I tweeted this morning about the possibility (sadly denied) of a new external relations unit in No10. There is apparently some sort of new department which will look after ‘partnerships’ instead. While I’m not wholly clear what the difference is, that’s not really very important, and in fact the distinction (in my mind anyway) is probably a good one. “External relations” rather implies a sort of one-way broadcast, while “partnerships” implies a more respectful and back and forth relationship.
I was going to write some more about the need for such an operation, but in fact since then, my point has rather been made for me by Steve Hilton’s first public speech in… well, certainly since 2005. YouGov, the polling company, has set up a new venture with Cambridge University’s Department of Politics and international Studies, called YouGov-Cambridge, and Steve Hilton spoke at their inaugural conference.
The report on ConservativeHome is pretty comprehensive but there are some further thoughts prompted by it, by Steve’s presence and his speech, and by this morning’s news.
The first is that this new unit cannot just focus on business. While that is – of course – important, as I have said again and again, this government’s communications have ranged from average to terrible, and they really need to start preparing the ground better when they launch policies. Part of that is consulting with and briefing interested groups – and for that, you need an external relations function. So they need to be able to reach out to the right people, in the right organisations, at the right time. They need to have supportive voices who understand the policy, the intention and the process, and they need to get them involved from the start. The fundamental point of both this government and Steve’s speech is that their programme is a joint one – government, business, civil society, communities and individuals all working together – and part of what is needed is to knit together interested parties, not have them divided into silos.
The second thought is that while Steve’s speech sounded perfectly interesting, there wasn’t actually anything really new in it, which kind of disappointed me. I like what he said, I agree with it, but I have honestly heard it – from various people – a LOT. And this whole venture is supposed to be about potential, about the bigger picture, and about where we’re going.
My third point is related to that – there is a huge need, as I’ve said many times before, for these politicians to not only explain why the coming years are going to be difficult, but why it is worth it because we will be in a better place afterwards. Steve is probably one of the best-placed people to do that (though frankly everyone should be able to at least attempt it), and I think the government has missed a great opportunity, with a receptive and interested audience, to really set out the why, how and where of this government.
I don’t think any of this is necessarily anyone’s fault – I think the grind of day to day governing, the endless ‘this is a crisis!’ headlines when there really isn’t one, and the general unwillingness to believe what any politician has to say plays into it all.
But – to return to what I was thinking about this morning – voters want a competent government that makes sense to them; that’s why narratives stick in their heads, and not individual detailed policies. Having a coherent message, explaining why it wants to do something, how it will do it, and what it will achieve, is a key part of building a narrative. And part of building that narrative is to build coalitions of support – so that the government doesn’t get sideblinded by lobby groups that twist the truth, or super-minority interest groups, or indeed just general apathy.
Ensuring that all parts of our society understand what the government is attempting to do and can play their own part in making it happen is a crucial component in how successful this government will be. It’s important that this bringing together is not undermined by a lack of ambition, turf-wars between departments or institutions, or by a failure to get the nuts and bolts right.