Ian Dunt’s first book looked at the consequences of Brexit and his second examined the importance of liberal values in an age of creeping authoritarianism. This book is an ideal primer on Westminster and is arguably the most accessible.
Dunt splits his subject into ten chapters of about 25-30 pages each. This provides plenty of space for him to unpack his ideas whilst never creating the feeling that any of them have been padded out to meet a word count. With over 70 pages of appendices, including the names of those he spoke to when writing the book, a useful glossary and detailed references of his sources and further reading, it remains an easy read whilst packing academic weight.
Below are some example insights that will help you decide if the book is for you (or for your apprentice activist if you are in a gifting mood).
As a scene setter, Dunt chronicles the events and the points of failure of Chris Grayling’s attempted privatisation of probation services. This provides a relatable real-world context for what follows, one example of the harm caused when Westminster doesn’t work.
Democracy gets off to a bad start
The first problems with our political system start before we even get to Westminster, though. The chapter on ‘The Vote’ explains how there really is no public say in choosing a parliamentary candidate and that all the power lies with the party.
Recruitment for ‘normal’ jobs typically starts with a public advertisement of the role and a job description. Candidates are carefully shortlisted against required and desired skill sets before being invited to an interview where their skills and experience can be assessed using criteria and competency-based questions.
There are no adverts for prospective parliamentary candidates and no job descriptions. Any interviews are unlikely to be objective enough to ensure that the best candidate for the role is selected and are more likely intended to probe for party loyalty.
In the next chapter Dunt picks up the process from the general election and looks at the newly sworn-in MP. He argues that there could scarcely be a less effective bringing together of resources (person, support network, environment, resources) to get any job done.
Everything is stacked against MPs
From entering Parliament, MPs are destined to spend a significant proportion of their time on constituency case work, most of which would be better dealt with at a local level or by a national ombudsman office (which doesn’t exist in this country). When free of those matters, they are required to participate in the antiquated and inefficient pantomime that is the Commons, wasting hours of time each month attending sittings, trying to ‘catch the speaker’s eye’ and with no real opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the debate.
If successful in securing a ‘government job’, i.e. a ministerial role, the MP knows only too well that they have just embarked on a brutal game of snakes and ladders where the success or failure of their political career is unlikely to have any connection with their own talent.
The main role of ministers appears to be to make a name for themselves and to progress through this board in the hope that they will next land at the foot of a ladder and not a snake.
Light in the darkness
Dunt continues with his explanation of the causes of weaknesses in the whole Westminster system. He is even-handed and, whilst his politics are progressive, he is not partisan. No part of Westminster escapes his systematic criticism of the role it plays in a dysfunctional system.
There are, however, some points of light. The select committees are faintly praised as a process where MPs are somewhat freer to contribute openly and consider the greater good beyond the party line.
The Lords, probably the part of the Westminster structure most likely to face cries to reform, also receives credit for being a place that still manages to perform its vital work, in spite of, rather than because of, the system within which it exists.
On his journey, Dunt also describes the faults in the actual law-making process, the distinctive influence of the Treasury over all government activity, and the manifest failures of the press in holding Westminster to account.
Who is going to change things?
Dunt ends the book with an overview of how each of the major problems addressed can actually be fixed. They are not magical solutions dreamt up by an idealist, but practical steps that could be adopted by any party, should they wish to. To quote Dunt’s last paragraph:
“Change will not come from the generosity of those who benefit from the existing state of affairs. It will come from the sustained challenge of those that do not.”
We will have to lobby for the change that the parties have no interest in delivering if left to their own devices.
The solutions that Dunt presents could inform several manifestos for change.
As a Bylines reader, you may already be active politically, or at least interested in positive change. If you’ve never read a political book, this book would make a great first choice and provides one useful strand of knowledge to help explain what’s wrong with our country.
Many people who are new to engaging in politics are listening to podcasts and may know of Ian Dunt through one of the podcasts he co-hosts (Oh God, What Now? (formerly Remainiacs) and Origin Story). If so, in audio format, this book is a great gateway to the next level – think of it like an accessible podcast series.
If you are not already politically active, there’s a strong chance that reading Dunt’s book will encourage you to become so.