Razi Rahman, APCO Worldwide: Seize the chance for change

The next Parliament will have more power. But do you have the skills to influence MPs' decisions?

The one certainty about the result of the next election will be change: likely, but not necessarily, in terms of who governs; definitely, in terms of how we are governed; and, importantly, in terms of how public affairs is practised.

The notion that a given issue or problem can be addressed simply through a couple of meetings with the relevant minister, special adviser or civil servant has been outdated for some years.

As I know from my own experience in Tony Blair's political office, even with a comfortable parliamentary majority the way we dealt with any issue was shaped by the entire political environment: the attitudes of backbench and opposition MPs, the strength of extra-parliamentary campaigns, the nature of media coverage and the arguments deployed by third parties.

This trend will accelerate after the election.

The fallout from the expenses scandal means the Government will be under intense pressure to give Parliament more power. It will not want to concede enough rope to hang itself, and while it may believe it can control the amount of power given to the legislature, a little freedom could become infectious.

MPs, keen to win the favour of their constituents, will be determined to seize every opportunity to demonstrate their independence from the party line.

And with more than 130 MPs already having announced they will not be standing at the next election, and a large number vulnerable, the next Parliament will be much changed, perhaps the most inexperienced since 1945.

It may also be the most influential too.

Governments since 1992 have been increasingly unable to rely on a number of their backbenchers to vote with the whip so, in a close-run election, party managers will be monitoring the results, seat by seat, to work out their real - rather than notional - majority.

A hung parliament could see a formal coalition, with deals on policy and cabinet places.

More likely perhaps, the Liberal Democrats might wish to maintain their independence, allowing finance and confidence motions to pass but deciding to support or oppose each piece of legislation on its merits.

This scenario hands more power to minor parties but, crucially, also to backbenchers of all parties. Increasingly, votes in Parliament will be negotiated, with interested parties having a more powerful voice and the outcome more unpredictable. We may see MPs coming together, sometimes on a cross-party basis, to force substantive changes to legislation. It is possible that the way in which politics is conducted may even take on elements more akin to the 'bipartisan approach' of American politics than the traditional confrontational approach of the House of Commons.

Although the institutional matrix will never be as complex as in Brussels, there may increasingly be multiple entry points and opportunities for the intervention of organised outside interests as power and decision-making becomes more diffuse.

One set of organisations may have more opportunities to influence the legislative agenda and outcome but so will those who seek to oppose them. The most effective persuaders, not necessarily those with the loudest voices or the deepest pockets, will win.

In this new environment, creativity in framing an argument and innovation in campaigning will be rewarded.

An in-depth understanding of how decisions are made and what motivates and concerns the relevant political players will be key, as will the ability to predict how politics will evolve and change.

Experience of the machinery of government and management of the legislative process will be essential.

The key lesson is not to fear change but to use it wisely.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

- Who are your five fantasy dinner party guests from the political world?

Former Labour cabinet minister Dame Barbara Castle; Winston Churchill; Robert Kennedy; Eleanor Roosevelt; anti-apartheid leader Oliver Tambo.

- Predict one thing that will happen in the week running up to the election.

All the parties will be forced to respond to allegations of postal vote irregularities in the closing days of the campaign, disrupting carefully planned press conferences and visits.

- A hung parliament: good or bad news for public affairs?

Good news for those able to respond to a new, more complex style of politics.

Razi Rahman is director, public affairs, APCO Worldwide

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