Tom Waterhouse: The four key reasons most MPs think short-term, and how to change this

Tom Waterhouse is Director of Policy and Research at Palace Yard, a cross-party think tank.

If you’re reading this, your home is probably among the 23 million households in the country with a gas boiler. You’re also probably unaware there’s a cut-off point for replacing your boiler with a new one.

You read that right. The Government is phasing out the use of natural gas (methane) boilers from 2035.

If you feel more relieved knowing you won’t have to give this further thought for another decade or so, don’t get too comfortable. The political decisions about what replaces your gas boiler are being made now.

With any political decision, there are trade offs to be made. A recent House of Lords report highlighted some of these, arguing the Government should stop messing about and jolly well get on with getting heat pumps into homes.

That Britain hasn’t made good progress to date was partly blamed on the distraction of alternatives such as hydrogen boilers, when, in the words of one of the report’s authors:  “Frankly, hydrogen is not a serious option in the short to medium term.”

It was quite an honest admission, saying that long-term solutions don’t fit into our thinking for meeting a 2050 goal. It was reminiscent of Nick Clegg setting out in February 2010 that he opposed investing in nuclear power because “it wouldn’t be on-stream until 2021.”

Everyone can see today how invaluable that supply of secure, low-carbon energy would have been. If policy-makers continue to take the same approach to other energy sources, we may find ourselves similarly constrained in another 15 years’ time.

The important point here is not about Clegg, but rather about four key features of our political system that push policy-makers towards short-termism.

The first is an obvious one – MPs work in (ever-shorter) election cycles, with an immovable deadline for demonstrating what they’ve delivered for voters in four or five years’ time.

The second is that MPs are time-poor – they have a vast array of demands placed on them, from Parliamentary duties to constituency casework, street-level campaigning to local and national media engagements.

Third, MPs are expected to be experts in everything, while most are intelligent generalists without a policy specialism.

Finally, because politicians are so time-poor, most think tank and industry briefings remain unseen by MPs, who prioritise lines-to-take from their political parties.

The result is that MPs rarely have what they need to really get to grips with the detail of complex policy in order to make long-term decisions.

This is becoming an increasingly difficult challenge for businesses, universities, charities, and others who need to engage with MPs and ministers. Those short horizons make it hard to persuade politicians to take long-term decisions today.

They’re also often frustrated at the low knowledge level of politicians on their specific issue, while every reshuffle and election means relationships need to be rebuilt and conversations re-started. It’s also a very crowded space: MPs receive reams of detailed information from a multitude of sources, and trying to be heard above the noise is tough.

If that wasn’t hard enough, the increasingly tribal nature of politics is proving disastrous for discussions on complex policy, with battle-lines drawn before debate has taken place.

How on earth do we start to change this and help MPs make long-term decisions?

That question is something we’ve been giving careful thought to at Palace Yard, a new cross-party policy and research institute.

While we recognise that a lack of long-term thinking requires many things to change, our own contribution will be to produce short briefings on complex policy areas that give people the bigger picture.

Rather than bang the drum for a particular policy or list of recommendations, we set out for MPs the trade-offs and challenges so that they can make up their own minds. We draw on the expertise of industry, academia, and third sector organisations for real-world examples, to make policy ideas more tangible.

Although we’re cross-party and non-partisan, our briefings look closely at the politics of the situation – showing MPs the social and political challenges they need to be aware of and how they could be overcome.

By taking this approach, we hope we can provide MPs with a resource that helps them build up their foundation-level knowledge of different subjects very quickly, laying the groundwork for deeper policy discussions with businesses, universities, charities, and others.

The more complex the subject, the better: we’ll be looking at food strategy next, and infrastructure soon after. If you have views on those subjects, we’d love to hear from you.

If that all sounds a bit abstract, have a look at our first briefing on hydrogen. In 13 pages you’ll know more about the issue than most people. You’ll also probably start thinking differently about your boiler too.

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