Monday, 2 November 2009


This is a truly terrible time for sensible decisions to be made – and you only have to watch the current series of Strictly Come Dancing to see why.

Twice in the last couple of weeks we have had the government ignoring advice from experts and doing the opposite of what they recommend. First, the education secretary Ed Balls dismissed the Cambridge Academic Review’s recommendation that formal learning in primary schools shouldn’t begin until children are at least six, and then the health secretary Alan Johnson’s sacked Professor David Nutt after rejecting his advice on criminalisation of cannabis and ecstasy.

The common factor in both decisions is that the government wanted to look tough, and was willing to ignore advice on what would work best. With a general election no more than seven months away, it figured there were more votes to be won in making it look like it was getting kids doing ‘proper work’ earlier rather than playing, and in making it look like it was tackling drug abuse.

The reason for this is that many voters – especially many floating voters in the constituencies that will decide the next election – judge the issues emotionally rather than on the basis of information. And if you doubt this, look no further than the current series of Strictly Come Dancing.

For the benefit of those with lives on Saturday nights, the ‘Strictly’ format is simple. A group of ‘celebrities’ (the quote marks are obligatory this series) are paired up with a professional dancer and have to prepare short dances which are judged by a panel of specialist adjudicators.

Then the public is allowed to vote by phone. That’s when all reason goes out of the window, because the public clearly votes on the basis of emotion which has nothing to do with the issue at hand: the ability – or lack of it – to dance.

How else can one explain the survival of Craig Kelly, the Coronation Street actor who is utterly wooden in his body movements and thinks he’s smiling when he clearly isn’t? He has been pilloried by the judges, but he has survived at the expense of other contestants who have done much better on the dance floor. Why? Because Craig has an immense following among Coronation Street viewers.

That’s why Ed Balls dismissed the Cambridge paper on primary school learning before he or his staff had even read it, and why Alan Johnson fired Professor Nutt. The emotions of the voters were more important than what might be best for society. No wonder politics has a bad name!

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not opposing the principle that when you ask for advice you have the right to reject it. In all walks of life, we need to take responsibility for our own decisions, even if that means saying to a friend ‘Thanks for your advice, but I’ve weighed it up and on this occasion am doing the opposite.’

But if you’re a government minister who has spent thousands of pounds of public money on specialist advice, and you then reject it because it doesn’t fit with what your focus groups say voters will go for, then you must expect the kind of backlash Johnson is facing this week. It’s another version of bringing politics into disrepute, and I hope voters will see it as that, come the general election.

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