Corbyn’s “simple questions” do not justice to complex world

This day last week Jeremy Corbyn had his best performance at Prime Minister’s Questions, demanding six times whether “Karen”, the real person who had been in correspondence with him and whom he used as an example, would be “worse off” under the tax credits changes. The Prime Minister squirmed.

“All I want is a simple answer to a simple question”, said the Leader of the Opposition.

However, that is the very problem with Mr Corbyn. Because, in fact, it is not a simple question at all.

Simple

There is an alarming tendency among politicians, especially as they become ever more populist among electorates increasingly unwilling to compromise, to present “simple questions” and, most of all, to present the world as if it is controlled by politicians. To some extent, it is a comforting thought – we prefer the thought that we live in a world controlled by someone rather than the chaotic reality (as I have explained before).

Thus, Mr Corbyn presents a world in which politicians change things and everything else remains the same – there are no other, independent, actors. As ever, unfortunately, Mr Corbyn’s world is not even reminiscent of the real one in which people do strive, people do aspire, and people do adapt to political decisions.

The image above sums up the issue, usually presented with regard to management of the Health Service. Too often, Health policy is presented as something which politicians and administrators create to manage patients, who have no independent thoughts of their own and will always respond in the same predictable way to any intervention. In rare cases, this is true – someone admitted to hospital with a sudden, serious injury, for example, is in no position to act independently and their care is therefore 100% in the hands of the hospital (at least initially, until family and friends arrive). Just as with learning to throw a stone at a target, practise for long enough and you will perfect this.

However, most cases are not like that. Diagnose a patient with diabetes, for example, and in fact most of that patient’s care is in their own hands. You can advise on diet, medication and other responses, and you can even cajole, but in the end the patient will decide. That is the equivalent of trying to direct a bird, rather than a stone, at a target – you can learn to set it off in the right direction, but in the end it will decide where it goes. Most public policy is, in fact, like that.

This can lead to dramatically different outcomes from those expected, even with vast amounts of public money in play. In the late 1980s, for example, the UK Government wanted to link the new M25 London Orbital Motorway to the Channel Ports, most obviously at Dover. It had two options – upgrade the existing main road, the A2 (which, unbelievably, was still single carriageway on some stretches); or build an entirely new motorway either side of the Medway, the M20. Expert studies showed that, although it was the far more expensive option, the M20 would attract 80% of traffic between the M25 and the Channel Ports if constructed. So the M20 was constructed and London (indeed Cardiff, Liverpool and soon even Glasgow and Newcastle) were finally linked to the Continent by motorway – but for the first decade of its existence, barely 50% of the M25-Channel Ports traffic opted to use it. The Government intervened, gave people the better road, yet still half the people ignored it. There is just no accounting for this.

So, what about “Karen”? The reason the Prime Minister was squirming was of course that, all things being equal, “Karen” will be considerably worse off, at least over the rest of this decade. But he was also squirming because he knows all things are not equal. “Karen” may or may not have time to find a better job and raise her income; she may or may not have time to take on an extra part-time job (say, running a class once a week for £50/evening or helping out with the local cruise firm bringing passengers to or from her local city centre for £100/day); she may redouble her efforts at getting the money she is due from her child’s father; she may even look more closely at her entitlements and realise she’s not receiving all the allowances to which she is entitled. Any of these, far from leaving her £1100 worse off, could see her at least that much or more better off – albeit with the time sacrifice involved; or they may not see her break about even, because she has to even up the gain by paying for childcare or losing an allowance if she works more hours or is allocated more money from whatever source; or they may simply be practically impossible because her circumstances genuinely don’t allow any flexibility and she is already receiving all she is due. We just don’t know. Why do we not know? Because it’s not that simple!

Politicians can act; but so can the public in response. Always beware anyone in the business of government demanding a “simple answer to a simple question” – because it’s a complex world out there.

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