Governments should be for turning

May 31, 2012 4:18 pm

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Another day, another government u-turn. The narrative for this political act is so prescient that you can almost hear Labour’s screams of anguish and foresee tomorrow’s incredulous headlines. It has become automatic in the political sphere that to change your stance an inch is a sign of irreversible weakness. Governments, after all, are not for turning. This government has, however, made something of a habit of announcing u-turns. From free milk to anonymity for rape suspects, David Cameron’s government is for turning. A breathless media rush out comprehensive lists describing each and every u-turn; gormless Labour front benchers indulge in shameless political opportunism by tweeting pictures of pasties. It’s all good fun and games, but has become decidedly boring and is having a toxic effect on our politics.

Ever since Thatcher delivered her immortal line u-turning has carried the greatest of political black marks. Arguably prior to this, the ability to change course was implemented proudly by her pragmatic forbearers. Better a u-turn than a brick wall. But even when u-turns are executed in the best spirit, or because the original decision was just plain wrong, the decision is nowadays met with derision. Humiliation must be heaped on the government, a pound of flesh extracted from the embattled minister – hopefully with a resignation thrown into the political mix. What matters most to the belligerent opposition and media is not the direction of the u-turn, but namely that it exists at all. It has made for bad governance and must stop.

A government should be praised rather than condemned for showing a willingness to stop and rethink. One of the most infuriating traits of the macho New Labour years was their insistence that nothing they ever did was wrong, with Gordon Brown chief amongst the antagonists for never seeking redress. Initial government failings are exacerbated by their reluctant to countenance a change of direction. Often a government’s real failing was refusing to listen to constructive advice at the outset and when it does, once the policy is in place, it is politically too late for alterations. The media and opposition politicians continually drive this stupidity.

It is to the eternal shame of British politics that the chance to rethink policies and politics should be subject to the most appalling fury. Much of it manufactured, it must be noted. Reversals, particularly where they are truly sensible, are surely preferable to pressing on against all reason, out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

It is only a year since Ed Miliband demanded his Shadow Cabinet stop ridiculing the government’s already many u-turns. The reason was really very simple. Private polling revealed that the public, wait for it, truly did not mind ministers changing their minds.

Of course, to u-turn endlessly would mean for incoherent and ultimately chaotic governance. Businesses, the public and the economy need steady and solid government. Nobody would suggest otherwise. A u-turn needs to be handled with competence, with the purpose clearly signalled and, with the expected onslaught, delivered with a certain panache. But they are not inherently a bad thing, and let’s stop pretending otherwise.

What should matter is whether a u-turn is in the right direction. Gone should be the days of those damned for doing the wrong thing then damned for doing the right one. Labour was severely scarred by its obstinacy; the coalition has seemingly learnt from this and has developed an in-built desire for compromise. Where this government proposes truly damaging and dangerous legalisation it should be assaulted with all the force the Labour party can muster. But where a government has proven it can listen and produce better policy, it deserves praise – not scorn.

  • http://twitter.com/garypepworth Gary Pepworth

    It is a strange world where you attack someone for doing something that up to that minute you have shrilly demanded they do. A much more positive approach would be to welcome the change and welcome the fact that they now agree with you.

    A problem with crowing over u-turns on mainly unimportant matters is that the government is likely to be more obstinate over matters of greater import. The damage being done to the economy is far more important than the price of a stupid pasty.

    • http://twitter.com/_DaveTalbot David Talbot

      “It is a strange world where you attack someone for doing something that up to that minute you have shrilly demanded they do. A much more positive approach would be to welcome the change and welcome the fact that they now agree with you”.

      A point well made, Gary.

      • treborc1

        It takes away from labour argument that the Tories are not listening, I do not know a political party or leader who has not made a U turn or three.

        Blair and Brown made some humdingers in their times.

  • AlanGiles

    David we are on the same side again absolutely. I think the “Greggs” publicity stunt was stupid at best, patronising at worst, and I feel it is far better to say we got it wrong rather than causing disaster by ploughing on regardless, as John Major did with rail privatisation.

    It shows that they are listening to public opinion which is something the last three PMs failed to do.

    • treborc1

      The U turns are small and should never have been made into a battle ground, pasties for god sake. But they seem to need to get people back on side and quick

    • Robert_Crosby

      I’m not sure it’s quite as simple as that, Alan?  I suspect that Cameron and Osborne’s are torn between their insatiable conviction that they were “born to rule” on one hand, but a pre-occupation that they should be seen to be populist (and so not offend the tabloids in particular) on the other.  Cameron seems to have been completely fixated by Blair’s use of Campbell – hence the appointment of his own (admittedly inferior) replica, Coulson.  The problem for them is that they have been sucked in to this nonsense every bit as much as we were, but the 24 hour news and social media culture is now even more deeply entrenched.

      I’d like to see them “listening” on a few other things.  They could scrap their NHS “reforms”, stick Gove back in his box and put a halt to academies and free schools and they could pull back from stealing public sector pensions.  I don’t expect that any of these will be on their agenda.  They may of course argue that the voters they attract aren’t unhappy with those policies – but they are stupid and dangerous policies all the same and are bound to create one hell of a mess for somebody else to clear up.

      Of course, I accept your point about Blair (especially) and Brown ploughing on regardless.  I guess I’m more forgiving of Brown because I think his motives were so much better on most occasions?

      Best wishes to you. 

  • Brumanuensis

    I feel this is a bit of a ‘yes, but’ article.

    First, ‘yes’: it is better that governments not stick to an obviously flawed course of action and I’m glad the government has ‘u-turned’ on most of the issues it’s changed it’s mind about. I agree with Alan that the ‘pasty tax’ shennanigans were puerile, not least because I thought that it was one of Osborne’s better tax policies.

    However.

    Governments changing their mind occasionally. Fine. Government’s continually changing course looks like incompetence. After all, even if you make up for a mistake, ultimately you still screwed up. The government never seems to think things through ahead of time, resulting in a cavalcade of retractions, slap-dash adjustments and alterations. This is a sign of laziness and bad planning, not humility. We should be prepared to attack this.

    Ironically, Thatcher gave her speech just as she began to abandon monetarism in favour of more reflationary policies, like her opponents had been arguing for and as Ian Gilmour, then Lord Privy Seal, noted.

    • Brumanuensis

      *er, ‘its’ obviously.

    • Brumanuensis

      *er, ‘its’ obviously.

    • Brumanuensis

      And ‘governments’. Oh dear.

    • Brumanuensis

      And ‘governments’. Oh dear.

    • http://twitter.com/_DaveTalbot David Talbot

      For sure, I agree Brumanuensis, continually u-turning would make for disastrous government. I hope I made that clear as such.

      But my main point is that it has become incredibly boring, not to mention puerile, when the media and opposition party (or parties) jump like excited school children on any deviance from the Government line. Our media in particular are, I feel, in large part a bunch of jumped-up school boys who relish making pretty feeble jokes about it – witness an afternoon on Twitter with them all vying with each other in a race to the bottom.

      Something has to give. As Keynes said: “There is no harm in being sometimes wrong, especially if one is promptly found out.”

  • Brumanuensis

    I feel this is a bit of a ‘yes, but’ article.

    First, ‘yes’: it is better that governments not stick to an obviously flawed course of action and I’m glad the government has ‘u-turned’ on most of the issues it’s changed it’s mind about. I agree with Alan that the ‘pasty tax’ shennanigans were puerile, not least because I thought that it was one of Osborne’s better tax policies.

    However.

    Governments changing their mind occasionally. Fine. Government’s continually changing course looks like incompetence. After all, even if you make up for a mistake, ultimately you still screwed up. The government never seems to think things through ahead of time, resulting in a cavalcade of retractions, slap-dash adjustments and alterations. This is a sign of laziness and bad planning, not humility. We should be prepared to attack this.

    Ironically, Thatcher gave her speech just as she began to abandon monetarism in favour of more reflationary policies, like her opponents had been arguing for and as Ian Gilmour, then Lord Privy Seal, noted.

  • http://twitter.com/tristanpw1 TristanPriceWilliams

    Mrs Thatcher was stupid enough not to see the wisdom of climbing down from time to time when something was clearly either at odds with public opinion or plainly not working. In the end it was her undoing.

    It is good that this government u-turns on bad policies.  The shame is that there are so many bad policies for them to u-turn on. 

    To a certain extent it has taken the heat off Hunt, but I should think  it won’t do it any good. He really has to go. He’s not just a failed minister, he’s a complete laughing stock.

  • Bernard

    Yes and no.

    When the facts change or something isn’t really a u-turn (as is often the case when opposition claims one) the crowing looks absurd.

    But when announced policies are reneged upon with little explanation purely on the basis of political pressure, as in this case, it makes the government looks stupid, weak or both.

    I still don’t understand why a perfectly reasonable attempt to get the rich to pay tax rather than having the right to fund individual projects and receive individual plaudits was so controversial. It seems to me precisely the sort of issue ordinary people would get behind. Eton, Cambridge or even Cancer Research should not be funded through lost tax revenue when democratically funded public services are being cut.

  • Hugh

    “A government should be praised rather than condemned for showing a willingness to stop and rethink”

    The problem is the u-turns suggest no one thought about it first time around. It should not be a surprise to learn that a cap on the amount of charitable tax relief that can be claimed will, er, reduce charity’s income. So, what’s changed? By and large, it doesn’t look like the government has been persuaded by the weight of argument, which would be a reasonable basis for a u-turn. It’s either introduced these policies without thinking first, or proved to have no conviction in its own case for introducing them, thus folding at the first sight of protest. Neither reflect on it well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

    I think the problem is that these U-turns are the result largely of lack of consultation and a flawed policy making process

    • Winston_from_the_Ministry

      Surely it can’t be both, as they have all come after consultation, you would imagine they are not the result of a lack of it.

  • Ed Militariband

    I can promise all readers of Labour List that when I am elected Prime Minister of this great republic (oops Monarchy), I shall never, repeat never, U-turn.

  • toni

     David Talbot says – “continually u-turning would make for disastrous government”
    Well that’s what we’ve got and there’s a long and unimpressive list of Tory u-turns at the Guardian. 
    U-Turning occasionally if a serious mistake has been made is one thing, making 30 plus is 2 years is another.

    Is this what we have come to expect now? Announce any old last minute back of a fag packet not thought through policy and see what can be got away with, rather than think things through properly?
    They had 13 years to carp and criticise and make their plans when Labour was in Govt. and this is the best they can come up with, and on LL it’s applauded?

    I think they’re an incompetent shower and deserve a good kicking, so I’ll go over to ConHome where respondents there are less inclined to be so forgiving!

    • http://twitter.com/_DaveTalbot David Talbot

      Toni,

      You have, in fairness, misunderstood the point I was trying to make. 

      Labour had 18 years to “make their plans” – now, did they perform u-turns? Of course they did.

      Serial u-turns will lead to allegations of incompetence, but equally Labour in its dying years suffered dreadfully because of its refusal to even consider changes in policies. That, from Afghanistan to the 10p tax rate, infuriated the pubic and ultimately led to a dismal 29% of the vote.

      It works both ways, and seemingly not just the way you think it does.

  • Amber Star

    Most of the media was totally on the Tory side in the run-up to the election & immediately after. The flack which Labour took over things like Gordon Brown deciding to change the planned election date because he was busy dealing with the looming banking crisis was vicious.
    It is not Labour who are condemning the u-turns – a little gentle mockery, perhaps but no real onslaught.

    It is the media who are, to a large extent, clamouring for the u-turns then sticking two fingers up at the government when they capitulate. It’s up to the Coalition what they do about the media. Leveson will likely give them a golden opportunity to change things but I’m willing to bet that they’ll follow the Gove line & shelf any recommendations which have teeth.

    And, the entire premise of your article is wrong.  Labour has welcomed most of the u-turns. We’ve been condemning the government for being reckless, confused & out-of-touch when they form their policies or hire their dubious staff (e.g. Coulson), not for u-turning when it eventually dawns on them that they’ve made a mistake.

  • Daniel Speight

     Although not wanting to hijack the thread I think something should be said about Cameron continuing to support Hunt, and I don’t want it just to be a anti-Tory tirade.

    We have seen in the couple of decades a real disconnect between our Westminster political class and the public. The ability to act with almost impunity after being caught out is unbelievable and it’s making Britain look more like a third world republic than a Western democracy. It seems the only way that Cameron would let Hunt go is if they found a money transfer from Murdoch in Hunt’s bank.* As far as I can see there isn’t a non-Murdoch paper supporting this decision.

    The reason I don’t think it should be an anti-Tory tirade is that we don’t have to go back that far to find Labour cabinet members doing the just as badly and the Liberals had the unedifying spectacle of Laws, who it seems we should expect to make a Mandelson style comeback at any time.

    I think what’s needed is to take the professionalism out of politics. Let’s have amateur MPs who are there because they believe in something, not these careerists looking either for the loot or somewhere or someway to loot.

    * This may not be a good example as I’m not sure if this wasn’t already found. Wasn’t there something about a Hunt owned company receiving funds from News International when he was still in opposition? Could be wrong, but it highlights the lack of trust I have in these people.

    • AlanGiles

      Hello Daniel, Yes Hunt really is Heir-to-Blair Cameron’s Mandy, isn’;t he?. He admits he sent “supportive” emails to Murdoch Jnr, that he emailed Osborne the day before he was given responsibility for the BSkyB affair, and Osborne wrote back to him that he hoped he (Hunt_ approved of  our (cameron/Govts) “solution – getting Dr Cable out and Hunt in. The man exchanged I read something loike 799 texts with Michel, and to show he has a liberal dose of hypocrisy, the night before he insisted his special adviser Adam Smith had to go, he assured him he could stay.

      A throughly unpleasnt, smarmy, conivving, selfish  dishonest and dishonourable figure.  He could be Mandy’s twin brother. Yet he is apparently fireproof – what we he have to do for Cameron to sack him – admit to getting Mrs T’hatcher’s drawers down?

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