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Our politics of impossible promises Politicians should confine themselves to the realm of the possible – rather than painting a picture of utopia.

Credit: Danny Lawson - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Credit: Danny Lawson - WPA Pool/Getty Images

October 1, 2019   4 mins

My daughter, 7, has the makings of the quintessential politician of our age. She was recently elected Eco Rep for her class. She claims that, despite facing seven opponents, she secured about 60% of the vote. She provides no corroborating evidence for this, but simply rolls her eyes in condemnation if I suggest she check her maths.

Her first action as Eco Rep was to design a new recycling system that could be built into the walls of the school. She has filled several pages of A4 with complex schematics showing how it will work: how food waste will be composted into gas which heats the building, how metal will be melted down and turned into cutlery, and how plastics will be shredded and remanufactured into swimming costumes. And yes: all this is to happen inside the school walls.

Unfortunately, the teachers at the school have imposed a set of draconian restrictions on the cadre of Eco Reps. The teachers say the children are only permitted to take forward suggestions that are actually possible.

This failure of ambition and imagination has been roundly condemned by my daughter, who would have roused a rabble in rebellion if the school holidays hadn’t come around in the nick of time. When September came around, I feared she’d have them chanting “Build the (recycling) wall”, and declaring that the teachers just need a good dose of optimism to get things going.

I fear my daughter belongs in today’s politics far more than I do. Because I rather like confining my thinking to the possible. I’ve got very little interest in bulldozing through to another plane of reality, where up is down, left is right, climate change isn’t happening, the gravitational model of trade doesn’t exist, and liars make the best leaders. I’m a possibilist, and proud of it.

The first possibilists were a faction of the French socialist movement, led by Paul Brousse and Benoît Malon. They were leftist firebrands and radicals, but they opposed the anarchists, and those advocating for a worker’s revolt, because they didn’t believe those solutions could or would ever work. Instead they proclaimed the reformist principle of achieving only what is ‘possible’: working for the measurable, reachable gains instead of the utopian ideal.

You can imagine how a possibilist of the Left would be treated by the Corbynistas today. Anyone who argued for reasonable reforms to improve the lives of the poor – instead of a unicorn policy like Fully Automated Luxury Communism – would be shouted down and condemned. They’d be accused of being a Tory at least a thousand times a day. If they had the audacity to be a woman, they’d get rape threats. If they were Jewish, they’d be accused of conspiring with Israel. If they were black, they’d be called a coconut.

Meanwhile, we’ve already seen what happens to a possibilist of the right, when Rory Stewart faced the scorn of the true Brexit believers of the Conservative party. Stewart has the makings of the Patron Saint of Possibilism, with his observation that believing in Brexit won’t automatically make it work, any more than believing in a bin will increase its ability to accommodate extra rubbish. But his obsession with the possible killed off his candidacy for leader before it took its first steps.

In healthy political times, we possibilists don’t have to announce ourselves to the world. In healthy political times, everyone shares a common reality – different opinions about what to do with it, but no debate about the basics of facts, or evidence. Possibilists only find themselves reaching for the title when politics has gone mad.

Now is that time: when the assumption is that wishing for a policy is the same thing as making it happen.

Take the 20,000 new police officers that our new Prime Minister has promised to recruit. I support this choice. But it isn’t simple. They need to be paid. They need to be trained. They need equipment. The equipment needs storage. We’ve closed a lot of police buildings over the last nine years, as we downsized the force. These complications need to be addressed. And yet I’ve seen commentators and journalists who tried to discuss these complications condemned as unpatriotic pessimists, with plenty of unrepeatable swear words thrown in for good measure.

The problem is that possibilism is much more boring than populism, in the same way that a pony is more boring than a unicorn.

And worse, I think people have started to expect so little of their politicians that they’d rather have a lie that draws a smile than the truth. After the Brexit referendum, the most depressing research I saw was from Britain Thinks, who argued that people didn’t mind not getting their £350m a week for the NHS because they never believed it in the first place.

When you stop expecting politicians to do anything they promise, policy just becomes a game of trying to communicate your values. Instead of cutting crime, I’ll communicate that I care about crime by announcing plans to hire more police officers. I’ll communicate that I’m modern by implying I’ll legalise cannabis. I’ll communicate that I’m not a racist by suggesting I might have an amnesty for illegal immigrants.

When the possibilists were in charge, there’d be a 40-page strategy document and implementation plan behind every one of these ideas. But now, who cares? Just say it and make people feel good. After all, when it comes to voting, marginal improvements in your everyday life count for nothing compared with the promise of a unicorn over the horizon.

Will the voters ever tire of being promised the moon on a stick, and demand a real life stick they can actually touch, instead? I’ve no idea. I hope so. My daughter can dream of recycling systems in the wall. But I’d rather a simple system that works and leave utopia where it belongs: in the land of fiction.

Polly Mackenzie is Director of Demos, a leading cross-party think tank. She served as Director of Policy to the Deputy Prime Minister from 2010-2015.


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