« An infantile disorder | Main | Outcome bias & cargo cults »

October 10, 2011



Incompetence is what Government does. Labour were more incompetent, but better at presentation, hiding the incompetence. Labour also didn't have the civil service ranged against them to obstruct their agenda, as the Tories do. Labour weren't hammering out a coalition, which neither party believes in. Labour came to power in a boom, not the greatest recession since WW2.

I could go on.


Perhaps it is a downside of politicians on the whole getting younger and less experienced of life outside the political bubble.


Cameron is "born to lead, but he's just not very good at it". I think Miliband said that once.


It would be interesting to test this theory by comparing the performance of Conservative and Lib Dem ministers. Given that they're both in the same government and thus dealing with the same prevailing conditions, your theory suggests that the average Tory minister will perform worse than the average Lib Dem.

It's true that most of the recent calamities have afflicted Tory ministers, but this still has to be weighed against some more serious errors, particularly Clegg's baffling handling of the tuition fee situation. If we eliminate that outlier, I think the Tories-are-especially-clueless hypothesis holds up pretty well.

Jimmy Hill

Perhaps governing is just a practical skill which can only be improved through experience?

If you've never been in government it seems likely that you might not be very good at it at first (or ever).

The Lib Dems provide an interesting counter-factual, however, it must be noted there are fewer of them and those that are there are in less high profile positions.

David Laws managed to make a bit of a cock up early on...

Lee T

I find the whole Westminster 'scene' at the moment to be profoundly unimpressive. These issues reflect very badly on the individuals involved, the people they've trusted as advisors, and the leadership.

It feels to me like 'politics' is the focus of all the attention, not government (or, indeed, opposition). The message must be fed to the masses, and there isn't time for due-diligence, there isn't time for someone to stop, look, and say 'er, guys, is that really a good idea?'.

The cat thing is a shocker. If a story is unbelievable enough to warrant an 'I'm not kidding about this' then it's unbelievable enough to warrant a google search. That nobody thought to do that shows either arrogance or incompetence. Or perhaps both.

Chris Purnell

Actually I agree with 'Bruce' politicians without a hinterland as Dennis Healy called it are unlikely to be measured in their judgements. They literally can't see that there may well be viable alternatives. It is a form of bounded rationality. Being self confessed pragmatic politicians means that they don't even have the shape of an ideological position to defend their position


Of course there is the counter view that, given the unprecedented scale of what they're actually doing in terms of cuts, the NHS reforms, unplanned wars in Libya and so on it is amazing they seem so secure in government and, therefore, possibly, they can't be *that* bad at it at a technical level.

Retaining consent to govern is, after all, the very first prerequisite of governing.

Rob Marchant

Chris, you're quite right about them having some major problems in their first year, which I highlighted last week http://thecentreleft.blogspot.com/2011/10/where-tories-are-weak.html, although I would differentiate the gaffes from the ministers, such as Spelman and Lansley, who are merely useless.

But the real prize surely goes to the Lib Dems, who have never quite got used to being in government, after 70 years of opposition: http://thecentreleft.blogspot.com/2011/05/lib-dems-readiness-to-govern-101.html


I agree that arrogance and isolation from real life as a result of their class background partly explain the PR pratfalls and errors. Of both the Tory and Lib dem figures, Clegg and Laws etc have a very similar wealth/ educational profile to the tory tits and share obviously their hatred of the welfare state and social deomocratic ideas. A coalition of rich tits with the Liberals deserting the Keynesian and social reform tradition. However the reason why they seem to look like a tired Government on their last legs is that their policies are a carry over from the "New Labour" agenda. In reality Labour in office was right wing and became more so as they moved ever farther from their roots. The Brown blair era had superficial conflict built in between factions loyal to Blair or Brown but that was a personality conflict about jobs for the boys. Where is the evidence that Brown or the Millibands are a departure from the Neo Liberal pro Capitalist consensus? All the vicious policies of the Coalition from welfare cuts, PFI, War war war; Tuition fees marketising the NHS etc etc were got going or moved along by Labour in office; including pandering to racism with points systems for immigration, boarder control agencies etc. Brown and Blair sucked up to the Bankers just like Tories and obligingly bailed them out. It is all a repeat of the same old TV show no better this repeat than the last. The Big Society is merely "Victorian Values" of Thatcher re 1983. It is crap. And old crap at that. The Coalition is keen to pretend that they are a fundamental change agent and so is the Labour leadership. They want to be seen as different for electoral reasons but actually there is much more continuity than difference. There will be a few clown shows and PR stunts along the way but the Titanic is set on its Rendezvous with the Iceburg of excessive leaverage and secret unexploded derivative contracts no one can honour. But do keep on pretending the impending fall of the western financial system is some how caused by Council House Tenants and people in wheelchairs wanting to have a decent life.


They're not making much of a secret of their incompetence, are they? The sub-text is "We're useless and self-serving, and there is very little you can do about it."

Churm Rincewind

As far as I'm aware, it's generally accepted that Labour's first term of office was pretty much wasted in terms of effecting any real and lasting change. Unused to office, the new Labour Government tended to follow circumstances rather than lead, and policy was pretty much made up on the hoof.

It's also been widely reported (by those who claim to know) that Cameron was explicitly determined not to repeat the same mistake, and that the present Government therefore made a strategic decision to press ahead with substantive legislation as early and quickly as possible in the hope that its policies would subsequently prove to be too deeply embedded to be reversed by any future Government.

Well, if you rush through complex legislation, it's bound to be inadequate in some respects, incoherent in some details, and not always presented with force and consistency. But I don't think that a few local difficulties such as the Liam Fox/Teresa May/Andy Coulson examples mentioned provide any real evidence that this strategy isn't working, even if the NHS reforms are proving a little more intractable.

In short, what you suggest is incompetence is in fact just a by-product of a highly successful political agenda.

gastro george

"Well, if you rush through complex legislation, it's bound to be inadequate in some respects, incoherent in some details ..."

Such mastery of understatement.

But I think you're right about what is pushing the agenda. This government's policies are obviously politically-driven, not economically (or competently).

Churm Rincewind

@gastro george: For clarity, my comments were intended to apply to the legislative and Governmental processes, not to the policies themselves.

gastro george

Sure, I agree.


As far as I'm aware, it's generally accepted that Labour's first term of office was pretty much wasted in terms of effecting any real and lasting change.

Bank of England independence, setting up the FSA, the Good Friday Agreement, devolution?

Churm Rincewind

@ajay: Fair point; I was imprecise. What I meant to suggest was not that the first term Labour Government didn't do anything at all, but that it didn't do anything substantive in pursuit of traditional Labour policies. The examples you quote - BofE independence, the FSA, the Good Friday Agreement, devolution - could all have happened under a Government of a completely different political hue.


Minimum wage?


The secret seems to be that the coalition is more interested in doing politics than Government - there seems to be an impatience with the disciplines of Government and a preference for making grand statements (see Teresa May, cat and not making things up)rather than getting to grips with the real business of Government. We're reading that Liam Fox used Werrity as a conduit to get past the civil service, or Gove and his advisers communicating by gmail account in the (erroneous) belief that their communications would be outside FOI.

I was a civil servant for more than 20 years - the civil service really cares about two things: process and evidence. Increasingly it looks as if this Coalition is deeply impatient with both. They seem more comfortable adopting an oppositionist mindset - a coalition of the wealthy and powerful playing at being outsiders giving the appearance of cracking the system that in reality sustains them (cf Pickles with his pre-election boast that he'd keep a gun in his desk to shoot civil servants who said no to him).

Moreover, culling huge numbers of civil service jobs and categorising civil servants as "enemies of enterprise", or telling them they need more "fear and discipline" is no way to manage the people you depend on to manage a Government programme heavy with change. It's not surprising that there is pushback and failure. It's not at all obvious to me that the civil service retains the resources (and especially the knowledge base, with so many experienced civil servants pensioned off) to manage the Coalition programme.

I think the Coalition's impatience is coming back to haunt them with a vengeance - they seem not to realise that one of the reasons why the Whitehall and Westminster system has evolved in the way it has is as a tool for ministerial backminding. It strikes me that for all the talk of Blair's sofa government, and Brown's alleged cronyism and volcanic tantrums, Labour managed the system with an adroitness that this lot simply lack.

The comments to this entry are closed.

blogs I like

Blog powered by Typepad