Comment Blog 2 July, 2024

Winning power to lose it

Patrick King
Senior Researcher

To govern is to choose. Yet parties’ manifestoes were just as revealing for what they didn’t say as what they did, with many questions left to be answered by future reviews and public commissions.

The new Government is likely to be elected with a historic majority and with it the mandate to take bold action. While delegating some of this power (such as through the creation of an “Office for Regulatory Innovation” or an “Office for Value for Money”) could bear fruit, there are serious risks to an approach which reduces the scope ministers have to act.

It’s also damaging to concede that some of the most important and politically sensitive decisions, including how to pay for social care (in the case of the Lib Dems) or deliver a new National Service policy (in the case of the Conservatives), should be left to commissioners — not answered on their merits and defended by politicians.

Of course, not all delegations of power are equal. Bank of England independence has led to much greater price stability — before the inflation shock prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, annual inflation was almost exactly 2 per cent. The creation of the OBR in 2010, with its remit to assess whether government is meeting its fiscal targets, has been described by the IFS as one of the most successful fiscal policy innovations of recent years.

However, there is a world of difference between transferring power and abdicating it.

It is unlikely a “review of probation governance”, for example, would reveal options that are not already known to policymakers. And if ministers feel unable to take tough calls on probation governance without the ‘cover’ of an independent review, what’s the likelihood of reform in more contentious areas — which appear on the frontpages of newspapers and lead the 10 o’clock news?

Some issues are irreducibly political in nature, touching on fundamental questions about the size and function of the State; and what it means to participate in democracy and society. As a result, they will continue to be debated long after decision-making has passed to a new entity — obscuring accountability in the process (cf. the relationship between DHSC and NHS England).

It may be tempting to have an independent body tell you how much you can borrow, as some think tanks have argued, or to say when government can deviate from its fiscal rules (as Reeves hinted in her Mais lecture). Yet while decision-making would occur in more constrained context, technocrats would be grappling with the same divisive trade-offs that keep ministers up at night: except in this case voters wouldn’t be able to punish them for getting it wrong, and public debate about the right answer could be put on ice.

So how can an incoming government know whether it’s pursuing a sensible technocratic fix or arbitrarily limiting the scope for transformative change? If its answer to the following questions is ‘yes’, there should be pause for thought.

  1. Is the problem a lack of political will? The (now closed) Office for Tax Simplification did not lead to much simpler taxes. Before and after its creation, politicians have been unable or unwilling to take on the most egregiously complex areas of taxation — from VAT exemptions to business rates.
  2. Do I already know the answer but want someone else to say it? There are plenty of solutions for funding social care (including some proposed by Reform), from prepaid solutions (more desirable) to general tax funded models (much less desirable). None are without trade-offs and each will create winners and losers. It’s up to a courageous government to take the difficult call; hoping a consensus position will emerge from an independent review is wishful thinking.
  3. Am I creating technocratic handcuffs because I don’t trust politicians or voters to make the right decision? The ‘correct’ level of government borrowing, for instance, isn’t a second-order question within which bigger political decisions are made — it is the political decision.
  4. Am I trying to pass the buck? Reviews take time: depending on what they recommend, they can also be used as an excuse for inaction. If something is a top priority, government should be pragmatic about the cost of waiting for an independent review to return its findings.

A new government will have the mandate, and power, to set out a radical new direction of travel and directly address some of the biggest challenges Britain faces. It shouldn’t shy away from using it.