Deals behind closed doors

By Abdool Kara | 05 August 2015
  • Abdool Kara

Oscar Wilde said that consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative, and governments often rely upon this aphorism to justify the contradictions that siloed Whitehall policy formulation inevitably creates.

Exhibit 1: referenda.
In May, Bedfordshire’s police and crime commissioner triggered a council tax referendum, which was defeated.
 
He complained about the process, to which the Department for Communities and Local Government responded: ‘Residents have had their say and their views will now be respected.’
 
How to square this with elected mayors for combined authorities?
 
In May 2012 11 English cities held referenda on elected mayors.
 
Nine voted not to introduce them, with only Bristol voting ‘yes’, and Doncaster voting to retain their existing mayoral system.
 
One might therefore think that was that.
 
But rather like the Scottish independence vote, a ‘no’ vote need not necessarily stand in the way of the ‘yes’ campaigners.
 
In this case, the Alex Salmond equivalent is our very own Chancellor of the Exchequer – apparently it matters not to HM Treasury that the ‘residents have had their say’, for if the Government wants elected mayors installed, then a way shall be found.
 
I am not against such mayors, but I don’t like deals being done behind closed doors.  
 
Some commentators have welcomed this – citing the ‘bespoke’ nature of the deals, and the ‘flexibility’ of having no rules.
 
But it is naive not to recognise the politics behind this approach, whether that is about divide and rule of local government, or about making electoral gains, or probably both.
 
One could contrast this with the approach to freedoms and flexibilities as part of Comprehensive Performance Assessment in the noughties – where the rules were set out explicitly in advance.
 
And this transparency resulted in a coherent, consistent, policy approach.
 
The truth is that ‘bespoke’ and ‘visible’ are not opposites, and ‘customised but within a transparent and fair framework’ is not a paradox.
 
As a sector we are foolish to accede to the rules of a game that government sets behind closed doors, for purposes we can only guess at. 
 
Inconsistency at its worst becomes hypocrisy.
 
But, as David Runciman argues, we should not pretend that politics can ever be completely sincere, and the most dangerous form of political hypocrisy is to claim to have a politics without hypocrisy.  
 
And we certainly cannot claim to have that.
 
Abdool Kara is chief executive of Swale BC
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