Nick Raynsford interview – "My advice to new ministers? Be serious about the job"

Written by Matt Foster on 19 August 2016 in Interview

In eight years as a Labour minister and 22 as an MP, Nick Raynsford learned a thing or two about what works in government. He sits down with CSW’s Matt Foster to talk about his new book, "Substance Not Spin", Whitehall’s fear of letting go — and why his party must not become an “ineffective protest movement”

Political memoirs are a bit of an acquired taste. For every genuinely insightful former minister spilling the beans on what really went on at the heart of government, there are countless others who use their freedom from office to machine-gun former rivals, rail against the bungling bureaucrats who held them back from true greatness — or treat readers to a chronological account of every ministerial visit they made to various box factories around the country.

Substance Not Spin, the new book by the former Labour minister Nick Raynsford, is an altogether different beast.

For a start, Raynsford — who stepped down as an MP last year after 22 years representing the people of Greenwich, Woolwich and Fulham — is much more interested in good government than good politics.

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So while you won’t find any searing revelations about the psychodrama of the Blair-Brown years in “Substance not Spin”, you will find detailed, refreshingly frank, reflections on what worked — and what didn’t — during the eight years in which Raynsford grappled with major public policy challenges. These included giving London an elected mayor, turning around what was one of Britain’s worst-performing councils, trying — and failing — to hand power from Whitehall to the north-east of England,  and reforming the fire service after a walkout by firefighters in the early 2000s.

When CSW catches up with the former minister over a cup of tea in Westminster, he apologises for a newly-acquired gap in his teeth — but Raynsford quickly reassures us it’s a simple missing denture, rather than the result of a punch-up with ex-colleagues over the contents of his book. 

Central to Raynsford’s argument in Substance not Spin is the claim that government is suffering from “overload”. He believes successive generations of ministers — including his own — have taken too much on, partly out of a fear that they must be seen to be taking decisive action.

“The 24/7 environment has created a climate of opinion where there's a rush to try and produce quick answers to what are perceived as high-profile media issues,” he says. 

"It's much easier to say, ‘Oh, yes we're going to do something' and not really know what it is — hoping that'll shut the media up. But it's not a satisfactory way of running a government.”

“But that often leads to poor policymaking. A lot of the reactions of governments to media pressure start from the wrong premise that we've got to be seen to be doing something, rather than saying, ‘Hang on a moment, let's look at this carefully, let's look to whether actually, things are as bad as this implies, whether the existing framework can't provide the answers — if not, why not — and then let's see where we can go.’

“That requires very tough politicians, ready to say they are not going to take a decision on something until they are clear that there is a real benefit in doing something different.

"It's much easier to say, ‘Oh, yes we're going to do something' and not really know what it is — hoping that'll shut the media up. But it's not a satisfactory way of running a government.”

The problem is not helped, Raynsford argues, by the “ministerial merry go-round” that sees frontbenchers switching roles or being shoved out of government every few months — moves that are often less to do with their actual performance in the job and more to do with Number 10's desire to present a fresh face.

“It's got to change,” he says. “It's one of the most corrosive influences in government. The point is so obvious. If a minister doesn't think or she is going to be there for more than a couple of years, there is absolutely no chance of getting that person to focus on the long-term issues that will require a lot of pain, but that are necessary to achieve lasting results.”

Although he’s quick to stress that correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causation, Raynsford points out that Britain — a country currently in the grip of a housing crisis that’s locking an entire generation of home ownership — has had 13 housing ministers in 20 years.

“Most of the things I did that I feel proud of took time and consistency,” he says. “The Greater London Authority was not developed in one year — it took quite a lot of time. It was done very quickly and it was, in many ways, a triumph of the civil service at its very best — a very high calibre team doing the work to produce the blueprint for the new authority. 

“But it still took three years to bring into existence, and rather more than that to complete all the other things necessary. The Decent Homes Programme was a ten-year programme to improve the condition of the social housing stock in the country. Things like that take time and if you're to have ministers who focus on those priorities, on the strategic things, you've got to give them a greater sense of ownership and responsibility.”

Raynsford wants ministers to have greater job security — not so that they can coast in the role, but in order to ensure that climbing the career ladder becomes more closely linked to policy performance, rather than a talent for playing the political game.

“That's what would happen in any other walk of life," he points out. "The fact it doesn't in politics is a comment on how far the political process has drifted away from ordinary people's experience.”

“Contempt” for local government

Another way the former minister believes Whitehall could cut its workload is by being much more willing to trust local government with new powers, dropping what he describes as an attitude to town halls that is "almost bordering on contempt”.

"I had this not terribly easy discussion with a colleague who insisted that he had to have regular information on how many miles of footpath there were in every local authority in the country," he recalls. "This is micro-management gone mad. And unfortunately those attitudes are still there.

"Unless there is a change, we're going to see a continuation of central government trying to do too much and not always doing it as well as it should, and of local government feeling undervalued"

”I think they've got to change, because, unless there is a change, we're going to see a continuation of central government trying to do too much and not always doing it as well as it should, and of local government feeling undervalued, without responsibility, without the ability to really shape decisions in its own area, and as a consequence, not attracting the best talent."

Substance Not Spin offers a useful set of compare-and-contrast case studies for those DCLG and Treasury officials grappling with the current devolution agenda. As minister for London under Tony Blair, Raynsford was a key player in restoring city-wide government – scrapped under Margaret Thatcher – to the UK's capital. The city is now on its third elected mayor, and has tangible powers over big, strategic issues for the city – including transport, policing and development.

By contrast, New Labour’s 2004 bid to devolve power to a new regional assembly for the north east of England was roundly rejected by voters in a referendum — partly, Raynsford argues, because the government was only offering the area a watered-down set of responsibilities.

“The North East Assembly had virtually no transport powers,” he says. “And the question that I was repeatedly asked during the campaign for the referendum was — ‘would they have the power to dual the AI north of Newcastle?’ The answer, sadly, was ‘no’. I tried to put the best face on it by saying they would be able to make representations and have an influence. But there simply wasn't the power. And that was because relevant government departments were reluctant to let go.”

Despite the recent, renewed push to hand powers away from Whitehall, Raynsford remains to be convinced that that the “Northern Powerhouse” agenda spearheaded by former chancellor George Osborne — and finally mentioned by new prime minister Theresa May just after CSW's interview — can survive without "a really coherent framework” for local leaders to follow. 

"If you are to get that change that I argue for — government doing less but doing it better, devolving more, giving more power to local authorities so that local authorities will have more say over the future of their area — that depends on something that's going to work everywhere, not just in one or two regions where you have the happy accident of good people who have thought through the issues and prepared the ground.”

"Ineffective protest movement"

While Raynsford is willing to challenge what he sees as some of the big shortcomings of modern government, Substance Not Spin is also peppered with praise for the civil servants he worked alongside, with the former minister saying officials often have “a very hard time” in dealing with the opprobrium of politicians and the public. 

“It's a difficult job and don’t think we, at times, are sufficiently understanding of the pressures on the civil service — so I felt it was right that the praise should be there,” he says.

But officials should, Raysnford argues, resist the temptation to nod through bad policies simply to keep ministers happy.

Raynsford recalls the time one civil servant told him that a policy option, which the department thought was a good idea, was ditched from the submission that reached his desk because of a view that “Number 10 doesn’t like it”.

“That seems to me to be death to the whole principle of speaking truth to power which has been an underpinning for the civil service for a very long time,” he says. “If people don't say what they think because they fear that that will not be popular with the boss, the prime minister, then you are moving away from a allowing ministers to take decisions based on properly informed sets of options towards trying to rationalise what is thought to be the preferred option.”

Although the former minister insists he has no regrets about stepping down from parliament at the last general election — “I'd had a very good innings” — he’s still up for offering his take on the choppy political waters both the country, and the party he represented, now find themselves navigating.

He’s highly critical of the “lacklustre” campaign to try and keep Britain in the European Union, attacking David Cameron and George Osborne for trying to “frighten the electorate”.

And Raynsford argues that the Brexit campaign — which infamously saw chief Leave advocate Michael Gove declare that the country had “had enough of experts” — was symptomatic of how far politics in Britain has become “corroded” by “overly-simplistic presentation”.

“We got into a position where a vote was taken on a blatantly unrealistic premise,” he says. “The polticial process did not properly identify the options.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a man who served in Tony Blair's government, Raynsford is no fan of Labour’s embattled current leader Jeremy Corbyn, whom he accuses of showing a “lack of commitment” to the Remain campaign.

Raynsford also says he is “sad” that the team around Corbyn seems determined to distance itself as much as possible from the government that he was a part of.

“It's a nonsense to try and write the whole of that period out of history,” he says. “Whether you're talking about the Northern Ireland peace process, huge advances in terms of the quality of care provided by the NHS, the raising of education attainment standards, things like the Decent Homes Programme which transformed the condition of millions, of social homes — there were a whole series of benefits. To try and write those off and just regard them as somehow not relevant? That just seems to me to be a rather naive and foolish approach towards politics.”

“It's a nonsense to try and write the whole of the New Labour period out of history"

The former minister is backing leadership challenger Owen Smith in the battle over Labour’s future — a fight between the left and the centre of the party that Raynsford points out the opposition has been through many times before.

“When it loses power, there is a tendency among the party membership to blame this on not having been radical enough,” he says. “It happened in the 1930s. It happened in the 1950s. It happened in the 1980s. On each occasion the party lurched to the left and then had to go through a long, painful process of coming back to the centre ground in order to win.”

While Corbyn remains firm favourite to win the leadership race, Raynsford is hopeful that many Labour members who initially backed the veteran left-winger’s run for the top job are staring to change their minds.

“I’m heartened by the fact that a number of people I know who actually supported Jeremy Corbyn last year are now recognising that, while they may like his politics, he is not likely to lead the party into government. And if he doesn’t, Labour becomes an ineffective protest movement rather than a force for change in society. 

“I just hope that gains sufficient — I won't use the word momentum because that would be misinterpreted — gains sufficient traction to ensure that there is a change of leadership and that Labour is once again on the path to recovery and moving back towards looking like a credible government again.”

“Be serious about the job"

Substance not Spin sheds light on the behind-the-scenes work on policies that didn't always make the headlines, but did make a difference — focusing on fire prevention to drastically cut the number of people who die in blazes every year, for example, or facing down the housebuilding industry to ensure that homes become more accessible for disabled people. For Raynsford, being in government and getting the chance to put your plans into practice is clearly what politics is all about.

And his advice to the next generation of politicians who want to change the country — and not just talk about it — couldn't be more clear.

“Be serious about the job. There are great opportunities. But that does require it to be taken very seriously indeed. It is not something just for soundbites and just for striking attitudes or giving interviews. 

“This is about delivering good government, and that's easier said than done. It requires application, hard work and persistence.”

Substance Not Spin: An insider's view of success and failure in government is available now from Policy Press

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Matt Foster
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Matt Foster is CSW's deputy editor. He tweets as @CSWDepEd

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