Issues & Ideas | 10th November 2014

Is policy becoming too important for politics?

Earlier this year Ha-Joon Chang, the Cambridge economist, suggested the economy is too important […]

Photo: Getty

By

Earlier this year Ha-Joon Chang, the Cambridge economist, suggested the economy is too important to be left to economists. Could the same be true of politics?

Last week, David Laws called for elements of education to be taken out of politicians’ hands. A few days later the CBI asked for an independent body to assess infrastructure spending: expenditure needs to be less politically influenced, they argued.

Both calls pointed to a recurring problem. These issues are treated as political footballs – a phrase wheeled out in times like this to describe the mechanical and electoral to-and-fro between political parties. The government announce a reform and the opposition say they will reverse it; the issue quickly descends into a tool which the parties use against each other.

David Laws has argued that this can be stopped for education by introducing an Independent Education Standards Authority, which would stop short term political changes to the curriculum and would provide an objective measure of standards.

The CBI took a similar path with their call for an independent infrastructure assessment body. Their polling of members found that infrastructure expenditure was being withheld because of uncertainty due to politics. The CBI’s backing of an independent body is explicitly about being able to asses infrastructure spending outside of the 5-year Westminster cycle. They want the politics taken out of policy in order to encourage more spending.

An issue quickly descends into a tool which the parties use against each other.

It might be seen as a bit out there to say that there is a trend here for more decentralisation to stop politicisation damaging policy.

However, it is worth remembering that one of the headline early-day reforms of the coalition was to create the OBR, an institution that performs a similar function for economics as David Laws plans would for education. Similarly, in the early days of the last New Labour government the Bank of England was given independent control over monetary policy.

Will this trend continue? Quite possibly. There are areas where politics and politicians have historically misunderstood policy and so might benefit from a degree of independence. Science, for example, has long been thought of inadequately understood by government.

Climate change also falls into this bracket, as perhaps does drugs policy, which has a chequered past with party politics. Just look at the infamous case of the then-Home Secretary Alan Johnson sacking the Chief Drug Adviser David Nutt over his statement regarding the government ignoring his advice over the classification of cannabis.

In this age of apathy there is often an increasing sense that party politics is a damaging force. The academic Ken Spours has often written of the negative impact of politicisation upon education and it looks like David Laws wants to move us slowly toward that vision.

It’s unlikely that we will see a wholesale reform of the policy process after May 2015, but there may be a strengthening of advisory institutions and creation of new independent bodies. They would be welcome and overdue.

Dan Holden is deputy editor of Shifting Grounds and a regular contributor to “The Staggers“, the New Statesman’s politics blog.