Has the Westminster that prized ideas and open-minded debate gone for good? | Claudia Wood | Opinion


The year is drawing to a close, and so is my career in Westminster. Clearing out my desk, I have come across clippings from the early years of Demos, some 25 years ago, and they provide a stark reminder of the tremendous change in the language and nature of our political sphere. What struck me is the ambition of the ideas, but also the ways in which they were received, debated and discussed with open minds. The decline in the value of thinkers – and indeed thinking – is a fascinating development and one at which I’ve had a front-row seat.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the search for new, radical ideas was at its peak. Liberalism, communitarianism, co-production and devolution were debated in abstract and applied macro-style to create hypothetical visions of whole-system political change.

I spent my first years in Westminster during these dynamic early days of the Blair government, grappling with the process of translating and applying the concepts of “choice and voice” across the health, care and education services. We looked towards academics such as Julian Le Grand, who pioneered the approach of thinking across public services and applying a consistent idea to their reform. The NHS “choose and book” e-referral system, GP fundholding and school vouchers were all examined as tools to achieve this in practice, and we can still see the echo of this grand vision in the personal budgets of social care policy.

Importantly, the “big picture” reforms from this era also didn’t scrimp on the evidence – innovations such as Sure Start and Every Child Matters have been hugely successful in improving outcomes for children precisely because they consisted of a big, cohering vision, underpinned by a sound evidence base and solid investment to tackle an identified social problem.

It all seems a far cry from today’s piecemeal approach to policy, where coherent, conceptual or cross-governmental transformation is shunned in favour of incremental change and policy without any sense of long-term destination – often simply reacting to the popular mood or a scattergun selection of issues.

We can separate the journey to this “post-ideas” world into two phases. The first began with the financial crisis and ended with the surprising results of the 2015 general election, with its protracted focus on costed, evidenced and modest policy recommendations, where modelling and quantitative evaluations held sway above “soft” qualitative insights and “abstract thinking”.

In the age of austerity, pragmatism and “getting more for less” were the order of the day, and big-picture thinking was a luxury politicians claimed they could not afford. The one attempt at “big vision” reform in this era – universal credit – was ultimately unable to match the true extent of its ambitions, as the doctrine of spending cuts formed a noose around its neck.



‘Innovations such as Sure Start and Every Child Matters have been hugely successful’ Photograph: Martin Argles for the Guardian

What began as a practical rejection of ideas became a principled one after 2015. A backlash against political elitism and a search for “authentic voices” – even if those voices by nature carry reactionary messages – has led to a situation where conceptual, ideas-led policy is not just out of fashion, but actively scorned. The void has been filled with flimsy but instinctively popular policy ideas, followed by tribal, rather than evidenced-based, rebuttals from opposing parties. Feelings are more important than facts, public polling more influential than research.

We are now suffering from too much politics, and a dearth of effective ideas. Both parties have now lost all vision and coherence and are engaged in tit-for-tat wars of words over issues that cry out for cross-party collaboration.

Indeed, has there ever been a time in the past 20 years with such an acute need for sound policy thinking, underpinned by a grand vision that rises above everyday politics? The Brexit process is an unprecedented challenge, but also a once-in-a-generation opportunity for economic and social renewal, based on a coherent and cohering vision of what we, as a group of devolved nations, want to represent on the global stage. Instead of reinvigorating domestic policymaking, we are staring at a lost decade of meaningful action, as our civil servants stagger under the weight of the Brexit challenge.

Calls for cross-party solutions for social care funding continue to fall on deaf ears, with both the major parties guilty of sinking the other’s policy solutions in favour of popular headlines rather than engaging in constructive debate. One almost feels the government persists with the universal credit plan out of sheer bloody-mindedness, ignoring all evidence and expert advice to the contrary. The Social Justice and Mobility Commission – the only other ambitious policy endeavour seeded by the previous coalition government back in 2012 – recently resigned en masse, its chair, Alan Milburn, stating that the current government does not seem to have the necessary bandwidth to make progress on this front.

While Brexit has shaken Whitehall to its core, the truth is that this sorry state of affairs pre-dated the referendum on the European Union. Our political system has not only lost its taste for policy vision, but its ability to achieve it. The consequences for our economy and society are profound: we are staring down the barrel of years of disjointed, directionless policy development. Vital issues of national interest – not just our post-Brexit renewal but also housing, child poverty, productivity, social care, regional rebalancing – cannot be solved via a succession of kneejerk, incoherent and short-lived policies.

Past experience in this country and elsewhere suggests the countervailing result will be the emergence of an “ideas man” (or woman) to fill the void of indecisiveness. But will this take the form of a forward-looking candidate, or someone more backward-looking and divisive, representing the ultimate rejection of our political system?

Politicians need to recognise their agency in engendering the outcome, by demonstrating their capacity to deliver improvements in people’s lives. We cannot surrender to the end of ideas; we must find the will to forge new words, new approaches and a new direction for the nation.

Claudia Wood is former chief executive of the thinktank Demos

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