John Redwood's Diary
Incisive and topical campaigns and commentary on today's issues and tomorrow's problems

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If you want to win drop the bile

Both Labour and Lib Dems specialise in negative campaigning. They abuse Conservative MPs and Councillors, making false allegations and twisting what we say or ascribing views to us we have never held. Their fellow travellers on this site often do the same. They imply no decent person can vote Conservative and  claim an unfounded moral high ground. Indeed they seek to control and use language to rule out some decent  Conservative values and questions. The BBC often backs up these ideas.

Yesterday on the Today programme a couple of voters from¬† Hartlepool were put under pressure to explain why they voted Conservative, with the BBC seeking to suggest to them that somehow the culture of the party of Thatcher should have made that morally impossible! No mention that Margaret was our first female Prime Minister who won three huge General election mandates for her popular policies of cutting taxes, promoting wider ownership and recovering the UK from Labour’s high inflation and economic crash which led to a trip to the IMF to borrow and to be told to cut spending . I do not recall Labour voters in 1997 or SNP voters more recently being made to explain themselves and being told they were wrong to vote as they did.

In this latest set of elections Labour caricatured their own campaigning technique by spending all their national media time on vilifying Conservatives and making a wild series of  unsupported allegations, when people wanted to hear their approach to Cv 19 , economic recovery and getting wins from Brexit.

Keir Starmer rightly made Labour  dress smartly and show some respect for our flag. You need however to live a brand. In the Commons Labour MPs still queued up to support the EU side in disputes, to back the needs of foreigners and overseas countries  over the needs of U.K. voters, and above all to use Commons powers to develop their sleaze campaign instead of pushing a positive agenda.

Given the large number of people who voted Conservative a good starting point for Labour’s recovery would be to accept that many people enter Conservative politics to serve the public and make things better. By all means have some good disagreements with us, offer better solutions or different aims, but do not falsely claim Conservatives are in it for wrong motives and want to harm the interests of the very people who helped vote us in. It is not helping Labour, as it is as dishonest as it is negative.  A good opposition respects their opponents and presses hard for improvements or changes that the public wants. Running sleaze campaigns and nothing else can boomerang against the party. It means they have  nothing to say on how to govern better, and are vulnerable to counter accusations against the people in their own party who make mistakes or undertake criminal activity in public office.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s the economy stupid

Labour would be well advised to take Bill Clinton’s advice. A party’s popularity has much to do with the state of the economy and with their own record at economic management. Labour’s decision in¬† these latest elections to launch a constant barrage of allegations about Conservative Ministers instead of setting out what they would like to do¬† misjudged the mood and meant their candidates were associated with negative¬† stories and carping attitudes.

The¬† misjudgement probably goes back to Labour’s persistent wish to impose a false view of electoral history on the country. Their belief is Tony Blair beat John Major after running a three and a half year campaign about alleged Tory sleaze. Much of it was cases of individuals sleeping in¬† the wrong beds , with Labour claiming this was relevant thanks to a misinterpretation of John Major’s Back to Basics speech in October 1993. Once Labour got in to power they decided to prevent any attempt to turn the campaign against them¬† by claiming that in future these were all private lives matters that should not be part of politics.

If you look at the opinion polls you see that Conservative fortunes plunged from September 6 1992 when the UK fell out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and had to acknowledge its economic policies had failed and we were in a nasty recession. Until the ERM disaster the Conservatives had been around 40% and ahead of Labour. On 5 September despite obvious pressures against the policy in currency markets Conservatives still had a 4% lead with a  39% Vote share. By the summer of 1993, before the sleaze campaign began Conservative polls had settled down at around 31% and Labour were well ahead. By  7 May 1994 for example Labour had a 15% lead at 44% to 29%. Between 1993 and the 1997 General election little changed, and the final result was Conservative 31% and Labour 44%, a landslide win. No-one looking at these polls can come to any conclusion other than the destruction of the European  Economic policy and the collateral damage it did lost the Conservatives around 10% of support which they never regained. The sleaze campaign did not shift the dial.

Similarly Labour lost in 2010 not because of the expenses scandal but  because they presided over the Great recession. They did not stop the excess credit build up they were warned about prior to 2008, and then decided to blame and trash the banking system instead of injecting liquidity and organising a work out of the problems. That is what they have to address in their thinking. People do not think Labour have a vision to back a recovery. All they hear is Labour running the country down and carping that Brexit was a wrong call. Many voters want the wins from Brexit. Why should Brexit UK vote in a Remain party who would then wish to prove their negative view of Brexit by following policies that were damaging instead of making the  changes to deliver more freedom and prosperity?

All centre left and left parties want large and continuous expansion of government

The third law of government is its expansion is built into all the policy programmes of centre left and left parties. It is easier being a left Minister as you are going with the flow of continuous government expansion set out in the first law.

The left welcome the idea of higher taxes to pay for more government. They see higher taxes as a good in themselves. They enjoy inventing new ways of taxing success and attacking independence and enterprise.

The left seek to monopolise the votes of public sector workers by being a kind of extended Trade Union for the  state sector. They constantly seek better conditions of employment for public bodies, and more staff to carry out tasks, at the expense of the private sector.

The left believe public delivery of goods and services is morally better than free enterprise doing the job.

 

The left believe that people and families allowed to make their own choices and allowed to keep more of their own money to spend will make bad ones. Government is necessary to restrain and tax the successful whilst making the less well off dependent on the all providing state who can then control and direct their lives.They hope for gratitude for state hand outs they conjure, but rely more on making false claims about the threats to people they allege the right represents. They seek to create a myth that right of centre parties enter politics to harm others.

Treasuries are weak at spending control but get blamed for meanness

The second law of government is the Treasury is usually weak at spending control but gets blamed for underfunding.

The Treasury is hopelessly outnumbered by spending departments in government. It can only hope to exert effective control if the Finance Minister and PM or President work together, and if spending  decisions  are mainly taken in bilateral meetings between  the Treasury and the relevant spending department rather than in a wider forum .

Government departments can get more money by running things badly and demanding bail outs near the end of the year. They can get more cash by claiming it for crises or issues which come up in year. They can work with lobby groups outside government to create pressure for increases. Some are good at securing money for their next year’s budget under headings where they know they are unlikely to spend it all. They then vire this approved spending to another purpose later during the year, securing cash for something which might not have been approved if asked for originally.

It is commonly believed in government circles that a Treasury has too much control over spending and that a  Treasury makes spending judgements that prevent other departments doing a good job. This is usually a dangerous myth.  It comes from the proposition that new initiatives or demands need new money to pay for them. In practice there are often falling demands or waning initiatives elsewhere in each spending  department. There should be a more active pursuit of the things the department no longer needs to do at the same time as finding new things it is desirable to do.  Old government initiatives rarely die. They rest in some distant corner of an administrative office, and keep their budget line.

 

 

 

The impact of President Biden

When Donald Trump first was elected to office the interviewers on the BBC, Channel 4 and the other leading channels were keen to interview UK government politicians to try to get them to denounce Mr Trump and all his possible future works. I do not recall them pressing hard to see if the UK would learn from the Trump tax cuts, to put more money into the wallets and purses of¬† working people in the way Mr¬† Trump planned. Nor do I recall them criticising European walls and fences to keep migrants out whilst roundly criticising Trump’s plans to extend the US/Mexican wall. I did not hear interviewers asking UK Ministers if they might copy more of the Made in America programme Trump set out with a Made in UK version.

When Joe Biden was elected the direction of attack shifted to the opposite approach. The early interviews were all to make UK Ministers feel uncomfortable that they might not be close enough to the new President. Now we have seen his proposals UK politicians are often invited to express approval of the huge stimulus programmes  President Biden proposes, and asked whether they will match them. There is obvious joy at his wish to green US policy, and favourable mentions of his company tax rises. There is  no interest in what higher world corporate taxes  recommended by Mr  Biden might mean for the Republic of Ireland.  There is little criticism of the new President and his plans.

Those parts of the media that are financed by taxes or adverts and have a Charter that requires them to be impartial should seek to be impartial between Republican and Democrat as well as between the different parties in the UK. The journalists should also dig beneath the spin. Biden’s national resilience policies look very like Trump’s Made in America policies. Biden’s much lauded tax rises say they will not impose any tax rise on anyone under $400,000 a year, thereby validating the Trump tax cuts for most people. Biden’s announced withdrawal from Afghanistan is the Trump plan delayed by¬† few¬† months.

There is a natural tendency to the permanent expansion of government

The first law of government is the law of continuous expansion.

In a democracy good causes line up as lobbyists demanding  government gets  involved. They lobby for government to intervene in areas it does not currently manage. They demand new laws and controls on things they do not like. They demand more money and supply of things they do like from the state.

The official government machine encourages lobbying for more as they like growing their tasks. Ministers often dislike constantly saying No to lobbies and buy them off by offering them cash and laws to help them.

Oppositions usually take up lobby causes and press the government. If the government gives in they claim some credit. If the government resists they claim the government is mean, tough, insensitive or worse.

The media join in, running campaigns on behalf of lobby groups and behaving like Opposition parties.

There are very few lobbies the other way. The  causes of a smaller state, less government control of our lives and even of lower taxes have  very few lobby groups arguing for them as a counterweight. They are chronically under  represented in the media.

Bank holiday task – which quangos would you abolish?

Today I invite my critics who wish to see a slimmed quango state to write in with thought out proposals for abolition or slimming of some government bodies. I will  read and post a few longer pieces if they are considered and understand the forces that will seek to defend their chosen quango . It is not an invitation to a longer rant.

It would be interesting to hear thoughts on  the Next Steps style Agencies that were designed to make parts of what is government work more business like, giving the day to day tasks of administration and processing to an Agency under a CEO whilst leaving policy with Ministers. The Driver and vehicle Licencing Agency and the Highways Agency are typical examples. These were activities we kept in the public sector.

In government in 1990 I privatised the Property Services Agency , so its building maintenance work  for the government estate  could be market tested and it could do work outside the public sector. Is this a model for other such activities?

As one time sponsor Minister for the LDDC I initiated the first consideration of how and when it could be wound up, job done, whilst limiting its activities and encouraging  mainly private sector investment.

 

It is very easy for armchair critics to write in and accuse MPs of being idiots in not agreeing to the contributors agenda, or being gutless in not implementing it. The task is how to get buy in and agreement to desirable reform, which often takes time and needs vocal support in a democracy. The forces for a larger state are numerous and well entrenched.

The number of quangos

Some of you have written in reply  to my piece on how Ministers can and should monitor and direct government bodies that we have too many of them. You  would prefer abolition to better performance review and budget controls.

This is to miss the point of my piece. No government is going to abolish all the government bodies that are under their own CEOs and Boards. Some of these bodies are both necessary and sensibly set up with an appropriate governing structure which Ministers need to help make work well. The piece  responds to a need for better control and performance checking of these bodies. This has been  highlighted yet again by the obvious failings of the independent public sector model in the Post Office where Ministers failed to intervene when they could have saved the Post Office a lot of trouble and expense as well as saving the livelihoods of wrongly accused people.

I do agree that there are too many of these bodies. It would be good to persuade Ministers to have a review of which ones could be abolished altogether, which ones do work that would be better undertaken directly by government departments, and which ones could do with new directions. Good Ministers keep such questions in mind as a matter of course for the bodies that report to them, and should be on the look out for opportunities to slim the quango estate as legislative time and political will allows.

I remember making the case over several years for the abolition of the South East England Regional Development Agency. Eventually the incoming Coalition government took up the idea and abolished the English Agencies in 2012. In order to succeed you do need to identify the body, show how what it does does not need doing, or demonstrate how what it does is best done by someone else. In the case of the Development Agency I argued

 

  1. Homes for sale and the provision of new factories, warehouses, offices and other commercial space was best left to the private sector. The public sector involvement should  be confined to the local Planning Authorities over land use .
  2. The public sector does have a monopoly on the provision of road space and usually supplies less capacity than is needed. The Development Agency was usually deaf to entreaties to resolve the capacity and related safety issues. The Local Highways Authority remained the body with budget and powers to sort out local roads, and the central government and its English Highways Agency had the budget and powers over strategic roads. The Development Agency could slow things down or get in the way of resolving roads issues. I  never remember it helping when I was trying to get improvements.
  3. The public sector also controls the rail network and has extensive national budgets and regulators, so there was no helpful role for the Regional Agency there either.
  4. It was difficult to see what the Agency added to local Colleges, national apprenticeship programmes, and local Six forms to the general tasks of education, training and development.

I mention this success again, because government when it did the right thing and abolished these bodies could not resist setting up mini versions called LEPs. These are less costly and interventionist, but it is difficult to see why they are needed given the big roles in planning and development taken by Councils and central government anyway. My argument  against LEPs has so far not succeeded.

 

How Ministers can and should supervise government bodies

There are three main roles for Ministers to perform when supervising and sponsoring quangos or so called independent government bodies.

The first is to supervise the expenditures of public money. These bodies often rely on substantial grant income which needs to be agreed with Ministers and approved by Parliament as part of the annual national budget. A Minister can reasonably ask for a budget meeting with the quango to discuss their financial needs and to indicate to them likely financial support levels. There may need to be follow up exchanges depending on the negotiations within government with the Treasury about what is affordable.  The budget meeting is a good opportunity to review the aims and resources of the body, to press for better value for money and to define precisely for the following year what is expected and what is needed by way of financial support. This is a process which gets reported to Parliament and can be subject to debate if the budget of a quango becomes a matter of public or Opposition concern.

Some of these quangos depend in whole or part on money they raise from charging user  fees and licence fees on those who use their service. Usually the fee levels are regulated under legislative powers by Statutory Instrument. Often these bodies want annual fee increases which will need SI amendment and therefore Ministerial and Parliamentary approval. Under weak Ministers there is a tendency to accept any fee increase proposal the body requests, and to hope that the Opposition in Parliament will not bother to query or debate it. As left of centre oppositions rarely object to higher public sector fees and charges it is particularly incumbent on Conservative Ministers to be vigilant in the public and user interest. This is another variant of the  budget review and conversation.

The second is to review and report on the annual performance of the body to Parliament. The Minister can ask to see a draft copy of the body’s annual report to review, or can require a meeting with the body after it has submitted its annual report to the sponsor department. This is another good occasion to review the aims and achievements of the body, to thank them if they have done well or to ask them to do better if they have not. It is a good idea for a Minister to show interest in the performance targets to be set for the ensuing year and in the performance achieved in the year under review. Again Parliament may if it wishes receive, read and debate the report of a government body.

The third is to require additional special meetings if the government wishes to change the aims and demands on the body, or if the body needs to report unexpected problems and difficulties, or if the Minister has become aware of a body of complaints and criticisms that are or will become public that he or she needs to answer. Such matters should of course be reported to Parliament unless there is some special good reason for confidentiality because for example matters relate to a vulnerable individual or to possible legal proceedings that must not be prejudiced..

Ministers are also entitled to become involved with recruitment to Boards of these bodies and to some of the senior  management positions. If there is to be a change of chairman or chief executive this is another good opportunity to review performance and ask questions about aims and targets for the future.

If there is a good  series of meetings for the more important quangos Ministers should avoid nasty surprises about the conduct and performance of these bodies, and the leaders of these bodies would stay well informed about the overall government policy context in which they are working and about the likely level of resources they will enjoy to carry out their tasks.  The bodies should remember they are governmental and part of a greater whole answerable to Parliament.  Ministers should remember they are  not the day to day managers , they  do not have quasi judicial powers over the regulatory work of these bodies and should not normally intervene in individual cases.

Quangos and independent government bodies

 

There is  no such thing as truly independent government body. In a democracy Parliament and Ministers  can always change the guidance, funding or law applying to any independent body. Governments are held to blame by Oppositions and the public when an independent body makes a big error. In a tyranny or single party state then of course all bodies are  under the control of the tyrant.

In the last three decades in the UK there has been a fashion to pretend bodies can be truly independent, and a wish to transfer more and more decisions and budgets to independent bodies. I accept the case for independence when we are talking about quasi judicial roles or the technical implementation of complex matters under an approved guiding aim or policy that Parliament and people want. The UK system is good at stressing the limit of elected power when it comes to investigating, prosecuting and punishing people for breaking the law. There is a need for politicians to stay out of criminal law enforcement and out of individual cases where businesses or people have violated regulations set  by Parliament and quangos.

The Post Office scandal shows the limits of belief in independence. The Post Office is 100% taxpayer or state owned. It is an independent body with its own Board, Chief Executive, Statutory duties and aims. The idea is to have experts running the service, with Parliament and Ministers largely confined to deciding any financial matters as shareholder owner and setting overall objectives or standards. Ministers however still have to report the results of the Post Office to Parliament, and be willing to answer when the independent Board and management of the Post Office gets itself into difficulty and public controversy. Opposition in Parliament is happier blaming Ministers and demanding answers from them than making CEOs and Board members more famous by naming them as responsible for errors.

Labour, Coalition and Conservative Ministers have all presided over the long period when Postmasters and Postmistresses were being falsely accused and prosecuted by the management and legal advisers of Post Office Ltd. They were  all doubtless told that they should not intervene in these operational and legal matters and should leave it all to the independent Board and management. Now all accept that grievous errors were made the cry goes up that the Ministers should not have respected the independence but should have gone in and demanded a change of attitude and approach and if necessary changed the management.

What this tragedy reveals is the truth of the proposition that in a democracy where Ministers can with the backing of Parliament change the management, aims, budgets and legal frameworks of these bodies the state owns, Ministers do need to be sufficiently hands on to know if intervention is needed. I will write another blog about how I used as a Minister to monitor and influence quangos reporting to departments I served in in ways which respected independence but where important matters were part of government policy and were properly  reported to Parliament. Parliament needed to know how the body was doing , what government expected of it, and if change was needed.