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Summer Reading – Why We Get the Wrong Politicians

June 27, 2019

Years ago, I quite fancied the idea of becoming a Member of Parliament. Even if I had been able to persuade a party and a constituency to consider me as a candidate, it wouldn’t have ended well. Toeing the line is not my thing.

After reading Isabel Hardman’s book Why We Get the Wrong Politicians, I realise what a lucky escape I had. Would I have wanted to ruin my marriage, become an alcoholic, been bullied from pillar to post by arrogant whips, forced to nod through inadequate legislation, suffer abuse from online trolls on Twitter or thugs outside Parliament and then, after years of constituency work dealing with heart-breaking cases of bureaucratic intransigence, end up dumped by the electorate not because of any personal failings but because of the incompetence of my party leadership? I don’t think so.

Hardman interviewed many past and present MPs for her book. A common theme was frustration – with the political system, with inability of individuals to make a difference, or to dissent without ruining their standing within their party. As a political journalist operating within Westminster, she looks at its elected inmates, many of whom she knows well, as human beings first, whereas we outsiders sometimes take a more stereotyped view of our representatives – as venal, toadying, spineless yes-men who don’t have the guts to put the interests of constituents and country before party and personal career.

I’m one of those who in recent years have taken a dim view of our politicians. The Brexit saga has thrown into prominence some pretty dubious individuals, some of whom annoy me so much that I start cursing them when they appear on TV – Jacob Rees-Mogg, Mark Francois, Chris Grayling, Steve Baker, Barry Gardiner and Chris Williamson, to name but a few. And yet, to this Remainer, there are people like Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper, Jess Phillips, David Lammy, Rory Stewart and Dominic Grieve, who transcend the Westminster caricature, regardless of their views on Brexit.

Leaving party politics aside, one of Hardman’s main points is that too often the current system doesn’t allow MPs to carry out one of their most important roles, as scrutineers of legislation. A relentless throughput of bills are put forward by ambitious ministers. Overbearing whips smother any meaningful criticism among government MPs of proposed legislation. Those who are looking to get into government don’t do their chances much good if they show themselves to be independent thinkers.

MPs find themselves bullied into voting for bad legislation, much of which they don’t have time to review, despite the fact that they have to deal with the consequences of that legislation when they see people in their constituency surgeries suffering as a result, say, of changes to the welfare regulations. Those who don’t toe the line find themselves appointed by the whips to committees set up to examine bills line by line, regardless of their lack of knowledge of the subject matter.

But first they have to get into Parliament. For that, they need serious money. If you take into account loss of earnings while campaigning, the cost of becoming an MP can run into tens of thousands pf pounds. One Tory MP spent £121,000 to win his marginal seat. On the Labour side, unless you happened to be supported by a trade union, candidates in the last election spent between £19k and £34k. Even sitting MPs had to shell out an average of £13k. So if you lose, and want to try again, you have to find a similar amount every time.

This was the reality that I found most shocking. How many people with great talent but limited means never make it into Parliament? Likewise, how many with limited talent and plenty of money end up occupying a seat for decades with no visible achievements to their names? More than a few, I reckon.

Hardman also asks whether we should adopt a system based on the separation of powers. In other words, as in the US, the executive branch governs, and the legislature is there to scrutinise proposed laws and hold the executive to account. She comes down against the idea on the basis that the US legislature, wracked by partisan division, is hardly a paragon of democracy, and not highly regarded by those who elect it.

Another bright idea is to upgrade the role of select committees, whose job is to scrutinise government policy. By paying them a modest salary uplift and upgrading their status, parliament would provide an alternative career path, whereas the only current route to promotion is into the executive, which requires dumb obedience to the party line.

As for the system of appointing people to ministerial roles covering areas of government about which they have zero experience and minimal knowledge, I can only wonder how effective I would be, after a half a lifetime running service businesses, if someone appointed me to be the CEO of a company that makes washing machines.

The counter-argument is that MPs should be jacks of all trades, able to master any brief in the shortest time. That presupposes that ministers have the intelligence to do so, and the very independence of thought that the party political system does its best to grind out of them. Alternatively, if you appoint someone to a ministry and leave them there over a long period to develop expertise, when they move to higher things, they often struggle to avoid seeing all things through the lens of their previous experience. Gordon Brown and Theresa May particularly come to mind.

To me, as an interested outsider, it seems that success as a politician depends on activity, whether or not that activity is required or productive. For backbenchers, questions and speeches in the chamber, regardless of how fatuous their contributions, are considered means to maintain a public profile. For a minister, a constant stream of bills is judged by the public and the media as evidence that the person is “getting things done”.

The question I would ask – which Hardman doesn’t raise – is how much of this legislation is really necessary, how much is to fix problems with ill-conceived and under-scrutinised laws, and how much is make-work to keep MPs and civil servants in gainful employment?

Over the past six months government has appeared paralysed by the demands of arguing about, preparing for, or not preparing for, Brexit. Has the country functioned less effectively for the lack of legislation that would have been passed in that period during normal times?

As a taxpayer whose pounds support the vast machinery of government, including a civil service that boasts far greater numbers than the Brussels bureaucracy the Brexiteers so deplore, am I getting value for money?

I wish I knew. Though it’s pretty obvious to observers of the Brexit shenanigans and the current Conservative leadership election campaign that the current political system is broken, Hardman provides some illuminating insights into the problem from within what she calls the Westminster bubble. As she points out, although there are some pretty ropy characters in the House of Commons, there are also many decent people doing their best under difficult circumstances. But decency is not the same as talent, and it’s pretty clear that Parliament is fishing for its members from too small a pond.

The biggest shame is that a career as an elected representative should be a higher calling. In a world less polarised, a Member of Parliament should be worthy of respect, if not admiration. Instead, both the commercial media and some politicians themselves encourage us to believe that it’s a grubby profession. And thanks to the internet, there’s little an MP can say or do without their integrity being questioned from one quarter or another, and those who put their heads above the parapet are liable to be on the receiving end of vicious abuse. Hardly a great recruiting advertisement for the brightest and the best.

If you belong to the “all politicians are tossers” school of thought, Why We Get the Wrong Politicians might cause you to think again. But it’s also a telling illustration of how tradition, like ivy that takes hold of a building, can undermine and choke great institutions. Time for some pruning methinks.

From → Books, Employment, Politics, UK

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