Thursday 31 July 2014

On Incompetence and Apathy

This is a story of two middle-ranking politicians of very different character.

Iain Duncan Smith, also known as IDS, is the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He was leader of the Conservative Party from 2001-03 until his party overthrew him for manifest incompetence. The Conservatives were led into the 2005 election by Michael Howard, who once was memorably described as having "something of the night about him". Howard may be evil, but he was capable enough to lead them to a narrow defeat rather than a repeat of the Labour landslides in 1997 and 2001.

Iain Duncan Smith

IDS claims he was inspired to address the plight of the poor by visiting Glasgow housing estates; he may even be sincere. As Work and Pensions Secretary, he launched an ambitious attempt to overhaul the benefits system, which has degenerated into a very expensive catastrophe. It is unlikely this came as a surprise to his colleagues. It is alleged they think IDS is just not intelligent enough to manage a large and complex department of government.

On behalf of Iains everywhere, I am most annoyed that IDS is bringing such disgrace to our name.

Stumbling and Mumbling poses the question of why IDS is still in his post. The article runs through some of the general reasons why an total incompetent might stay in a senior job in a large organisation, and it is well worth a read. (Reason number one: "If a man has pissed the bed, you don't ask someone else to sleep in it.")

In the specific case of IDS, I think there is another piss-related factor. His superiors are heeding the dictum of LBJ (a far more capable TLA) that it's "better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in".

Loyalty is not one of IDS' strong points. He first made his name as one of the so-called Maastricht Rebels who were a thorn in the side of John Major's government. If IDS did not have a job he considered appropriate to his stature, he might well find some excuse to torment the government.

IDS might not have enough allies to seriously threaten Cameron's leadership, but he could make himself into a serious nuisance once again. He would be a convenient figurehead for the hard-right, anti-Europe, anti-immigrant factions who already regard Cameron as too soft. In addition, IDS has a sort of pathetic celebrity status as a former party leader. It's not much, but it's enough to get the attention of the media, who love stories about "rifts" and "splits" and would need little encouragement to write one about the Conservatives.

A truly ruthless PM would have packed him off to be Governor of the Falkland Islands or some other post where he couldn't cause much trouble. I hasten to add that I bear no ill will towards the Falkland Islanders, and the actual governing is done by an elected council. A comfortable sinecure whose main qualification is the ability to wear fancy hats is about the right level for IDS.

Sir Rex Hunt, former governor of the Falkland Islands, with impressive hat.
Source: Mercopress

The depressing fact is, Cameron and Osborne probably do think of the Department of Work and Pensions as the equivalent of the Falkland Islands. IDS can play with benefits for the poor, sick and unemployed if he so wishes.

If the system runs well, that's good. If it is a total shambles, too bad, but for the most part the victims aren't voting Conservative anyway. (It's notable that old age pensions have been more or less untouched by IDS' clumsy hands.) They probably consider it a price worth paying to keep IDS out of the way.

Of course, there may come a time when IDS starts to damage the standing of the Conservative Party as a whole. At that moment, giving him a one-way ticket to the Falklands may start to seem more attractive.

I have sometimes heard that "there's no point in voting" because "politicians are all the same." The post of Work and Pensions Secretary is a good illustration of why this is lazy and careless thinking.

Before IDS took office, the last Work and Pensions Secretary under the Labour Government was Yvette Cooper. She was a close lieutenant of Gordon Brown, previously Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and is currently Shadow Home Secretary. She holds a first class degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford and an MSc in Economics from the LSE. It is fair to say that Cooper is an intelligent person and a high flyer in the Labour Party.

Yvette Cooper

Cooper is no one's idea of a radical socialist reformer. She fits the profile of a typical cautious, pro-business, technocratic New Labour minister. Be that as it may, her appointment signalled the Labour government took the benefits system seriously. It gave the job to a rising star, not a washed-up mediocrity who had been a disastrous party leader.

The benefits system has problems. It always has and always will, and Cooper's watch was no exception. However, I will take a basically competent administrator over a blundering fool any time.

If you voted Labour in 2010, you were voting for the safety net which looks after the most vulnerable in our society to be managed by someone like Cooper, instead of someone like IDS. It is not particularly radical or inspiring, but it is important.

This is not a demand that all good and moral people must vote Labour. The last Labour government had egregious failings of its own, which people might believe is a justification for voting Conservative. Someone else might have equally cogent reasons for voting Liberal Democrat, Green, or another party.

I am also not saying that you must know the names and track records of mid-ranking cabinet ministers in order to cast an informed vote. Each political party has its own set of values and priorities, which manifest in appointments and policy choices. Values are often compromised, but they do exist and they make a difference to what governments do.

Voting is the beginning of political participation, not the end. Our system of government is dysfunctional in all sorts of ways. If you want to take additional action to improve it, then more power to you. But even in the deeply flawed system we have today, differences between political parties are real. Pretending they don't exist, or are not worth learning about, is not the action of a responsible adult.

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