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?