What happens when politicians listen and engage with people?
It’s a risk any politician runs the risk of when they announce they are going to visit Cambridge: They run the risk of being ambushed by the local dragon fairy. So when three of them decided to turn up at the invitation of Cambridge’s Labour Parliamentary Spokesman Daniel Zeichner, Puffles decided to rock up too. Actually, I declare an interest in that one of the organisers, Labour’s Nader Khalifa, is a good mate of mine. We both started our civil service careers within weeks of each other at the old Government Office in Cambridge. (Funnily enough we finished our careers – albeit in different places – around the same time too!)
Given that this event was literally hours after Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett’s visit to Cambridge, it was interesting to get a feel for the health of green/left politics in Cambridge, as well as the sorts of people that choose to get involved.
People want to talk about political issues – just not on someone else’s terms
That was the big message that I got from the two events Natalie spoke at, and from this Labour event, the latter being part of their “Your Britain” listening campaign. As Huw Irranca Davies MP, one of the three shadow ministers attending said, he wanted the ideas coming from these events not to end up on the minutes but to end up in Labour’s manifesto for 2015. The other two shadow ministers attending were Catherine McKinnell, Shadow Exchequer Secretary (David Gauke’s shadow and thus responsible for all things tax avoidance) and Jack Dromey, Shadow Housing Minister.
After the introductory speeches from each of the three shadow ministers, there were also contributions from Labour’s Prospective Parliamentary Candidate (PPC) Daniel Zeichner and from East Anglia MEP Richard Howitt – the latter making the links between EU membership and a whole series of social justice issues. One of the things that is seldom mentioned in the frenzy of EU press coverage is the place the EU has in upholding the rights of employees – such as the Social Charter and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. (Worth reading for workfare/welfare to work, and equal marriage campaigners too).
MPs in listening mode
The three workshops overseen by each of the shadow ministers were on workers rights (Huw Irranca Davies), tax avoidance (Catherine McKinnell) and on tackling the housing crisis (Jack Dromey). Each of the workshops was repeated three times to allow people to have their say in each of them. I stuck with the housing workshop because I have policy background in this area – and ended up sort of co-facilitating the second and third workshop discussions.
Jack says sorry
There were two apologies that Jack made on Labour’s record on housing during its years in government. The first was the focus on home ownership. He acknowledged that Labour had taken its eye off the ball on those in the private rented sector. Accordingly, there would be a significantly greater focus on private rented housing over the next few years as it is in this sector that many vulnerable people find themselves in. This in part is reflected by the Commons Communities and Local Government Select Committee’s inquiry into the private rented sector – of which I blogged about here. The second apology was on the lack of council houses built during Labour’s time in office. “Wrong” he said.
Now, when a politician of any party apologises for their record, what I am interested in is whether they have an understanding of why things went wrong and what they intend to do to make up for it. One of the questions I put to the group was the turnover of ministers in the housing policy area, and invited people to comment on what impact they thought this would have had on Labour’s housing policy – especially in an environment where lobbyists are ever-present in the Whitehall jungle. The group took on that point and ran with it – stating very powerfully to Mr Dromey in feedback that they wanted people who were knowledgeable and passionate about housing to be their housing policy leads inside Parliament, and to stay there rather than being continually reshuffled.
The other thing that struck me in the group discussions was some of the testimony of people who are dependent on public services – not through any fault of their own. How is it, for example that people on very low incomes face an effective marginal rate of taxation of 100% when working part-time and have to pay up to 90% of their income on rent? The issue for me here is that this sort of testimony is not feeding through en masse to the policy makers in political parties and in Whitehall. If it did, there would be a far greater urgency to deal with housing problems than there has been over the years.
The wider lesson for Labour Party policy-types is to learn from the public administration failures of its time in office. Home Information Packs is a classic case. To what extent was the policy failure a result of problems with the idea, and to what extent was it a failure as a result of botched delivery? Some might argue that the policy was superb but the delivery a shambles, others might argue that the policy was so flawed in the first place (like the poll tax) that no one could have delivered it. It’s one thing having sound policies. It’s another thing trying to deliver them.
Groups brimming with ideas
One of the things the groups (rightly) took a lot of pride in was the number of ideas they came up with to tackle the problems. In the space of about half an hour, each group came up with the best part of four sides of A4s worth of ideas.
The lesson here for me was that people are less interested in the ideologies and are more interested in the issues – and how to tackle them. This is the stuff that people can relate to – the things that affects their and our day-to-day lives. The challenge for politicians is to bridge that gap between the people and the policy-wonks that deal with the detail. This goes for all political parties too: To what extent are political parties willing to open up their policy-making processes to their wider membership and to the general public? Because the model of the mid-1990s where you’d have policy-by-focus-group is now obsolete. Growing social media use means that members of the public are more likely to have access to experts than in the past. This means they have access to stronger evidence bases and stronger arguments that they can put to politicians and policy people in far greater numbers with far greater force.
The whole Your Britain exercise is not without its risks. Having seen it time and again with civil service restructures, if people don’t see their ideas put into practice, they won’t bother next time. How many times have you taken part in an ‘engagement exercise’ whether in politics, place of work or place of study only to see everyone’s suggestions ignored?
Given the history of the Labour Party under Blair and Brown, where policy was tightly controlled from the very top, I am yet to be convinced that Miliband, Balls and Cooper are willing to relinquish that tight control over policy. My simple question – similar to previous blogposts in other fields is this:
To what extent do you want to be influenced by the results of the “Your Britain” programme?
Because if the answer is close to ‘very little’, what is the point?
Transparency in policy-making
This goes for all political parties too. We are in a world where people can use the internet and social media to fact-check and analyse policies in detail – and publicise inconsistencies like never before. Whether it’s the Coalition’s welfare policies or the recent announcements by Labour on the 10p income tax rate and the mansion tax, traditional policy-making processes are creaking under the huge pressure that social media users are putting them under.
In the case of the latter, did Labour go through a process where they asked the wider world: “What would the cumulative impact be of bringing back the 10p tax rate and bringing in a mansion tax?” Because that way you would tease out the sort of responses such as this from the Institute of Fiscal Studies before they become party policy. Thus avoiding the headlines: “Labour has new policy – rubbished by respected think-force”. In the Whitehall Jungle, any policy that is not backed by the IFS is seen as a bad one. It’s why politicians often say “Don’t just take my word for it, have a look at what the IFS has said about it!”. Which doesn’t do any help in the long term of the standing of politicians in the eyes of the public. They may as well say: “You know I am a lying, cheating no good scuzzball, but look at those angels over there – they are saying the same stuff as me so I must be right!”
Where next for Labour & ‘Your Britain’?
This is where the process between nationwide workshops such as this one that I attended, and the party manifesto needs to be made more transparent. Should other political parties be running similar sorts of nationwide events, I’d say the same thing.
One other thing I’d add – again for all political parties – is to make clear that these events are for everyone – not just party members. Because politics is in crisis. How are you going to reach out to people who – like me – have decided that party politics is not for them? (In particular those that have something to offer in terms of experience and insights?)
In Labour’s case, it has its policy commissions. But how can it make the policy commissions more transparent? What are the criteria it is using to decide which are the good ideas that can be developed, and which ones can be dismissed out of hand? As we found out in the debates on housing, there are lots of policy linkages. What is the process for picking those out? e.g. housing and transport; housing, buy-to-lets and taxation policy?
Finally, is the “Your Britain” programme a one-off, or will it be repeated in the years to come, forming a regular series of events where not just party members but also members of the public can feed into policy-making?
If all parties did this, wouldn’t we get the same responses?
Because that would assume all the people turning up were the same people and that all of the questions being asked were the same. It can be simple things such as venue that can impact on who turns up. For example the event I went to here was at a community centre in one of the most economically deprived parts of Cambridge. Yet a few months back I went to a consultation event run by the city council which was held at one of the top performing private schools in the country.
It is also the case that people may find themselves positively disposed to one political party over another, or may wish to try and influence the party most likely to win the election in that area – especially if it is a ‘safe seat’.
Which allows me to leave party political types with this final question: How do you re-enfranchise those that live in constituencies that are ‘safe seats’?