i Editor's Letter: Our representatives must represent us


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The Independent Online

Oh, to have seen what G.O’D. has seen. Lord (Gus) O’Donnell has served as a senior Downing Street adviser to four successive Prime Ministers, placing public service before party politics. After working as press secretary for John Major, he was Cabinet Secretary for Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, before being eased out..

In comments we publish on our cover today, this respected former head of the civil service speaks frankly of his view from inside No 10: too few ministers use the public services they are in charge of delivering, and too few politicians understand what life is like for people on benefits. Some ministers still think, he says, “We send our kids to public schools, we have private healthcare, we travel by car or chauffeur, we don’t go on public transport.”

His words will resonate. This establishment figure is not part of any chumocracy at the top. He grew up in south London and went to state-funded primary and secondary schools. Although softly spoken, Lord O’Donnell is a steely character. He helped to keep Britain out of the euro, opposing Mr Blair; he told Mr Cameron that Tory spin attacks on civil servants “will not be tolerated”; and he gave Mr Brown a warning about his behaviour toward staff.

Westminster is always going to be  a long way from our council estates, and there are sound security reasons  why ministers in more sensitive positions get a chauffeur and bodyguards, rather than catch the bus.

But Lord O’Donnell’s key point is  critical: our representatives must be representative. His suggestion of  open primaries – where the public, not party honchos, choose candidates  – was actually pioneered by Mr Cameron. These deliver outspoken MPs answerable to Joe Public before party HQ. Come on Prime Minister, stick to your (sound) principle on this.


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