Why Do Politicians Bottle the Big Decisions?

04/11/2014 15:16 GMT | Updated 03/01/2015 10:59 GMT

There is a continued mistrust of politicians. This is not a recent phenomenon but has built up over years. Russell Brand may be the latest and loudest to complain but the sentiment often comes through in polling.

Why this is the case can vary from the more systemic 'they lie' or 'they are all the same', to the more specific expenses scandal. However, one of the consistents is that 'they fail to do what they say they will do'. The public generally appreciate that some big and difficult decisions need to be made but politicians then fail to take them.

Climate change is an obvious example with some arguing that if action had been taken earlier then the more painful decisions that are required now could have been avoided. In other words, the possibility of an incremental approach now has to be replaced by fundamental change because decisions were not taken earlier.

So why do politicians appear to bottle the difficult decisions?

The easy answer is that they do not want to take a chance with paying the electoral consequences of such decisions. The balance between 'winners' and 'losers' would be such that any government taking the action would be punished at the next election, it is said. This leads to the accusation that governments are fundamentally short term in nature and think no further ahead than the next election. The big decisions cannot, therefore, be taken.

That though is only part of the answer.

Governments want to be seen as all powerful. There is not an issue that it cannot tackle... if it wanted to. If the media complains that 'something must be done' then a statement or speech is made and action promised.

But there is a limit to what governments can achieve despite their rhetoric. Whilst the Coalition talked about being the 'greenest government ever' the powers at their disposal are not always extensive. The big decisions are not always theirs alone to take. That though underpins another issue.

There has been no discussion about what national government is for and what it can do. It has suited many, the UK included, not to think about other levels of government. We are now starting to consider the UK's role in the EU and what the EU should do but only after having not discussed in since the referendum of 1975.

There is a lack of clarity around which level of government controls which levers of power. In reverse, a similar problem existed with localism. It was fine in principle but when it came to deciding who should really do what, Government was simply unable to let go. How could it implement cuts if it wasn't in charge? This has to do with the level of expectation of central government which they like to reinforce.

That is what made Labour's 1997 pledge cards so effective. Covering health, education, tax, crime and employment, it stated simply and clearly what the party wanted to achieve in its first term in office. There was a clear idea of what government could and would do. Compare this to the 131 pages of the 2010 Conservative Party manifesto and there appears nothing that could not be achieved.

We now see politicians going against the advice of experts or trying to insert their will into 'independent' processes. The National Minimum Wage is not meant to be set by politicians, deliberately, but they now say what level it should be.

All this does is betray their lack of power and the limited number of areas that they can really get involved in.

Of course there are electoral issues at play as well. The failure to invest meaningfully in infrastructure goes back decades and across governments. Even when the economy was doing well, the choices made focused on electoral priorities, not longer-term national needs. It was only when the failings of the infrastructure took on electoral consequences, think safety in rail or school class rooms open to the elements, that action started in earnest.

However, it is clear that governments are not always in a position to take the big decisions, they just do not want to let the electorate know that. It is not possible to make problems such as immigration, climate change, trade, tax etc simply the preserve of a national government. Collective action is the only effective approach.

So are they bottling the decisions or are they not in a position to make a difference?