Sharpen the axe, minister – there should be more political appointments, not fewer

Published in the ‘i’ newspaper (3rd February, 2014)

Although she is a popular figure in Westminster and a peer, Sally Morgan has never been a prominent political performer. In truth, she is almost certainly less well-known with the public then her namesake, the former dental nurse who became Princess Diana’s psychic. So it was surprising to see the one-time Labour aide dominating the weekend headlines after a tantrum over losing her job as head of the schools inspectorate.

The outgoing chair of Ofsted fumed that her ousting was part of a Stalin-like purge, with a sinister pattern emerging of loyal Tories being imposed on bodies such as the Arts Council and Charity Commission. “I’m the latest of a fairly long list of people now who are non-Conservative supporters who are not being reappointed,” she  thundered to the BBC.

It is, of course, absurd to hear complaints about political appointments from a person given a nice title and a £300-a-day berth in the House of Lords after working as a backroom fixer for Tony Blair. And instantly jumping to her defence was Lord Falconer, the former prime minister’s flatmate handed a seat in the cabinet and then a peerage, spluttering about Tory placemen and women in public office.

We are meant to be shocked – although the feeling washing over most voters is probably one of dismay at the thought that we have another 15 months of this juvenile jostling until the next general election is safely out of the way. Needless to say, the Liberal Democrats – who are daily searching for political definition – joined in the attack, with David Laws “furious” at his boss Michael Gove’s determination to appoint Tories to top jobs.

Yet all this spat has done is shine a spotlight on one of the Coalition’s most surprising failures. For the real question is not why Baroness Morgan has been sacked. It is why a government ostensibly committed to serious public and private-sector reform has failed to install its own people in such critical posts, allowing the quangocracy built up over 13 years of Labour government to remain intact.

When Morgan was working in Downing Street, there were more than five times as many Labour people appointed to public bodies in some years as Tories, and 11 times the number of Lib Dems. The same thing happened under their Tory predecessors, albeit to a far less extreme extent. This is unsurprising: it makes sense for governments to ensure that they have people in the right places to put their programmes into practice. New Labour merely displayed unique talent for this process.

But the bizarre aspect highlighted by Morgan’s outburst is that she was appointed by the Coalition to such a vital post in the first place, especially given the political importance of Gove’s education reforms. She is far from alone: look at Chris Smith, the former Labour cabinet minister who chairs the Environment Agency, currently floundering and out of its depth in the row over flooding. Simon Stevens, another former Blair adviser, has just been appointed to run the National Health Service.

Under the Coalition, pro-Labour appointees to public bodies have dwarfed those picked from supporters of the two member parties. A Policy Exchange report published in December found 312 of those people declaring political affiliation over the first three years of this government were Labour compared with 105 Tories and 45 Lib Dems. “We have been far too timid on this front, to our detriment,” a cabinet minister said yesterday.

He is right. We like to pay lip service to the idea of independent civil servants, but the reality is that there needs to be far more political support for elected representatives. Yes, politicians may be profoundly unpopular at present, but one reason – among many –  for their bumbling ineptitude is a lack of political muscle. There should be more political appointments at every level of government – although at the same time, these people must all be subject to far greater scrutiny and transparency.

And, like it or not, the plethora of quangos such as Ofsted are a core part of modern government. Power has flowed away from elected politicians, even as they have increased in number with mayors, police commissioners and European representatives, towards what was once termed the Great and Good. This includes the judiciary, the Bank of England, the boards that monitor the public sector and the bodies that regulate the private sector. Who, after all, has more influence: the head of the outfit charged with driving up school standards or some jobsworth junior minister?

For all the bold talk of a bonfire of the quangos, the Coalition has done little to challenge this hydra-headed growth in government. Instead, it has created powerful new bodies such as the Office for Budgetary Responsibility and the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, while saving just a fraction of the sums promised.

Baroness Morgan has done herself no favours by stirring up this phoney furore. A widely respected figure suddenly looks petty and hypocritical, while it is simply fatuous of Sir Malcolm Bruce, the new deputy leader of the Lib Dems, to say yesterday that “they are trying to politicise something that should be kept out of politics”. Little wonder there is declining respect for party politics when these people play such silly and short-term political games instead of focusing on the long-term problems confronting our creaking democracy.


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