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The Power Report

by Zettel 

Posted: 21 March 2006
Word Count: 1898
Summary: I contributed in a small way to this independent enquiry into the state of Britain's democracy and wrote this after attending the launch. A follow-up conference is planned for May.

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The Power report is a disappointment. Funded by the Rowntree Trust the report is the result of 2 years widespread consultation with a broad cross-section of the British people all over the country. Unfortunately the Commissioners have produced a preamble to a debate not an agenda for action.

In trying to treat George Best over the years, doctors first implanted something that would make his body reject alcohol. When this failed he had a liver transplant. But his continued drinking killed him. The point here is that the nature of the solution to a problem is often different from the nature of the problem. The deeper the problem, the more likely this will be true. A fallacy at heart of the Power report is that a political problem must require a political solution. If there was ever a solution to Best’s problem in was in his head, his mind, not in the medical structures and procedures through which a solution was sought.

The Power report is also littered with vague, woolly recommendations I learned as an Audit Manager, must be rigorously avoided if any effective action was to be taken. Eg.

23. All public bodies should be required to meet a duty of public involvement in their decision and policy-making processes.

Even if I really knew what this meant or to whom it refers, I would have no idea what would count as it being implemented. And with a Prime Minister who could oppose the motion that 2 + 2 = 4 and render the outcome of the debate uncertain, this kind of civil-service-ese waffle will just be ignored. Or, God help us, implemented at great cost and to no worthwhile purpose.

On the Best analogy the fundamental problem lies in people’s heads. Their thoughts and attitudes, not the political structures around them. The report notes, with Churchill, that democratic structures and processes are irreducibly imperfect. People can accept that. But I am certain that the British people at the moment would elect a one-legged Orangutang if they were guaranteed that they could give it some money and get back an effective service or amenity they wanted.

The century of ideology has gone. The people want delivery – of healthcare, clean efficient trains, honourable policemen, and good education for all, not socially stratified training for a job. They have discovered by bitter experience over many years that ideologies don’t deliver. And one strain of their deep disillusionment and cynicism that the report correctly identifies, derives from their proven judgement that neither politicians nor politics can deliver what they need.

They want better outputs, outcomes – delivery: not improved inputs – more debate, involvement etc. And while, in the absence of anything else, some will buy into the mythical effectiveness of business concepts like ‘choice’, ‘targets’, and the ‘customer’ culture – most of us miss being patients, students, parents etc. Why should we want to be customers? Every day we experience the apparatus of what has been called ‘blood-pressure’ marketing – answer-phone systems, one-way internet communication and the sheer impossibility of talking to a human being with a shred of knowledge or authority who might address our problem. The individual customer is dead. Governments who nail their colours to the last business fashion but one just weren’t at the funeral. British people see the downside of a totally capitalist culture in the USA and it horrified them even before the salutary confirmations of Enron and New Orleans.

In her speech at the launch Baroness Helena Kennedy spoke of the dangers of politicians not listening to the message in the report but did not say what she meant. For me it’s about one-legged Orangutangs – or to get real, the British National Party, the IRA, Islamic fundamentalist groups or even the Kray twins. Not caring who is in charge as long as you get protection, effective delivery of what you need and freedom from what you don’t like or understand, is profoundly dangerous. Mussolini’s trains.

In terms of their primary concern – delivery, people no longer believe democracy works. And all the worthy, desirable recommendations of the report are secondary to effective delivery of good public services etc. Not a single recommendation made will directly help achieve that objective. People won’t be content with lousy services just because they have had more say in setting them up. And they will admit they don’t actually know how to make a discriminating judgement between hospitals, surgeons, transport systems etc. They will either laugh or groan at the recommended solution to the problem of giving Local Government more money given their day-to-day experience of how badly existing money is spent. The phenomenon of scepticism about the effectiveness of local government is at least as old as I am. Look at decades of voting turnouts.

Politics cannot improve things for people: it can only create the conditions under which they can improve them for themselves. They don’t need consultation and involvement in debate – they need leadership and the empowerment of action.

You can have management and control without trust – but not leadership. The credibility of the whole report is undermined by claiming that people’s cynicism and disillusionment is NOT (their capitals) the perceived (my addition) “low calibre and probity of politicians.” They call this a red herring. Some herring. Do the commissioners ever watch Question Time to take just one good example? Week in, week out, month in month out, the audience spontaneously applauds any speaker who talks of lying, deception and self-interest on the part of politicians.

Britain does not divide between those who think Mr Blair lied to them about Iraq and those who don’t. It divides between those who are prepared to put up with it and those who are not. The evidence for that is extensive and ongoing. And the second group will not easily forgive the majority of politicians who were also deceived, from deciding to join the first group.

Two fallacies of the report’s representation of the data gathered from the people:

1. That the solution to a political problem must be a political one.
2. That people’s primary concern is inputs, more debate, involvement in decision making, being talked to – not outcomes and trustworthy leadership that empowers them to act for themselves.

And: the glaring falsehood in the report – that the people’s disillusionment and lack of trust is not centred on being lied to by their own Prime Minister about the most important issue a country can face – going to war. Plus the fact that for almost 20 years, a series of found out politicians have regarded proof that they have not done anything illegal as a sufficient defence of their behaviour. We want men and women of honour and probity – we sort of took it for granted we hadn’t elected crooks.

So to the lacuna in the report. Eleven pages of Executive summary and a mere 7 woolly and anodyne lines on the media. And the sections elaborating these points again concentrate on structures not outcomes. Plurality of press ownership is of course an important matter, but there is a more critical issue at the heart of the malaise in our democracy. It is a philosophical problem of some subtlety and depth. And no solutions can be effective without addressing it: this is the progressive corruption, decline and misuse of language itself in our public and political debate. Venal or demagogic politicians are nothing new. The recently released film Good Night and Good Luck is a fascinating illustration of then (1950’s) and now. Ed Murrow was able to help bring down McCarthy by respect for the truth, establishing facts and with probity and some courage, adducing them in effective argument to prove the man’s campaign was founded on lies and deception. In our current political climate truth has been replaced by semantics, and fact by plausibility and deniability. Murrow only had to prove what McCarthy did – not what he intended. Today when things go wrong, we are asked to judge a politician not by what he said but by what he can argue he meant. And Mr Blair has made us good enough lawyers to know there is no definitive proof of an intention. That’s why we have our legal process and juries. The jury of British public opinion lives with the paradox that they have judged some politicians guilty, but unlike real people, no one pays. Everyone is responsible so no one is to blame.

This has become a macabre dance between the media and politicians. Media trained and savvy MP’s take on belligerent interrogators in a gladiatorial combat the only victim of which is the importance of the issue and the truth about it. This is about the need for a rediscovered sense of professionalism in both politicians and journalists. And plurality of ownership is a side-show by comparison.

How can the Power report have virtually ignored this central issue? How can its findings and recommendations be so superficial and ill-informed? Recommendation 26: “Public Service broadcasters must develop strategies to involve viewers in deliberation on matters of public importance.” Has whoever wrote this ever visited bbc.co.uk or attended a BBC governor’s meeting, or even watched any of its output? A world respected organisation, critical to our democratic structure, with perhaps the best web site in the world, is already doing what this recommendation requires. But it has been engaged in a battle for at least 5 years for its continued independence and right, indeed duty, to hold government to account before the British people. And it is losing - as an obsequious apology for a vital and absolutely justifiable piece of journalism amply demonstrates. The anxiety and fear generated by that experience has created a formal editorial policy which even Ed Murrow in simpler times, and every current senior journalist at the BBC knows is nonsense – that the BBC must be 100% right to broadcast. This is a certain recipe for safe, bland, conformist superficiality. How important is this? In a coup, the first target isn’t control of the government it is control of the media.

The BBC is fighting with politicians for its independence of funding and editorial policy. And for a last ditch effort to sustain the democratically vital concept of broadcasting rather than an exclusively profit-motivated narrowcasting.

This is where the most important battle for democracy is being waged. I have argued above that the fundamental issue in redressing public cynicism, disillusionment and distrust of politics and politicians lies like George Best’s alcoholism, in the head, the emotions; in ideas and beliefs and not in the structures political or otherwise around them. If I am right then the absence of any meaningful recognition in the Power report of the importance of issues concerning the funding and continued independence of the BBC renders it culpably deficient. Not only in its analysis of the problems, but also in offering any remote chance of their effective resolution.

The commissioners must develop a winning strategy and effective action plan. They must not be content with a nice protracted debate with the same degree of effective change as was achieved by Roy Jenkins’ report on Proportional Representation. In the end I fear this an establishment report, finding establishment solutions based upon a false representation of the view of the British people. The commissioners listened but did not hear.

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Comments by other Members

Cornelia at 10:37 on 22 March 2006  Report this post
Oh dear, Zettel. I haven't read the report, but you are becoming as cynical as I am about politics. Revolution, anyone?


Zettel at 22:21 on 22 March 2006  Report this post
Not really Sheila - I am arguing against cynicism - too easy.

Thanks for reading - not exactly racy.


Cornelia at 08:27 on 23 March 2006  Report this post
Zettel, I obviously need to read your piece more carefully to comment properly, and to understand the real meaning.

We have crossed swords on the question of cynicism before, but I would like to say I did not vote for Blair because I was cynical about a man with a public school background becoming leader of the Labour Party. It doesn't make any sense at all, except in a country where fore-lock tugging seems to be ingrained in the national character. I didn't like his feigned sincerity or his rich cronies, but mainly I didn't like his background. Arrogance it goes without saying is the badge of his tribe. They don't teach self-doubt at those places. Was I right? This from a Labour voter since I was first admitted to a polling both, circa 1960.What I can't fathom is how people were so stupid (or naive) as to be fooled, except for the reason given above.

I just heard on the radio(from Lord Bragg, of course) that the motto chosen at the founding of the Royal Society was 'Trust No Man's Word'. No doubt you'd have it rephrased : 'Hitch Your Waggon to a Star'.


Zettel at 14:38 on 23 March 2006  Report this post

You were indeed perceptive about Blair. Some pretty serious minded people voted for him once. As I did. In retrospect, as you indicate, a definition of naivete. I do think, as with Bush, voting for either more than once is pretty much a definition of stupidity.

As for your last sentence. I clearly need to be a better writer for it seems having read much of my stuff, you haven't understood a word of it. However I doubt very much whether that will have harmed your life to any significant degree.

The motto by the way is a very bad motto. It was chosen apparently by the greatest scientist ever. Who it seems was not above sulking for 30 years when peers had the timerity to dissent from his God-given pronouncements and who by many accounts gave scant recognition of the work of other men that helped to prompt his own thought. Just proves I guess that genius does not entail humanity or humility - a hard-won lesson for western culture. And we're still learning it.


Beadle at 05:47 on 24 March 2006  Report this post

I do not know what the Power Report is and I think this piece was a missed opportunity to explain to a wider audience what it is and therefore why you found it such a disappointment.

You raise some extremely important issues, pose interesting arguments and have some great theories, but I felt that I was being bombarded from all angles with different threads and themes.

I think this would probably be addressed by a tighter structure, again focussing on the what, why, where and when of the Power Report.

How was the report set up, what did it set out to do, what findings did it provide and therefore why did you feel it was such a failure.

I also understand where you are coming from with the George Best analogy, but I found that to be a bit hokey to be honest. And the shift at the end to the BBC issue, media Vs government, confused me.

I’m not sure if you are planning to place this anywhere, but I think it would help to have a publication or an audience in mind when writing something that is obviously very complex and close to your heart. The discipline of writing for a readership and understanding their needs would, I believe, help pull it all together.

At the moment it reads as an opinion piece, which I think is fine, but I would like to see more examples of how and why you think the report’s authors have failed.

I have to admit to also being a political innocent, and for this reason I almost felt that I wasn’t qualified to comment on your article. But then, I reasoned, I am probably one of the many ‘ordinary’ people the report’s authors spoke to and would benefit from a better understanding of what the system – politicians/politics – perceives to be the public’s view of politics.

For example, you say “Politics cannot improve things for people: it can only create the conditions under which they can improve them for themselves. They don’t need consultation and involvement in debate – they need leadership and the empowerment of action.”

I agree and disagree with this statement in equal measure. I want politicians to be able to sort things out for me, but I also want involvement in the debate.

I also wonder whether this contradicts your earlier statement: “Not caring who is in charge as long as you get protection, effective delivery of what you need and freedom from what you don’t like or understand, is profoundly dangerous. Mussolini’s trains.”

I would agree that on the face of it, many people just don’t give a toss – hence low voter turnout. But when moved, because they are fed-up with Tory sleaze or because their hospitals and schools are failing, people will become more politically active – in that they will exercise their right to vote – but just not politically engaged i.e. arguing for a specific political philosophy.

For me the main problem at the moment is that most people are not hurting enough to care about change. Yes, they don’t trust Blair, but the economy is not too bad and there are no riots in the streets, so why worry? From a point where the Tories seemed dead in the water, Cameron has certainly injected some life in to the party – but is there the issues/concerns to make people vote for him?

But Zettel, your piece really got me thinking and gave me a kick up the arse, so that in itself is a thumbs up. If your objective was to kick around these issues and get people thinking, I think it is a good start.

However, a slightly different approach would probably get people debating and engaging as well, as from what I have read here, the Power Report is something we should be interested in.


Zettel at 09:46 on 24 March 2006  Report this post

Some very apt and perceptive points. I actually cut this back considerably from the original which was a respose direct to the Power Report commissioners. I therefore have to agree with you that there is background that is assumed and that may be a problem for anyone who hasn't read the considerable press coverage last week when this was released. For a 6 volume report condensed into a 300 page book journalists did, like me concentrate on issues rather than the background to them, but I agree that I have probaly got the balance out of whack here. And it is part of the territory for journalists to respond to argument with opinion as constraints of space prevent them from detailed analysis and justification for their opinion.

Most of my writing, fiction or non-fiction I guess has the basic objective of trying to stimulate thought. So as such I am more than content with your response. Not to think the way I think but to provoke debate. Plus I accept the suggestions for improvement as on the ball. Thanks.

The conference to discuss moving the report forward is on 6th May at Queen Elizabeth II conference centre, Westminster. If you wanted to attend apply to conference@powerinquiry.org or call 0845345535



Beadle at 10:12 on 24 March 2006  Report this post
Hi Zettel

I actually live in South Africa at the moment, having moved from the Uk at the end of last year, which is a major reason why I didn't see the press coverage. Sorry, if you are writing against that background then much of what I said was probably way off!

I am between two stools at the moment, still watching the UK news via Sky and BBC World, plus BBC News website, and then South African media on TV and in print. I feel I don't have a full picture of either.

Picking up on your exchange with Sheila it struck me just how big the divide is between the politically aware and the politically 'couldn't give a toss unless it impacts on me'.

Sheila's point about not voting for Blair because he is an ex public school really resonated with me and my working class roots, but then I thought what would happen if I decided public school was the best option for my child and they grew up and decided to enter in to politics as a Labour candidate.

I'm not sure what the answer is, but I guess it is the head Vs heart thing.

Similarly as you said about voting for Blair for a second time would be considered stupid, I agree with this because Blair is obviously such a tosser (heart), but I voted a second time (don't worry, I'm not offended), because I couldn't see another choice. I would never vote tory (heart) and I couldn't see a hope with the Lib Dems (head) and I hoped that whoever was in charge, there was at least some spirit, hope and good intention in Labour as a whole (head and heart slugging it out!).

Okay I'm rambling. I wonder if maybe the big question here is how do we, the people, become more involved in the political system and make our politicians more accountable to us. Then, if we know that we have power, and they know we have power, then perhaps they will do better by us and not lie and shite on us.

But seemingly just voting for them is not power enough.

There's a whole bunch of other stuff I'd like to input into this about the current situation here in SA about politics, but I had better save that for another time and another article.

Good read though Zettel



Cornelia at 10:52 on 24 March 2006  Report this post
It would be great if people took an objective justice-and-fairness-for- all point of view that could rise above class issues, but it doesn't happen. When I said public school I was thinking of the whole package - they move in a world of assumptions that are entirely different from mine, and which colours their whole moral outlook. Why were the papers bleating on about the 'embarrassment' Blair would feel if his education bill relied on Tory votes. Embarrassment ? He doesn't give a toss -and I don't even think it's all part of a conspiracy with business interests to start running schools. It doesn't occur to Blair to think there's anything wrong with that because it's where he comes from -education run as a business to perpetuate the power of the wealthy. Who was it said Eton was good at getting thickos into Oxford? Some journo quoted this yesterday and said it was perfectly alright to keep the public schools so long as they don't harm the fabric of society.What is it about the press? Of course it harms the fabric of society to have unrepresentative people in charge, especially if they are as shortsighted and opportunistic as Blair and his cohorts. I won't even start on the House of Lords or I'll be here all day. However, that wasn't my main point.

About 5% of people currently attend public schools. Given that people are people not incarnations of impartiality, my point is that politicians should reperesent the people, not just perform as a second-tier monarchy.

Beadle, by coincidence I saw the newly-released film, 'Totsi' yesterday, an updating of an Athol Fugard novel set in Soweto. It's a reminder of another privileged minority that made decisions which perpetuated poverty for the majority. As with Blair and his cronies, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. I begin to think politicians, especially Labour ones, should be means-tested.


Beadle at 14:10 on 24 March 2006  Report this post
Yes Tsotsi is big news over here after winning an Oscar. They are heralding it as a new wave of SA film, but I keep on thinking of Colin Welland after Chariots of Fire yelling "The British are Coming".

I have not seen the film but will do soon, and to be honest I don't think that many SA'ers have.

But with regards SA politics, it seems completely designed to encourage a jaundiced view amongst people. Considering how the ANC were seen as freedom fighters and were swept to power on the votes of the people they had freed, they have done a piss-poor job. So much corruption, poor management and spin (not even good spin).

The racial voting division here are similar to the class votings divisions in the UK 50 years ago - only the politicians are failing on every count. And the opposition doesn't seem much better - all arguing about who gets to cut the cake rather than working together to deliver service.

I think we all seem to be on the same page in our duiferent ways? Revolution you say? Hmm, maybe. When Pop Idol has finished.

Zettel at 20:08 on 25 March 2006  Report this post
Hey you two - interesting discussion.Curiously, with some difference of emphasis, we pretty much agree on the analysis of the problem. There seem to be three levels here:

Sheila, totally justified by the facts seems to say, a plague on all their houses, they've rigged the game in favour of the establisment and it doesn't matter how hard we try that's the way things are.

Beadle you seem to feel that you'd like to be more involved but you're not quite sure how and fairly sceptical about the likelihood of success.

I'm with both of you. As you put it Beadle, heart and mind. Often in conflict. It is easier to see what needs doing than how to make it happen.

1. We grow up and shed the monarchy.
2. Electoral reform that gives more weight to everyone's vote.
3. A fully elected second chamber senate with about 80% elected by regional criteria and 20% by national refendum - to allow the people as a whole to (s)elect prominent people who might get things done. Senator (Jamie) Oliver would get my vote.
4. Genuinely independent bodies to rigorously maintain standards in public life.
5. A Freedom of Information Act with teeth and no wholesale shredding of embarrassing information before enactment as happened with the presdent weedy little bill.
6. More regular advisory referenda consultations of the people. Not mandatory but some trigger to a general election if the government act against a sufficient majority of the people often enough.
7. Fixed term parliaments so those in power can't fiddle the books and the process. Maybe even a referendum on the date of the election after 4 years. We could run it as a national lottery and make some money as well.
8. Relocate most of the central Civil Service out to the regions closer to the services they are supposed to provide.
9. Incoming ministers get to see the previous government's papers - to reduce the manipulative power of the Senior Civil service.
10. Increase the power and remit of the Audit Commission who already produce some of the most damning and influential reports on the conduct of government.
11. Create end-of-career sabatticals for all the professions, Doctors, Policemen, Teachers, etc etc. Give the best of them an opportunity to contribute their experience and knowledge to help improve the systems they have been struggling against most of their working lives. Offer the best of our professionals a reasonably rewarded, not massively salaried, chance to put something back.
12. Sell in the idea of a genuinely progressive tax system and anyone proven to have evaded significant tax withdraw their citizenship. Let the buggers go and live in their off-shore tax-havens.
13. Challenge the lie that the heads of corporations etc need a an extra million or so to be motivated to get up in the morning. When they have more money than they ever know how to spend - offer them the motivation to put something back in to the country. And if they don't fancy it, let them pay punitive tax or go and live with their mates in the tax havens.

Lucky 13. I'll stop before I bore you even more. But the one thing above all else - re-examine and limit our adversarial system of law and government which, though it may have served us well in the past, now gets in the way of both Justice and truth in our courts and honour and effectiveness in our government.

How does this happen? How do we bring it off? Well no answers but two thoughts - first if we don't use the power of democracy to do it for us then there will be plenty of manipulative bastards like Blair or tryrants of all stripes religious and political to do it for us.

Two quotes from an extraordinary work of popular fiction:

"Decisions are made by the people who turn up." And more acutely:
"Never doubt that a small group of committed, honourable people can change the world....why?....because that is the only thing that ever has."

Regards both



sabbaticals - oops

Cornelia at 10:06 on 27 March 2006  Report this post
I'd definitely go along with all of this, although I might want to add something about foreign policy with regard to alliances with agressive world powers and wasting money on wars when people can't get an education or health care or fit-to-live-in housing. Still, this should follow on logically from the reforms you mention.

One other essential - 50% women in parliament, and no bimbos, ie not chosen by female newreader or page three criteria


Zettel at 11:35 on 27 March 2006  Report this post

Agree about the international stuff. Which would include respect for and furtherance of mechanisms for international law with all of its current imperfections. And a doctrine of humantiarian intervention under the UN in all cases where innocent people, usually women and children, but also some men, are being wiped out by the tyrant of the day. I guess one of the biggest dilemmas about the attitude we should adopt to Islamic states like a Taleban-run Afghanistan or Iran or even new caliphate of Iraq is the barbaric attitude such states had, have, or would have, towards women.



Zettel at 11:35 on 27 March 2006  Report this post

Agree about the international stuff. Which would include respect for and furtherance of mechanisms for international law with all of its current imperfections. And a doctrine of humantiarian intervention under the UN in all cases where innocent people, usually women and children, but also some men, are being wiped out by the tyrant of the day. I guess one of the biggest dilemmas about the attitude we should adopt to Islamic states like a Taleban-run Afghanistan or Iran or even new caliphate of Iraq is the barbaric attitude such states had, have, or would have, towards women.



Cornelia at 11:57 on 27 March 2006  Report this post
I wouldn't agree with a west-dominated UN that could intervene in states where it didn't approve of the culture because it differed on views of 'human rights'. I lived in China and met too many young Americans who sincerely believed they could teach a 5,000 year old civilisation a thing or two to swallow that line. I must say I felt like shoppping them half the time because they were mostly sent in by organisations with neutral-sounding names and secret agendas. No, you have to leave them alone and just help out with charitable aid and open borders. The UN picks and chooses and is useless when it really counts, like abandoning Rwandans and having no backbone when over-riddeny by superpowers. Oh, and a widening definition of war crimes wouldn't be a bad thing.

There was something about The Power Report on Radio 4 this morning, but as usual all soundbite and no substance.


Beadle at 12:14 on 27 March 2006  Report this post
I'd agree that the UN is a perfect example of good in theory, not so good in practice.

I honestly can't see how we (the UK, the US, Europe, whoever) can wag our fingers at the infringement of human rights taking place in other nations whilst we sit back and let people be detained illegal by the US in Cuba, or bussed around the world on planes to be tortured.

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