The mental health impact of un/underemployment


I’m underemployed. There. I said it. And I hate it. And I’m not the only one.

It’s one of the reasons why I laugh in the face of so-called unemployment statistics. People like me don’t show on them. A number of other people I know don’t show on them. Like me, they are somehow able to explain away to others what they do to hide the fact that in the wider economy there are not enough suitable jobs [a loaded term I concede] to go around.

I still don’t regret leaving the civil service when I did. I needed the break and the time away. I needed the independent space to think. The blogposts that I’ve written since August 2011 were in part the result of seven years worth of not having a public opinion on politics – remembering that approximately half of that time I spent in politically-restricted posts.

I’m not entirely blameless for being in this situation. Could have I prepared better for past interviews, been more proactive and speculative in applications or in searches for commissions, or put more effort in? Of course. At the same time I’m still trying to get a feel for what I am capable of post-mental-health-crisis. Hence I’m not looking for this post to be a “Woe is me” post.

Losing the day-to-day interactions with other people

It’s one of the things that comes up in retirement. Moving from a world where you might be surrounded by people in a hive of activity to one where you don’t need to get out of bed in the morning can come as one hell of a culture shock. The same I is true for those who, like me moved from an environment surrounded by people to one that, in the grand scheme of things is a solitary existence. That’s not to say I don’t meet up regularly with other people – I do and am most grateful for it. But such things can never compensate for having both a regular activity and a greater purpose that said activity might be working towards.

Wanting to do stuff, but not having the money

Every time there is something interesting on in London, I’m like “I’d love to do that, but I can’t afford the train fare/entrance fees” etc. I touched on this in a post during 2011 political party conference season. There are a whole host of debates and discussions that people around the country would love to contribute to – but we’re all priced out of them. It’s only very recently that I’ve got the feel of just how London-centric everything is. Prior to living and working in London, it was less of an issue for me simply because I wasn’t aware of all of these things going on. You could say what the eye can’t see the heart doesn’t yearn for. But now that I’ve become aware of otherwise very interesting events going on hosted say by the Hansard Society or the Institute for Government – or even the Trades Union Congress, it feels all the more frustrating that more of us cannot take part because it’s so expensive.

Fighting the black dog

It’s very difficult when personal circumstances are as they are in the wider economic context. One bad headline after another doesn’t make anything easier for people. When people do head to the doctors because of the downward spiral that can often accompany un/underemployment, the tools/levers that doctors have are very limited. “I don’t want to go on anti-depressants, I want a job!” I’ve heard a number of people say. I don’t know what the data is on the number of people who are on anti-depressants who are unemployed – citing that unemployment as being a major cause of their depression, but it would be interesting to see.

For me, there are two strands. The first is finding productive things to occupy myself day-to-day. It’s all too easy to spend an entire day on Twitter – I’ve done it more times than is sensible. The second is finding that broader purpose that, since 2009 I’ve somehow lost.

On the first strand, I’ve blogged earlier about social media not switching off. I was reading a book today about social media for ‘not for profits’ and it flagged up in no uncertain terms about the need to take time out from social media and the internet. It has addictive traits to it…traits that I think helped contribute to my own breakdown earlier this year. Hence why I’m trying (but still failing) to spend a little bit more time reading offline rather than online.

Linking the first strand to the second, I’ve got a “here are the things that I think I need to learn – and want to learn” list, but without that broader purpose it’s very difficult (for someone with the attention span of a fairy on super-charged sucrose) to sit down and spend day-after-day learning it without the structure that I guess you’d find in a classroom.

Moving onto that broader purpose, I’ve sort of lost mine. No longer being in the civil service I’m still scratching away to find out where I want to get to and how I’m supposed to get there. Lacking that purpose can be devastating for morale. Especially as the road often feels so lonely and isolated compared to some of the high-fliers I often find myself interacting with. Sometimes that just compounds the gloom.

What does the data say?

I don’t know. It would be an interesting research project though – tracking the mental health impact of those who have lost their jobs. What is the existing baseline for the sample? (i.e. How many people were already experiencing some sort of mental health distress?) How did this figure change over time? What was the impact on individuals and their families? What was the healthcare cost to the state? What was the loss to society in terms of the lost potential from the individuals concerned?

In terms of policy, it also makes me wonder how many of our political masters and their advisers have experienced unemployment or underemployment. One where you had to really fight tooth and nail to get back up and running again with the odds stacked against you. That’s not to say former MPs haven’t struggled – Helen Clark and the late Fiona Jones being two examples of backbench MPs with short parliamentary careers definitely not going down the standard route of political consultancy to big business that is the depressing norm of senior MPs and former ministers. How many struggled prior to reaching the heights that they did? How many senior MPs, front-benchers or ministers can articulate the black cloud of life devoid of activity and a purpose? Few of the current set I fear.

I’ll refrain from going into detail about how to solve the unemployment problem (Like I’m going to solve it in a blogpost! Ha!), other than to say that the current situation of the rich getting richer while the rest of us struggle in this economic cataclysm is unsustainable. It’s going to take a lot more than a few social mobility indicators to change things around.


The Greens and Genetically Modified crops


Why it’s more complicated than the headlines show.

Well…everything is, isn’t it?

Over 10 years ago while exploring all things alternative during my student days, I took part in a picket organised by Greenpeace outside a branch of Sainsbury’s on the issue of Monsanto & it’s work on all things GM. At the time, the issues for me were about health and safety of the surrounding environment regarding the research, and the role of a profit-making multinational and the incentives around it. I soon found out I wasn’t cut out for picketing in cold weather on a noisy traffic-jammed street. Ditto with being part of groups that bore similar traits of top-down organisations: i.e. decision taken from up on high with the foot soldiers expected to fall in line.

The scare story that we were all briefed about was that these multinationals were creating new forms of crops that we did not know what impact they would have on the environment, while at the same time being made into a form where farmers from poor countries would not be able to replant using seeds from their produce, but be dependent on going back to the multinationals because GM would stop such plants from reproducing in the natural manner. This was around the time that Naomi Klein’s “No Logo” book (& the issues around) was high in activists minds.

I didn’t go back to Greenpeace following that picket – I think it was a mixture of feeling really uncomfortable at that picket combined with not really feeling any connection with the people in the group. That along with generally being a foaming ball of ‘angry’ that was spiralling downwards with depression, I was probably not the nicest person to be around with in those days.

The following year I sort of took the decision to take a step back from following all of the bad stuff that was happening in developing countries – on the grounds that it was messing me up because I took the burdens of the world on my shoulders emotionally. You know those really intense people who complain about absolutely everything because someone somewhere happens to be worse off than you are, and that by doing X, Y and Z you are somehow contributing to their condition? That was me back in 2001. It sucks the life and soul out of a person. Basically I had forgotten how to have fun in life. Hence why in 2002 I thought the best thing to do with all of this was to take a big step back from it all. Hence why I took little interest in the GM debate (along with a whole host of stuff that otherwise underpinned my degree) since 2002.

Fast-forward 12 years and Puffles’ timeline explodes with a spat between the Green Party and the science lobby. The confrontation came in a field near Harpenden. Anti-GM protesters wanted to trash a field full of GM wheat while pro-science people wanted to demonstrate against them. Trashing GM crops is not a new form of direct action. Greenpeace’s Lord Melchett in 1999 was arrested for doing just that. I guess what’s changed now is the science lobby have started to get their act together regarding political lobbying. The Green Party ended up getting involved in this following London Mayoral Candidate Jenny Jones blogging here.

There are three issues raised by this confrontation for me. The first is for the anti-GM protesters.

Are they protesting against the science, or its application?

As one person on Twitter said, it’s difficult to say we must take action against global warming because of the science, but then be against GM research because of the science. What makes climate change science more ‘acceptable’ compared to GM science?

The second one is for science communicators.

Don’t your complaints that people have misunderstood the science behind GM reflect more badly on you as science communicators than demonstrators protesting about what is a very complex subject, that they happen to have misunderstood?

Or is it a reflection of the sort of society we currently live in where money, fame, glamour and celebrity are everything? (Thus anyone trying to communicate anything else gets drowned out).

The final one is for everyone.

Who’s driving this flying umbrella?

What I mean is who are the vested interests that control the direction of scientific research? I come back to my concerns about the multinationals – and it applies not just to the GM industry but to things like medicine and renewables too. What might be good for the bottom line of a multinational may not be good for wider society. There’s also the risk of research going down blind alleys because the financial incentive for what might otherwise lie at the end is such.

Take mental health. As someone who has been on medication since 2006, I can’t help but feel the financial incentive for big firms looking for treatments for mental health is one that involves taking medicine regularly for a period of time. The financial incentive isn’t there to look at things like the lives that we are leading, the food that we are eating or for things like counselling and other therapies. Does the private/corporate financial interests skew research funding towards one and away from another? If so, by how much and why?

It’s one of the reasons too why I’d like to see more transparency about charities raising money for other illnesses. Lots of people have been, and continue to raise money in good faith for these causes – and I admire them for it.

My fear though is that the money they all raise risks being used to subsidise the future profits of a large pharmaceutical firm who, having benefited from all of the money raised in helping fund its research, finds a cure but then charges a hefty price for said cure having patented the cure that millions and millions of people contributed towards discovering.

The issue for me therefore is not the science, but the institutions behind the scientists: Who is in control and what are the levels of transparency? This for me is where campaigners on both sides may be best advised to sit down and talk to (and listen to) each other. That way the science can be subjected to greater scrutiny – and who knows, that scrutiny may just uncover some goings on in some of the large organisations behind some of the science. Because if transparency is good for the public sector, isn’t it good for the private sector too? Especially if it involves science.

In defence of…ex-special adviser Adam Smith?!?


Some thoughts about special advisers

Guardian leader writer, former special adviser and dragon-fairy-watcher Tom Clark commented that “Adam Smith was too special an adviser to overstep the mark”Smith’s testimony and body language spoke volumes – as did the testimony from Jonathan Stephens, the Permanent Secretary at the DCMS who gave evidence straight after. Lord Justice Leveson’s comments and questions at the end were also interesting.

Robert Jay QC was in his element at the hearing, coldly, carefully dissecting his victim layer by layer – playing the ‘long game’ and using the huge library of emails and texts to allow viewers to draw their own conclusions. Was Smith covering up? Was he incompetent? Was Jay forcing Smith into positions where he ended up having to defend or admit the indefensible or the quite frankly absurd? It was painful viewing.

I couldn’t help but think: “Rabbit + headlights” with the way all of this was going. It was as if Stephens and Leveson agreed, when they discussed how such a seemingly bright and intelligent young man could have ended up in such a situation. They then got into a discussion about examining the relationship between special advisers and other actors in the Whitehall and Westminster jungle – ministers, civil servants, lobbyists etc. I imagine it can be a very lonely world for a young special adviser when faced with people who are much older, more experienced and wiser in the dark arts. Particularly so when you don’t have the option or ability to ‘refer things up the line’ as I often did when things got too tough for me. My view was that there were some situations that I was not paid to deal with – and that others above me were. (There were other situations on the other hand that I felt very much I was paid to deal with and take the flak for). I should add here that the Cabinet Secretary said in evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee that line management support for special advisers is something the Cabinet Office is looking at.

I wonder how many current and former special advisers are saying “There but for the grace of God go I” with Adam Smith’s testimony to Leveson? Andy Burnham, Ed Balls, David and Ed Miliband…all former special advisers on Labour’s side. If Labour had won the election, would it have been their protege’s who had found themselves in Smith’s shoes?

I’m not going to get into the business of defending Smith’s actions or his politics. I’m interested in the public administration issues and how he was managed and supported or otherwise. The first thing that strikes me is that he ended up in the position of being the go-between for the department and News International. Jonathan Stephens and Jeremy Hunt should never have allowed that to happen. Irrespective of the issue of having a political appointee to the civil service carrying out that role in what was a quasi-judicial process, the prospect of having someone so young and inexperienced going head-to-head with an experienced lobbyist from one of the most powerful multinationals in the world strikes me as…”misguided” more than anything else. It should have been an experienced senior official. But then with the scale of the cuts at DCMS meant that there were far fewer experienced hands to handle something like this than a couple of years ago.

The second issue is that of line management. As Leveson said, cabinet ministers are very busy people – it’s not as if they are sitting across the desk from their line managers having regular conversations with them. So who else is there to turn to when the going gets tough as it inevitably does? As a permanent civil servant you have a huge network to turn to for advice – as I inevitably did during tough times. To be able to turn to someone who, for example had spent time in Downing Street as a senior private secretary during Tony Blair’s era or who had faced life at the sharp end of public service delivery was a huge benefit to have. That’s not to say Smith didn’t have such a network – I’m sure that he did. But his would more likely have been a party-political one than a professional one bound by a set of rules such as the civil service management code.

This then brings into sharp focus the sorts of people who end up as special advisers: “Politicians in training” as one tweeter put it. A number of Smith’s defenders pointed out that Smith and Hunt had worked together for several years and as a result the former was particularly tuned into the thinking of the latter – which for a civil servant is what you want from a special adviser. A question they are asked more often than not is “What will the minister think of X?”

This then got me thinking: One of my former colleagues Nader Khalifa (now Secretary of Cambridge Labour Party) told me years ago of the ‘routes to becoming a minister’ – one that some of you will be familiar with. All of those routes involved spending time as a special adviser to a minister or senior politician. Yet there doesn’t seem to be anything in any of the routes he described that looked at running large organisations. There also didn’t seem to be anything around wider skills development during the time a special adviser was in place. You could say that there’s hardly any time for such things anyway – you’re flying by the seat of your pants in such a role. But if being a special adviser is acknowledged by political parties as part of the route to becoming a minister, shouldn’t political parties give a little bit more thought to the training, development and support they give to those bright young things that aspire for political office?

The other issue for me is separating the ‘political’ roles from the ‘this person is being brought in as a special adviser because they are experienced and expert in this policy area’ role. The nature of the former inevitably leads to short-term thinking around how things will play out tactically. Will X play out well with the press and with our key stakeholders? The latter in my (albeit limited experience) tends to focus on more longer term goals – though again I’ve found this depends on the age, experience, competency and aptitude of the individuals appointed. Wise owls are far less easily flustered – in part perhaps because they feel they have got less to prove than their younger counterparts.

As for Smith, as I’ve mentioned above, I’m not looking to defend Smith’s conduct or his testimony. Others will go through that in detail, picking up the shortcomings and contradictions. All I can do is adapt a quotation from Churchill on Nicholas II.

“A dark hand, gloved at first in folly, now intervenes. Exit Smith. Deliver him and all he loved to wounds and the political wilderness. Belittle his efforts, asperse his conduct, insult his memory; but pause then to tell us which other young special adviser would have been found capable.”

As for Hunt, the focus now turns onto him next week. How much did Hunt really know of what Smith was doing? Why did he or Stephens deem it appropriate to send a young special adviser to go head-to-head with an experienced lobbyist? Why were there significant differences  in the approaches to dealing with News International between BIS and DCMS? Didn’t Hunt feel compromised already given his pre-existing views on the company concerned in the same way that Cable was? If so, did he raise these with the Prime Minister before accepting the appointment?

Let’s see what next week reveals.

Civil Service Accountability – II


Some thoughts following the House of Lords Constitution Committee’s evidence session with three Commons Select Committee chairpersons.

It’s an hour-and-a-half long session, but Whitehall and civil service watchers should have a listen to the evidence session – even if it is the first few minutes.

It makes for interesting if somewhat damning listening if you are a civil servant – in particular a senior civil servant. One of the things that strikes me from the evidence is how the conventions have remained static while public administration has evolved – and the former does not seem to have kept up. What was particularly interesting was the observation that the public sector is now significantly more fragmented today than in years gone by. The creation of executive agencies, non-departmental public bodies and the contracting out of various functions to the private and voluntary sector has blurred the lines of ministerial accountability. Hodge compared the time when the principles were established, the Home Office had 28 civil servants. Today, the combined Home Office and Ministry of Justice has 34,000. Thus saying the idea that ministers can be accountable today in the same way for 28 civil servants as to 34,000 is nonsense. Hence why changes are needed.

The challenge for Parliament therefore is to acknowledge the current state of play around accountability for the taxpayers’ pound, and adjust its systems of accountability accordingly. Because at the moment something isn’t working.

What was interesting about Margaret Hodge’s comments was that she was scathing about two projects commissioned by the last Labour Government – in which she served in the early years. The first was on the aircraft carriers, the second was on the fire control project. Her take on both was that civil servants should have stepped in and asked for ministerial directions on value-for-money grounds.

What is a ministerial direction?

For those who don’t know what a ministerial direction is, it is the civil service’s big red button. It is where civil servants object to a decision a minister has made on the grounds of ‘value for money for the tax payer.’ The Permanent Secretary is the accounting officer for the department, and has to account directly to Parliament for how the money allocated to it has been spent. This is in the form of scrutiny from the National Audit Office and public hearings in front of the Public Accounts Committee (currently chaired by Margaret Hodge) annually.

Sometimes, ministers decide to spend money on a project or policy that, when examined in detail civil servants think is a really bad idea. Given that permanent secretaries have to account for spending within the department they head, it is in their interests to call out ministers on spending that has ‘serious value for money issues.’ Sometimes policies and programmes are amended to reflect concerns. Sometimes they are dropped. Sometimes ministers are insistent that such things go ahead. In which case civil servants can say “OK, but on your head be it” – effectively absolving themselves of responsibility of value-for-money issues with the policy. An example of what such a letter looks like is this one – the then Permanent Secretary of the Department for Communities and Local Government (Peter Housden) writing to then Labour Secretary of State John Denham.

As you can see from the above-letter, seeking a written direction involves flagging up the issue in Parliament. In this case it led to an Opposition Day Debate – footage here and a transcript here. Whether such directions would have stopped things from going ahead is a different matter. In the case above, Labour whipped their members into line and the motion (calling on the Government to drop its proposals) fell. That said, as Labour lost the general election a couple of months later, the new Coalition ministers quickly reversed the policy of their predecessors. But the case remains on the need for a stronger more independent Parliament in situations such as this – whether amending controversial proposals on which directions have been issued, or blocking them outright.

But what about accountability of civil servants?

I’ve blogged about this before – with some initial ideas. I’ve also mentioned things like the heads of executive agencies and of those organisations delivering high value public contracts having a much higher public profile than they currently do. The value of the contracts, size of profits and size of remuneration in the latter certainly justifies this.

One of the most useful recent developments in the civil service is the bringing in of non-executive directors for departmental boards. The most effective ones I found were the ones who took a genuine interest in the staff that worked in the department and engaged with them. Amongst other things this was a useful ‘intelligence gathering exercise’ – knowing that any issues that were of particular concern were more than likely to be raised by someone.

One interesting development of note from the Lords Constitutional Committee Hearing (from 10:23:00 ono) was Sir Alan Beith MP (Chair of the Justice Committee) saying that his committee secured the agreement of the Permanent Secretary to do independent ‘floor walks’ of the department, talking to whoever they wanted. His initial feedback was very positive. Does anyone know of any other select committees that do this? What do those of you with experience of working in the civil service think of this?

Who is the decision-maker?

This is what Margaret Hodge is trying to get to in terms of principle. Who is the individual responsible for taking the decision on how the taxpayer pound should be spent? Her premise is that accountability is at the core of improving value for money – and at the moment, accountability is a bit of a blur. Ministers in particular she says are less likely to resign or accept accountability for things that they don’t believe they had much control or influence over. She raised the example of Brodie Clark’s resignation following his disagreement with Home Secretary Teresa May.

Contractual vs democratic accountability

I blogged about this here. This is a problem that Parliament is going to have to wrestle with. This also encompasses the incentives for firms and the nature of contracts signed between the public sector and outside providers. To what extent will those contracts be made open and subject to scrutiny bearing in mind commercial confidence issues? There is a tension there. Are private providers also prepared for greater and more regular political scrutiny of their activities? For it’s not just their shareholders that public service providers should be accountable to.

The right skills

Bernard Jenkin was scathing in his assessment of what skills the civil service was lacking – IT, procurement, programme and project management. To be fair, the civil service has been trying to upskill on procurement and project management, but the size of the institution means it’s like turning around an oil tanker – it’ll take time. On IT, the Government Digital Service is making leaps and bounds in a manner I could not have predicted prior to 2010. For me this was reflected in the manner in which the Social Media Guidance was put together – one where Emer Coleman (Deputy Director for Digital Engagement at Cabinet Office/GDS) initiated a very open process on what should and should not be included in it. I blogged about it early on and she and others were prepared to have an open and transparent conversation on the pages of my blog – on top of further outreach activities such as the TeaCamp workshop (which had a massive turnout for that session). Within the GDS there are a number of very highly skilled people from across the various sectors (public, private, voluntary) who have been able to reach out to their networks to drive a given policy, championed by a minster. Being based in Cabinet Office with an engaged ministerial champion is a massive boost – but is by no means a guarantee of success. It’s just as much getting the right people with the right skills, passion and aptitude for the tasks in hand.

One of the things that remains a concern is turnover – something that is understandably high given the huge restructuring and job cuts going on in the civil service. I blogged about the negative impact of too high a turnover and its impact on policy making earlier. This is something that has also been picked up in the mainstream press – The Guardian’s Public Leaders’ Network citing a blogpost by Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government.

In the meantime, keep an eye out for the looming Civil Service Reform White Paper. It’s due out soon. Will there be proposed changes to how the civil service is held accountable?

Student loans to replace government funding for adult education


It’s not looking good for adult education and lifelong learning.

“Just one in 10 people aged 24 and over would definitely undertake a further education course at college if controversial plans to charge student loans are brought in, according to the government’s own research released today.”

It’s just so utterly depressing. But then adult education isn’t exactly that much of a vote winner or a source of political donations…or am I being cynical? The full policy is set out on the BISgovUK site here.

Many of the arguments I could make I already have in The unintended consequences of adult education policyLoans for this, loans for that…it’s not as if we’re not already drowning under the weight of debt and being priced out of everything as it is. (See Please stop pricing us out of existence for more on this).

If we’re expected to change careers and retrain every so often, it makes no sense to throw further barriers up to prevent people from doing so – especially given that skills are so often emphasised as being vital for the UK’s competitive edge. I don’t buy the argument that people will be happy to take out further loans – on top of the ones that they already have. Most will vote with their feet and not enroll, while others will take them out and struggle with the repayments. I dread to think what it will mean for some of the colleges, both in terms of job losses, closures and the turning of what were once thriving centres of education into ghost towns. Places like CityLit are going to be absolutely hammered by this.

While this is a Coalition policy, I can’t help but feel that it’s also something that would have been at home in a New Labour narrative. The arguments around pulling state funding and replacing it with loans on the grounds that with such courses people will be able to earn more and use those increased earnings to pay those loans back, sits comfortably with university fees. (My kicking of all parties on university fees – and how the policy was made, is here)

Given that it looks like the Coalition is going to go ahead with this policy, will any political party commit to scrapping this policy and reinstating funding for further education?

A negative number is not an approval rating


More on the crisis of politics – is it about the schools?

Twitter was jumping up and down this weekend about how Ed Miliband had higher approval ratings than David Cameron. If you’re a Labour supporter, so far, so good. Then we look at the numbers. Ed Miliband was on -19, David Cameron was on -28. The question asked was whether people thought Ed Miliband was turning out to be a good Labour leader, and whether Cameron was turning out to be a good Prime Minister. Subtract the number/percentage points of those saying “Yes” from those saying “No” and the figure that you are left with is the approval rating.

The thing is, having a ‘minus’ approval rating doesn’t indicate approval (in my book). It indicates the opposite – disapproval. Both seem to be drowning on the sinking ship of mainstream party politics, only one seems trapped on a lower deck of the political Titanic than the other.

“When good people give up on party politics”

Some of you may have read Jon Worth’s post on giving up the ghost for standing as an MEP candidate for Labour. Message to Labour: When someone like Jon gives up the ghost like that, you’ve got problems. Jon’s not the only one in this situation. I’ve bumped into other people – not just from Labour – who have given up the fight for standing as a candidate for their parties.

Local party politics and local government politics is a very messy business. It’s one of the reasons why I try to keep it at arms length. Some of the textual manure that flies across my screen puts me off it completely. The way politics is often reported depresses me. The problem is that when good people give up on politics, not-so-good people get away with not-so-good stuff. I’m over-generalising big time but I hope you get my point. Politics DOES matter – as Professor Matthew Flinders of Sheffield University states. (Similar can be said for Peter Riddell in his book In defence of politicians in spite of themselves).

Is there something about the structure of political parties that puts people off from both joining and standing? Does only a certain type of person have the personality, disposition and aptitude to stand?

On open primaries

This was something the Tories tried out in the run up to 2010 to try and broaden both the background of their 2010 intake (following the MPs’ expenses scandal) and to deal with criticism that both the party and politics in general reflected far too narrow a section of society. Dr Sarah Wollaston was one of the people to be selected through through this process, going on to win her seat at that election.

One of the things David Cameron did on the back of the MPs’ expenses scandal was to ‘cleanse’ his back benches of grandees and ‘deadweight’ MPs who perhaps had seen better days but being incumbents in safe seats were unshiftable. Knights of the shires to ministers from the last millennium for example.

This left the door open for a number of meaningful open primaries to take place as far as the Conservatives were concerned – i.e. whoever came through stood a good chance of being elected in a ‘safe seat.’ In the swing seat of Cambridge, Nick Hillman – an adviser to David Willets (now Universities’ Minister) was selected for the Conservatives, managing to squeeze Labour out of second place in the 2010 general election. I refer to Cambridge as a swing seat because during my lifetime it has been held by MPs from each of the main political parties – the historian Robert Rhodes James (Con), Anne Campbell (Lab) and both David Howarth and Julian Huppert for the Lib Dems.

Not everyone likes open primaries though. With some party activists there is some resentment that someone who has not put in the ground work over the years can be parachuted into a place they feel hasn’t been earned. Without the long years in the party, there may also be less of a feeling of affiliation and loyalty to the party – which makes vote whipping in Parliament that much harder.

It’s not as if open primaries were ever going to be the magic wand though.

It goes far further. It’s interesting to note that a number of institutions have been getting a kicking of late – not just the civil service. Public schools – or rather their disproportionate influence – has been coming under fire from those that are a product of them. George Osborne, Nick Clegg, Michael Gove have all drawn attention to this. (It happened too while I was in Wales this week when the Labour Welsh Assembly Minister went after Cameron and Osborne). Dominic Sandbrook drew attention in early 2011 to the Cabinet’s depressing record on this.

The figures on education are even more revealing. Of our 119 Government ministers, 66 per cent went to public schools, compared with only 7 per cent of the population as a whole. And what is more, a staggering 10 per cent went to just one school, Eton.

He goes on further to say that it’s not just the Tories – but Parliament as a whole. Yet the institutions of Parliament seem to reinforce the social immobility around Westminster politics – especially when you look at the system of political internships – many of which are advertised at W4MP. Have a look at all of the ‘expenses only’ ones then ask yourself how many people can afford to self-fund their way through one of those. Then ask yourself how many people from outside of London can even get there. Then ask yourself how many people outside of the field of politics (and even those within the field) even know of the existence of this website.

It’s not just Westminster but Whitehall too. While there are paid internships for would-be Fast Streamers in ‘under-represented groups’ (for which competition is fierce), opportunities are few and far-between for everyone else. Given the very small numbers of people that both hear about and get on such well-meaning but limited programmes, the likelihood that they will solve the problems around lack of social mobility is minimal. The problem is systemic. It needs something far greater than a few initiatives coupled with a handful of soundbites.

Is the proof in the pudding how private schools and their representative bodies react?

Possibly. Bearing in mind that they have a commercial interest in the outcome of all of this, they are unlikely to be happy with anything that puts them at a systemic disadvantage. Politically it’s a difficult balance for the Conservatives in particular given some of the institutional links between some of the top schools and their political party. It’s also very difficult to see what short-medium term political benefit the Conservatives would gain from upsetting one of their core constituencies. Let’s say that the Coalition did decide to take significant action – for example going further than Labour went regarding charitable status (Charity Commission guidance being subsequently overturned). Would anyone credit the Coalition for turning things around? Would wider society be able to feel the tangible benefits in the short to medium term? A core constituency of Conservative voters would be far more likely to feel the tangible costs, that’s for sure.

Yet this is the rock and the hard place that senior politicians of all parties find themselves in. Like Edward VIII they agree that ‘something must be done’ but it feels like they don’t know what. That or anything that they do suggest feels like tinkering with the system rather than overhauling it. The other problem many of them have is they stand accused (by a very vocal and influential constituency) of kicking sand in the faces of a system that they did very well out of, while at the same time running the risk of not getting the credit from those that they are wanting to help.

What of those who want to nationalise all of the public schools?

I’ve met a fair number of people who have called for this – in particular from teachers. (Laurie Penny is another). It’s not something I’ve looked at in huge detail myself so can’t say I have an opinion either way. The things to consider though are:

The irresolvable tension between what a family may want and what is better for society. How many of you reading this have had private tuition of one sort or another to…say…compensate for a lack of progress in a subject? I did – for A-level maths. (It didn’t do me much good at the time!) My lack of progress could have been down to a combination of things. Lack of application on the subject, immaturity on my side, lack of talent, poor teaching, poor facilities, health…a whole host of things.

Extrapolate this scenario nationwide – whether private tuition or private schooling, and you have people either getting into positions or places that in the longer term is beyond them, or people who would otherwise shine in such positions or places being blocked off by insurmountable barriers. (Note research comparing the degree results of those educated at comprehensive schools vs their privately educated counterparts). On the former, you may have heard the phrases “Educated beyond his ability” or “Promoted beyond their level of competence”. From a wider society and economy point of view, politicians are saying they want to remove barriers that are blocking genuine talent. Yet at the same time they run the risk of some (more affluent) parents that things won’t be as easy for them.

The system of private schooling is one that is woven ever so deeply into the political establishment and beyond. Nationalising private schools wholesale is unlikely to happen because so many big interests have vested interests in them – whether it was the schools that they went to or the ones their children and grand children go to. It’s like with abolishing hereditary peers – politicians are nervous about it because the hereditary principle underpins the monarchy too. Should too loudly about how anachronistic the hereditary principle is with peers and people will start making connections with the monarchy too. One of the reasons why House of Lords reform has taken so long.

If you wanted to go down the route of nationalising private schools, it would take a huge amount of political will – something Ian Jack compares to the abolition of the monasteries. You could say it would take something not far off a revolution to undertake such a nationalisation. But by the time things got that bad, those in the front line would be taking on institutions far greater than private schools, the nationalisation of which would merely be a sideshow.

When ministers turn on their civil servants


Musings on recent attacks on the civil service

Over the past few days there have been several headlines and articles about conflict at the top of Government. The difference between the recent spats and previous ones is that the top civil servants have been able to use social media to address the general public directly. Ian Watmore did this upon his resignation from the top of Cabinet Office, and the Head of the Civil Service Sir Bob Kerslake very public slapped down Daily Telegraph reports on the civil service being cut by between 70-90%.

SpAd wars

Conflicts between special advisers and civil servants are nothing new. My first recollection of such spats were during my university days when I read about the breakdown at the mega-ministry of DLTR involving Stephen Byers, his special adviser Jo Moore and the civil servant director of communications (and former BBC journalist) Martin Sixsmith. No one came out of that episode smelling of roses.

The case about Kerslake and Hilton is all the more notable because it’s happening at the very top of government – at a time when the Coalition is on the backfoot on a number of fronts. It’s also notable the amount of briefing that has come out undermining both the role and the competence of policy civil servants. It’s got to the level where both the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian published comment columns by Sue Cameron and Peter Riddell respectively, in defence of the civil service. (My own defence from some months back is here).

How to run a large organisation

One of the things that strikes me about a number of political types I read about is how few of them have had experience of running large organisations. This goes for both ministers and special advisers. Chief executives of private companies have to account for their actions to shareholders (who are becoming more active these days), those running charitable organisations to boards of trustees (and donors too), while those running large public organisations have to account ultimately to Parliament. I go into detail about the challenges of running a large organisation (from a political perspective) in my blogpost Ministerial initiatives and pet projects.

Both ministers and senior civil servants have to account for their actions before Parliament – the latter mainly in select committees. Special advisers do not. Special advisers are also expected to be publicly silent. See the Special Advisers’ Code from Cabinet Office. Hence why so few of them are quoted on the record. Given the disagreements that have been reported at the top of government in recent days, is there a role for Parliament to scrutinise and cross-examine the work of special advisers? It seems strange that the first public scrutiny many of us will see of a special adviser will be when Lord Leveson and Robert Jay QC will be of Jeremy Hunt’s ex-special adviser Adam Smith. Smith may now be an ex, but I imagine Jay will be cross-examining him on his actions during the very recent time he was serving his appointment: i.e. this is not a softer ‘many years after’ look back at what happened. It may well be that both the Culture Media and Sports Committee and the Public Administration Committee will choose to look at the conduct of special advisers following the Leveson session next week.

Why turning on the civil service is so tempting – but is very bad form.

It’s very easy to portray the civil service as what you want it to be. It’s a large ‘faceless’ organisation that’s very easy to pass the blame onto when something goes wrong or when bad stuff happens. It’s like when people blame ‘liberal elites’ or the ‘PC brigade’ – or as I sometimes do, ‘the political establishment.’ It allows the politician to say to the public “I’m on your side – unlike that ‘orrible lot over there who are not on your side and are trying to stop us from doing good stuff!” – knowing that said institution or group of people cannot answer back. In the case of liberal elites or the PC brigade, I can’t think of anyone who claims to be part of either, let alone claiming to speak for either.

In the case of the civil service, civil servants have huge constitutional restrictions on what they can and cannot say in public. That leaves the civil service unions, the largest of whom (The PCS Union – in which I used to be a member when I was a civil servant) is not flavour of the month with politicians and the media.

But coming back to the point about running large organisations, does it make any sense to alienate the very people who are going to be responsible for carrying out your desired actions? Civil servants spend a huge amount of time and effort trying to adapt their working styles and practices to the needs and wishes of ministers that they work for. They also spend a huge amount of time trying to unpick the various problems and issues related to the policies that ministers want implemented. Ministers may not like being told that there are significant problems with some of their policies, but civil servants have a constitutional duty to tell them of these things. This is one of the reasons why the NHS risk register for the Health and Social Care Act 2012 was so controversial.

If ministers and special advisers choose to treat their civil servants with contempt and disrespect, it makes it harder for all three to do their jobs and makes it far less likely that the policy aims of ministers will ever be achieved. Treat them with dignity and respect however, and you find that civil servants – just as anyone else – are more likely to go that extra mile for them. Matt Ross in Civil Service World pretty much makes these points in his criticism of the language used by ministers regarding reform of the civil service. Civil servants know the civil service needs improving, and want to be part of that improvement process – as this survey shows. Why kick sand in their faces?

An organisation as large as the civil service is going to make some mistakes. It’s got that many human beings in it. In civil service world, it’s worth asking whether such a mistake was a one off, whether it’s related to a person or persons, or whether it’s something systemic in the organisation. In the various articles I’ve linked to in this blogpost, numerous points have been made about how the Prime Minister or other ministers have been concerned about policy mistakes. The occurrence of those mistakes does not surprise me at all. Why? Because the civil service is still in the process of going through a significant restructure that includes thousands upon thousands of job losses. When any organisation goes through a process like that, it involves significant disruption. When you have such disruption, people fearful of their jobs and high levels of stress, things will inevitably go wrong. To pretend otherwise is fantasy.

One of the other impacts of those job losses is the loss of a number of highly skilled highly experienced individuals – the likes of whom may well have nipped some of the policy, strategy and communications failures in the bud. But such was the pace of the cuts that little time could be given to identify those who were needed, why and for which areas.

The next test for the relationship between civil servants and ministers will come with the publication of the White Paper on Civil Service Reform. David Walker in The Guardian attributes the rise in anti-civil-service briefing to the looming publication of this document. Given that there is already an existing industrial dispute on civil service pensions with the largest civil service union, will the White Paper sooth or heighten those tensions?

Cambridge Societies’ Fair


Further thoughts on a big idea of mine.

Some of you will be familiar with this from my post Bringing Cambridge Together. Since then, the local elections have happened and a number of seats have changed hands. It also means that local councillors can switch their attention back to being councillors – the activities around local elections understandably taking up a lot of their time. The sitting councillor in my neighbourhood – George Owers – was returned with a sizeable majority in what historically has been a safe-as-houses ward for Labour. As I commented when I took Puffles to the polling station, George was the only candidate who seemed to have made the effort locally. I was also pleased when, asked by someone on Twitter why he bothered door-knocking in his ward rather than focussing his efforts on neighbouring marginals, he responded that he wouldn’t want to take the votes of constituents in his ward for granted. As it is, I’m glad that I have a councillor who uses social media rather than (irrespective of their politics) one of the other candidates who at the moment do not.

The reason why I feel this way is because I think social media provides a huge opportunity to help make Cambridge a better place for all of us that live here. Hence why I think it is important that local politicians – and local councillors in particular – start making use of it. It was one of the reasons why I offered to deliver a free social media awareness seminar for elected members – something that Cambridge City Council was to take up.

Is the voluntary/civil society sector using social media in Cambridge?

Not as well as it could be. I am pleased to say though that following a meeting I had last week with Cambridge Council for Voluntary Services, making use of social media is going to rise up their agenda. You might have noticed they currently don’t have social media links to things such as Facebook and Twitter at the moment. This is one of the things I hope to help them change. The reason for lobbying the CCVS is because they are the local umbrella organisation for many of the small groups and societies in and around the city. One of the things that I came away from that meeting with was the sense of the digital divide. Some groups and organisations are still using snail mail as their primary means of communication. How does a social media advocate such as myself deal with those who either cannot access or choose to stay away from social media?

Why not just book the hall, tell people to come and be done with it?

Because then I’d end up with an empty hall and a huge bill. Organising societies fairs is a big task – just ask any officers of the local students unions. If I want this thing to be something of a success, I have to start doing the groundwork now. Hence pestering Richard Johnson prior to the election about this. He tweeted that he’d support the idea of a Cambridge Societies Fair if elected – subsequently to be spoofed by ShallotCambs that he would completely ignore it if he wasn’t! (Fortunately for the idea, Richard was elected as a councillor for the Abbey ward in Cambridge).

The important thing about Richard – or Cllr Johnson to give his new title – is that the idea has a local ‘champion’ behind it. He’s in a much greater position of influence to secure paid staff time (e.g. from local authorities and other organisations), volunteers and the co-operation of local groups…certainly far more influence than someone whose best friend is a dragon!

The nature of this idea though is non-party-political: It’s one that I’d like to think councillors from across the political spectrum could get behind. At a time when turnout in elections is at such a low level, and at a time when politics and politicians are held in such low esteem, here is something where local politicians of all parties can demonstrate working together for the greater good of the city. And who knows…if it’s successful enough such a societies’ fair could become an annual event like the student ones.

Let’s say you’ve convinced me of the idea. What next?

For me there are two strands. The first involves getting the individual groups and societies using social media if they are not already. The second is around organising an event itself.

Increasing social media usage

The purpose of using social media is to get people to make connections at a grassroots level. This involves a mixture of outreach, awareness-raising and training. The important thing for me here is that social media should be placed within a broader context – that of bringing people together. A number of people have talked about social media isolating people from the real world – a point made by Baroness Deech in a talk that Jon Worth and I attended in Parliament a few months back. Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I prefer to use social media to bring friendly like-minded people together face-to-face – with social media keeping people connected when geographically far apart.

One of the things I’d like to test out in my local library is a social media awareness workshop. Similar to the ones I ran for Cambridge City Council customer service staff, I think it’s worth testing to see if bringing people together in a locality to talk about social media issues might just be the catalyst to kick start some of the groundwork. One person in a community doing something can only go so far. When you get lots of people joining in at the same time, the results can be dramatic.

Raising awareness with organisations and community groups

This was something I discussed with the Cambridge CVS. From a ‘strategic’ perspective, Cambridge City Council has already made it clear social media is going to become a core part of how it delivers services. There’s also a huge opportunity for it to lean on community groups and organisations to make use of social media too – for example any group applying for grants. Something as simple as having a ‘mission statement’ of using social media to bring Cambridge together and increase community cohesion, or to increase people’s participation in voluntary and community groups. That way it sends a message out to everyone there’s an expectation groups will interact with each other.

The City Council’s community development officers will be key here. Last year I had a meeting with a couple of them. At the time, social media platforms were blocked. This had an impact on their ability to use social media to engage with the communities they worked in. Fortunately those blocks have been lifted. The next step for these community workers is to become advocates for using social media in the areas they work in.

Organising the event

The experts are on our doorstep in the two big students unions – Cambridge and Anglia’s. It’s not going to be a case of booking a hall, telling everyone and hoping that they are going to turn up. For the students’ society fairs it takes a huge amount of organisation and preparation. Who will be manning which stalls? Who will be making what displays? Who will be bringing what equipment? Do we have enough plug outlets on the day? Who will be designing and printing fliers?

At the outset, it might be worth talking to the student union officers who are responsible for putting their fairs on to find out what is involved. One of the added benefits of this too is it puts this event on the universities’ radars. Some of the student societies may want to have their own stalls too – especially those that are open to people outside of university circles.

And post-event?

Or even before it, the County Council’s resource, Cambridgeshire.Net would need to add social media fields for the groups and societies within its pages.

After the event, it would be nice to do some evaluation of the activities in the run up to, and during the event. How many people turned up? How many new groups and organisations started using social media as a result or preparation? How many people attended awareness-raising and training workshops? How many people joined new groups? How many people started a new activity? What was people’s feedback on those activities? Did it improve their health, wellbeing and morale? Did they meet new people? Did they feel a greater connection to their community? Do they think such a societies fair should become an annual event?

Some food for thought for Cambridge people.

Scrutiny Leveson/Jay style


Could MPs learn a thing or two about scrutiny?

“Come on Bobby J! Get stuck in!!! Throw the other fist will ya?!?” The Leveson Inquiry has made for fascinating viewing – and I imagine ministers that are due to appear for cross-examination are not looking forward to being grilled by one of the most well-known barristers in the land (i.e. Robert “Bobby J” Jay QC).

During my time in the civil service, one of the things that we were at pains to avoid was being judicially reviewed. This was especially the case if ministers were called to give evidence. The numerous training courses, seminars and guidance that I came across in my time is testament to that. And with good reason.

When ministers appear before Leveson, they will be subject to the sort of scrutiny that they REALLY don’t like. With the witnesses that appeared before Leveson so far, they’ve either dropped bombshells (wittingly or unwittingly) or they’ve shown themselves to be repeatedly evasive to the extent that people have been left with the sense that such witnesses are either not telling the truth and/or have something further to hide.

I remember chatting to a former acquaintance who I met during my Fast Stream days. She was a barrister before choosing to change careers. She told me that under cross-examination from a barrister or lawyer, the one thing to avoid was being led down a line of questioning that led you to a dead end that you could not get out of – that was the jackpot for the barrister concerned. This, if I recall correctly was one of the things the late libel barrister George Carman QC was very good at. During the 1990s he was regularly all over the papers – more often than not because he was quite good at defending them in libel cases. (There was a darker side to his personality which his son’s biography describes in vivid if depressing detail). The point I’m trying to make is that representatives of News International in particular have been full of “I don’t know/I don’t recall/possibly” sorts of responses because it makes it harder for those cross-examining them to tie them down.

Scrutiny in Parliament

I moaned in my previous blogpost On Parliamentary Scrutiny how difficult it is for MPs to properly hold ministers to account when they only get one question each during departmental questions. It’s all too easy for ministers to respond with party-political points in what should be sound and proper scrutiny.

Select committees are slightly different beasts, and we got a sense of just how effective they can be with Tom Watson’s scrutiny of News International in recent times, just as we do with those MPs that have some level of legal training and expertise. This makes me wonder whether there is a role for select committees to have senior counsel attached to them to assist in the scrutiny process – even leading the initial questioning of witnesses. Think of how much more select committees would get out of witnesses – in particular hostile ones – if they were subjected to proper scrutiny. It would also significantly increase the level of publicity that such select committees received. (Ideally it would be nice if a few more decent barristers were elected to Parliament to carry out such functions without separate posts).

Scrutiny style Question Time style

Mary Beard was on top form recently on BBC’s Question Time in Oldham. Peter Oborne, who I have a like/dislike feeling for, made the big mistake of trying to take on Professor Beard in her specialist subject – in which the latter quite predictably wiped the floor. As the other four panelists were squabbling over the economic crisis, she also made the point that as senior politicians, she would expect them to be on top of this crisis but their squabbling was demonstrating they were anything but. It was all a bit too “grand standing at the Oxford Union” for my liking.

This perhaps is also one of the frustrating points about Question Time – it’s all too similar to the forms in Parliament. None of the audience members are allowed to follow up properly the questions that they are trying to ask or the points that they are trying to make. It’s as if the only people who regularly get to do that sort of scrutiny in the public eye are the top level (mainly BBC) journalists. And I can’t help but feel they need to up their game in the face of politicians who have done media and communications training. (Yes, I’ve done some of that training too).

Perhaps it’s because in a court room there’s not so much time pressure vs that of a 2 minute Q&A in a TV studio that things coming out from Leveson have been so striking. When was the last time on Newsnight that an interview or a debate left you absolutely gobsmacked and speechless? Or perhaps that is not the purpose of such interviews anyway – perhaps more to provide some context on what was happening rather than to skewer an individual politician or minister.

This also moves nicely onto an article by Rowenna Davis in the New Statesman – The case against anti-politics. For those of you who prefer digital videos, have a look at Defending Politics: Why politics matters, from the RSA.

Scrutiny matters because scrutiny improves policy. It improves politics too. I’ve seen first hand what good scrutiny looks like – and I’ve also seen (all too often unfortunately) the opposite. In recent times I’ve gotten the sense that people see through the grand standing and the bluster that creates hot air and little else. The considered, calculated, planned and prepared scrutiny on the other hand – especially from those less well known on the other hand allows people to make judgements on the responses from those being scrutinised. Amongst other things, it allows – even encourages us, the general public to engage our brains and come to our own judgements. I’d like to think that this style of scrutiny can help – even just a little bit – in re-engaging the public with politics

How will the Coalition partners go their separate ways?


How will the Tories and Lib Dems make a clean break?

The kicking in the polls the governing parties took at the local government elections in May 2012 made things more than a little awkward for messrs Clegg and Cameron. Politicians from both parties have mentioned that mid-term elections tend to give the governing parties a rough ride. Recall too that the last local council elections before the 2010 general election for Labour were particularly difficult for Gordon Brown. Does this point to an implosion for the Coalition?

Fighting for fewer votes

Part of me still wonders what impact the weather had both in the run up to, and on the day of the local elections. Does rain really lower turnout? Given the prolonged economic crisis, I would have thought that more people might have wanted to have voted. But then I live in a political Twitter bubble.

Ed Miliband was right to highlight the issue in his recent speech in Harlow – noting that over 70% of voters there did not vote.

“I want to reach out and understand why you don’t trust any politicians, why you don’t believe any of us can answer the questions that you are facing in your life.

“I think there is a crisis of politics in this country, there is a crisis of people thinking ‘I’m not going to engage with politics, you’re all the same, you all break your promises’.”

The thing is, low voter turnouts are not new. In the 2001 general election the figures fell to a dreadful 59.4%. Will those voters come back, or are they lost for good? Should political parties read much into the percentages of the local election results given the low turnout? Can Clegg and Cameron take some heart in some of their traditional voters choosing to stay at home?

Restless backbenchers and activists

Anecdotally, Tory backbenchers seem to be more restless than their Liberal Democrat counterparts. Maybe it’s because there are more of the former than the latter. Tim Montgomerie’s article for ConservativeHome Tory MPs at war with each other makes for interesting reading – as do the comments about the site giving too much publicity to disloyal MPs. Should such discussion be aired in public or behind closed doors – as alluded to by Claire Perry MP? Brian Binley MP – a backbencher who sits on the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee also had some choice words for the Conservative leadership in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

As far as the right of the Tory party is concerned, the Coalition isn’t right-wing enough. As far as their Coalition partners are concerned, it’s made for some difficult times for activists on the ground – especially on issues such as the NHS and higher education where in the mindset of some voters, they didn’t expect the Lib Dems to sign up for such policies and legislation. One notable victory for Labour in my neck of the woods was the defeat of Amanda Taylor in the Queen Ediths ward. I was still at secondary school and still had a paper round when Amanda was first elected, and was in what we all thought was a safe as houses seat…until the Tom Watson roadshow rolled into town. But the same could have been said for my ward – Coleridge (safe Labour) – until Chris Howell (who stood down in 2010) was elected for the Conservatives.

Understanding Kilroy’s Image Problem

For those of you familiar with Dead Ringers from 2004, that was the acronym they gave UKIP when Robert Kilroy Silk joined and took part in this party political broadcast. (He was gone in less than a year). Yet the party continues to be a thorn in the side of the Conservatives. Whether this will lead to MPs defecting – as indicated in this Andrew Neil interview – remains to be seen. Cameron’s managed to keep the right of his party in check for now, but for how much longer?

A handful of MPs defecting would not make a huge difference to parliamentary majorities – the Coalition still has a working majority of 83. Having recently red Gyles Brandreth’s diaries, unless the Coalition imploded I can’t see there being the problems that befell John Major in the mid 1990s, when MPs were being wheeled into the Commons on hospital beds or in dressing gowns to vote, in order to face down rebellious MPs. It therefore might be the case that defections by the most rebellious MPs might make the Coalition more stable as ministers would feel they no longer have to placate such MPs, while mindful they still have a workable majority.

Yet as we head closer to an election in 2015, will the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats want to make themselves more distinguishable from each other, and if so how?

Warsi Warsi everywhere…

I kind of feel sorry for her, being wheeled out onto every other news and current affairs programme to defend all this bad news. In part it’s due to the nature of our political system which formally separates “Government” from “Party Politics” – especially when it comes to civil service support. Hence on overtly party-political debates, the Tories wheel her out, and the Lib Dems turn to Tim Farron and Simon Hughes. Puffles’ Twitter feed last night showed a stream of tweets frustrated at Warsi appearing for what felt like the umpteenth time on Newsnight. It just feels like she’s being hung out to dry with next to no support from her fellow party members as far as appearing on the media circuit is concerned. Is the party that lacking on confident cerebral media performers who can engage in debate with journalists and a studio audience?

Similar points can also be said of the other political parties as far as national media coverage is concerned. For example I’d like to see both Julian Huppert (my local MP – Lib Dem for Cambridge) and Stella Creasy (Labour MP for Walthamstow) appearing far more regularly. I guess party organisers may not like that idea as the more politicians appear in the media, the harder it is for them to ‘control the message’.

A managed break up

This is where it’s going to get tricky for both Coalition parties. How do you try and distinguish yourselves from the other party without kicking sand in their faces? For the Lib Dems, the more flack they take from their Coalition partners, the less likely they will want to see the course – especially if at the same time they are taking further flack from the policies that they otherwise would not want to back. At the same time, there is still the convention of cabinet government, making it difficult for Conservative ministers to go public saying ‘We would love to do this but we are in a coalition so we can’t.’ There’s only so far in private that ministers can use this line to placate backbenchers – especially in the face of bad election results.

Separating party functions from government functions

The Lib Dems sort of do this with the role of Tim Farron. Less so with Sayeeda Warsi for the Tories who sits in the Cabinet. As well as being president of the minority party in the Coalition, not being in Cabinet may give Farron a freer rein to criticise Coalition policies than Warsi does.

One possible solution for both parties is to appoint/designate MPs who are not ministers with the responsibility of leading policy development and debate for the next general election and beyond. This may mean asking some ministers to step down for this purpose – but at the same time giving them the freedom to constructively criticise existing Coalition policies and their Coalition partners. e.g. ‘We haven’t been able to do X,Y and Z because we’re in Coalition, but if we win a majority then we will implement X, Y and Z’. What becomes tricky is if X, Y & Z involves repealing things that the Coalition implemented – tuition fees being an example.

Such a set up would make things tricky for Labour – who would you target and how? Do you go for the existing Coalition or do you go for the individual parties? While the results of the recent local government elections were nominally good for Labour, their challenge is to demonstrate they are an alternative administration. In particular this means individual politicians demonstrating they have the competence to hold ministerial office, and a series of policies that sit well together and are consistent with each other. There might be some individual strong performers and strong performances, but I’m not yet seeing an alternative government in their front bench.