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 email@example.com, putting Social Contract Help in the topic field.