Ex-Treasury Minister gives talk in Cambridge on life inside Whitehall


Ex-Labour minister and county councillor in Cambridgeshire Melanie Johnson on life as a minister, MP & councillor. And more moans from me about lack of co-ordinated publicity for otherwise interesting events and talks.

The Minister for Dragons will see you now.
The Minister for Dragons will see you now.

Some of you are probably wondering who Melanie Johnson is. Have a look here from Total Politics, and here on WikiP.

She’s one of a number of former councillors from round here who have gone onto higher public office. Think of Baronesses Trumpington and Brinton, and Graham Stuart MP, who chairs the Education Select Committee.

Inevitably given the nature of parliamentary and party politics, Brinton, Stuart and Johnson all left Cambridge as they sought to find seats where they would have a reasonable chance of winning.

What did Melanie have to say?

I did some live-tweeting on the hashtag #MelJTalk. From my perspective, there was little that I wasn’t aware of. But given that so few people get the opportunity to find out what politicians really think about life on the inside in a Q&A session, I thought it would be worth sharing with others. Yes, you can read memoirs of people, but it’s always slightly different when you are in the room and hearing someone talk about it. Different method of communication and somewhere that allows you some, if limited, scrutiny & cross-examination. Points I’d like to underline from her talk include:

The best politicians are ones that did not go straight into politics from university

There were a couple of teenagers in the room, and Melanie gave that advice to one of them, advising her to effectively not to become a professional politician. I think there’s a greater awareness across the political class that the traditional fast-track routes into ministerial office are becoming discredited in the eyes of the public. How often do you hear it asked whether a minister has run their own business, run a large organisation or had a ‘proper job’? I prefer to see politics and standing for public office as a vocation to serve your community/country, rather than as a ‘destiny’, a job or even a stepping stone to international jet-setness or corporate boardroom splendid-chapness.

Public office has become more demanding

Hasn’t everything? Melanie compared late historian Robert Rhodes James (who was MP for Cambridge during the 1980s) who hand-wrote his constituency correspondence. Compare that with current MP Julian Huppert, who in his first year had the best part of 10,000 pieces of casework to deal with.

Politics has changed significantly over the past 30 years, and is still changing

Most significantly, the demands of 24 hour news channels and of people taking up social media. In particular, the demand to have opinions about absolutely everything in an instant, without giving a person any time to think through and give a considered response. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the dysfunctional relationship between politicians and corporate media. Politicians give the corporate media lines to take, and the corporate media try to catch out politicians and turn molehills into mountains whenever there’s even a hint of inconsistency that doesn’t follow a given line to take. The impact of an incredibly centralised and disciplined approach to politics from party HQs is the blandification of politics. A reaction to the infighting in Labour in the 1980s, and the Conservatives in the 1990s. Yet people’s use of technology has made the centralised micromanaged approach obsolete. It is much easier in a social media-enabled world for people to find out who are the independent thinkers and doers, vs those that regurgitate the lines to take from HQ.

Ministers and executive councillors need training

It takes time to learn the ropes of any new job. Melanie said having a background in economics would have been useful in The Treasury. The question then is what form should that training take. Being a shadow minister or a political adviser to a minister might be useful ‘soft’ training, but as Andrew Lansley demonstrated with the Health and Social Care Act, spending a long time as a shadow minister does not automatically translate into legislative or policy success upon the move into ministerial office. Also, being a constituency representative and community champion require a different set of skills to running a large organisation of several thousand.

The workload of being a minister and an MP are too great for one person

Eventually, someone’s going to get short-changed. And it’s seldom the government of the day. I tried to get Melanie to expand on this, but she gave a generic answer about politics being about compromises and deciding whether you were a pragmatist who could get things done or a purist who stuck to principles but achieved little. Judging by the audience’s reaction and their questions, I think there was some surprise at the scale of the ministerial workload – in particular the amount of papers that have to be signed off by ministers outside of office hours. (Hence the ministerial box that Puffles briefly nabbed). At the same time, I question her ability at the time to effectively delegate and organise her workload. Was meeting A necessary? Did media appearance B really need a minister or would a press release have done? Was conference C really that essential?

Mindful of the scale of correspondence that Julian Huppert has to deal with, is it really acceptable in the 21st Century to have a class of MPs (ministers, whips and PPS’s) prevented from speaking out publicly on issues of concern to their constituents on the floor of the House? Personally I think there should be much greater separation of executive and legislature as I have stated on previous occasions.

Nearly 100 people on a Friday night is quite impressive turnout

It’s a side of town that I’m not really familiar with. The proximity to the colleges – particularly the newer ones such as Fitzwilliam, Churchill and Murray Edwards means the part of town where the talk was held (Richmond Road off Huntingdon Road in NW Cambridge) is an affluent university-connected one. The audience was noticeably older too – few young people there. (Who in their teens and 20s would choose to go to a talk on politics on a warm Friday night? Exactly). Essentially I was an outsider. I didn’t really know anyone in the room. That’s not a criticism of the people there – if anything it’s a reflection of how difficult it is to get from one side of town to the other, as well as the ‘collegiate’ nature of the various parts of town that make up the City of Cambridge. What I mean by that is that many of the wards are self-contained communities in their own right. It’s how they’ve evolved.

Really interesting stuff is happening, but it’s not easy to find out when and where

This is my point about using social media in a manner that complements/adds to what people do offline. For Melanie’s talk, there was next to no social media chatter about the event. Given the fact that Melanie is a former Labour councillor and Treasury minister, I would have expected local Labour activists to have been blowing their trumpets on this event, publicising it far and wide. But for whatever reason this did not happen.

My point is that there is pent-up demand for events like this. Given that within the city we also have a former Cabinet Secretary (he’s on first name terms with Puffles) and a former Archbishop of Canterbury too, I remain of the view that really interesting talks and events can be put on that can break some of the barriers that exist both within the various parts of the city and with town/gown in general.  Hence why Puffles and I have already started on an ambitious timetable of events this autumn to make the connections with both people and institutions with a view to making Cambridge – my home town – greater than the sum of our parts.

Why be a community activist like this?

There are probably a few Cambridge political types wondering why I’m doing this. I like this quotation though.

“An activist is someone who cannot help but fight for something. That person is not usually motivated by a need for power or money or fame, but in fact is driven slightly mad by some injustice, some cruelty, some unfairness, so much so that he or she is compelled by some internal moral engine to act to make it better.” Eve Ensler.

It’s that, combined with the cumulative impact of seeing problems and potential solutions not joining up. For example the young sixth former who was in my local library recently looking for a year long regular weekly volunteering opportunity in a city where older generations are interested in learning more about social and digital media. She’s grown up with it. Or the dance society struggling to find suitable halls with the churches struggling to fill their vacancies because the former don’t know where to find the latter as the latter don’t know where and how are the best places to advertise and engage.

Having lived and worked in other cities, and through both having seen numerous examples of what Cambridge could replicate, it’s this innate sense of knowing what Cambridge could become along with a frustration of it not actually happening that drives me. That plus the dangers of the wealthy interests circling the city and changing it not always for the benefit of the local community. You only have to look at the bland box-like structures of the area around Cambridge railway station to see that. That was part of a development close to the £1billion mark. And that’s the best that developers and financiers can come up with.

All this chimes with Melanie Johnson’s message…

…which was that politics matters. Greatly. Politicians and politics have their significant flaws. That’s a given. We’re all human. But when we go back to first principles, politics is the process by which we resolve our differences without resorting to violence. When people try to end wars, long lasting peaceful solutions require some sort of process to achieve it. That process is politics.

Communities and societies need people from within to stand up for and with them. As the saying goes, freedom is not free. It depends on people taking risks and taking action. I take a more optimistic view that most people who go into politics do so altruistically – especially community and local politics. Despite the recent scandals about moats and duckhouses, I still like to think that people engage in community and local politics because they want to make a positive difference. I’m one of those people who wants to make a difference but in a manner that’s outside of formal structures. The restrictions they place not just on myself but on Puffles feel too great – especially in a social-media-enabled world. Things feel far more dynamic outside of those structures – it was one of the main reasons why I left the civil service in the first place.

Whether I’ll actually make a difference…remains to be seen. But hey, there’s no rush.



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