Conor Ryan: It's back to the humble telephone for advisers now

Tuesday 19 November 2013 05:49

Another Transport Department e-mail is big news. Dan Corry's inquiry about the affiliations of the Paddington Survivors Group has made special advisers public whipping boys again. Yet political advisers have a vital role. And without them, civil servants would be dragged into party politics and ministers would be unable to do their job.

I was David Blunkett's special adviser when he was Secretary of State for Education. I certainly talked to the media and advised on policy presentation. But 80 per cent of my time was taken up on policy matters, and the same is true for all but a handful of my former colleagues. David Davis, the Tory chairman, claims that the chaos in the Transport Department reflects a government-wide obsession by advisers with spin over substance. From my experience, I know he is wrong. The personality clashes that bred such distrust at Transport, not least between the press office and advisers, were not reflected elsewhere.

The two controversial e-mails should never have been sent. But to have precipitated such internal chaos, the department was clearly unusually dysfunctional. And senior civil servants must take responsibility for that as much as their ministers. It was hardly surprising that Alistair Darling brought in Rachel Lomax, his permanent secretary from the Pensions Department, to sort things out when he replaced Stephen Byers.

The truth is that advisers spend most of their time poring over detailed legislation and discussing policy minutiae. Of course, they act as political antennae for their minister, too. But they provide an invaluable resource for civil servants, helping them interpret and deliver ministerial instructions.

No modern democratic government could exist without political appointees. In Whitehall, outside the 27 in Downing Street, there are just two or three in most departments, far fewer than the thousands appointed in Washington by new presidents. In Europe, political chefs de cabinet are often employed to help steer party programmes through departments.

As well as political advisers, other external experts are important: the primary-school literacy hour could not have been introduced as quickly without the education department standards unit, which employed headteachers as well as civil servants. Government needs more, not fewer, practitioners from the real world for successful public-service delivery.

This is not to say that lessons should not be learnt. New Labour still sometimes feels too much like it is fighting the last Tory government, not a clapped out opposition. Spin is past its sell-by date, as Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson both recently acknowledged. The most successful and popular politicians are those who admit to mistakes and explain decisions plainly, as well as delivering the goods.

That said, ministers must still be able to respond properly to opposition and media criticism. Too often civil servants give ministers 50-page "briefings" that obscure the important points. Good special advisers can quickly condense such information, enabling ministers to explain matters more clearly. Nor should government press officers have to put a political case for ministers to the media. They should provide factual information quickly and explain government policy. But advisers should handle political matters.

More prosaically, the Whitehall e-mail is now likely to be thwarted. As a special adviser, I regularly received 300 e-mails a day, many with large attached files. Most had to be processed or replied to that day. So, my replies were to the point. And unlike old fashioned paper memos, they could not be revised before being finally sent. None of us would want to be judged on such apparent ephemera. The humble telephone will surely return to fashion.

But this debate also highlights the need for more honesty about the nature of politics. Some commentators tell us that the success of the Queen's jubilee celebrations showed party politics to be redundant. Polls reflect widespread cynicism with government and opposition. And turnout has fallen in recent general elections.

Of course, politicians must take their share of the blame for such cynicism. But so must the media. Political reporting is now so often trivialised that honest reflection on the achievements as well as failures of governments is rare. Yet a BBC analysis concluded that 80 per cent of 1997 manifesto promises had been delivered. Had Downing Street produced the same result, it would have been pilloried.

Moreover, Tory protests about taxpayers' money being used to pay for special advisers undermine not just Labour, but politics in general. After all, the Conservatives now receive over £3.4m a year from the taxpayer for shadow-cabinet researchers, much of it used to develop personal attacks on ministers. They should get such support; we need strong opposition. But don't then pretend such political funds are only available to the Government.

By all means criticise the errors of special advisers. But let's not lose sight of their small but important contribution to democratic politics. As extremist victories in elections across Europe have shown, undermining that can have a very high cost indeed.

The writer was special adviser to David Blunkett from 1997 to 2001

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