For someone who has been around the political block once or twice, Ed Straw shows no sign of fatigue. On the contrary, the British political commentator and observer remains both fully engaged – and enraged – about the state of the British body politic.
The reason for his ire? Brexit? The fragile economy? The current state of the Labour Party, of which he has been a lifelong supporter? Well, probably all of the above, but what is underpinning his immediate concern is the habit of political parties, not only in the UK but in many countries around the world, to embrace ideology, rather than evidence, as the route to effective policy. The consequence is a policy zigzag depending on which party is in power, which might please the party base, but as a recipe for successful government leaves much to be desired.
“It’s the result of the two party system with lashings of ideology and no effective checks and balances within a system of government to mediate that,” he says. “Think of it as two people paddling away in a canoe – you tend to veer in one direction and then overcompensate so you veer off towards the other bank of the river. Government needs to be better than this.”
The zigzag in action
Straw’s insights are based on a lifetime of observation and interaction with the British political scene. His past roles include 26 years as a consultant and partner with PwC, as well as an advisor on public sector reform to governments under Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. And as a specialist on the design of organisations, he sat on the devolved Scottish Executive’s ‘Efficient Government’ Expert Panel.
The zigzag, he believes, occurs on any number of political issues but the prime example is public spending. “In the 1980s and 1990s the Conservatives cut spending so much we were running the equivalent of emerging country railways,” he recalls. “Then the Labour Party came in and sought to restore public services, which was sensible, but then hey presto they overdid it – which gave the ideologues on the other side the perfect opportunity to again over-compensate and screw spending back down again. You’ll find where there are moderating parties involved in government you don’t get the same level of zigzag. But you see it in all sorts of policy – on health, on transport, on education and so on.”
Other countries suffer from the same problem, he continues. “You see it a lot in the US and especially in countries that use a first past the post electoral system,” he points out. “But there are also plenty of examples of countries which have a better approach. In Switzerland, for example, you can refer legislation to a referendum – in those circumstances you have a moderating check and balance within the system itself.”
And he goes on to cite the example of Finland’s education system, which is widely seen as the top performing in Europe. “At their last election in 2015 the political parties went into the election with a consensus policy for schools,” he says. “Their election coincided with the British general election but in our case each party had very different school proposals, diametrically opposed in some cases. Another instance of the zigzag playing out.”
So what’s the solution? Is there one? Straw believes that things can change but only if opposing forces on different sides of the political divide come together anew to find some common ground. Although this sounds unlikely – especially to viewers of the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions time where barracking and jeering is the standard soundtrack – he says that it doesn’t have to be this way in perpetuity.
“An important point is to what extent is politics a solution to our current problems – in the sense that who doesn’t want better public services?” he asks. “We all do but do we get we get there through the imposition of one ideology or another, or should it be about key people sitting down in an open room and having a public and positive conversation about how this can be sorted out. I think there are severe limits to traditional party politics and its use and value to get solutions to modern problems.”
In his book, Stand & Deliver: A Design For Successful Government, Straw has applied all his varied experiences in concluding that government has never been designed for its modern purposes, and in setting out in some detail a new design. This includes, topically, a fourth separation of powers for reporting on the results of all policies and programmes – no fake news here – and ten tests for policies. These would stop the zigzag dead.
No doubt some will say that such a vision is unlikely to materialise but in politics, you should expect the unexpected. “The partisan vitriol may look as if it is here to stay but as recent events have proven with Brexit and Trump, you never know what’s around the corner,” concludes Straw.