Campaign conundrums

6 May 05
ALAN LEAMAN | The civil service is always busy during an election campaign — 2005 has been no different.

The civil service is always busy during an election campaign — 2005 has been no different.

Besides leaking legal advice on Iraq from the attorney general, Whitehall mandarins have been preparing policy proposals for the incoming administration.

Public Finance has obtained one such communication. It has been written for the prime minister who strides through the door of Number 10 on Friday morning, whoever he might be.

Dear prime minister,

Welcome (back). Like you, we are delighted that the election is over. Now we can get back to the serious business of government.

We have admired the way in which you conducted this campaign. You have avoided skilfully giving many policy commitments: these can be such a millstone. You have carefully left yourself with maximum freedom to manoeuvre on most of the key issues you will have to deal with over the next few years. Well done!

But the trend in modern campaigning for concentrating on a few small issues has its downside. There are a host of questions that were not asked during the campaign. The electorate hasn’t debated them. Probably your colleagues won’t have given them any thought either. Here are a few that might cause a problem.

The first is the nature of your mandate. You will be claiming a great victory. The truth is less impressive. As I write, it is unlikely that your party will win as much as 40% of the popular vote. And yet, in our quirky electoral system, you could easily end up with a very large majority in the House of Commons.

You should think long and hard about the implications of this for your government. Our first-past-the-post system worked well when there were two broad-based parties competing as alternative governments. It’s not looking so clever now.

There are many reasons for this. We are becoming a more diverse society, so our traditional political system is fracturing. And, in a less deferential age, it has become almost impossible for any single party to command real authority.

Of course, the civil service likes a strong government with a comfortable majority. But we worry when it is built on such shaky foundations.

This brings us neatly to a related issue about Parliament. What will you do about the House of Lords?

This is unfinished constitutional business, and you have never shown much appetite for reform of the second chamber. But let’s put it this way. At the moment, the unelected Lords is more representative of the balance of public opinion than your newly elected Commons. The peers know this and will behave accordingly.

All prime ministers come to believe that the Lords should have fewer powers and only appointed members. But the pressure for elections to the upper House is bound to grow over the next few years. And the public will want to see some proper scrutiny and check on the executive. You could do yourself a favour by siding with the reformers.

There is a further constitutional-type issue that hardly got a mention during the campaign. Remarkably, all three parties thought they would lose votes if Europe were discussed. This isn’t just about the new European Constitution, still less the euro. These matter a lot, but the British political class has dropped the ball on both.

Many politicians in the UK are hoping that the French will vote ‘No’ on the constitution. They argue that this will get them off the hook of the planned British referendum in 2006.

It might. But, with Britain soon taking on the EU Presidency, it is more likely that European issues are now about to come centre stage again. And the failure of successive governments at Westminster to build public support for their European policy will then really start to bite.

Meanwhile, isn’t it about time you sorted out your approach to local government?

Every national politician preaches the virtues of decentralisation. Few have any commitment to it in practice. In recent years we have tried elected mayors and other innovations. But there has been little coherence. Regional government in England is a busted flush after the North East referendum. And local government finance is all over the place.

You now have to decide. If you think local government is a failed model, you should come up with something better. If you don’t, then you need urgently to give it some real incentive and ability to succeed.

You will be tempted to dismiss these four issues as essentially about process. And you will say that there were plenty of other issues — such as pensions, the environment, foreign policy outside Iraq — that weren’t aired during the campaign either.

But good government is about means as well as ends. And your recent contact with the public should have told you that restoring the good name of government is now a real political priority. Good luck!

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