Politics gets personal

How the Conservatives are responding to the "politicisation" of private behaviour
August 30, 2008
Click here to discuss this article at First Drafts, Prospect's blog

Suddenly politics has become personal: not the enmity between David Cameron and Gordon Brown, but the relationship between government and people. From green taxes to smoking bans, obesity crackdowns to parenting contracts, marriage incentives and even organ donorship, politicians find themselves grappling with the public consequences of private decisions.

Given the risk of being accused of nanny-statism, it may seem surprising that politicians are willing to be drawn into this area. Yet politicians must also deal with countervailing pressures. Most people want government to pass laws banning dangerous activities, while at the same time more than half believe that the government does not trust people to make ordinary decisions about their lives. In many areas the line between public and private is becoming hard to distinguish. People's lifestyles are a major factor in the future of the planet; studies show parenting to be more significant than schooling on children's outcomes; obesity now costs the NHS £1bn each year. As Alan Johnson said in a recent debate on obesity: "On the one hand we are castigated for introducing an overweening nanny state, while on the other we are told that we have not taken enough action."

The New Labour refrain of "rights and responsibilities" is an attempt to re-establish clear lines between state and individual responsibilities. Similarly, Nick Clegg has sought to reassert the liberal strand of the Liberal Democrats since becoming party leader, promising to "define a liberal alternative to the discredited politics of big government."

For the Conservatives, however, the politics of public behaviour is more disorientating. The question is how a belief in a small state can be reconciled with an interdependent world in which one person's choices impact on another's tax bill and quality of life. The Conservatives have set themselves a difficult task: to reconcile a recognition of shared problems with a traditional scepticism about the ability of the state to drive social progress.

This challenge accounts for the more interesting elements of the Cameron project. Indirect taxes and trading schemes are in vogue as the Tories seek to create frameworks through which individuals "compensate" society for the social effects of their personal choices. As Oliver Letwin describes it, government must find ways to "internalise externalities and hence [encourage individuals] to live up to social responsibilities without the further intervention of authority." Cue Tory calls for rises on alcohol duty and the growing interest in anything from charging for road use to personal carbon allowances.

The emphasis on society also leads to an interest in social norms. Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, points to the work of American academic Robert Cialdini, whose research illustrates the importance of social relationships, not just economic incentives, on people's choices. As one Cialdini study found, the people most likely to be making energy-efficient changes to their houses were those who believed their neighbours were doing the same. Cameron and George Osborne, taking their lead from American academics Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, want to "nudge" people in the right direction without overly restricting their choices.

So there are some genuinely new ideas emerging. One interpretation of this is that the Tories are updating their core story—liberalism for an interdependent world. Consider other areas of policy though, and the picture is less coherent. Cameron insists he is a liberal Conservative, yet he also argues that the "the state cannot be neutral on the family" and promises tax incentives for marriage. This is undoubtedly a Conservative idea, but a liberal one? In London, one of Boris Johnson's first acts as mayor was to ban alcohol consumption on public transport. Yet the Conservative proposition is that state action discourages social responsibility. Johnson himself voted against the smoking ban.

Another view might be that the Tories are simply extending the reach of markets to new areas. Under Margaret Thatcher it was private utilities; under Cameron the aim is to create markets in road use, carbon emissions and welfare provision. Yet the proposal for a "fuel stabiliser"—when fuel prices goes up, fuel duty falls and vice versa—seems to ignore the importance of market signals. What incentives does the stabiliser set for oil companies? Presumably to raise prices. And what message will a fixed price send to people about adapting their own lifestyles as resources become scarce?

Elsewhere, John Redwood's policy commission demands deregulation, while Cameron calls for "leadership" rather than "one-size-fits-all" regulation. But Cameron's emphasis on the family leads to support for flexible working arrangements—to be established through legislation and regulation. Flagship environmental policies also require a regulatory framework. In some areas, the Conservatives are keen to regulate personal and corporate behaviour, yet in others they return to an instinct for small government.

So what is it that unites Letwin's full-cost accounting, Lansley's social norms, John Redwood's deregulationary zeal and Iain Duncan Smith's social conservatism? Last year, Michael Gove wrote that conservatism was more disposition than ideology—but to what end? The answer seems to be that there is a particular brand of Conservatism emerging, prompted in part by the politics of public behaviour, which is neither free market, paternalistic or liberal. At heart it seems to be a pragmatic project which aims to reduce demand for the state. Rather than simply shrink the size of government from the outset, Cameron's Conservatism seeks interventions that reduce the necessity for government in the future—whether this is establishing carbon trading between businesses, altering social norms in communities, "nudging" people to behave differently or inducing them to get married.

The question for the Tories is what balance they can strike between these competing traditions, as they seek to keep an electoral coalition intact. For Labour, the challenge is to set out a role for government that goes beyond agreeing the rules for individuals to play by, and ironing out collective problems. For the left, addressing the costs of public behaviour should not be enough. It must explain how government can intervene in ways that increase people's freedom rather than reduce it—and why that is a moral cause. It should set out a clearer case for regulating corporate, not just personal behaviour, for the common good. And both parties need to be more explicit about where and how restrictions on people's choices are justified. The lesson of the politics of public behaviour is clear: the case has been won for active government. The question now is: to what end?

Click here to discuss this article at First Drafts, Prospect's blog