The limits of expertise.

Author:Davies, William
Position:Features - Viewpoint essay

It is Gordon Brown's unfortunate fate that history has revealed how much he relied on Tony Blair for his political success, but will never reveal quite how much Blair depended on Brown. Under Blair, Brown was insulated from all the aspects of governing that proved so uncomfortable for him--offering a story, controlling the news agenda, communicating to swing voters, asserting clear medium-term ambitions. Freed from the obligation to deal with these issues or foreign policy, Brown was privileged to focus exclusively on domestic policy formation.

Looking back, the dual leadership of Blair and Brown was, inadvertently, a political master-stroke, converting weaknesses into strengths. Compared to the number-crunching Brown, Blair was able to appear 'Presidential', even if that quality eventually did for him; compared to Blair, Brown was able to appear authentic and expert at policy-formation. It was the unglamorous, numbers-heavy Chancellor that was wheeled out during the 2005 election campaign to convince voters that Labour had real substance. It was this same unglamorous, numbers-heavy man that voters became so dissatisfied with.

One lesson that emerges from the Brown premiership is that there never was a contradiction between 'spin' and 'substance', but that the two are interdependent. It is precisely because naked policy does not result in a coherent political narrative that spin becomes necessary. At the same time, political positioning and story-telling is of little use inside the machinery of Whitehall bureaucracies, which makes policy-formation an indispensable part of politics.

Faced with a choice between just policy and just narrative, voters currently seem to prefer David Cameron's offer of the latter, though one wonders how the new-look Tories will cope with the chronic headaches of government such as designing social policy. In all likelihood they will stick as close to the Brownite methods and sources of expertise as possible. Take away webcameron, the bicycles and enforced cultural liberalism, and it is plain that, as a policy programme, 'modern' twenty-first century conservatism still does not exist.

The government believes its problem to be the opposite one. It needs better management of the media; it lacks vision; Brown was not human enough or a natural communicator. Some critics go even further, and suggest that the Tories are seizing control of a new post-policy politics. As Simon Jenkins put it following the May local elections:

The strategists of Brown's counter-revolution still miss the point about the new politics. They echo their leader about communicating policy messages as if all they needed was a touch of the Alastair Campbells. They demand that Brown rid the Labour party of unpopular measures and take that old carthorse, 'the policy agenda', out of its shed, put young James Purnell in the saddle and feed it with Treasury hay. Small wonder the electorate's eyelids fall shut. (Jenkins 2008) In the same piece, Jenkins applauds Boris Johnson for having grasped the nettle by 'camping it up in a policeman's hat at a Sikh festival in Trafalgar Square'. There are few on the left who would wish to see quite such a wholesale, post-modern abandonment of serious expertise as a basis for authority. But there is a real sense in which years of office have dulled the distinction between the mechanisms of Whitehall and the principles of the Labour Party. The concept of 'delivery', favoured by Ministers to assert their managerial sincerity, was never going to be a very effective political weapon when the political weather turned foul. At present, the only alternative is to reach for the Blairite media stunts that Brown initially promised to abandon.

A brief glance at the changing nature of the professional backgrounds of Labour cabinet members demonstrates fairly conclusively that the higher echelons of the Party have become dominated by the two wings of the spin-substance dichotomy, with a dramatic rise in journalists on the one hand, and policy advisors on the other (see Figure 1). Ed Balls, for instance, is both.


In some respects, this is simply the inevitable consequence of a long time spent governing. Opposition might provide an opportunity to reconsider why the Labour Party exists. The difficult thing for many figures in New Labour will be to recognise the grain of truth in Simon Jenkins' critique, namely that the next election will not be primarily about policy.

When looking beyond the next general election, and beyond even a possible period of opposition, the question is whether a different form of politics is possible, that overcomes the sharp divide between 'spin' and 'substance', between the symbolic and the economic. The most important achievements of governments cannot be easily placed into either of these two camps, but transcend the distinction between image and reality. Is the NHS a symbol or a policy? It is both and neither. The same was true of the social liberalisations of the 1960s and the economic ones of the 1980s. This type of politics rests on different types of authority, that neither the Labour Party nor the Conservative Party currently possesses. The current problem, I argue in this essay, is with a politics in which utilitarianism has burst its limits.

The limits of utilitarianism

In 1994, Tony Blair wrote a pamphlet for the Fabian Society arguing that, in its commitment to the old Clause Four, the Labour Party had misidentified means as ends. Public ownership and management of the economy could be abandoned as inappropriate for the globalising, post-Cold War world, but without discarding or endangering the Party's original goals and values. Goals endure, but mechanisms for achieving them should be in constant flux. Later that year, he succeeded in convincing Labour Party Conference that Clause Four should be axed.

Immediately, a new split between means and ends opened up, ushering in an era of unprecedented quantity--and quality--of policy analysis and experimentation. 1994 was the equivalent for progressive policy-making as 1986 was for the City of London--a 'big bang' moment, following the shock of deregulation. The mechanisms and methods of government were suddenly up for grabs. The United States offered fifty-one (if you include the Federal government) laboratories for studying policy innovation. New expert networks developed between the LSE and the Labour Party throughout the nineties. Think-tanks thrived. Labour market...

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