Principle vs Pragmatism: Time for Change?

Growing discontent with rising tuition fees has culminated in a student movement calling for their abolition, a call which has been heeded by the Labour Party in its 2017 manifesto. (Source: Anthony Ignatus-Dataro, The Linc)

Policymakers have always been preoccupied with balancing the demands of policy desirability and feasibility, their principles and pragmatism respectively. But a trend perhaps unique to modern political debate is the level of dichotomisation that is accepted between the two categories. In this emergent view, principle and pragmatism are diametrically opposed and even mutually exclusive on occasion.

This has led to increasing polarisation within the public sphere, particularly in developed democracies including the UK, US and continental Europe. In these countries, there has been an unapologetic reclamation of the politics of principle, in the form of populism on both sides of the political spectrum. On the right, popular disillusionment with technocratic policymaking and the economist’s faith in globalisation has expressed itself through nationalism and isolationism (epitomised by Donald Trump’s exhortation ‘Don’t compromise your principles’). On the left, there is a growing tendency to eschew centrist, watered-down neoliberal policies and to embrace a ‘back to basics’ universalism. Both tendencies are part of a simmering populist, ‘post-truth’ revolution in policymaking, with consequences that will shape the future of democracy.

In the UK, the formulation of Labour Party policy has become a hotbed for the debate between principle and pragmatism. The party has always faced a two-fold challenge: first, to provide and articulate a vision of society incorporating social justice and equality; second, to defend this vision from critiques of utopianism and ‘magic money-trees’. In other words, the party has faced a unique level of pressure to be principled and pragmatic at once. Yet today within the Labour Party, ‘pragmatism’ is a dirty word, suggesting cowardice, centrism and a ‘Tory-lite’ set of policy priorities. This was undoubtedly a response to the alleged failure of the New Labour project. But while the 2008 economic crash and the quagmire of Iraq cast a dark shadow on that era, it is important that the achievements of that government are recognised, in conjunction with a critique of its failings. The introduction of the national minimum wage and tax credits, and the creation of Sure Start were but a few of the progressive policies which dramatically improved the lives of working people, slashing levels of pensioner and child poverty. The takeaway from this is simple: in the reification of the politics of principle, we blind ourselves to the achievements that a pragmatically-principled politics can offer.

Take the current Labour leadership’s emphasis on universalism. In many ways, the notion of public goods whose provision is available to all is a refreshing departure from technocratic Blairism. In going beyond coldly calculated pragmatics, universalism has the potential to give warmth and colour to the policymaking process, by cultivating a vision of a society with a common good. However, there is a tendency to fetishise universalism and to ignore the specific needs of those at the bottom of the income distribution, to the detriment of the very goals that constitute a principled politics. In more informal terms, it’s all very well feeling warm and fuzzy by funnelling your fiscal resources into public goods available to all, but the reality is that some people need more of those resources than others. The 2017 Labour Manifesto made no promise to reverse the benefit cuts for the poorest in society implemented by the Conservative government, and yet it did endorse the abolition of tuition fees. Ceteris paribus, this universalistic policy will disproportionately benefit the upper and middle classes, because lower-income graduates are unlikely to pay back the full amount. Far from a flight of idealism, this set of policy priorities can be seen to be contradictory to Labour’s principles.

Expected average lifetime repayments by decile of graduate lifetime earnings for 2017-18 cohort (2017 prices, not discounted). Source: Institute for Fiscal Studies, May 2017.

Both supporters and critics of Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, often present him as a man of uncompromising principle, a portrayal which can be geared both to his advantage and to his detriment. Yet such praise and criticism fails to acknowledge that in fact, the Corbynite project is deeply pragmatic about certain issues; it’s just that those issues are different to those commonly associated with pragmatism on the left. It is deeply pragmatic about the idea of re-orienting away from its traditional working-class base towards the middle-class Globally-Oriented Network Youth (a term denoting young, well-educated people typically living in cities). This transition is something that most traditional Labour supporters would resist as a matter of principle. In other words, both the supporters and critics of Corbyn are, all too often, misconceived in their depiction of Corbynism as a principle-oriented ideology. This suggests that forcing political ideologies and policies into the tidy boxes of ‘principle’ or ‘pragmatism’ is at best inaccurate, and at worst, leads to bad policymaking with a detrimental impact on the lives of real people.

In a world where accusations of ‘fake news’ abound and there is an increasing distrust of experts, academics and policymakers have an urgent duty to reach out to the public sphere and to resist the dichotomisation of principle and pragmatism within politics. Without a pragmatic framework of action, principles will continue to remain within the lofty realm of theory and fail to translate into practice. Without the kernel of a principled vision of a common good, pragmatism is a hollow and cold project which is doomed to failure. If we are to create effective, evidence-based policies, we need to stop looking through whichever lens of ‘principle’ or ‘pragmatism’ that modern politics has forced into our hands, and understand that they are inextricably bound together. As Lena Jeger eloquently put it, ‘We have to take the poetry of our ideals and translate it into the prose and policies of everyday life.’ Now, more than ever, is the time for policymakers to act on those words.


Mary Reader is a first year MPA student at LSE, originally from the UK. She received a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Oxford. Prior to LSE she worked as a Researcher for Rachel Reeves MP for her book on women and parliament.

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