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A ‘Social Contract for Transport’? What’s that all about?

Phil Goodwin 01 February 2019   

Political parties in Government are provided with massive technical  advice, from civil servants in each department, and from academics and  consultants working on departmental research and technical contracts  with five- to seven-figure budgets. But there’s a problem for parties in  opposition. They can’t call on the civil service. They do each have  access to advice informed by their members or the research departments  of their allies – in business, trade unions, activists, lobbyists. These  are important, but they represent groups with interests and are not set  up for disinterested expertise. And shadow ministers typically have  their own small band of experts, a few for each front bench politician,  who have to work under great pressure on immediate issues, and have much  smaller budgets. That’s a weakness in the British political system, I  think. There is some sort of implied obligation on specialists to find  ways to spread their expertise more widely, but no easy system for doing  so.   

I was talking about this to one of the special advisers working in  the team of the shadow secretary of state for transport, who talked to  his corresponding adviser to the shadow chancellor of the exchequer, who  had a word with an adviser to the Leader of the Opposition – you can  imagine how it goes – and they were all interested in the idea of  seeking expert independent advice on transport policy. They were  concerned particularly – as well they might be – about the twin problem  of increasing road traffic and declining tax revenue implied in current  plans for electric vehicles, against a backdrop of a substantial fall in  the services provided by buses; resistance against attempts to use fuel  price as the key balancing lever (as manifested in the widely reported  gilets jaunes demonstrations in France); increasing inequalities of  access to transport services; the fault-lines in infrastructure policy;  contradictory pressures in governance; fundamentally new trends in young  people’s travel and employment; and distinguishing between hype and  reality in new transport technologies. But how does it all fit together?  And do the formal methods of transport project and policy appraisal  really capture the objectives of present and future Governments and the  uncertainties about how to achieve them? 

It was a good discussion, I’d  say. They know what they’re talking about. But then, the crunch question, which gave me pause for thought. Would  I lead a study to advise them on this, in the framework of a new  ‘Social Contract’ for transport? Goodness, that would be a challenge. As  you’d expect, I had to ask for some clarification: 

You know I am not a member of the Labour Party?   

That doesn’t matter. We want expertise, not allegiance.  

You know that most of the experts in this field are not either? (I  was guessing – I’ve actually no idea what the political allegiances of  most transport professionals are).  

That doesn’t matter either.  

Is there a budget?   

Well, only a very small one – enough for travel expenses, writing, buying reports, that sort of thing.   

Are you asking for an exercise to draft the Labour Party manifesto on transport?  

Definitely not, they said. They want it to be independent and not  double-guessing what the party would decide, no commitments on either  side, except to publish and discuss.  

So I took a deep breath, mused how difficult it would be, and said  yes. The really big question, still to be resolved, is whether it is  actually possible to provide workable solutions fitting it all together.  The individual elements of transport policy have been very widely  discussed and there is a mounting body of evidence of what works and  what doesn’t (some of it contested), and also what is popular or  divisive. That will need revisiting, but we’d be working from a basis of  knowledge and evidence. The crucial step is the synthesis of that  knowledge to devise how it can all come together in a sequence which  makes sense both technically and also in terms of public opinion.  

That’s where the idea of a ‘social contract’ might prove to be a very powerful unifying tool.  The background idea is an old concept, dating way back in the  histories of religions and ancient philosophy, and still involving  theoretical academic disputes and political critiques. At the core is a  simple idea that the state derives its existence and authority from a  free agreement, an implied voluntary contract among its citizens, to  cede or pool part of their individual rights for their mutual benefit,  protection and security. The classical idea often made reference to an  original state of nature where, for better or (more typically) worse,  people existed in a state of continual competition or warfare, all  against all, only made more civilised when they came together to  cooperate within the framework of agreed laws and accepted power. (This  should more usefully be thought of as a parable than a description of an  actual historical process, but no less forceful for that).  

The twin helpful elements of the idea are the reminder that  Governments cannot simply decide what they want without the consent of  the governed.  But also that people cannot receive the advantages of  efficient, fair and sustainable transport unless they cede some of their  personal preferences. The desires of the individual and the community  are not always in harmony. The key is to be able to offer mutual  advantage. A 52 per cent majority (for example) can give political  legitimacy but not necessarily active consent. 100 per cent is of course  unachievable, but one would be looking for powers to implement policies  that are demonstrably favourable to ‘the many’ – thinking in terms of  80 per cent or even 90 per cent would be a good discipline. And I  suspect the key to this will be to shift focus away from the final  equilibrium assumed in most models, and replace it by an emphasis on the  sequence of implementation in which support is built rather than simply  counted. All carrots first would be unrealistic, and all sticks first  would be intolerable. 

I’ve been given a free hand in how to organise this, and my feeling  is that the project might chime with colleagues and stakeholders who  would be happy to contribute ideas and suggestions and research results,  with a minimal level of bureaucracy, no precise deadlines initially, a  spirit of open inquiry, and retaining complete control over your own  material.  I’ll be needing help from a (small!) number of people in the actual  writing, but discussion with more, and the essence of the whole approach  depends on having a deep understanding of people’s motivations and  interests and, dare I say it, ‘red lines’. There will be no contracts,  time-sheets, monthly and quarterly management reports, gantt charts,  lengthy competitive tenders, competitions, prizes or votes.  The report – as far as we are competent to do so – will deal with  these questions, written in a style accessible to interested  non-experts, treating the views of vested interests seriously as  stakeholders, though not unthinkingly endorsed. It will be openly  published, and with appropriate caveats making it clear that its  suggestions are not (or not yet), accepted as policy, and with the  intention to generate discussion both inside and outside Parliament.  All contributions will be acknowledged, and nobody will need to sign up to anything they don’t agree with.  If you’d like to offer help, contact me on, putting Social Contract Help in the topic field.