Are political parties and the civil service pricing people out of policy-making?

I may not think too highly of Peter Oborne’s recent behaviour on Newsnight where a cascade of personal insults at a fellow interviewee led to the latter breaking off the studio link, but as a writer I have more time for him. He wrote a couple of very interesting books – The rise of political lying and The triumph of the political class.

He’s penned this post on how the Conservative Party Conference 2011 was taken over boy lobbyists and big business. Could that have applied to the Labour Party too? And what of the impact on the Liberal Democrats now that they are in the Coalition? With the Liberal Democrats, annual conferences are still the primary policy-debating and setting forum, but the trend to centralise and isolate policy-making to a smaller number of bigger players is something that has become more noticeable, just as with the ‘stage management’ of set-piece speeches. Even when conferences vote in a manner against the wishes of the leadership, do they make any difference? Are those votes binding?

The lobbyists, business interests, charities and pressure groups have clocked (understandably so) that party conferences are places where you can do the maximum amount of lobbying with the minimal amount of effort. You have all of those politicians there in one place where they can host/sponsor receptions, seminars and debates for whoever wants to come along – with the promise of free drinks and food. They are also places where – for those holding ministerial office – there is a relative absence of civil servants surrounding ministers. (Cabinet Office issues strict guidance for civil servants at party conference season time – to ensure that tax payers’ resources (i.e. civil servants & government property) is not used for party political purposes).

I’ve never been to political party conferences in person – only seeing what’s on the telly or what bloggers and tweeple are saying. I’d be more than interested to go and see what they are all about. But not being a member of any political party means access would inevitably be restricted, and in any case I could not afford to go anyway. Peter Oborne in the article I linked to earlier itemised some of the costs of attending a party conference – with an estimate of £700 for just the basics. Unless your employer is covering those costs, it takes a dedicated person to swallow those costs to go along. Hence my concern that ordinary people are being ‘priced out’ of these events.

Policy-making and the civil service

This then brings me onto some thoughts by Lisa Ansell in here recent blogpost about politics and wonks. Her attendance at #PufflesCamp back in May 2011 was the first inkling that I got that Puffles was beginning to punch far above the weight of a baby dragon fairy – and drove a number of very interesting and passionate debates. One of the things that made me uncomfortable about policy-making in the civil service is the lack of systematic input into the processes from citizens – in particular the ‘end users’. It’s one of the reasons why I had a habit in the early to middle part of my civil service career to get out and about. (Or more negatively, turning up to the opening of an envelope or the opening of a front door). I wanted to find out first hand what the viewpoint of people who were going to be affected first hand was going to be.

My learning? Huge. In a way it’s a shame I didn’t get to spend more time out and about. Things that in the political world we take for granted are things that those who need the most help and the most protection may know next to nothing about. This included taking people through their basic constitutional rights regarding contacting MPs and councillors to in one case putting one person in touch with the competent authorities enforcing the minimum wage because she was being paid significantly below it by a care home. The lack of enforcement of the minimum wage is still a problem today. (To those who want to take issue with the minimum wage as a concept/policy, this is not the place. The point I am making is about the enforcement of a law passed by Parliament for the purpose of protecting the low paid from exploitation). There were people I met who I was genuinely in awe of in terms of the work that they had done day in day out for their communities away from the spotlight. I noted a similar reaction on Twitter with the broadcast of the Pride of Britain Awards too.

Changing the culture

Trying to change the culture in the civil service is like trying to turn around an oil tanker. We were discussing this at #Teacamp this evening at the monthly gathering of Whitehall digital media types from both inside and outside the public sector in the context of social media. (I will be blogging about this soon). The ‘safe’ environment in terms of policy-making is to keep things within the clique of special interest groups – whether it’s the politics watchers in the Whitehall jungle, the lobbyists, campaign groups, charities and big business. Social media is one way in which this stranglehold can be broken. But that can only go so far. It can never be a complete substitute to seeing the whites of the eyes in the people – hence why I’d love to see more civil servants going beyond what is normal.

As far as party politics is concerned, the reduction in the number of people prepared to ‘pound the streets’ means that not only are basic messages from local political parties not getting out, there is a dearth of feedback too – feedback that could otherwise feed into political parties’ policy-making process. Instead, as Oborne notes, we have professional advertising people in the big parties who need paying. With the struggle to raise funds from an ever-diminishing membership, so the dependence on individual big donors or corporate donations grows.

What are the solutions in terms of party politics? I don’t know. There will always be a tension between leaderships who will want to remain in control of stuff and the desire of people not to be micro-managed in terms of their opinions. How is that tension eased?


10 thoughts on “Are political parties and the civil service pricing people out of policy-making?

  1. A thoughtful and conscientious summary – congratulations. Not only are ordinary people, specifically that section sufficiently motivated to become socially active, being ‘priced out’ of these events, they are ‘priced out’ of most conferences where the moneyed elite discuss the community in the community’s absence.

    1. The “moneyed elite” discuss it or the people who happen to work for connected NGOs? Not the same thing. At all. I’ll put my metaphorical money on it being the people who work for the NGOs.

      1. Andrew, I know of one neo-NGO / community repping organisation who have big government contract that ran fringe events at three conferences. The CEO is taking a six figure salary, he is part of the ‘moneyed elite’.

        Nb: The 95th percentile in the income distribution starts at £65k and the 99th at £150k. []

  2. I wonder if this perception would be equivalent if all the party conferences were in London or visited a Dragon Fairy’s home city?

    I’ve been fortunate to live in a place where the party conferences come to me. Rather too close at times (the secure zone had sealed off 2 access roads to our building, protestors were blocking the other 2, with unfortunate timing on a tesco delivery). But it does mean that, as an interested citizen, I could easily go along to many discussions. Discussions that, in London, would have been unavailable to me. They were outside the secure zone, but still, the chance to have a brief discussion about internet engagement with the Minister responsible for it was rather enlightening (nice guy, not entirely clueful). While those could happen in London, it would happen in a very different way — like it does for the other 49 weeks a year — and many voices would not be heard, who can be and are heard currently. Whereas, the moneyed lobbyists would find another way in — £700 for an all access pass is not a lot of money to them. I’d suggest the parties make it more expensive, and give cheaper tickets to others.

    While there are some people who never leave the ring of steel around the conference centre, the duration and concentration makes it easier to have those conversations outside, not harder. Having seen the major parties multiple times, in different stages of Government/Opposition, it’s actually reassuring how it changes.

    Of course, it helps to live in a city where the conference comes to you. But the cost to me, of attending the fringe events of about half a dozen of these conferences over the years, has been whatever drinks I bought myself. Which isn’t much, but for a 7am seminar start, even 200 yards from my front door, the free-tea-and-food is rather helpful for a useful conversation.

  3. People are priced out in many ways, not just at conferences.

    Our previous MP ensured his office was in a desolate, difficult to reach area, thus ensuring the poorest people would be unable to afford the bus fare to visit him to discuss their issues/problems. His replacement has his office 30 minutes walk away from me. Bus fare would be £1 there and £1 back, but that bus only takes you half way there! Imagine £2 cost taken from your tiny minimum wage. I can walk those 30 minutes easily; but I’m not something who may be perhaps ill or just exhausted with the stressful problems.

    Some libraries in this city restrict people (ie the poorest who can’t afford to have a connection at home) to just 30 minutes – not much time to type up an email and send it off to your MP on top of everything else you might be doing that day.

    I grew up in an area where a significant number of people didn’t have a telephone because they simply couldn’t afford the bill, and that was still being seen by the local services while Tony Blair was in office.

    That means very restricted access to communicating with not only elected officials, but all sorts of campaigning groups, to such an extent we risk never being challenged to face and deal with the issues the poorest in our country face.

    What difference would it really make to policy if civicil servants were ‘allowed out’? Surely if a government wants a policy, then no matter what a civil servant has learned, will it be used to improve that policy?

  4. Accordingly to Liverpool City Council, the total expenditure of the Labour Conference was £15m in the local economy. There were 11,000 visitors including delegates, ex-officio, media, fringistas and other liggers. This works out at about £1300 per delegate on the back of my fag packet. That’s a lot of money to take part.

    In Manchester, for the Tory conference, the equivalent figures were £25m, 13,000 and thus £1900. In Birmingham, where the Lib-Dems scoffed at their coalition partners for a week, it £12m, 9,600 and £1200.

    I’ve been making a poor joke in the last couple of weeks asking why Party Conference are so Stagnant? Its because they are so motion-less. Ok, its only worth a grimace, but underlying this is an active anti-interaction at the party get-together. They don’t debate motions at the conferences any more, ideas are discussed at the fringe. The fringe is paid for by vested-interest: think tanks, business groups, lobbyists, charities, etc.

    Political involvement is loaded against participation on both terms of engagement and financial ability.

    Sad, very sad.

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