If you were the Minister? December 28, 2009Posted by Tomboktu in The Left.
A few months ago, a comment was made here about the achievements and failings of the Labour Party the last time it was in government, between 1992 and 1997. Now, a post on that topic would be a dead certainty to generate plenty of debate probably without actually adding much to the sum of human knowledge. I mention it because not to ignite that debate, but because my thoughts on that comment at the time and since lead me to what I think is a more useful question: what should a minister from the Left seek to do the next time they are in government?
So, first my memory of the thrust of the comment: that Labour’s achievements in the 1992-1997 governments were predominantly in social policy areas and not enough in economic policy.
It may be the curmudgeon in me, but my initial mental response was to be unimpressed with the character of the achievements that Labour was being credited with. Yes, Mervyn Taylor did introduce a series of changes to marriage law that pre-empted the re-use of arguments that had led to the rejection of the previous attempt to the lift the constitutional ban on divorce. And yes, Brendan Howlin brought in the amendment that meant you no longer needed a doctor’s prescription to get condoms. Mervyn Taylor also introduced the two key planks of the equality legislation (although the referrals to the Supreme Court by President Robinson meant it was left to his successor from Fianna Fáil, John O’Donoghue to steer the final versions though to become law). It cannot be denied that these are in essence significant achievements of Labour the last time they were in government.
However, I suggest the achievements might not be as complete or significant as some would claim. The definition of ‘success’ or ‘achievement’ in that work was limited to changes in law. To use the language of policy-makers, success was defined in terms of ‘outputs’ rather than ‘outcomes’.
To illustrate the difference, consider some of the situations that continued after the statute books were changed. Prohibiting harassment of gay students in our schools (in the Equal Status Act) has not led to it ending — nor as I posted recently, did it lead to any action to deal with the problem. Permitting the unprescribed sale of condoms did not necessarily made them accessible everywhere to everybody who wants or needs them — initially through refusals to stock in many places, and on an ongoing basis through cost.
That was my initial thought. When I wondered if it was a fair assessment, I did conclude that the reforms Labour set itself met the ‘SMART’ criteria presented in some management training: specific, measurable, achievable (or ‘ambitious’ in some versions), realistic, and time-bound. But the ultimate outcome may not have been what what was desired.
When I turned my thoughts to the redistribution or the economic agenda, I wondered if we on the Left have similar clear objectives. There are plenty of statements of what we’re against, and lots of broad ‘feel good’ aims or statements of outcome that is to be achieved with not enough about the outputs that will be delivered to achieve those outcomes. There is also the fact that the content of many ‘front end’ specific objectives or demands change more rapidly in the economic sphere than in some areas of the social policy sphere. A demand to lift the ban on divorce remained as valid (or invalid) in 1989 as it did in 1979; a demand at that time to increase the unemployment benefit by, say, £5.00 per week would now be outdated, and not just because the currency has changed.
Iin addition to wondering if we have clear objectives for economic and distribution systems, I also wondered whether it is possible to have such objectives. The social policy objectives Labour championed in the 1990s are discrete: it would have been possible to prohibit discrimination against Travellers or people with disabilities without also making condoms available without a prescription. I don’t know if changing the systems of importing, producing and exporting goods and services or of changing the systems of property ownership, pricing and transfer, work and pay, social welfare, tax, and public services can be broken down into discrete single actions with defined outcomes in the way the ‘liberal agenda’ can be.
I think the cabinet and its members do three key things:
- change laws (although constitutionally that task is done by the Oireachtas, in our system it typically implements the government’s proposals),
- decide on the taxing and spending of public funds, and
- in their capacity as as the most senior director of organisations that deliver some services, shape or set further non-spending rules and policies.
That list of three role is narrow in its focus. Ministers do have other key roles. Important among those is seeking to shape public opinion (which Brian Lenihan has been successful in doing in relation to fiscal policy) and negotiating in various bodies (a task it might be said — unfairly — that John Gormley failed at in Copenhagen). But I think that the link between outcomes and outputs in those roles is less certain. If I were taking a seat at my first cabinet meeting, I think my mind would be on the first three roles, for those are (usually) within the control of a minister.
I would probably be at a loss if I were given an economic portfolio in that imaginary cabinet and wanted to identify meaningful and realistic objectives. I could set out to change the tax laws to penalise companies that do not share profits or to make co-ops or mutual society models more attractive for entrepreneurs. Maybe I could find some change in how executive pay is set to reduce the inequality between the top and the bottom. I would definitely want to make the right of workers to collective representation effective in all employments. But, somehow, I doubt any of that would lead to serious changes to the economic injustice that exists in Ireland.
What three or four specific policy objectives would you steer through the system if you were appointed to the cabinet?