors and apparently beyond the courage of any government.

Graham Thompson said...

Despite being a socialist I thoroughly enjoyed this read. That is not because I enjoy the schadenfreude of disenchantment with "conservatism" BUT because of the of the articulate and well described reasoning. Many Labour Councillors and activists face exactly the same frustrations on the other side of the fence.
A Tory Councillor that I find myself agreeing with. I must be mellowing...