Sunday 25 July 2010

Toward a Sociology of Elite Policy Formation

One thing you'd be hard pressed to find in social science literature is the sociology of policy formation. There's plenty of material on power and the state, but there's no direct observation of political or business elites and how they make decisions. Thursday's talk at Keele's environmental politics summer school by Mike Jacobs, Gordon Brown's former special advisor on the environment, goes a little way toward plugging that gap.

His talk, titled 'The Political Economy of Government Policy Making: The View from the Inside' was a fascinating glimpse into how government operates outside the public view, and demonstrated the extent to which how incomplete present theorising about policy formation is. Traditional views in social and political theory on the state either positions it as an appendage of capital (Marxism) or the expression of successful interest groups (liberalism). Where the state is granted a certain level of autonomy against the rest of the society (however that is conceptualised), agency is usually attributed to institutions competing within the overall structure. This leaves a significant silence over the agency of the politicians: do they have no influence over the state at all? Going from his own experience, Mike said he and his colleagues certainly felt pressure but their will didn't feel anything other than free.

Using Labour's environmental/climate change policy shift from 2005 on, Mike constructs the beginnings of a model that can help explain governmental action while escaping the incomplete picture painted by existing approaches.

Before 2005-6, he claimed Labour's battery of green policies were anaemic. But then there was a discernible shift. Whatever criticisms can be made of the measures the government adopted it marked a change in how seriously it took the issue.

This new package included the 2008 Climate Change Act, which was the first piece of legislation of the sort in the world. It set a target of 80% carbon emissions reduction by 2050. As a means of achieving this, it set into motion a five-yearly system of carbon budgets. The first, which was formulated in April 2009 set a 34% emissions reduction target on 2008 figures by 2020. The target is enforced by law and requires government takes the lead. For example, each department has its own budget.

Other policies Labour initiated were an ambitious nine-fold increase in the generating capacity of renewables, accounting for 18% of total energy generation by 2020; a ban on new coal-fired power stations without carbon capture and storage (there are subsidies available - but this is far from an
unproblematic technology); subsidised cavity wall and loft insulation for the poor (with energy companies picking up the tab); an effort to commericalise electric cars; a low carbon industrial strategy; reform of the energy supply market; and the creation of a national green investment bank. The good news from a green point of view is the coalition government are committed to these policies too.

The big problem storing up political trouble for the future, and therefore any widespread (tacit) support is the market reform. Paying for this strategy doesn't come cheap and it could see energy prices rise by about 20% by 2015 - just in time for the scheduled election!

So how and why did Labour break with what went before, especially as the normal operation of government is characterised by what Mike called 'cautious incrementalism'? This requires an understanding of the government's psychological frame of action. Its chief characteristic, he argued, is the studied avoidance of punishment. Punishment is defined by the point at which criticism reaches a nodal point and becomes damaging, resulting in a loss of support. The 10p tax fiasco of a couple of years back is one such example. Governments do expect an everyday barrage of criticism but as long as it doesn't latch onto an issue and persistently push it damage is avoided. Mike suggests therefore that governments seek out a 'normal operating sphere' not of reward, but of non-punishment. Hence governments' preference for operating cautiously. Hence governments' tendency to compromise on policies it wishes to introduce.

This psychological sphere of non-punishment is constrained/enabled by three sectors. The first is public, or, more properly, media opinion. While rejecting hypodermic models of media consumption, nevertheless the public at large pay little attention to policy debates and everyday government business. What information they do possess comes from (and, therefore, is framed by) the media. Hence politicians' pandering to the press pack and treatment of it as if they accurately reflect public thinking. The second is the ever-present shadow cast by business. Not only is it felt via the media, business often makes direct representations to government. And third, there is the circumscribed but real sphere of politicians' agency. So how did this complex of factors convert Labour to a more radical green policy agenda?

In the public/media opinion factor, there were four developments. First, the accumulation of scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change filtered through the liberal media and, crucially, the BBC. This built upon a public awareness already softened up by years of activity by the Green Party and environmentalist NGOs. Second, the NGOs presented a green policy agenda with concrete sets of proposals government could easily adapt. Third, as part of Cameron's campaign to detoxify the Tory brand in the wake of the 2005 defeat, he accepted the climate change agenda wholesale. Suddenly the Tories were taking NGOs seriously. This in turn created a pressure for the government to out-green the Tories, leading to a collapse of opposition to tackling climate change in mainstream politics. And lastly, by 2010 there was a significant constituency of voters who took green politics seriously. Downing Street strategists estimated there were 25-30 seats where this would make a crucial difference.

For business, a sufficient segment of capital has developed green commercial interests. The low carbon economy, the need to replace a third of Britain's energy generation capacity by 2020, and carbon trading all offer new market opportunities. The conversion of the CBI to green capitalism didn't hurt either. Second the famous
Stern Report (commissioned by Mike at the government's behest) used the kind of economic language easily digestible by business. To illustrate, while business is largely blind to quality of life arguments and perspectives that argue the inherent value of biodiversity, it has o problem understanding that spending one per cent of GDP now will save an estimated 5-20% of GDP dealing with the effects of climate change later on.

Lastly, in the realm of political will, first there was a political pressure from other EU member states. The adoption of emissions targets across the bloc followed the lead of the EU's four big powers. As a result of its activism around the issue, Britain played a leading role in this thereby further locking in green policy at home. Second a new generation of politicians behind the green agenda were acquiring ministerial portfolios. Particularly key were the actions in office of the Miliband brothers. They were able to drive policy because the above constellation of forces favoured an abandonment of business-as-usual cautious incrementalism.

From this Mike drew number of conclusions. Given the present day balance of forces, a business case was absolutely crucial to securing a shifting of policy gears. Second, state activism was equally important. Capital is far from being intrinsically green and therefore requires incentives and compulsions with the force of law to behave in the desired fashion. Thirdly, public/media opinion has been partly driven by government action. Fourthly, the discourse employed by all key actors was (comparatively) easy for a lay audience to understand and was sufficiently convincing enough to marginalise the various species of climate change denialism. Fifth, these coalesced together to create even more room for government, i.e. it was able to widen the sphere of non-punishment by simultaneously tilting to the
zeitgeist *and* pushing the envelope.

As well as providing a fascinating account of Labour's environmentalism, it opens the way for a sophisticated theorisation of government action. Not just because it's jolly well interesting from a sociological point of view, but also it's
useful to know for anyone committed to progressive social change. The framework offered here can assist socialists and others in how we formulate strategy, particularly where struggles involve placing demands on the state. As the above political economy of state psychology demonstrates, absolutely key is to making sure government action happens (or doesn't happen) is to impinge on its perceived sphere of non-punishment.


Boffy said...


Very interesting topic. I think the problem with the standard Marxist analysis is that it conflates, or at least confuses the State with Government. You can see it in Lenin who never really understood western parliamentary democracy, and at times comes close to describing it as some kind of organised conspiracy. Not surprising given the experience in Russia.

I have suggested previously that its necessary to think in terms of three sources of power. A social/economic power; State power; and Governmental Power. Of these the first is primary. But, there is no mechanical relation. Take Britain. The state became a Capitalist State at the end of the 17th Century, and that was due to the fact that a growing bourgeoisie had won over decisive sections of society to its ideas. Those ideas dominated the Universities etc. where the State functionaries were trained and socialised.

But, the bourgeoisie did not exercise Governmental power. In fact, they didn't achieve that properly until the end of the 19th century, prior to which parliament was dominated by the Landlords and aristos. It didn't matter because the State still operated to protect Capital.

I think its necessary to see each sphere having a certain autonomy, and its necessary to understand concretely in each instance how they interact. Obviously, I continue to see the State power as decisive. Its possible to be economically and socially dominant, and yet not have control of the State. That may be the case in respect of the bourgeoisie in China and Russia at the moment.

Were workers socially dominant in Chile under Allende? They didn't own or control the means of production, which is a good guage, but social power can come from numbers properly and consciously organised. Either way the translation of that into Governmental power, did not outweigh the fact that the bouregoisie continued to control the State.

I think its an area that requires a lot more analysis.

Next Left said...

Interesting. I think it was Roosevelt who once said to a delegation of union and community leaders, "I agree with everything you want. Now go out and force me to do it".

Unknown said...

What is so interesting about insider accounts is the small details - though it would appear that Jacobs is keen to provide a social science perspective, I am immediately attracted to a subjective aspect of this story which might have tipped the balance: that the Milibands served as environment/energy ministers and will perhaps have been more familiar traditional analyses of power structures and social change.

Phil said...

Excellent points well made, Boffy. As we discussed the other day there's too much mechanical and fantastic thinking on the far left, so it's small wonder we find the most clunky and determinist ideas knocking about the 57 varieties.

James, there's a good chance I'll meet Ed Miliband tomorrow - apart from a particular question I have for him I will try and see to what extent he accepts or sees himself influence by his dad's work.