We expect our politicians to make the right decision every time. We expect them to be exemplary role models in every aspect of their private and professional lives. If we want to have a better politics in this country, we need to accept that all our politicians – whatever their party or ideological background – are human, and that sometimes humans make mistakes.
There is a significant cognitive dissonance surrounding ‘U-turns’ in politics. We see a policy we dislike, we make a big clamour about how much we dislike it, the government changes its mind on the policy, and we are outraged that the U-turn has happened. Either we didn’t dislike the original policy, we made too much of a clamour, we spoke too soon and so when the government changed its mind we realised we liked the original plans, or alternatively we like using U-turns as a stick to beat politicians with.
One of the main arguments against U-turns seems to be: ‘but they should get the policy right in the first place’. Certainly there is a case to be made for that argument, but as previously mentioned, our politicians are human, however much we try to convince ourselves they aren’t. If a politician gets something wrong, or underestimates how unpopular something will be, then the right thing to do is to admit that and U-turn. By our constant outcry every time a bad idea gets canned, you’d think we’d prefer to suffer and say, ‘I told you so,’ than have effective policy-making.
This argument also undermines one of the basic principles of politics: the idea that decisions should be made through a public and/or parliamentary debate about an issue. The whole reason we have a debate and elections, rather than just allowing faceless administrators to govern in some benevolent dictatorship, is that we want bad decisions to be overturned and mediocre decisions to be turned into good ones. If we start out with the attitude: ‘we want debate and parliament to listen to our voices, but we don’t want them to actually change their minds’, then one has to ask what the point of the debate actually is?
Politicians may well be expected to get a decision right first time, every time, but when they don’t we should respect them far more for U-turning in the face of public pressure than for carrying on regardless and inflicting poor policy upon us. A strong leader will get every decision right, a stronger one will be willing to compromise when they get things wrong.
Pragmatic policy-making, with consultation and debate, is the desired political process. It ensures that we get the best decisions, and that where decisions go against what we desire we can influence our legislators to implement better policy. Accountability requires responsiveness, if we want an accountable government, we need to stop criticising politicians for being responsive.
When a politician is strong enough to admit that they were wrong about something and change their mind, that is far more worthy of respect than any posturing show of strength in the face of criticism. We put an extraordinary amount of pressure on our politicians and expect them to be everything to everyone. In a culture of criticising everything they do, let’s be clear: if we don’t like a policy they propose, and they have the guts to U-turn on it, then we should be applauding that decision, not implying that it makes them weak.
For a truly responsive, inclusive and working democracy, we should tell our politicians: ‘U-turn if you want to’.