Spinning around: how presentation triumphed over policy, and how to fix it

27 Jul 16

The fallout from the Brexit vote illustrates how policy debates have been dumbed down in the UK. Steps must be taken to rebuild public confidence in government.

The events of the past few weeks have not reflected well on government or the political process. The referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union was characterised by negative campaigning in which both sides were using tendentious and in some cases downright dishonest claims. The principal players, particularly on the ‘Leave’ side, both in the referendum and the subsequent Conservative Party leadership race, appeared primarily interested in the advancement of their own careers rather than promoting the national interest.

The outcome, which will have profound consequences in the long-term for the British economy and British society, appears to have been decided on the wholly unrealistic presumption that immigration could be halted without Britain paying the economic price of exclusion from the single market. It is also sobering to know that the whole exercise was prompted by what has turned out to be a catastrophic miscalculation by the prime minister as to how best to contain unwelcome dissent within his own political party.

While these events may have been an extreme illustration of a process of ‘dumbing down’ political debate they are by no means unique. In my new book, ‘Substance not Spin’, I describe both the erosion of the public’s trust in the political process in recent years, and the degree to which the presentation of policy (spin) has increasingly preoccupied politicians, rather than the development of practical and workable policies that are likely to bring lasting benefits. Is it just a coincidence that the two trends have been simultaneous?

The book highlights the way in which, searching for attractive ideas which will play well in the media, political parties have increasingly been proposing unrealistic and unattainable policies without adequate analysis of their likely effects. The ‘Mansion Tax’ and the Right to Buy for housing association tenants are two recent examples. In a series of case studies, the book explores successes and failures both in policy development and implementation, from the last 40 years with a strong focus on measures relating to housing, planning, local government and devolution.  Separate chapters explore:

•            the introduction of new statutory provisions for the relief of homelessness in the 1970s and subsequent policy developments

•            the unplanned and apparently irresistible growth in expenditure on Housing Benefit since its troubled introduction in the 1980s

•            the persisting failure to build enough homes to meet the country’s needs

•            the fitful moves to improve standards and regulatory obligations through building regulations and other statutory requirements

•            the introduction of the GLA, a new strategic, city-wide authority for London headed by a directly elected Mayor

•            the failure to extend a coherent framework of devolved authorities to other English regions.

•            the transformation of Hackney from an apparently hopeless ‘basket case’ in the 1980s and 1990s to a well-run mainstream local authority

•            the fire service reform programme with a strong focus on prevention and life-saving, arising from the challenge posed by the 2002 national strike

Looking at these successes and failures both in policy development and implementation, I conclude there are measures that could begin to reverse the decline in public trust, and restore confidence.

These include:

•           a more strategic approach by central government, focusing on matters of national and international significance, coupled with a programme of devolution to reduce the chronic overload of detail currently pre-occupying Whitehall. This would both enable government to do less but do it better, and to extend more powers to local, regional and sub regional authorities, and in appropriate cases to special purpose vehicles.

•           new standards for the preparation of legislation, to ensure that policies are properly evaluated before being introduced and that robust plans are in place to ensure effective implementation.

•           better Parliamentary scrutiny of new legislation, and more post-legislative evaluation of how new policy initiatives have worked out in practice, and the extent to which the expected outcomes have in fact been delivered.

•           more rigorous approach to Ministerial appointments, and an end to the expectation of annual ‘reshuffles’, with performance in delivering outcomes becoming the key factor determining future promotion prospects.


Substance not spin: An Insider’s View of Success and Failure in Government by Nick Raynsford is published on 11 July by Policy Press price £17.99. It can be ordered at 20% discount on the Policy Press website: http://policypress.co.uk/substance-not-spin

The fall out from the Brexit vote illustrates how policy debates have been dumbed down in the UK. But these are the steps that could rebuild public confidence in government.



  • The fall out from the Brexit vote illustrates how policy debates have been dumbed down in the UK. But these are the steps that could rebuild public confidence in government.
    Nick Raynsford

    Nick Raynsford is a former Labour local government minister and was MP for Greenwich & Woolwich from 1992 to 2015

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