The Westminster Bubble

They don’t call it Civil Service World for nothing.

Having some of the habits of a social butterfly and sometimes describing myself as the sort of person who would turn up to the opening of an envelope or a front door, I’ve bounced from bubble to bubble in a number of fields. The Westminster Bubble is one, but there are others – political social media is one, academia another, even the protest movements can be bubbles themselves. When it comes to dealing with the problems of society, those who are in these bubbles can often find themselves oblivious to what’s going on in the day-to-day lives of those that they claim they are trying to help.

I’ve been to a few Hansard Society events in recent times – the last few being at Portcullis House. Thus I’ve been getting a bit of a feel for what the Parliament Bubble is like (and how it is slightly different to the Civil Service Bubble). In the former there’s this eclectic mix of what look like ex-public schoolboys in suits so sharp you could cut a steak with them, very well groomed women in their 20s & 30s working for campaigning organisations, middle-aged women from the senior ranks of quangos or other large organisations and ageing male political warhorses who have seen many a battle over the years. Now, of course I’m stereotyping in a very big way, but the picture I’ve painted is a far cry from the picture at, say the job centre – where the results of the decisions, debates and the discussions in Westminster are played out.

This is not to say that the people within these bubbles are bad people – they’re not. As I’ve mentioned before my take is that most people who go into the world of politics, policy making and the wider public service do so for the most noble and altruistic of reasons. The problem as I found out early on when I moved to London is that all policy making is made on the basis of imperfect or incomplete information. The challenge for (civil service) policy advisers advising ministers is to ensure that they have enough of the relevant and essential information to enable them to make an informed decision. Bear in mind that briefing is called so for a reason – keep it short. Yet what makes sense in one bubble may not make sense in the wider world. Ministers on the whole have two levers that they can use to change stuff: Money and laws. We’ve seen over the years the limitations of using both – whether it’s money thrown at regeneration schemes or whether it’s an increasing succession of laws to deal with crime. It was the realisation of these limitations that led in part to the rise of ‘nudge’ theory – for which the jury is still out.

I would love to see the Westminster Bubble popped. I would love to see far greater efforts made to engage with people from outside ‘normal politics’ and enable them to take part in the debates, discussions and decisions that are made in Westminster. But that requires taking risks that few seem willing to take. For me it means holding events in places where ordinary people live, work and play, publicising them in places where they are likely to find out about them and continuing with the follow-up work after each event has finished. It’s easy and straight forward to hold these things in London. Find a friendly institution to host the event, a keynote speaker or three positively disposed to the agenda that is to be discussed and perhaps a sympathetic company to sponsor the refreshments or a drinks reception afterwards.

Going out of London, and in particular to the more economically deprived parts of the country involves far more effort, disruption and potentially costs for you – especially with travel. Yet every time an event is hosted in London, people from other parts of the country have to overcome all of these things. Is it any wonder that the only people from outside London who come to these events, let alone know that they even exist, are people who have some sort of pre-existing connection to the world of politics? Yet some of the most toughest scrutiny I faced when speaking at public events or when going out and about on behalf of my former department was from those very communities that seldom saw the face of a policy-type like myself. There were times where I thought: “I’d love to bring all of you to London to grill all the senior policy types in the world I inhabit!”

One of the things that we discussed last night at the Hansard Society event was the role of digital and social media. While there are huge opportunities in using digital and social media, two points that were made by a number of people were:

  • Digital exclusion – i.e. people who do not have access to, cannot afford or who are not even aware of the opportunities of social media, is a huge barrier
  • Some people have made the positive choice of not using computers – let alone digital or social media.

I take access to the internet and social media use for granted. Twitter is the last thing I check before I go to bed and the first thing I check when I wake up – having been known to retweet while lying horizontal still half asleep. (I’ve not posted over 50,000 tweets in less than 12 months for nothing!) Yes, it’s a bit of an addiction and yes, I need to tweet less – much less. But it keeps me in the loop of what’s going on in the various bubbles that I bounce too and from – whether it’s the protest movements, the goings on in Westminster, developments in social media world or the academia bubbles that regularly provide some gems of inspiration.

Given the goings on in the Eurozone and the ‘Occupy’ protest movement, staying inside the Westminster Bubble can feel like a safe place to be for many policy makers. The same point can be made about the conferences regularly put on by the established far left too. Rather than having to go out and face the general public in their communities and on their terms, it’s far more comfortable to try and develop solutions to society’s problems inside these bubbles. Perhaps people within the Occupy movement have recognised this and are reclaiming the depoliticised and privatised public spaces to bring back politics (in the broader sense) to the people.

For me, I have been uncomfortable with the Westminster Bubble ever since I became aware of its existence. Such is the scale of the problems that we are now facing that finding solutions to them for me means having to go beyond – far beyond the Westminster Bubble. Are the gatekeepers of that bubble up for that challenge?






6 thoughts on “The Westminster Bubble

  1. I agree with you that the existence of the bubble culture distances policy makers from ordinary people. But I’d also add that equally problematic is that bubbles such as you mention are not separate to one another – there is a great deal if overlap & access to one often gives access to others; on the contrary ordinary people have access to none of these. I suspect politicians sometimes pat themselves on the back for stepping out of the Westminster bubble without realising that they’re in an equally rarified atmosphere.

    Geography is a big part of this. I’m from London originally but have lived in S Yorkshire for the past 15yrs – & with each year Westminster politics seems increasingly remote & dislocated from what’s going on at ground level here.

    Economically, politicians seem in a different world. The expenses crisis highlighted this – many families I know have, or have had split living arrangements – one person having to move away in order to find work & people funded this themselves. Who can afford to buy furniture at John Lewis anyway! Con Home reports this week that one Tory MP has had to give up drinking Starbucks as he can’t afford it – on £60k a yr! But I suspect that in the circles (or bubbles) that MPs inhabit £60k isn’t such a lot – but this must give them a skewed outlook.

    Inevitably, this will lead to skewed policies. Having done some research on the benefits system, i found one of the greatest barriers to work was the precarious nature of the labour Market, particularly for the young, unskilled and (single) parents. Benefits, no matter how low, gave a secure level of income which the labour Market did not. Some claimants preferred ‘knowing where they were’ to ‘risking’ giving this up even if there was the potential to be better off. I suspect very few policy makers have got to the end of the week & not had enough money to eat or put the electricity meter on because the work dried up mid week, benefits won’t come through til next, there’s no savings, friends & family are equally skint & the only option is the loanshark. How else do we explain the proposals to reduce employment security further?

    I’m not sure what can be done to break down these bubbles and I’m not convinced that social media is the answer. I see that 305 MPs are now on Twitter. It would be an interesting exercise to audit who they follow – I suspect very few would be outside the bubbles of Westminster, Politics (Inc think tanks, mainstream bloggers, local councillors etc) and the Media (& maybe personal friends/family). In fact I wonder if any of them follow an ordinary member of the public who’s outside these bubbles.

  2. BSCP has been twittering about these “bubbles” for months now.The answere is very simple. give everyone a pin. As well as a meaningful vote. Most people don’t vote now. The less than50% of voters who vote know that due to the constituency boundries their vote will be useless. so we end up with an election being decided by a few marginal areas. Proportional representation will burst this bubble and we are on our way.
    Now Party politics is out so we don’t need any Whips offices.Make Lobbying illegal with a mandatery visit to the tower of london (prison) of not less than 15 yrs should do it. After all the Crime is treason. Now make MP’s earn their title of “honerable gentleman” and you have burst
    quite a few bubbles.
    Now, the next thing to do is make the tax system FAIR. WE have the most wonderful group of Philanthropists as taxpayers. Better than Bill gates and W.Buffett put together. The only reason we don’t see them as Philanthropists is because Tax is the first level and it is a” forced payment”.
    Companies pay Profits Tax as well as the tax of their employees so we need a Wealth Tax for Super-Incomes. And we should stop bashing the bankers because they were victims of Fraud on a grand scale by the Rating Agencys.(see “causes of thelate2000’s financial crisis) where on page 11 or section 3.2 it ends “the rating agencies were guilty of a shocking abdication ofresponsibitity”
    This is the American Fed.Investigation of the crisis commenting.So totally discredited send them to the TOWER too.
    The next bubble to burst is the Banks. their crime was to gamble with CDO’s. all this is dealt with on our website.For the Banks we should nationalise the high street part to keep the peoples
    money safe.There are plenty of countries where the banks are national. Australia,N Zealand,Canada,germany,Switzerland,India,China,Japan,Korea Malaysia. And in the USA only N.Dakota where the bank has been spectacularly successful. the result is that 14 states are now going for state owned banks.This leaves the gambleing banks to do their thing and fall or not on their merits. Their are a few more points like Taxhavens to deal with but in general if SUPER INCOMES are earned, the tax system should cover that.

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