Tag Archives: framing

A defence of ideology

A defence of ideologyOne of the many abuses of the English language in mainstream political parlance is the denigration of ideology.

Defending his government’s cuts to public spending, David Cameron wrote in 2011 that:

This is a government led by people with a practical desire to sort out this country’s problems, not by ideology.

More recently, Nick Clegg attacked Michael Gove’s education policies as ideological, reportedly saying:

Parents don’t want ideology to get in the way of their children’s education

In fact, Nick Clegg really appears to have it in for ideology because he attacks it all the time. He said a couple of weeks ago:

I don’t take an ideological approach to public spending.

But it isn’t just our dear leaders trying to avoid the whiff of ideology. You hear it all the time – the Government’s cuts are “ideological” (i.e. bad), the Green Party’s opposition to nuclear is “ideological” (i.e. invalid). Just as Cameron denied the charge, Greens sometimes protest that their opposition to nuclear power isn’t ideological.

Hang on a second, aren’t they all involved in politics?

My concise Oxford English Dictionary defines ideology as:

a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy

Surely David Cameron should be guided by a system of political and economic theories and beliefs when deciding what this country’s problems are, and how to deal with them? Surely Nick Clegg’s opposition to Michael’s Gove’s policies stems in part from his ideology, and one would hope his approach to public spending would follow his liberal ideology and not whatever “commonsense” notion struck him at each meeting?

The Green Party’s opposition to nuclear power is absolutely ideological. A core tenet of the party’s ideology is putting power, be it electrical or economic, into the hands of the people, not corporations. Corporate power tends to be unaccountable, to act in its own interests, to lie and dissemble when it has done something wrong. Nuclear power can only be run either by the state or corporations, and is largely run by the latter. Another core tenet, coming from our ecological roots, is valuing diversity and resilience. Staking a very large share of our energy future on one technology supplied by a couple of companies in a dozen or so plants that need fuel from a handful of countries doesn’t seem to fit the bill. The party aims for peace and nuclear disarmament, so any move by the UK government that would put more potential weapon material into the world, and that would legitimate nuclear weapons programmes in countries like Iran, should be opposed. So the Green Party prefers a diverse mix of renewable energy technologies that can be owned by individuals, community-led companies, councils, small enterprises and, yes, big companies who build massive offshore wind farms.

To my mind, it is our ideological objections to nuclear power that are our strongest arguments. I’ve never been able to get my head around the comparative costs, and I’ve never wanted to cobble together information about safety that I don’t understand. But I don’t trust nuclear PLC as far as I can throw them, and if we can do without nuclear then I’m ideologically opposed to it.

The most infuriating example of this ideology denial is the claim that “it’s just about supply and demand”. I see this all the time on Twitter and on blogs, whenever anybody has the cheek to write something more sophisticated than an A-level economics essay.

supplyanddemand

Apart from the fact that this is extremely simplistic economics, it is also very often used in an ideological fashion. For example, you see people saying that council housing is pointless because it is just trying to buck the market, and at the end of the day the housing problem just comes down to supply and demand. People making this argument will often claim that anyone who disagrees is both “economically illiterate” and “ideological”, as though an economic theory based on the logic of a free market that has no place for public housing isn’t ideological. A variant is that the planning system must be dismantled because it gets in the way of supply and so makes house prices high, as though there is no value to the planning system and no objective for housing policy besides affordable prices on the open market.

Of course, ideology can prevent people from finding shared ground. Many blame inflexible ideology for the state of affairs in American politics, illustrated by this neat cartoon:

ideology-is-the-source-of-political-gridlock-58326

But this is a defect of the political process and the entrenched positions of politicians who depend upon their extreme wings to win primary selection. It isn’t the fault of ideology per se.

Let’s not shy away from ideology, please. Let’s not pretend we are all pragmatists arguing over the best way to manage a one-party state. Let’s talk about our values, our beliefs, the theories that guide our decisions.

Addendum

This topic came up today in a conversation with a friend, Tom Hill. He suggested that “ideological” is often used to mean that somebody is ignoring, misrepresenting or lying about evidence to protect their own ideological position, as those who are pro or anti-nuclear are known to do from time to time! The same can be true of the reverse; somebody can try to pretend they are simply acting on evidence in order to cover their ideology, as Nick Clegg and David Cameron clearly seem to be doing in the above examples.

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My politics of ecology and justice

Following my previous blog post about the Young Greens and lots of discussion with friends and fellow party members, I want to set out clearly why ecology defines my philosophical basis rather than social and environmental justice.

To avoid misunderstandings from the outset, I think social and environmental justice are important, but they don’t define my political philosophy.

The new philosophical basis of the Green Party says:

A system based on inequality and exploitation is threatening the future of the planet on which we depend, and encouraging reckless and environmentally damaging consumerism…. The Green Party is a party of social and environmental justice, which supports a radical transformation of society for the benefit of all, and for the planet as a whole.

This sounds great! What could be wrong with that? I hope I might persuade you why I don’t think it is quite right, or at least encourage more thought and debate about political philosophy and the precise meaning of different terms. Continue reading

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Open scrutiny in the age of open data

This is the first of perhaps two or three short essays inspired by Emer Coleman‘s masters dissertation on open data, written in a personal capacity and not as part of my job. In this post I want to look at what her proposed model of “iterative and adaptive open government” would mean for scrutiny of the Mayor of London. Her dissertation considers the difference between the New Public Management approach, characterised by public managers setting the goals and other public managers auditing their performance, and an emerging “Open Governance” approach using open data.

Continue reading

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Don’t be such a scientist

It’s unhappily easy for our earnest efforts to fall on deaf ears, especially if (like me) you’re a bit of an egg-head. It would be lovely if people listened attentively to our reasoned arguments, but any academic psychologist could tell you it ain’t so.

The Bad Science movement has roundly bashed the media for dangerously misrepresenting science. Ben Goldacre angrily lays blame at the feet of humanities graduates (like me?) who write and make editorial decisions about scientific subjects without any understanding of the subject or even getting the basics of the scientific method. Just recently we have seen climate scientists have their names dragged through the mud by, er, journalists and editors who obviously don’t realise how much of a non-scandal “Climate Gate” really was.

So do we fight back with Goldacre-style condescension, taking the arguments to pieces and shouting at humanities graduates like me? That probably won’t get us too far.

Randy Olson’s book – yes, what a good name for a scientist – takes you through five basic lessons that he picked up after jacking in his career as a marine biologist and tenured professor to do film school and acting classes. I’ve summarised them in my page about communications theories. I would, without hesitation, say that every Green should read his book if they want to counter climate change deniers, or in fact to communicate just about any political issue.

What does it boil down to? Basically, don’t reel off a factual argument in a condescending manner. Instead, think of your subject like a story; arouse their interest, connecting to their emotions and gut instincts, then build a strong narrative that delivers your message in a way that fulfills their expectations. If you’re trying to beat a blockbuster-style conspiracy theory like Climate Gate, do it with an even better movie plot. Sounds obvious, but goodness me we can be bad at it!

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Telling the Green story on housing

How can we tell a simple, persuasive story about Green housing policy? Tom Hill sent me this challenging article about the US Democrats’ recent failure to turn solid facts into folksy stories, reminiscent of George Lakoff’s past work on their failure to frame issues correctly (read this and this).

I’ve been doing some work recently on the Green story about the recession, and what the Mayor of London should do in response. A big part of this is the Green story on housing, since the housing bubble is both a structural weakness in our economy and a negative consequence for the majority of people for whom it is far too expensive. Jenny Jones has recently published a great report explaining the downside of the story, and we’re working together on a follow-up describing a range of rather complex solutions.

So how can we tell our positive story on housing in a way that people can connect with, that will win their emotional sympathy without triggering justified intellectual cynicism? The cynicism should be dealt with by our detailed report, but here’s a first and rather long attempt at the story:

We all want a home we can afford, that we can make our own, and if possible to build up a stake in it for our retirement – a fair approach to housing.

The Labour government has tried to solve this by providing subsidies to big business builders, who offer slightly cheaper private housing that just becomes completely unaffordable later on. Everyone who struggles to afford this can get state handouts – housing benefit or social housing – paid for by the profits of big business, making us all dependent on their success.

The Green Party would hand ownership and control of our land and homes to communities. Instead of expensive short-term subsidies, we would support pensions and other long-term investments into housing that is owned and run by local communities. You could build up a financial stake in your home, and you would pass it on to the next generation at a permanently affordable price.

Does that make sense? I’d love to read any comments and thoughts.

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Don’t let the Tories get away with it

As long as the Democrats talked within Republican frames like “tax relief”, they always lost the argument. So why are Labour taking on Tory economic narratives during their party season? They’re handing the election to Cameron on a plate.

The first narrative is that we need to cut public expenditure to save the deficit and curb the national debt. Except that our national debt is much lower than most developed economies, and is projected to stay that way. Our deficit is large, but Cameron’s criticism of any fiscal stimulus would only have landed us in a bigger hole with more unemployment and smaller tax receipts; perhaps even a depression.

The second is that the public sector is an unproductive drag on the economy, and should be the focus of cuts. Except that the public sector injects stable spending power into the economy; provides the infrastructure and services that business can’t function without; subsidises businesses who want to pay scandalously low wages through the benefits system; is funded more by working people’s tax contributions than those direct from business; and so on.

For much of the left wing commentariat, who think “Left equals Labour”, this is more evidence of the intellectual vacuum at what’s left of the heart of the left Labour project. But New Labour was born from the marriage of social democracy and New Right economic thinking. Brown et al are never going to seriously rethink the economic terrain they shaped, which contributed to the near-collapse of the economy. Their only narrative these past few months has been “our cuts will be nicer”. Nice.

If only those commentators would look beyond Labour to parties who are articulating a genuine alternative, and who are challenging these Tory narratives. Like, urm, the Green Party. At the moment they seem resigned to an electoral wipeout without redeeming heros.


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