Monday 14 October 2013

Short-termism is the enemy

A little over 40 years ago, in 1972, I found myself standing outside the Rhydycar leisure centre in Merthyr, waiting for the results of the Merthyr by-election for which Plaid and its candidate, Emrys Roberts, had high hopes.  I got involved in a discussion with the late Harri Webb and another, sadly now also departed, comrade about the sort of Wales they wanted to see.
Harri was arguing for a free and open democracy, but Terry was a little more hesitant.  He was concerned that a Plaid government, having led Wales to independence, could subsequently lose power and that some of the Labour Party’s Unionist dinosaurs would come to power and undo all Plaid’s work.  Kinnock, Abse and Thomas were the names specifically mentioned as I recall. 
Harri’s response was typically robust.
“Oh”, he said, “we will have shot them in the first week.  Then we can have a free and open democracy.”
I’m not a great believer in the idea that shooting people changes anything very much, and I never really believed that he was serious – although one could never be entirely sure with Harri.  The conversation was brought to mind again recently by a number of apparently unconnected stories.
The first was the result of the Australian election, which the opposition won convincingly.  One of the factors believed to be behind the scale of the election victory was that the opposition promised to scrap the hugely unpopular carbon tax.  (There’s a parallel in the UK of course, with some politicians calling for scrapping those environmental measures which are perceived as being constraints on economic growth.  It is a call which might even prove popular.) 
The second is the debate about the proposed high speed rail line in the UK, and the growing suspicion that the cross-party consensus (at UK level anyway) in favour of the project is rapidly disintegrating for short term electoral considerations.
The third, returning to that discussion outside the Leisure Centre, is the question of the continued decline in the usage of the Welsh language, and the issue of what, if anything, can be done about it.
And the fourth is the increasing belief in government circles that our behaviour can be ‘nudged’ in a particular direction rather then forced that way by legislation.  Number 10 even has a ‘nudge unit’, apparently.
The thing that links all these strands is this; bringing about real long-term change depends on winning hearts and minds and creating a new consensus.  Winning an individual election is never enough; it’s the arguments which need to be won.  Almost anything which can be easily done by one government can be equally easily undone by the next.  Failure to convince people of the merits of a particular policy or direction enables others to take an unpopular stance against that policy or direction, and undermine the longer term commitment which is necessary to bring about real and fundamental change.
Whatever the issue, for any long-term policy the work of convincing people that it’s the right thing to do is the key to success, not the result of an individual election, nor the passing of laws, nor even the gentle ‘nudging’ of our behaviour - let alone shooting people.  And in the same way, ‘success’ isn’t measured by election results – it’s measured by the extent of change. 
Much of what passes for political debate seems to ignore that, and seek short term electoral success on the basis of populism.  In the real world, political short term electoralism is the enemy of real change; it is not the route to achieving it.

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