I'm so glad to see one of my boys make good with Mr Blair

A strong Cabinet, not spin doctors and policy gurus, holds the key to better government
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The Independent Culture
THERE HAVE been few promotions in politics recently to warm my cockles, but one which has definitely done the trick is the promotion of my chief of staff at the old GLC, Bill Bush. Bill moved in March from his position as head of the BBC's political research unit to Downing Street. According to the press last week, Bill is now to be moved up a rung to head a unit at Number 10, "charged with `rebutting' unfavourable stories and ensuring a common line on sensitive issues". Tony Blair is lucky to have him and he will be an enormous asset to the Government.

But I am amazed to read the comment on Bill in The Spectator, that "now we learn that he was an aide to Ken Livingstone in the 1980s", as if the magazine's entire staff were asleep during the GLC's Labour administration of 1981-86. Perhaps they were all at lunch.

As the Labour group's political assistant at the GLC, Bill never became a creature of the bureaucracy. Instead he had an acutely political understanding of both the council and the party. Unlike many in Labour in 1979, he shared my view that Mrs Thatcher would not be turfed out in four years. Bill and I agreed that Thatcher's victory did mean that a Labour win was certain in London in 1981, and that a radical manifesto was possible.

Bill, by this time, was already clearly disillusioned with the Labour group within the GLC, which was unimaginative and often comatose. The group was so demoralised that they had no energy to fight for a Labour victory.

Within a short time of his appointment I became good friends with Bill. His radicalism and relaxed approach were at odds with the atrophied Labour group. I should imagine that Tony Blair finds these very attributes make Bill well able to tackle the top ranks of a Civil Service which was shaped under 18 years of highly political appointments under the Tories.

One of the things that the 1981 GLC administration is best remembered for is our grants policy. This was an innovation which largely evolved after Bill's intervention. As my biographer, John Carvel, records of Bill's role: "[he] was mainly responsible for inserting support for a grants programme at various points in the manifesto while he was doing the staff work on its preparation. His argument was that working with community- based groups was an efficient way of finding out what people want and then delivering it to them".

It was Bill who had seen a loophole in the legislation that allowed the grants policy to evolve.

What is not fully understood is that during this time Bill was the secretary to each of the working groups which drafted the manifesto upon which Labour was elected in 1981. In that sense, he had a bigger input into the drafts than I did. So committed was Bill to this process - during which he often stuck his neck out precariously to keep the manifesto consistent with the wishes of the London party - that I often wondered why the old leadership had appointed him.

Not content with complaining that talented Labour supporters such as Greg Dyke are joining the BBC, embittered Tory publications now complain when BBC employees like Bill leave to join the Government. I must have missed the Tory backbenchers jumping up and down in fury during the Thatcher and Major years as former Tory ministers found themselves on the board of newly privatised industries or Conservative supporters were appointed to the various new quangos. Even The Spectator grudgingly concedes that, while at the BBC, Bill and his assistant Catherine Rimmer "no doubt carried out their duties with perfect impartiality".

There is a weightier argument, among more thoughtful critics that Tony Blair is reorganising government at the expense of ministers and the impartiality of the Civil Service. The Times suggested last week that: "The 17 most senior information officers across Whitehall are being sidelined by Alistair Campbell as part of a plan to centralise and build up a `Prime Minister's department' based in Downing Street." This is where Bill Bush comes in.

This pattern has drawn a great deal of fire over the last two years. In September 1997, Alistair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary, circulated a letter to Whitehall departments saying Labour's election was a "real opportunity for the government information service to raise its game and be right at the heart of government". The new administration's increasingly fractious relationship with government information officers was born out of methods honed by Labour Party figures in opposition when everyone was working towards an explicitly political agenda.

While I am acutely conscious of the real dangers of unaccountable spin doctors or policy gurus overriding the wishes of either the Labour Party membership or Government ministers, I have always been in favour of governments being able to govern effectively. I think it is basically good, not bad, that prime ministers and other politicians are able to appoint political staff to deal with politics, which, in the end, is what the business of government is all about. It is not a threat to democracy for democratically elected leaders to have an adequate political secretariat, and it is a relic of our decayed political culture that these developments are thought suspicious. How else do we expect our politicians to make informed decisions?

The problems come on two fronts: the use of vast government departments or the Civil Service as an arm of one political party; and the sidelining of other politicians by unelected advisers to the prime minister. The first of these is an argument for a modernised and clarified system in which the separation of responsibilities is more clear. The second is more a question of will. I have long believed that the necessary counterweight to centralisation is a genuinely strong Cabinet. The Economist rightly argues that "with a strong centre, good policy making requires decision makers to have the self-discipline to consult widely and take account of objections raised. If they are to be effective, centralised governments have to try to reproduce some of the advantages of decentralised ones: debate, interplay, wide consultation".

The Government's devolution programme has the potential to contribute to that counter-balance. But the real reform required is the beefing up of the Cabinet itself. That means more regular meetings, longer meetings and, even, votes. A fully functioning Labour Cabinet is the best guarantee of better government.

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