The one and only public debate between the leaders of seven UK political parties took place tonight ahead of the UK election May 7. Key topics were 1) austerity, the budget deficit and debt, 2) the NHS, 3) immigration and 4) education and intergenerational inequality. These are all big issues but hardly new.
Forgotten in the general election campaign to date are a series of ground-breaking initiatives taken by the coalition government over the past five years. These are examples of genuinely fresh thinking and should be applauded regardless of your politics. In no particular order:
1. Establishment of The Behavioural Insights Team
Dubbed the ‘nudge unit’ in a hat tip to the book by Thaler and Sunstein, this team has taken the idea of choice architecture into the heart of government. As a result, we have seen such policies as pension provision where your choice is to opt out rather than opt in–so the lazy amongst us create pension savings by default.
The nudge unit comes about from the explicit recognition the humans are not rationale calculating machines as they are portrayed in post-war economics and that frequently ‘wantability’ is different from decision-making that maximizes our well-being (see my post here).
2. Introduction of Well-Being Metrics
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) introduced its Measuring National Well-being (MNW) programme in 2010. We now have four questions included in the well-being survey that broadly relate to the three main ideas of happiness–life satisfaction, leading a meaningful life and feelings. As this data set builds, it will give policy-makers a far better idea as to whether what they do makes people happier (click for larger image on the chart below).
3. Commencement of Natural Capital Accounting
By setting up the Natural Capital Committee, the government has started laying the foundations for policy-making that recognises all those assets in the UK– like our forests, beaches and parks–that don’t necessarily have a monetary price attached but are nonetheless of huge value.
Again, we have reached the stage where the ONS has started creating a natural capital methodology and is collecting statistics (here).
4. Fostering of Social Capital
Although a policy of harsh austerity has in many cases destroyed social capital, the government still created a number of initiatives that are well worth continuing by any future government. I don’t really understand why David Cameron stopped talking about his idea of the Big Society (did he grow bored of it?) but at least he set up some useful institutions and programmes in his first flush of enthusiasm. These include Big Society Capital, a social investment bank, and the National Citizen Service to promote youth volunteering.
While Margaret Thatcher famously said there is not such thing as society, the ONS is again collecting data to show otherwise.
5. Establishment of The Green Investment Bank
Somewhat shackled by its limited fund-raising and lending powers, the Green Investment Bank is still a great idea. As a centre of expertise for the financing of green-sector companies it helps fill a market niche. Here’s hoping that any incoming government will scale it up.
6. Passing of The Localism Act and Promoting Localism in General
One step forward and one step back in this area as savage cuts to local authority funding have put lots of local services under pressure. Nonetheless, the 2011 Localism Act is a sensible step toward devolution.
Within the act are such measures as the Community Right to Build, Bid and Challenge that give local communities more power over development in their neighbourhoods.
Unfortunately, due to the dire financial circumstances of many local authorities, communities often can’t get sufficient support to make use of the new powers in the Localism Act. However, the act is a good start and I hope any incoming government will extend it.
7. Setting Up of the Office for Budget Responsibility
Given rock-bottom interest rates, I am far from convinced that shrinking the budget should be the centre-piece policy of any government. However, any debate on revenue, expenditure and the budget deficit needs sensible and realistic forecasts. To this end, the government establishment an independent body, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), to produce unbiased predictions. This is in everyone’s best interests, so well done.
8. Staying with the Plan with Respect to the Climate Change Act
The government achieved the first carbon budget (2008-2012), although the Great Recession helped, and the country looks on course to hit the second budget (2013-2017) too. For the targets see here. The Chancellor George Osborne tried, but thankfully failed, to weaken the targets for the fourth carbon budget (2023-2027).
Given that the right of the Conservative Party and all of UKIP hate the Climate Change Act, it was an act of political bravery for Prime Minister David Cameron to sign an accord with Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband recognising the threat of climate change and vowing to uphold the Climate Change Act targets in any future government. Long may cross-party cooperation in this vital area continue.
In sum, the political philosophy of the outgoing administration has been innovative in a range of fields. The incoming government should pick up policies in all these eight areas and take them to the next level. Here is hoping that will happen. Finally, I in no way endorse the governing parties as a whole (I have been completely at odds with large parts of their agenda). But I think it important to give credit where credit is due.