So not a ‘bonfire of the quangos’…

So not a ‘bonfire of the quangos’…

But why not more elections?

I’ve just read the full transcript (courtesy of PoliticsHome) of David Cameron’s speech on quangos. He specifically says that what he is proposing is not ‘a bonfire of the quango’ but a deliberate move to limit their scope, number and budgets. Interestingly, he was prepared to single out some large and powerful organisations that will be culled or disempowered should he win power – including OFCOM, NICE, and the QCDA.

The argument is simple and will likely be very popular – there are literally thousands of people (some earning more than the PM) running hundreds of organisations that are neither accountable nor particularly effective. The power that is vested in the State but outside of the general rules of democratic accountability is troubling to many, and at £34bn a year this area deserves some serious reform.

Labour immediately hit back with a list of 17 quangos the Tories want to introduce. My first reaction was that it was a decent ‘gotcha’ moment, but the substance of what Cameron announced would allow for new quangos where they are needed: the difference being that they would be lonlier organisations, and with a markedly different character to what we have seen in the last few years. I suspect that talking about slashing quangos can only endear him to the country, but the nuance of where policy-making should lie (and how to make it more accountable) deserves some examination.

The speech is actually a very good articulation of a difficult position: that there are circumstances in which independent review and administration, free from the meddling of government, is a good thing (the Office of National Statistics is cited), but that unaccountable bodies such as OFCOM should not be making policy in ‘contested areas’: those where there is room for political debate, rather than a best path arrived at by technocratic consensus.

What I was surprised to see missing from the speech was the notion that remaining quangos should have an elected element. In America, it is not considered abnormal for there to be elections for Districy Attorney or for members of the School Board. Under a Parliamentary system, voters elect candidates on a broad policy slate, and have little or no say on certain key areas, unless there is a single-issue party challenging. I would be fascinated to see how much more reflective of the democratic will policy would have to become if quango elections became popular.

Elections for quangos would allow the democratic will to be known on issues that are never at the forefront of national debate: the smoking ban and new licensing laws, for example, would rarely sway votes for Westminster or even the local council, whereas the quango in question could see a victory for a certain libertarian wing of opinion, or for a more puritanical approach to the vices of the public house. The recent stories that viewers are unhappy with the level of swearing on the BBC are another example. On the question of whether TV should follow the prudishness of Mary Whitehouse or the gross irreverence of JackAss, the public would never be able to exercise it’s will through a party manifesto in a General Election. But by having elections to OFCOM, this area of ‘government’ policy could become much more accountable, and much more responsive to changes in the public mood.

Of course, at the heart of this, I am motivated by the understanding that were there to be elections to the quangos that survive the cull, we would have more regular elections and more political betting markets. Unless, of course, the people voted for abstemious killjoys to Gambling Commission…


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