How Westminster Works … and Why It Doesn’t by Ian Dunt review – a savage indictment of the status quo

This eye-opening analysis of the British way of governing reveals a system set up for failure

Ian Dunt starts his lacerating analysis of Westminster with an extended case history. It concerns Chris Grayling at the time he became secretary of state for justice in 2012. Having inherited a probation service that was creaking at the seams, he decided to privatise the whole thing, turning over the delicate business of managing ex-offenders to a selection of security firms that had no experience of that kind of work. The big idea was that they would be incentivised with a “payment by results” system, calculated according to how many people fell back into crime.

What followed can best be described as a fiasco. The firms had no insight into the many causes of recidivism. Some clients simply got lost in the system because payment by results was not conducive to careful record-keeping across different agencies. It is perhaps consoling to know that several of the private companies that signed up for the promised unlimited profits ended up bankrupt. And Grayling? He went on to transport, where he acquired the moniker “Failing Grayling”. Ian Dunt, though, thinks this is unfair, since Grayling is actually “a completely standard example of the quality of the ministerial class in Britain”.

It is easy to stir up righteous anger, but Dunt does something far more useful in performing a detailed analysis of why none of this nonsense was stopped before it got started. The civil service, he shows, is staffed by clever generalists who lack the granular knowledge that would allow them to predict how things might go wrong, or give them the confidence to insist that a Tiggerish minister first establishes an evidence base for any proposed change, including taking data from pilot schemes into account. As for the Treasury, it seems to have stopped reading at the bit about payment by results and simply waved the whole thing through. And the press? In general, it wasn’t interested, says Dunt, because probation is dull and complicated to write about, with stories about the NHS and education grabbing the headlines instead.

In a series of deeply informed and carefully worked out examples, Ian Dunt takes us through the Westminster labyrinth to reveal an omnishambles. It is not – and he is clear here – because the people involved are corrupt or lazy. It is because the system is not fit for purpose. MPs are impossibly burdened by having to do two jobs simultaneously, first as local representatives and then as national politicians. Most of their constituency work is stuff that should be done by councils, were these not also failing. Cabinet ministers often appear poorly briefed, but they may have up to 20 meetings a day and can’t always start on their red boxes until the rest of us have already gone to bed.

Here and there Dunt finds reason to be cautiously cheerful. The House of Lords has shown remarkable independence, a real ability to affect the outcome of legislation by managing its own timetable and contributing much-needed expertise (the cross-bench system, he argues, works particularly well). And select committees turn out to offer a model of how things should be done – listening to the evidence and privileging cooperation and compromise over crude partisanship.

Dunt is a political journalist with a reputation for independent thinking, and he conducted more than 100 interviews for his book. Some, with figures such as Andy Burnham and Margaret Beckett, are on the record – but many are not. This is presumably because those interviewees are still at work in a system about which it is too risky to speak thoughtfully and honestly. And that, really, tells you everything you need to know.

• How Westminster Works … and Why It Doesn’t is published by Orion (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


Kathryn Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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