By Peter Jones, Eunomia
“If you want to get anywhere in politics, you’ve got to be good at pushing on open doors. If you can’t resist pushing on closed ones, then you ought to have chosen another job.” That rather bleak assessment of the extent of ministerial power comes from C.P. Snow’s novel Corridors of Power, in which the lead characters try (and fail) to tip the balance against 1950s Britain seeking an independent nuclear deterrent.
A similar picture of ministerial impotence is painted on many other fictional canvases – they are outmanoeuvred by wily civil servants in ‘Yes Minister’ and browbeaten by spin doctors in ‘The Thick of it’. Diaries such as Chris Mullin’s A View from the Foothills suggest that the reality is the same but more tedious: as a minister, one makes much the same decisions on much the same policies as would any other person with the same advice. The lucky ones leave “the occasional footprint in the sand”, as Mullin put it in his valedictory speech in the Commons.
Bigger and better
One member of the current Government who appears to have left more and deeper footprints than his colleagues is Eric Pickles. As Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, he seems to have seized what power he has with both hands and imposed his personality on his department’s policies. But is Pickles a genuine exception to Snow’s law of open doors?
By the best established measure of personal political mana, your department’s budget, things haven’t gone well for Eric. DCLG’s local government resource outturn fell by 43% in real terms between 2009/10 and 2013/14, while its communities spend has been cut by more than half. Grants to local authorities have been cut by more than 20%, and Council Tax rises have been kept in check through legislation and financial incentives. Total central Government resource spending is down by just 7.1% over the same period.
But this is no ordinary government and Pickles is no ordinary minister. Being ruthless in cutting your budget has been the best way to earn kudos in this cost-conscious Cabinet, and Pickles was already squeezing local government budgets when David Cameron was still completing his finals. In 1988, Pickles had recently become leader of the Bradford City Council Conservative group in 1988, when a by-election changed the balance of power in his favour.
Despite relying for his majority on the mayor’s casting vote – traditionally cast in favour of the status quo – Pickles embarked on a £50m cuts package. However, before much of his vision could be realised, Labour regained the majority and Pickles quit local politics in search of a Westminster seat.
Weekly in favour
His vigorous cost-cutting has given him a level of political capital, which he has spent on championing weekly residual waste collections.
It’s hard to see quite why the issue aerates Pickles so greatly. There’s plenty of evidence that fortnightly collections help boost recycling and very little to prove they are actually unpopular, while deterring a key way for councils to save money seems at odds with austerity. Weekly collections, then, are far from an open door in political terms, but Pickles has given them a pretty strenuous shove. How much has this achieved?
Well, he persuaded George Osborne to let him hang on to £250m saved from DCLG’s admin budget and spend it on grants intended to help councils to stay or go weekly. But the money has not resulted in a single council actually switching from fortnightly to weekly collections; meanwhile, several have reduced collection frequency. His erstwhile media supporters have castigated him for how little has really been achieved, and his popularity with the Tory rank and file has plummeted: he was the most popular figure in the shadow cabinet amongst party members in 2009, but has now sunk to mid-table mediocrity. Thus far, all is in conformity with Snow’s law.
Yet Pickles’ pressure on waste policy has had an impact. The £250m may not have lured any council to switch back to weekly collections, but it certainly persuaded some to stick with them for longer. His focus on frequency may also have delayed the growing acceptance of the idea of fortnightly collections, by feeding a perception, true or otherwise, that voters care about weekly residual waste collection, and that the price of reducing frequency will be paid at the ballot box.
This is in itself quite an achievement, much of which can be attributed to Pickles. But is it a repeat of Bradford – a pseudo-change that will fade away as soon as he leaves office?
I suspect it will be, for the very reasons that make Pickles so exceptional. Typically, the reason why politicians feel so little personal potency is that faced with the same arguments, most people will make similar decisions. But whether its weekly waste collections or planning inspectors’ reports on wind farms, Pickles happily sets aside reasons many would find persuasive.
However, if Pickles isn’t in charge of local government after the election, the arguments he ignores will still be there to influence his successor. The 50% recycling target remains in place, as do the economic and environmental rationales for reduced collection frequency. The very thing that makes Eric’s waste policies seem like an exception to Snow’s law almost guarantees that they won’t take root – they aren’t supported by the evidence.
Towards the end of Corridors of Power its central character, Lewis Eliot, reflects on why he and the minister Roger Quaife had failed to carry the day:
“How far did personalities count? Nothing like as much as one liked to think. Only in these circumstances when the hinge is oiled, but the door may swing or not. If that isn’t the situation, then no personality is going to make more than an ineffectual noise.”
For all the noise that Pickles has made on waste policy in the last five years, the door really leads only one way, and that’s towards less frequent residual waste collections.