Power to which people?


This report was published earlier this week – it is about competition and red tape and how we’d all be better off with more of the former and less of the latter. It may be full of brilliant stuff but it irritates me a lot as it exemplifies what the Right of politics does so often.

First, the title of the report, Power to the People, and it’s nice red cover, evoke thoughts of the Left, but this report is a product of the Right. This is an example of linguistic reappropriation or probably resignification. The same is happening to some extent with the word conservation: the wildfowlers now call themselves the British Association for Shooting and Conservation rather than the British Association for Shooting and slagging off real conservationists.

Second, it is described as an independent report. It’s independent in the sense that if government asked me to write about the future of driven grouse shooting the report would be independent – but you might know what to expect, and we wouldn’t expect this government to ask me to write such a report. So who is the author of this independent report – John Penrose MP for Weston-super-Mare, a recent Conservative Whip and Minister. How did the Treasury and Department for Business Strategy find this man, one wonders? Out of all the academics, and groups of people who could have argued out some of the issues, they chose a ‘successful’ businessman and the current Chair of the Conservative Policy Forum. My, how they must have worried about what he would come up with – sleepless nights no doubt. And this is an MP whose voting record shows hardly a single sign of a rebellious streak. It’s a devaluation of the term independent.

Third, it’s a data-poor report. There are a few graphs and the odd survey result where businesses were asked how they wanted the world to be, but little of this bears on the proposals in the report. I admit, that as I read through it, I got a bit bored and impatient around half way so maybe I missed some.

Fourth, it is dogma-heavy. My favourite phrase from the report is this:

Rules and regulations should be a last resort, not the first tool out of the box. There are many effective, lighter-touch alternatives including self-regulation, codes of conduct, behavioural nudges, and earned recognition which should be considered first.

Page 22, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads /attachment_data/file/961665/penrose-report-final.pdf

I don’t really agree with this analysis – but that is simply a matter of opinion – although many readers of this blog will recognise some of those phrases as being used by the grouse moor owners, and the shooting industry generally. They are used to try to evade regulation the world over and time and time again, and they are deployed as fact whether they can be stood up or not. They are currently being used to avoid proper regulation of burning of peatlands.

The reason that my attention was drawn to this report was reporting that it recommended a return to one of the stupidest pieces of policy ever – the ‘one in, one out‘ approach to regulation, where in return for introducing new measures you have to get rid of one existing one. Except this report opts for something even more stupid, ‘one in, two out’ (see pages 23-24). Wouldn’t it be more fun just to have a lottery and for random bits of law to be withdrawn by chance – have you ever read The Dice Man?

Fifth, and I admit this is not strong argument, and is an example of guilt by association which is terribly unfair, John Penrose is married to Dido Harding – another ‘successful’ businessperson although not wholly successful according to her record. This is the same Baroness Harding who very recently told a Select Committee that no-one could have predicted that a coronavirus would mutate and have new strains – see Channel 4 fact checker here. Do they confer on facts at home? And in any case, when her wonderful horse, Cool Dawn, won the 1998 Gold Cup my money was on Strong Promise (came second) and it is hard to forgive anyone for that.

Well, read the report yourself and you may find it independent, packed with convincing analysis and facts, and clearly the product of a free-thinker whose party affiliations could hardly be discerned from reading the text.

It got me thinking though, how would we introduce better competition into the election of politicians? Ban political parties? Rather difficult to do, but if every candidate had to set out their own views, more or less from scratch, maybe we could encourage more than two main camps to evolve. And surely, MPs ought to come up for re-election more often than every five years – how about every two years to aid competition and give more power to the people? And why do we need general elections, why not have a rolling system as we do with council elections where every year a proportion of MPs stand for re-election? And how come MPs can stay in the same constituencies for ever, how about them having to move from constituency to constituency every few years (if re-elected)? The current system is anti-competitive – maybe Mr Penrose should think of that.


19 Replies to “Power to which people?”

  1. Very well said Mark, Of course we have seen all this before Thatcher when she was PM cut out a lot of financial regulation and low and behold some years later, in about 2009 we have a huge financial crisis on our hands.
    No, as you say Mark it is the political system and the politicians that desperately need to reform. My vote in my constituency is always worth nothing because of the large Tory majority. If there was proportional representation (PR) it would be different mater. Most EU countries now have a system of proportional representation.
    However there is not “a cat in hells chance” of having PR introduced under the Tories as the much less democratic system of “ first past the post takes all” suits the Tories down to the ground.
    Additionally as you say. five years as an elected MP is too long without a further election. Four years should be the maximum and possibly less.
    Our whole political system needs complete reform. It is currently not serving democracy properly. The views.of a large section of our society are just not represented in Government.
    Start with the politicians and the voting system, it is they that need more competition and reform before anything else.

  2. The image that always comes into my mind when someone quotes Cameron’s “bonfire of red tape” is Grenfell. Was light touch regulation such a good idea in building safety?
    The other area where I really don’t want to see rules thrown out is drug safety. Would you really like to see new drugs and vaccines coming into use with fewer checks?

    1. Exactly Lyn. In Mark Cocker’s ‘Our Place’ he remarks that when his mother was pregnant with him she was offered Thalidomide, but she refused. Life’s a lottery at the best of times not good to let arrogance, complacency, greed make it even chancier. The people who rail against red tape are not the people who will take the brunt from its absence when rather than if it goes wrong. The people whose arms get ripped off because machinery isn’t safe or develop long term illnesses because chemicals aren’t used properly.

      As I started typing this a news feature came on you tube – Texas is suffering from blackouts far worse than any other state. The reason is that energy production and distribution there is more deregulated than in any of the other 49 states. It seems that weatherizing the network might have been skimped on. The republicans and right wing media are not highlighting this instead they are outright lying to the public this is the result of windmills being out of action, a direct result of the ‘Green New Deal’ which doesn’t actually exist yet. This is harsh reality when the fairy tales about the private sector being our best friend and government is an evil that needs to be as small as possible are your plan of action.

      1. The entire energy needs of Texas will be met in perpetuity by utilising the energy embodied in the perpetual motion of Jen Psakis circling back

    2. Lyn – couldn’t agree more. Regulation is essential as it prevents bad practice and a race to the bottom. Ethically responsible companies like regulation as it prevents them from being out-competed by the unethical.

  3. First tool out of the box. Self regulation has such a long history of success doesn’t it? Before we had health and safety laws workers were hardly ever maimed or killed in their place of work were they? And we can be absolutely confident that self-regulated financial organisations would never take reckless risks with other people’s money, surely? You could stake your life savings on the solidity of that (northern) rock.

    1. Thanks, Jonathan – I do concur.
      I used to think that it was naive to expect that anyone, very keen on killing as hunters et al are, would self regulate and abstain.
      But politicians are not naive – so I now assume this is a device to kick a contentious issue into the future where it might possibly lie forgotten for a time, while they have a good laugh.

  4. I haven’t heard about the Dice Man (Luke Rheinhart?) for 50 years !
    I read it in 71 being lent it by a friend who after reading it dropped out of Bristol University (studying Philosophy and Psychology) and became a croupier in a casino.
    Dangerous things books.!

  5. The neo-liberals doing stuff like this always remind me of that Yeats quote: The best lack all conviction. The worst are filled with passionate intensity. They’re filled with passionate intensity because they love money and they see this as a way for them to get even richer. On the other side, most of us have a desire for justice and for precious things not to be destroyed, but it’s hard to have the same level of conviction. Fortunately some people do.


  6. and yes, one in one out has got to be the stupidist misappropriation of a good principle I’ve heard in a long time

  7. It’s a political party broadcast printed in black text on white paper, with all the antidotal PR catchphrases I used to use in the 80/90+s for the major world’s corporate organisations, regurgitated now through the affiliated Cummins Government. It’s a stereotypical branding document which unfortunately is not just produced by our own Government but other organisations to emphasise to the reader that they have their interest at heart first and foremost – if you believe in this tosh of branding then there’s no hope, as you probably still believe in the fairies at the bottom of your garden. These reports are committee led on a never stopping revolving roundabout of meetings, focus groups, think tanks, corporate lunches and expense accounts. Good luck in trying to level up competition outside the Southeast, if I were a northern farmer getting the price of an acre of farmland of that of the south, I’d know what I’d do!

  8. Ah that great system Self regulation, no need for any “real red tape rules.” Then again self- R has never worked, will never work and should always be discarded as an option, vested interest always overcomes and otherwise defeats limitation by SR. Driven grouse shooting is a prime classic example but there are many many others.

  9. at least we haven’t got a governemnt that would rail against unelected EU burocrats and then appoint an unelected peer to be the minister to deal with them……oh dear, it appears we have

  10. The goal of all conservatives is the corruption of the Regency era combined with the social order of the Edwardian. It always has been.

  11. Surely there can be no better example than competition in the food industry ? After all, its driven food prices down so that has to be a good thing ? Or has it ? and is it ?

    Agriculture – food industry – consumer is exactly the sort of disaster the unmitigated greed of the people John Penrose is generating.

    This is a market that isn’t working at both ends. Huge buyers dealing with small producers only goes one way – as fast as farm production goes up farm gate prices go down. At the other end, supported by massive advertising and social influencing consumers are being sold what makes the food industry the most profit – Britains are eating over 50% super processed foods and half western Europe’s grain is being fed to animals because meat makes more profit.

    The results – the devastation of our landscapes at one end, the very real prospect of a reduction in life expectancy at the other as we get fatter and unhealthier on our ‘cheap’ food. And don’t believe for a moment it is chance – the best of food science has broken the barriers of natural appetite and packed apparently innocuous foods with harmful additives – I was shocked that I hadn’t realised till recently that cheap white bread contains added sugar.

    Here the farming lobby is not a major political player – in France it is and the way rural areas have been left behind, and small farmers driven into poverty, has become a major political driver for Le Pen’s extreme right Front Nationale.

    Be careful what you wish for, John Penrose, because push too hard and the people may really re-bound on you.

    1. Farming is massively subsidised which inflates the price of land and makes it harder for new entrants. I’m not sure that encourages competition.

  12. Personally I quite like the idea of individual candidates having to set out their own views because I like the connection between constituencies and their local MP. However if you support Proportional Representation at least in its pure form it’s the complete opposite. The connection with individual candidates is broken and people vote for parties not people.

  13. Dido Harding – her name seems linked to a series of calamitous and dangerous mistakes. Perhaps none more so than the decision to go-ahead with last years Cheltenham Festival.

    How she become head of the National Institute for Health Protection after being associated with arguably the greatest single example of example of selfish reckless stupidity we have seen in the pandemic simply defies believe.

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