The power of aids reinforces the dominance of elites in politics and is detrimental to both governance and confidence in democracy. At a time when trust in government advice is essential for public health, power must be shifted away from unelected aids and towards elected officials supported by expert advice where necessary.
The recent events around Dominic Cummings have served to show that where too much power is placed in the hands of unelected aids, trust in governance by the public is damaged. Boris Johnson’s approval rating dropped by 20 points in four days after the Cummings scandal. This comes at a critical time when public faith in government actions is essential to maintain lockdown restrictions. The Cummings scandal threatens the integrity of all government advice and is damaging to the coronavirus response.
This scandal has made one thing crystal-clear: Boris Johnson is very much a member of the establishment. Whereas the 2019 election was characterised by a presentation of Johnson as standing up for the ordinary working person, his defence of Cummings shows where his favour really lies, and it is not with the people. The public are distrustful of a political class so rife with unelected power. People are not simply angry at Dominic Cummings himself; they are angry at what he represents: how privilege and connections can be enough to hold great power in government.
The power of unelected aids has long term consequences as well. People are made to feel distrustful of a political elite who so clearly prioritise their friends and peers. The unelected elements of government undermine voters’ sense of agency in elections. People become disenfranchised with democracy, sceptical of what they see as a biased system. This can create one of two outcomes: a drop in turnout, or a shift towards extreme or populist parties that pledge to overthrow the dominance of elites. This backlash was illustrated in the Brexit referendum, where large numbers of people voted against ‘the elites in Westminster’ who wanted to remain in the European Union.
It is necessary that elected politicians seek expert advice when it comes to decision making, and this is an acceptable use of non-elected influence. However, when it comes to aids there is little justification for the level of power they currently have. Political aids are not experts in subjects that can inform policy; rather they are experts in campaigning and public strategy. The techniques which support parties in being elected are actually counter-productive for effective governance, producing short-term policies and rhetoric over action. The influence of unelected aids in government can only be seen as negative.
Where politicians rely on the advice of unelected advisors this not only prevents effective governance, but also fundamentally erodes public trust. This lack of confidence risks fuelling populist rhetoric where the entire political system is rejected including real experts. This is a time when public trust is especially important, and it is undermined whilst elected officials continue to pander to the wishes of those who are neither elected nor scientific experts.
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