As I have argued previously, in order to tackle the major issues we face, issues like the climate and ecological crisis, we need both an increase in ‘top down’ decision making and an increase in political leadership. As important as all those actions we take on an individual basis are in reducing our carbon footprint, for example, they are insignificant in comparison to what is needed and will be far too slow to deliver. But there is a problem with this. As I have also argued, I do not believe that definitive answers or solutions to the problems we face exist. How then should politicians and political leaders make those important decisions? If we become sceptical of anyone who claims to have all the answers who should we give our political allegiance to?
The most important first move in resolving this problem is the rejection of our outdated ‘first past the post’ method of electing our political representatives. We need to encourage not only a variety of views, but as many views as possible round the political table. Moreover, the voting public needs to be able to vote for politicians who closely represent their perspective of the problems we face, perspectives that need to be represented around the decision making table in roughly the proportion that they are held by the electorate. At the national level, and increasingly at the local level (certainly on Dorset Council) most important decisions are made at the cabinet level by a small group of politicians of the majority political party. This ensures that minority views are neither argued nor taken into account. This is not only undemocratic, it produces poor, and very blinkered, decisions. It prevents creative discussion and problem solving. Political decisions need to be made by a committee of elected politicians selected to represent all, or as near to all as possible, perspectives. To achieve this we need to adopt, as a matter of urgency, some form of proportional representation (PR).
But adopting PR is only the start of the changes we need to make to our decision making process. We also need to reflect on how politicians make decisions. Politicians round the table need to first of all accept that no matter how strongly they hold the opinion they do it is just not possible for that view to be the definitive position on the issue. No one person can have an all-round perspective. They can only see things from where they are. This means two things. First, that they need to attempt to see the issue from other perspectives. These other perspectives will include not only those others round the table, but most importantly those of the experts, particularly scientists. Second, that most decisions will need to be negotiated. They will involve a compromise. I would like to think that with the right frame of mind, and with the exposure to a wider range of viewpoints, politicians will slowly develop a much more comprehensive set of decision making skills.
But making the decision is only the starting point. Next, that decision needs explaining to the public. And as that decision may not, initially at least, always be popular with the electorate it may well need ‘selling’. This will require strong political leadership. Our political leaders need to not only listen to public opinion, but they need to be able to shape public opinion. They need to shrug off the allure of popularism, particularly when all the evidence suggests actions which will be far from popular. They need to explain this evidence to a naturally sceptical public. They need to be able to explain how they made their decisions in such a way that most people will give them the ‘benefit of the doubt’. These leadership skills are sadly lacking at the moment.
However, this leadership process will be made significantly easier if politicians also make it clear that all decisions will be reviewed in the light of evidence about their effectiveness.
We need to discard our belief that it is a mark of weak leadership to change our mind. Because there is no definitively right or correct decision, there is also to definitively wrong decision. If our decisions do not produce the effects we wanted it doesn’t mean that we ‘got it wrong’. It simply means that, at the time, the best decision was made, but that evidence now suggests that a different decision is needed. Political leadership, therefore, will involve an openness to the review of decisions made.