With less than eight weeks to go to the UK General Election, Ed Miliband yesterday unveiled Labour’s “five pledges” to the British electorate. These are not the first statements to be made by the leader of a political party during the current campaign. And they won’t be the last. As usual, politicians of all parties are falling over themselves to out-promise each other, as they go in search of media headlines, people’s votes, and what they see as the ultimate goal of political power.
The five ‘straplines’ on Labour’s pledge card are so vague and anodyne that the words would not look out of place if they had been issued by the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats. But, as Election Day gets closer and manifestos are launched, Party Leaders and other senior politicians will not be backwards at coming forwards with ever more specific “We will…” commitments.
So what does this implied belief in their own ability to deliver on detailed promises – come what may - say about their grasp of the complex and uncertain dynamics of everyday life? Or of how the world works in practice? Not a lot, it seems to me. Either that or it’s all bluff and bluster, designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator of so-called “public opinion”, and to satisfy the constant demand from TV interviewers and media commentators for “straight answers”.
“We’ll use our best judgement as we go along, based on how we perceive, interpret, and evaluate the specific circumstances we face at that time.”
Every other politician will be doing the same, of course, making in-the-moment judgements on emerging issues from the standpoint of their own intentions, interpretations, interests, ideologies, and identities, etc.
The poetry and prose of political life
Some 30 years ago, The Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, insightfully said,
“You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”
Crucially, it’s the prose-like governing of the country that affects people’s lives, not the campaign rhetoric – however ‘poetic’ the latter might appear, with its neatly packaged policies; supposedly pain-free implementation plans; and readily solvable problems. This means that, in practice, what politicians will find themselves doing – whether in government, opposition, or ‘neither of the above’ – is "muddling through". That is, they’ll be using their judgement (good or bad) to deal with the issues, events, and ‘outcomes’ that actually occur, not those that might have occurred if the ‘real world’ had been kind enough to comply with the assumptions implicit in the various pre-election “programmes for government”.
The competence to govern
Making detailed policy commitments perpetuates the myth that politicians can predict and control what will happen post-election, irrespective of what might be going on in the world at large. They can’t. Any more than anyone else can. So what we need instead is a sense of how, in practice, those seeking election will set about the task of muddling through, as they participate day-to-day in the complex and uncertain realities of government. The important question then becomes,
“Do we have confidence that this or that person and his or her colleagues have the purpose, courage, and skill to deal competently with whatever emerges?"
We won’t find the answer to this on pledge cards. Or in the soon-to-be-published manifestos. Such competence to govern ultimately depends on the quality of people’s participation in the ongoing process of interaction that we call “government”, not on the pre-existence of specific policy commitments.
People and politics, not policies and plans
Like it or not, this question draws attention to people more than policies; politics more than plans; and talk (there’s a clue in the name “Parliament”) more than paper. Most of all, it foregrounds the importance of politicians and voters alike taking seriously the complex, uncertain, and prosaic nature (i.e. wiggliness) of human interaction, through which the future is continuously constructed, rather than being seduced by the superficially appealing but ultimately illusory ‘poetry’ of the campaign.
Of related interest: