Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ken Livingstone on the "Malign Conspiracy" of the Civil Service

Earlier this month I interviewed Ken Livingstone for the April issue of Total Politics which is out tomorrow. I thought the most interesting part of the interview, if perhaps not the most newsworthy, was what he had to say about the civil service and how politicians need to get a grip of it.

ID: What would your advice to David Cameron be?

KL: I think he has already made the fatal mistake which will sink his government. He’s not really going to devolve power away from Whitehall. He’s already told local government there will be no great change or shift in power. He’ll try to run all the schools from the centre. When they talk about localism it’s a sham. Neither this government, nor a Cameron one will empower people. Labour’s real mistake was to micro-manage everything and try to run everything from the centre. Nowhere else in the world does this work. If Cameron had any sense he would devolve about half of what Whitehall does to regional and local government, but he doesn’t believe in regional government. But you can understand it – all those years in opposition waiting for power. When you get it, it’s very difficult to give it up.
What I discovered when I became leader of the GLC was that previously everything crossed the leader’s desk. The senior civil servants, like Treasury civil servants worked to the leader, blocking off their committee chairs. At my first meeting with the director general, I said ‘I do not want any officer coming to see me other than the director of finance or yourself’. They should work to the committee chairs we have appointed. Immediately, all these things were happening. If it had all had to come across my desk, half of it would never have happened. Although there will be mistakes, a real, massive devolution would start bringing good people back into local government, but there’s got to be financial change as well. 97 per cent of all tax collected in Britain is collected by Gordon Brown. When I told the Mayor of Moscow that he said: “That’s worse than Russia under Stalin”. From the moment Thatcher got power everything was sucked up to the centre and it got worse under Blair and Brown. Civil servants try to keep ministers busy with endless meetings and trivia.

ID: Perhaps you should go and talk to Cameron’s implementation team.

KL: Whatever he thinks of my policies, the main lesson Cameron should draw from my time is that if I made a decision it was carried out, and carried out quickly. The civil service is a malignant conspiracy against the national interest. A cabinet minister is the executive head of the department, able to remove the entire top tier. They probably couldn’t bring in a Bob Kiley figure from outside, like I did. When I took over we removed 27 of the top 30 people in London Transport. A government minister can’t do that. It’s tragic. The civil service is filled with crap. I met a government minister every week for eight years. There were a handful who were in charge. Ed Balls obviously was, because he was backed up by Mr Big. The one who impressed me was John Spellar. He and I had fought viciously from opposite wings of the party, but I had loads of meetings with Transport civil servants and they always expected him to endorse their position. When he said: “I agree with the Mayor on this” they were shocked. I saw government ministers read the brief which had been prepared for them and on one occasion I told the minister: “Your civil servants are lying to you” and I demonstrated why. They didn’t have an answer. The tragedy is that everyone below Cabinet level knows that the Permanent Secretary in their department does an annual assessment of their performance and sends it to the Chief Whip. It should be the other way around. They know if they go out on a limb, the civil servants will undermine them. Even if you’re John Prescott and all else fails, they’ll bring the Treasury in, or the lawyers to tell you you can’t do something. We’ve just got to break this. The civil service has its own agenda. In the end most ministers and most prime ministers go native and get sucked in by it.

I'll post a link to the full interview when it is up on the TP website tomorrow or Friday.

UPDATE: Paul Waugh has given his take on the more newsworthy aspects of the interview HERE.


Trumpeter Lanfried said...

Bloody Hell! He's talking sense. Very useful insight.

Anonymous said...

Brown refused to listen to the Civil Service when he made the changes to ACT which ruined the pensions industry (and millions of pensioners).
What was Civil Service advice on selling gold? or changing the inflation methodology?

Ken is being selective.

A properly instructed civil service with an absence of bought in consultants is what we need.

Bugledog said...

I totally agree with Ken for once. This is exactly what THE PLAN by Dan Hannan and Douglas Carswell proposes. Read it if you get a chance!

Desperate Dan said...

Poor old has-been powerless Ken. It was an act of charity on your part to give him a bit of the publicity he so craves.

Jon Harvey said...

This is a good debate.

For some years the current Government talked about 'evidence based policy' making and delivery. In other words that there should be measures and evaluation of how much the Whitehall policy machine actually makes people's lives better. So often Whitehall makes policy in a closeted bubble - unaware of what actual effect it is having.

I hope that the next Government does not allow the Civil Service to continue making so much of the running. Ken is right about the tendency towards centralism. Has the whole business of target setting for example (with all of its consequences) been Government or Civil service led?

See my blog for an article I wrote about targets six years ago - and how (in their current form) they will never really work. I hope the lessons of Staffordshire, Haringey and beyond are not lost on the next Government - of whichever hue it is. (

It is good that debates such as this can happen across the political divide.

Pete Chown said...

I've been wondering if you need formal orders from ministers to civil servants, which are published and create legal rights.

To take a simple example, the Secretary of State for Health might make an order directing that a particular drug be made available on prescription by the NHS.

First of all, the order would be published, so everyone can see that this is a real decision and not spin. (Conversely, if the Minister promised to make the drug available but didn't get round to publishing a formal order, people would be able to see that it was spin.)

Secondly, the order would give patients the right to take legal action if they were denied the drug on non-medical grounds.

This system recognises that ministers cannot police a whole department on their own. Instead, it gives service users the ability to enforce ministerial decisions, when those decisions are ignored by front-line civil servants.

Anonymous said...

Yup, good comments from Livingstone. "Yes Minister" is as true as ever!

Doug said...

I feel dirty for agreeing with some of Livingstone's comments. Some of his comments about the civil service I agree with but they are interspersed with his usual lies and bullshit.

The point about Thatcher centralising was I think a mixture of old style authoritarian conservatism and the absolute necessity to root out the radical communists and socialists from power. Unfortunately Thatcher or Major never reversed the process when things had settled down or when it looked like the new labour centralisers would again enter government. This ties in with what Tim Montgomerie was saying about the success of Tory economic policy but a lamentable lack of Tory social policy which would lead to more self reliance and therefore an inherent scepticism toward big government.

Trumpeter Lanfried said...

Jon Harvey @ 4.02 PM. You ask, "Has the whole business of target setting for example (with all of its consequences) been Government or Civil service led?"

I suspect 95% of all policy decisions are Civil Service led. How can it be otherwise with here-today-and-gone-tomorrow ministers of state? The system lends itelf to manipulation.

ukipwebmaster said...

Hell has frozen over!
Ken talks sense!

Unsworth said...

Livingstone is completely ignoring the relentless politicisation of the upper echelons of the Civil Service by his own Party. He's also avoiding the issue of his term in office - and what he did to the structures at County Hall in order to run things at his own whim and fancy, ably assisted by the many cronies that he 'brought in'.

And let's not forget the more disgraceful figures that he recruited - including his own nearest and dearest. 'Dearest' may not be quite accurate, but she was pretty bleeding expensive - to the ratepayers that is. Have they recovered any of the Lee Jasper cash yet?

Still, it's handy to have a convenient whipping-boy, ain't it? I hold no brief for the Civil Service, which has deteriorated beyond all recognition, but methinks Livingstone doth protest too much.

Hey said...

This is all some bad dream. Perhaps my local Starbucks is going with that OTHER Colombian product?

I'm truly expecting to be dived bombed by a formation of Berkshire hogs for agreeing with something that the Red Menace beardy says. Definitely need a long hot shower.