What do school lunches, social care plans, students’ fees, winter fuel payments, pension pots, energy prices, grammar schools and british foxes all have in common? These are all subjects of the recent string of government U-turns which have been piling up since the calling of the snap 2017 general election. But what do they tell us about the UK’s contemporary political climate? Are these recent U-turns genuine attempts by the government to act in the good of the country or are they self-interested moves in response to poorly planned policy?
Policy backtracks are no new phenomena: U-turns, or US style ‘flip-flops’ can play a legitimate and vital role in maintaining democracy. Being able to abandon a bad policy when needed is an essential option for any well functioning government. But Theresa May’s government has resorted to a total of 10 U-turns since the calling of the general election, including the snap election itself. Most notably, May’s backtracking on social care plans laid out in the manifesto within days of its launch was described as ‘unprecedented’. Thus, it seems apt to question whether this level of ‘U-turnery’ is part of healthy democracy or emblematic of a government struggling to formulate good policy and communicate its reasoning to the public.
U-turns always carry a risk of bringing about negative consequences for democracy. Voters are not always keen on politicians who do not stick to their word, especially when it comes to flagship manifesto pledges. Demos research into youth disengagement (1) found that believing politicians will not deliver on pledges is a key reason for not voting, with young focus group participants citing the Liberal Democrats’ unforgettable U-turn on tuition fees as the reason for their distrust . Speedy U-turns also signify bad policies; rushed and ill-thought out and lacking rigorous scrutiny before they are presented to the general public. But would we rather the government revert back to the days of Ms Thatcher, and declare they are, like the lady, not for turning? Is a government which stands by its policies and principles, no matter the level of popular criticism, inherently more favourable?
Holding onto unpopular and unsuccessful policies for the sake of remaining ideologically pure or loyal to some distinct voter base may not, ultimately, be in the best interest of the public. A policy U-turn will always put the political system at risk of losing an element of trust; voters and commentators will surely argue the government has little mandate to change its mind on a policy the people voted for. However, not all U-turns fall from the same tree. What is missing from the media commentary on recent government U-turns is an acknowledgment of what specifically they are in reaction to. If a politician is reacting to a drastically changing domestic and/or international situation or to clear evidence of policy failure, then even a drastic change of policy direction may be more than in the interest of the public. A government which is unafraid to call a bad or inappropriate policy out when needed, could be adhering more closely to the principles of fair democracy than one which sticks to its guns for fear of being branded as weak or unsure. Being able to respond flexibly to scrutiny or a changing context includes having the freedom to reverse and heavily revise even the most party defining of policies.
Of course the official opposition and the media will stir-up some public criticism of any government which changes its mind, but an opinion poll by ICM (2) regarding May’s decision to hold a snap general election suggests the public are willing to accept a prime ministerial change of heart when it is in reaction to a changing context. With 54% of those asked agreeing that May had made the right decision to change her mind about calling a general election given that the situation (i.e. Brexit negotiations) had changed. Furthermore, if we cast our minds back to the days of the coalition government, we will remember how David Cameron was branded as reigning over a ‘golden age of U-turns’(3), yet opinion polls at the time (4) suggested the public were onboard with the government altering its proposed NHS reforms and that people were evenly split on whether U-turns showed that the government was weak or willing to listen to people.
A U-turn triggered by an independent review which finds evidence of a policy failing to meet government aims is a world of difference away from one in retaliation to reactionary media shaming which gives rise to some unpopularity among target voters. The former suggests the government is prepared to make itself unpopular for the sake of bettering public services, the latter suggests the already unpopular government is willing to cut its losses and abandon key policies at the first sight of trouble, often because they have failed to communicate the proposed benefits of the policy effectively to the public. Arguably this second, highly political kind of U-turn is what we have seen take place in recent months. The current government runs the risk of damaging their credibility as genuinely well intentioned policy-makers if they continue their recent track-record of u-turning policy ideas for fear of losing favour.