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Commentary: Politicians in Britain and beyond suffer from a crisis of incompetence
May 5, 2017 / 7:06 AM / in 7 months

Commentary: Politicians in Britain and beyond suffer from a crisis of incompetence

When Labour member Diane Abbott told a radio interviewer that her party planned to recruit 10,000 new police officers at a cost of 300,000 pounds a year, she cast doubt on the future of Britain’s political opposition.

Britain's Opposition Labour Party Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott leaves Millbank studios in London, Britain, May 2, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

As the shadow home secretary, an office that oversees crime and punishment, among other responsibilities, she should have been more prepared. Instead, when she was pushed to explain how she’d be paying those officers, given that her figures put their individual salaries at just 30 pounds a year, Abbott melted down.

She finally found the prepared figures, and later blamed the media for reporting on her gaffe.

Should Labour prevail in Britain’s upcoming parliamentary elections, Abbott would be in line for one of the government’s most challenging offices. But by revealing her incompetence so publicly, she made her already-struggling party even less electable. And Britain will suffer without a competent opposition party.

Competence is the point. The Abbott debacle illuminated a real danger: Across the West, parties that profess far-left, far-right or populist policies are a menace not just for their extremism but for their incompetence born of contempt for experience and lack of understanding of complexity.

By degrading elected office, or opposition, by ignorance, defunct ideologies or arrogance, these parties are damaging democratic governance already assailed by authoritarians in China, Russia, Hungary and Egypt.

President Donald Trump is no consistent authoritarian, but he likes the men who are – Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.

Trump’s initiatives and actions are impulses, not projects, much less parts of a strategy. He seems to have no patience for acquiring an even basic knowledge of any major policy area, domestic or foreign. The result is periodic bouts of chaos. (This week he suggested that if President Andrew Jackson had governed a little later, the United States could have avoided the Civil War – even though Jackson died 16 years before the war started.)

Trump has a comrade in this and much else in former comedian Beppe Grillo, co-founder of Italy’s Five Star Movement, now ahead in most of the country’s polls. Grillo is a Latin Trump, a hater of the press who has proposed citizens’ juries to judge their accuracy, who raps out policy on his blog as Trump does in his tweets.

His party, when in power at the city or local level, has been at best undistinguished. In Rome, where the 38-year-old Virginia Raggi has been in office for nearly a year, neither the corruption nor the garbage disposal have gotten better.

The Five Star Movement was supposed to bring a new approach, but it’s the same old, same old, except with a higher level of incompetence. Yet the party’s national standing doesn’t seem to have suffered.

Most important for Europe is the last round of the French presidential election on Sunday. Centrist Emmanuel Macron defeated the far-right Marine Le Pen in a televised debate on Wednesday, and he remains most likely to win.

Macron is the opposite of an extremist, and he prizes efficiency and intellectual rigour. But his sudden prominence exposes him to a similar problem: Can he quickly learn the governing mechanics of an office as complex as that of the French presidency? He will come to the Élysée with little experience of high politics and, at present, no comrades in the legislature. June elections for the National Assembly may see a fistful of deputies from his new party, En Marche, but it’s near impossible that they will be the majority.

If Macron wins, he will inherit the most politically potent presidency in the democratic world with fearfully small experience and little institutional support. He will receive large backing on Sunday to keep out Le Pen, but many of these voters don’t particularly like him. In a bitterly divided society, large groups on the left and right see him as an agent for deepening the problems associated with globalization, immigration and the EU, which they blame for their being left behind.

Macron must prove that his acceptance of the globalised world can be good for those French citizens who – based on the number of votes cast for Le Pen and the candidates defeated in the first round of voting – make up nearly half of France and who want protection from that which he embraces. Although he has succeeded as a practical economist, he may have a harder time wielding the powers of a supremely dominant presidency, whose very might insulates it from the life of the nation.

A poster boy for globalisation, Macron has been fairly honest about its effects – last week telling workers in his hometown of Amiens that he could not save their plant, which is marked for closure. He is unlikely to have won many, if any, votes, but one worker was quoted as saying, “He tried. He was quiet and honest”.

Honesty is a promising start. But Macron must find ways to help the working class and the jobless improve their lives, in addition to growing the economy and reviving the Franco-German partnership that has long been the engine of the EU.

In France and beyond, the question of competence remains. Can a new leader and a new team succeed in a role that demands competence of the highest order, with little experience? It would be a near miracle, yet it is what their countries need.

About the Author

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and "Journalism in an Age of Terror". He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.

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