Why it’s Time to Embrace Uncertainty Politics

Andy Regan casts his eyes on the Senedd elections and wonders whether we will get the debate that Wales needs.

‘You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose’ goes the saying (attributed to sometime New York governor Mario Cuomo). 

Wales is, of course, home to some of history’s finest poets, but I doubt many would want Dylan Thomas in charge of regional economic development.

These days even a campaign rooted in poetry feels like a lot to ask. Our attention economy means it’s easier to get the same result through negativity and divisiveness. All you have to do is point at something, say how terrible it is, and blame one of the essential pillars of a functioning liberal democracy for being incompetent/corrupt/out of touch. 

Cuomo’s quip goes to the heart of the tragedy of politics; that the skillset and insights required to get people to put their electoral trust in you do not automatically translate into an ability to run a country. The ability to point at a leaky pipe does not make you a plumber. 

You can’t govern in poetry, but nor – as the American electorate has now concluded – can you govern in ALL CAPS TWEETS. 

So, a little under six months out, the themes and messages are now being road tested for next May’s Senedd elections. Complex issues of real importance are likely to be sidelined in favour of those that ‘cut through’. This happens in all political contexts, but is particularly acute in Wales with our comparatively weak media.

“Senedd politics remain mostly invisible to so many in Wales, so all parties need something very loud and sexy to cut through to voters at all.”

Welsh Labour will likely want a conversation about competence in managing the pandemic response, off the back of pretty unambiguous polling suggesting the public thinks they did a better job than the UK Government.

What they won’t want is a conversation about the various longstanding issues with the NHS which predate Covid, particularly in north Wales where the I-refuse-to-call-it-a-Red-Wall-because-that-isn’t-a-thing seats are.

They can tell a plausible but unexciting story of slow and steady progress over 20 years. But that’s a message that may well be running out of road if this becomes a Change election, and voters want a new foot on the accelerator. 

This will certainly be an election where Big Changes are offered. The drums of Independence vs Abolishing the Assembly (sic) will be enthusiastically banged. Plaid Cymru are seizing the political moment, and undertaking serious work on the reality of delivering independence, which they will need to build on. Perhaps they feel that the post-Brexit / Johnson era represents a window where support for a break from the UK may peak? 

Independence is mostly being packaged as an optimistic and inclusive vision, but it implicitly rejects the idea that progress is possible within the current settlement. In a context of political polarisation there is a danger that the public are persuaded that devolution can only ever fail, but run in the other direction instead. 

The tablecloth is being decisively whipped from under the neatly laid crockery of our economy.”

The Welsh Conservatives seem to be hitching their wagon to this devo-sceptic horse. Polls, on one interpretation, show increased support for abolishing the Senedd, or at least pruning its powers. Covid has prompted a strange line of argument where they appear to be criticising Mark Drakeford for having the temerity to use the Welsh Government’s powers at all. 

They are also going big on civil service reform, and asking questions about the relationship between government and civic society. Both are important areas of inquiry. 

It is, however, frustrating to see these valid issues clad in the black and white of populism. Much has been written on this site about the need for reform of the Welsh civil service, but it is a complex task which would require current public servants to buy in and deliver it. It is not a switch that can be flipped by brute force, and any government which acts like it is will fail. 

It is long past time that the third sector in Wales should have stopped saying ‘we support the policy, but delivery is poor’. Policy and delivery are not separate things.

Front line organisations in the third sector know that better than anyone, as they often get to see what happens when the rubber of policy meets the road of reality before anyone else does. All governments can and should seek to benefit from their insights. 

Senedd politics remain mostly invisible to so many in Wales. So all parties need something very loud and sexy to cut through to voters at all. Yet almost none of these big ticket electoral wedge issues actually pertain to the things the Welsh Government is going to have to ‘get done’ in the next five years. 

The task from which all other tasks will be a distraction will be shoring up the Welsh economy against the twin challenges of Covid-19’s aftermath and what – at the time of writing – seems a likely ‘no deal’ Brexit (a scenario so utterly removed from what was promised by the Leave campaigns in 2016 as to be scandalous). 

The tablecloth is being decisively whipped from under the neatly laid crockery of our economy, and it remains to be seen whether the ones doing the pulling are the magicians they claim to be. 

The next five years will require serious, self-reflective, open minded people with the humility to say ‘I might be wrong’.”

The next Welsh Government will have to reimagine Wales’ place in a future global economy still reeling from the pandemic and its consequences, and rethink what role it should play in getting it there.

In an unprecedented health and economic crisis, questions of who managed the old status quo competently should be balanced with long-neglected matters of political philosophy. A time of such uncertainty is not one that calls for a government only able to reach for pre-packed ideological solutions, underpinned by inflexible ideas about the role of the state or the market. 

For example, the post-Covid economic slump means the next Welsh Government will almost certainly have to raise tax, as the Chancellor has signalled will likely be necessary at UK level. So committing in advance to no tax increases for ideological or electoral reasons is, at best, unwise. 

The next five years will require serious, self-reflective, open minded people with the humility to say ‘I might be wrong’. It will require people able to respect and compromise with political opponents at home and abroad, not a zero-sum winners vs losers mentality.

We need to replace infallibility politics with uncertainty politics. 

All of this is, frankly, much more likely under a coalition government – a prospect we should all be more comfortable with, and which parties should be far more open about

It is hard to picture a TV leaders’ debate in which would-be First Ministers compete on their ideological flexibility, and ability to embrace uncertainty. ‘I have changed my mind much more often than my opponents’ is not a winning line. But surely the ability to learn should count for something?

If there is a common denominator for all the great policy failures of the last decade it is surely overconfidence and underpreparedness in our politicians.

Here are some questions I’d like to see our aspiring leaders answer:

  • Tell me about a time you changed your mind.
  • Based on your skills and life experiences, when are you most likely to be wrong about something?
  • What future are you planning for? What future are you not planning for?
  • Tell me about a time you upset your own party in order to do what you felt was right.
  • Which of your opponents would you most want to share power with, and why?

There is a real risk this election will be fought and won on solving yesterday’s problems, or on a vision of Wales ten years from now. Both gloss over the risk that the coming economic storm could well sink any party’s agenda. 

We should not give up on the idea that an election should be fought on good policymaking. Wales deserves an open and honest debate on the issues that will really matter, even if they aren’t vote winners.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Andy Regan is working within the Nesta Cymru (Wales) team as a mission manager for the 'A Sustainable Future' mission. He was previously Policy and External Affairs Manager at the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

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