Thursday, 6 January 2011

Big Ideas and Rhetoric

Victoria Winckler’s post on the lack of big ideas in Welsh politics certainly provoked some responses in the coverage of it in the Western Mail.  I think she had a point, and that some of the responses are too defensive by far. 
I don’t accept that the ‘Big Society’ is a big idea, mind, which seemed to be the starting point for the discussion.  I’m not convinced that its supporters – or even its originator – really know what they mean by it; it’s always seemed to me more like an excuse for simply shrinking the public sector as rapidly as possible.  Insofar as it has any philosophy behind it, it’s thus more about cutting the public sector than about voluntary and community action, which is just presentational.
Back to Wales, however, and I tend to agree with her assertion that much of what the parties are saying really is more about managing things better rather than about any underlying philosophical differences.  Part of the reason for that is touched on in the comments by Professor Richard Wyn Jones in that there is a higher degree of consensus between the parties at a Welsh level than there is at a UK level. 
I’m not entirely convinced that it’s a ‘left of centre’ consensus and that the solution is to have ‘a more visible centre-right’ though.  I think I could equally suggest that the real problem is the lack of a credible left-wing alternative to centrist market-based policies.  It probably depends on where different people see the ‘centre’.
He’s right, though, to suggest that having our own law-making parliament is a big idea of sorts.  The problem with that is that what was once a ‘big idea’ espoused largely by one party has become a consensus supported by people in all parties (even if not by all the people in some parties); and the party which initially stood alone in pushing for full self-government has become increasingly unwilling to depart from the more recent consensus in favour of small incremental changes.  ‘Big idea’ it might be, but it’s not a ‘big idea’ which any longer differentiates meaningfully between parties.
As voters in the US discovered recently, there’s a difference between a ‘big idea’ and mere rhetoric; simply repeating words like ‘hope’, ‘change’, ‘radical’, and ‘transformation’ is really not the same thing as offering a substantive alternative.
I’m sure that all parties will be looking for striking policies to put in their manifestos for May’s election.  On the basis of past experience, I’d expect Plaid to come up with the most original ideas – the party has something of a track record on that score.  It isn’t the same thing as a ‘big idea’ though – it’s more about being imaginative and original within the confines of the current paradigm, when what we are really lacking is an alternative paradigm.
Hotelling’s Law goes some way towards explaining why a number of parties all seeking votes from the same people will tend to end up offering broadly similar policies, for fear of excluding some potential supporters.  It seriously limits the range within which product differentiation occurs unless one or more players is sufficiently brave to make a bold leap outside that range.
At the moment, I suspect that Victoria Winckler is right to doubt whether that will happen. 


Anonymous said...

is it about big or new ideas because there are ideas around, what is missing is leaders with the will to take them on board and drive the change.

But its more than that, the main problem is that the main premise of a democratic system, the possible change of government of whatever stripe to replace the present Government of whatever stripe is lacking in Welsh politics, does anyone seriously expect there not to be a Labour or Labour led Government after May's elections?

That is what creates much of the statemate/consensus but its unlikely to change any time soon.

Victoria Winckler said...

Thank you for your supportive words - just to make clear I absolutely don't support a Cameron style Big Society as you can see from my presentation to the WCVA conference which is here and also from my blog posts on


Nia Davies said...

I find this problem while trying to develop policies in my day job. Trying to think of workable policies can be a nightmare and this is due to the complex nature of the Assembly powers. What the WAG can and can't do? Any lobbyist such as myself try and feed into all party manifestos with our own policies. This is a good thing to develop new ideas. The powers of the Assembly as is stifles growth of ideas.

One example of this is to do with a policy which we developed regarding business rates. After two years, the WAG is still not sure if it is possible. Even Cardiff Law School was unsure if the WAG had the power over this certain area of business rates. our London office don't have as much of a problem in developing policy.

In addition to this, organisations don't have the resources to employ a policy person in Wales. In the FSB, we are lucky as we are a big enough organisation to have two people to develop policies specifically for Wales, but in other organisations, they will only have a part time policy person, if at all. Most UK wide organisation will develop policies in England and then change them a little bit to be used in the devolved countries. This does not make for good policy development. Unfortunately, this is the nature of the beast as organisations have not devolved enough internally and this means that ideas are developed in London, mostly.

As a result, there is an over-reliance on political parties to develop ideas by themselves. Most of the consultation which will take place between political parties and organisations while developing policies and manifestos will be re-hashed London based ones. It should be the case that political parties can steal policies from the end of the day, I like it when political parties use our policies as it helps my work, but also helps businesses and political parties themselves. The more ideas the better.

There is a need for better policy development from organisations as this will help all involved. Political parties should not be expected to come up with all the ideas when there are people, specialists and organisations far more qualified who can do that and feed into manifestos.

I spend my working life developing policies which are good for Welsh business, which is much more time than any policy person in any of the parties can afford. Policy development in Wales and specific to Wales is still in its infancy, but there are good ideas out there. Hopefully this will develop after this years referendum.

John Dixon said...


I didn't for one moment think that you did support the 'Big Society'; apologies if I in any way gave the impression that I did think that.

John Dixon said...


I think it's more serious than that. Even if there were to be a real possibility of a change of government in May, to what extent would that actually lead to any significant change in policy? The sub-title to your own blog sort of sums it up - a change of government needs to be more than just a change of personnel in order to offer a real choice.