Opinion: The insipid political class we breed

It was this comment:

I would like to see the LibDems show that they are more progressive, by seeking to recruit new potential MP’s from the massive ‘public pool’ rather than the limited spectrum of activists, advisers and councillors.”

by ‘UK voter’ on Stephen Tall’s LDV article What must happen for the Lib Dems to overtake Labour, and the continuing saga of MP’s expenses, that has prompted me to write.

It is obvious to everyone that there is something wrong with the political class. As a political party we have to actively take steps to make it better. Right now the trend that is becoming more apparent is for individuals to take the Degree >> MP’s Researcher >> PPC route, and this isn’t working. Not for the Liberal Democrats and not for Britain. It is a route that glass-houses our PPCs.

The danger of this is for future MPs is that it insulates them from corporate ethics and warps them into political pod people. At best it makes them numb, at worst it manifests as corruption or sexual repression erupting into a scandal twenty years later.  Take John Prescott, for example: if a senior manager in multi-national corporation, had a relationship with a woman he held power over, abusing his power, the share-holders of said corporation would begin aligning his golden handshake immediately.

The UKs political class is one of the least accountable of it’s ilk. The public may have to wait up to 4 years until the next election to remove below par politicians. It simply would not happen in the public sector.

We’re not like the other two main political parties in the UK: our PPCs have to be better. Our parliamentarians have to work harder. Constructive criticism has to be met with a keener ear.

It is our job to make politics more attractive to the professional class. Once city high-flyers, business owners, teachers, scientists, doctors, people at ordinary desk jobs, etc, have conquered their respective fields they should look upon politics as the next step.We need veritable political entrepreneurs. The way we do this should have a similar mantra to the councillor recruitment pamphlets slogan “People like you are Councillors …” – MPs are only mere mortals after all.  The Liberal Democrats need to campaign to recruit these people. Getting the right people to catch the political bug may prove the difference between electoral success or bust.

It is worthless having the most vibrant, dynamic and healthy grass roots movement I have ever seen if the blades shirk at the first sign of sunlight. Collectively the Liberal Democrats have one of the nastiest cases of “Tall Poppy Syndrome” that I have ever come across. Seeking power is seen as a deviation from ideological purity and those individuals are savaged, whereas incompetence is looked upon with sympathy.

Quite simply, if your entire professional career has consisted of work exclusively within Parliament, the Lobby, Cowley Street, and think-tanks it should count against you when seeking approval.

* Sara Scarlett is a member of Surrey Heath Liberal Democrats.

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92 Comments

  • Sara Scarlett 9th Jun '09 - 1:34pm

    Darrell,

    The people in charge of running corporations are more accountable than the people running our country.

    Enron’s executives were put on trial for fraud – none of our parliamentarians have been.

    Rgds.

  • Sara Scarlett 9th Jun '09 - 2:09pm

    Darrell,

    In the corporate world most employees get sacked instantly if they are suspected to be stealing form their employers.

    Eliot Morley has been doing just that and although he is not standing for re-election he is still an MP (and could remains so for a year). His employer is the taxpayer yet the taxpayer has no way of sacking him.

  • The payment policies of corporate renumeration committees are typically far more questionable than MP’s expenses. The political class may be in crisis, but its not like recent events haven’t revealled equally bad things about the corporate sector so pretending they have remained a bastion of moral fibre is nonsensical.

    However, in general its correct. But we shouldn’t be trying to attract managment types as some kind of fast track- its not as if we are winning in enough seats for that to get us a lot of people anyway, lets be frank. We just desperately need to attract more people from all walks of life to get involved in politics at all.

  • Mark Littlewood 9th Jun '09 - 2:10pm

    Darrell,

    I thought I should comment…while still waiting for the public backlash in favour of Michael Martin that you predicted a couple of weeks back 🙂

    The point is surely to have an understanding of corporate ethics. It’s not a question of whether Enron are more or less accountable than the US Senate. It’s about getting more MPs with “real world” rather than uniquely political backgrounds.

    It’s wrong, however, to say that “heads of corporations face no such censure.” They obviously don’t face a democratic election every 4 – 5 years, but take for example, the case of the tragic case of Lord Browne. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/6612703.stm

    It’s not yet clear – in contrast – that the MPs involved in the worse excesses of expenses-gate will have their retirement packages trimmed back.

  • Grammar Police 9th Jun '09 - 2:23pm

    I don’t disagree with you, Sara, about needing as wide as possible a base of candidates. But I think you perhaps overplay your argument here.

    Specifically the point about corporate ethics and responsibility. The problems with MPs’ expenses have no necessary link to the background of MPs, but have everything to do with the rules and MPs’ expectations/feelings about their entitlements. Indeed, those who previously earned hundreds of thousands more than an MP in the private sector, are maybe more likely to feel entitled to profit from their allowances? My Tory MP certainly feels MPs’ salaries should be doubled – he was previously a banker.

    I’m all for getting real life experience before standing for public office – but wonder if high-flying corporates actually experience much real life!

    We need a good mixture.

  • I have to say that I am unlikely to look favourably on opinions advanced by people who lace their texts with trendy managementese jargon and ghastly split infinitives (“to actively take” – YUCK!).

    Sara seems to think that John Prescott has never had a job outside politics. Wrong. He was a working seaman for at least 12 years, and was a wine steward on a cruise-liner at one point (something he shares with Nicholas Van Hoogstraten’s father).

    Sara’s assertion that corporate bosses are more accountable than politicians is frankly laughable. Has the lady never heard the term “proxy vote”? These are things that directors wave at shareholders when they turn up at AGMs to cause trouble. Oh, and Enron was based in Texas, rather a long way from the Palace of Westminster, methinks.

    Another of Sara’s inaccuracies is her claim that no MP has ever been convicted of fraud. Horatio Bottomley, anyone?

    I’m sorry to be so snitty about a mmeber contributing to an important debate, but ill-informed opinions supported by junk data don’t help.

  • Political hack 9th Jun '09 - 2:41pm

    Sara
    I’m not sure I understand. Are you saying there should be an assumption against someone like me becoming a parliamentarian because:
    A. I chose to forgo a potentially lucrative career in business or the law to work for a pittance because I felt that political change could make people’s lives better;
    B. I understand parliamentary procedure, how to run an MP’s office and the complexities of local government;
    C. I’m too young and ‘inexperienced’, despite the fact that one of the most drastically under-represented groups in the Commons is those aged 20-30.

    Or is it some combination of these factors?

    Having worked for the party for four years, I’ve never seen any prejudice in favour of party employees in terms of candidacy. And I don’t think there should be a prejudice against them, as you seem to suggest.

    The presumption you advocate would result in lots more Alan Duncans and lots fewer Julia Goldsworthys. I know which one I’d prefer.

    Yours,

    A disgruntled party employee.

  • Sara Scarlett 9th Jun '09 - 2:46pm

    Sesenco,

    To clarify, I specifically meant put on trial for fraud in regards to the recent expenses scandal.

    Also, I never stated that John Prescott had never held a “proper job” – I was using him as an example of someone who has abused his power yet is still an MP.

  • You can hardly accusse John Prescott of having gone down the ‘degree, researcher, MP route’. Whatever you think of him his background is rather more vairied than that.

  • Sara Scarlett 9th Jun '09 - 2:59pm

    Political Hack,

    Yes. You do understand me correctly. You are not attached to your community – you are attached to the party. In my humble opinion MPs shouldn’t work for their Party they should work for their communities.

    It’s not a simple question of either having a lucrative career or making the world better. It’s about how the Westminster bubble insulates people.

    Understanding parliamentary procedure, how to run an MP’s office and the complexities of local government doesn’t necessarily make you a good community representative or a good campaigner.

    Not all people who have worked outside the political bubble turn into Alan Duncan nor do all who follow the MPs researcher path become Julia Goldsworthy’s.

    I didn’t say these individuals should be excluded entirely but there shouldn’t only be one path to becoming an MP. It’s all about broadening the spectrum.

  • Martin Land 9th Jun '09 - 3:04pm

    Actually, I think the problem is a different one, I’m afraid. The problem is our inability, somehow, to simply have enough candidates. We have a GE coming up but I’m aware of seats that have gone through all the usual hoops including the advert for applicants in LD News and received NO applicants. We simply do not have enough PPC’s approved. We probably don’t even have enough yet to contest every seat in the GE and it could be in weeks. Pathetic. Local parties should have a real choice, more members should have the opportunity. A local Tory MP announced his retirement 18 months ago. They had more than 400 APPLICANTS to create a short list from! This is something Ros Scott should get sorted and quickly…

  • Political hack 9th Jun '09 - 3:18pm

    Sara

    Leaving aside your baseless (and somewhat offensive) suggestion that I am not attached to my community, but only to my party, I must take issue with your starting point:

    What evidence do you have that being a researcher is the ‘one path to becoming an MP’? I think if you looked at our intake of new Lib Dem MPs from 2005, or at the list of candidates in target seats for the next election, you would find no such evidence.

    One final point. How does operating a presumption against a particular group of people ‘broaden the spectrum’?

  • Sara Scarlett 9th Jun '09 - 3:19pm

    Darrell,

    Of course there isn’t only one path to becoming an MP – but if it looks like we only recruit PPCs from party insiders it makes the prospect of becoming one more and more unattractive to outsiders. Therefore we trap ourselves in a downward spiral.

    One of the things that I wish the LibDems don’t speak up about loudly enough is that there is more professional experience on the LibDem front bench than there is on the other two front benches. It is generally harder for LibDems to become MPs as we all know – there’s no such thing as a safe LibDem seat – wider professional experience might be what’s really needed to make better politicians.

  • Sara Scarlett 9th Jun '09 - 3:25pm

    Political Hack,

    It has been noted elsewhere e.g. by Peter Obourne, that the political class is increasingly taking the Degree – researcher – MP route rather than becoming an MP after wider professional experience. And I’m not just referring to the LibDems in terms of intake. Our political class has to be better in order to overcome.

    I think that if it looks like we only recruit PPCs from party insiders it makes the prospect of becoming one more and more unattractive to outsiders. Therefore we trap ourselves in a downward spiral.

  • I don’t understand Sara, how are coroparate high fliers connected to their community? They somehow have a better understanding and connection to students in rented accomodation and people in council estates than party workers? Why on Earth should we believe that?

    Sara, did any of the executives who decived shareholders at Shell get put on trial for fraud? There have been plenty of people in the corporate world who got away with things just as some MP’s may have. Prefering private enterprise is a fine thing to make the case for, but if you think its somehow got higher ethical standards you are just cherrypicking.

    Part of the issue is that being a Lib Dem PPC in most cases means having no chance of winning, and being expected to campaign in your spare time with minimal funds and no staff support. Shockingly this does not appeal to people outside the party- but targetting makes it simply necessary.

    The real problem is the party must be moving ever closer to only 50K members- theres a clear need to try and boost recruitment and involvement from every and any walk of life.

  • Sara Scarlett 9th Jun '09 - 3:35pm

    Darrell,

    The LibDem front bench rose through the party ranks as well as being professional people – look at David Laws, look at Susan Kramer.

    Tinter,

    I also said teachers, doctors, business owners. Corporate high flyers would help us a lot by adding their energy and their business acumen. Employees in corporations last a much shorter period of time in their respective companies when caught on the fiddle than our MPs do. If not put on trial for fraud they are at least sacked.

  • This article would be immeasurably improved by including actual figures. How many currently sitting MPs have taken the career path specified above? How many have worked in alternate fields before entering parliament?

    I will not be convinced that this isn’t something invented by the commentariat (and reflected in the article above) until I see numbers. As it is, this smacks of the Polly Toynbee school of argument, baseless assumptions used to present opinions as facts.

  • Richard Wilson 9th Jun '09 - 3:54pm

    I agree, but we shouldn’t downplay the importance of those who have taken the route you deride. While a wide base of PPCs does breed creativity, it doesn’t breed agreement. Having a bunch of people from vaguely the same background means that there’s a bulwark of people who are, for wont of a better term, on message – there to defend ideas, to ensure a decent level of consensus. We can have as diverse a base as we like, but without a united centre, nothign can be achieved.

  • Sara Scarlett 9th Jun '09 - 4:01pm

    Huw,

    I don’t actually dislike career politicians at all. I think they add their energy and drive to the organisation which is always helpful. I also think they are more likely to jettison aspects that are inefficient. Careerists can be useful.

    Adam,

    I haven’t done any research myself although I have read around the subject, here is a good place to start:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-479478/PETER-OBORNE-The-rise-sleaze-ocrats-Britains-ruling-class.html

    Far from being baseless my opinions, although not based on any numerical figures, are based on my experience in politics so far. If I wanted to present my opinions as facts I would have written a thesis and not an Op-ed.

  • Sara Scarlett 9th Jun '09 - 4:05pm

    Darrell,

    That’s exactly what I’m not saying.

  • Sara Scarlett 9th Jun '09 - 4:08pm

    Richard,

    I agree with you entirely, however, I don’t believe a diverse base and a united centre are not mutually exclusive. Why can’t we have both.

  • Sara Scarlett 9th Jun '09 - 4:10pm

    Apologies the previous comment should read:

    Ricahrd,

    I agree with you entirely, however, I don’t believe a diverse base and a united centre are mutually exclusive. Why can’t we have both?

  • Sara,

    An interesting suggestion and I very much like the slogan: “People like you are councillors.” It’s good copy.

    But I take issue with your criticism of researchers, particularly in reference to your statement that:

    “Right now the trend that is becoming more apparent is for individuals to take the Degree >> MP’s Researcher >> PPC route, and this isn’t working…The danger of this is for future MPs is that it insulates them from corporate ethics and warps them into political pod people. At best it makes them numb, at worst it manifests as corruption or sexual repression erupting into a scandal twenty years later.”

    Which researchers do you think are likely to become numb, corrupt, or sexually repressed?

    The current crop of researchers is, on the whole, highly talented and very capable. I’m not a researcher myself; but, considering the lowly wages we pay, we get some very intelligent and motivated workers.

    In terms of scandal, and the potential for scandal, I can’t think of a single one of our researchers that has brought the party into disrepute either in the printed press or on the blogosphere.

    They are intelligent, loyal, and fearless. Name any one of them and I can assure you that, should they run, they would get my vote.

    Best,

    Whelan

  • Sara, I’m puzzled by all these references to ‘corporate culture’. Corporate culture in Britain’s financial sector aided and abetted the credit crunch. It seems to me that we have plenty of evidence of corporate leaders (Fred the Shred for example) behaving badly, every bit as badly as our political class.

    You go on to take a swipe at ‘tall poppies’, produced under Westminster hot house conditions. However, changing the personnel, without changing institutions, is unlikely to transform our politics.

    I found it particularly difficult to work out what you meant when you wrote that ideological purity has been inhibiting the pursuit of power by Liberal Democrats. Speaking personally I think Liberal Democrats need to take liberal ideas far more seriously and become much more ideologically sophisticated. Liberal purist/purism sounds rather like an oxymoron.

    Surely a radical political party needs – and I know it’s difficult – to pursue a great many changes simultaneously in the hope and expectation that liberal advances in any one field can help to support and reinforce liberal and democratic progress in others.

    We need lots of different ingredients, and a recipe that is constantly under review/open to amendment, as well as the political courage to mix things together in ways that our political rivals wouldn’t dare to.

  • Sara Scarlett 9th Jun '09 - 4:34pm

    Whelan,

    Thank you for your comment. I’m not denying that researchers are a talented and motivated bunch of people.

    But there should be no natural stepping tones to becoming an MP. Being an MP’s researcher is increasingly being seen as the obvious option for any bright young thing wanting to be an MP. So instead of branching out and testing themselves they stay put and tolerate a lower salary in the hope of electoral success.

    From my experience people who have worked both inside and outside the Westminster bubble more often than not end up more grounded.

    Researchers themselves don’t bring the party into disrepute. I think that individuals who have prolonged exposure to the Westminster bubble do become numb. And if it appears to outsiders we only like to select people who have been researchers it may be off putting and trap us in a downward spiral of not being attractive to a wider scope of individuals.

  • Sara Scarlett 9th Jun '09 - 4:42pm

    “Then you will excuse me if you ask what your point actually is other than to denigrate and disparage the people that work hard for this party.”

    Darrell,

    As someone who works hard for this party I would hate to see those of a similar ilk denigrated and disparaged.

    My point is this: don’t be a political pod person. Politics can be a hobby along side a profession outside the Westminster bubble. I want a broader range of activists from all walks of life so that they can bring their talents and their skill to the party. We will not thrive without a wide range of expertise and experience. So let’s not do ourselves any damage by giving out the appearance that we are a little Westminster club. Let’s make ourselves warm, open and attractive to a wide range of professional people. That is our challenge.

  • Melanie Wilberforce 9th Jun '09 - 4:51pm

    I’m in my early 30’s, I’m female, my hair is currently pink, purple and blue, according to various friends I’m a ‘geeky goth girl’.

    I work full time in the private sector and after a redundancy a few years back I was fearful I would lose my flat as I struggled with my mortgage payments. Previously I worked for the NHS, and before that I worked in various places as a temp after leaving university where I received my degree in Molecular Biology. I also spent a year out from my degree working as a researcher on prostate cancer diagnosis in Finland.

    I grew up in and out of Germany, The Netherlands and Belgium as well as all over the UK as my father was in the Army. I’ve been to several state schools in the UK, army schools in Germany and boarding schools back in the UK for stability during GCSE and A’levels.

    I’d say I have quite a bit of experience of the ‘real world’ and part of that led me to say yes to helping first as a deliverer and then in 2007 I stood and won a place as a Guildford Borough Councillor (I didn’t join the party until I was approached to go through the selection process – something I expected to count against me but which didn’t).

    Simply because you work for or help the Liberal Democrats at any level does not mean you haven’t had a life outside of the political arena. It certainly should not preclude someone from standing within the party as a possible candidate. The fact is that people who aren’t at least partially aware of the political arena are far less likely to consider themselves in this way, I certainly didn’t until various people started talking to me about it – and that’s just at councillor level.

    If you are trying to widen your base you shouldn’t start by trying to limit your number of potential candidates first.

  • “Being an MP’s researcher is increasingly being seen as the obvious option for any bright young thing wanting to be an MP. So instead of branching out and testing themselves they stay put and tolerate a lower salary in the hope of electoral success.”

    How many researchers are PPCs?

  • Sara (and Niklas), the post is full of references to corporate ethics being better. If you don’t want to defend a point then don’t devote 3 paragraphs to it. Because “getting fired while still being a millionare” is a common consequence of anything from poor work to fraud for leading corporate figures that I can cite again and again- hardly has ordinary people thinking “how very accountable!”.

    Also, I reassert there is no reason why someone working in a corporate office or many other jobs is any more involved in the community than a party worker. For avoidance of doudt I’ve never worked for the party…

    Sara, I agree activism must be something that can be done alongside a career. Making this a viable and involving way for ordinary people to get involved in the party is something we vitally need to address. Its not that I think your point is totally without merit- its that the solution is getting these people involved from the bottom, and making them able to work their way up- not starting out looking at MP’s.

    Lets recall that most of our MP’s had to fight their seats repeatedly in order to win, typically from a position as a local councillor. This is simply whats required, so it is oftem going to be a step on the ladder. Local members aren’t stupid and they know a hard-working local councillor is typically going to have the best personal vote as PPC. We just need to make sure it doesn’t have to be the *first* step people take.

  • Helen Duffett 9th Jun '09 - 5:05pm

    “Quite simply, if your entire professional career has consisted of work exclusively within Parliament, the Lobby, Cowley Street, and think-tanks it should count against you when seeking approval.”

    I don’t see why experiences such as those above should count against you when seeking approval. That, in its own way, would be as unhelpful as “tall poppy syndrome.”

    Approval and selection are two separate matters – it makes sense to have a pool of able, talented people from all backgrounds from which local parties can select candidates. It is at the point of selection that members can go into more detail about suitable people who have reached a certain standard.

    The party’s approval process for Parliamentary Candidates was overhauled last year, and I blogged it for Lib Dem Voice shortly after I was approved:

    “The new process is designed to be as accessible as possible. It assesses competences rather than qualifications, and an epic and illustrious track record in the Party is not necessary. The previous long and probing application form has been replaced with a much shorter one, so that the onus is on the day itself: this way you get to show off in person what you’re good at. It gives a good snapshot of you as a potential candidate.

    So what’s all this about “competences”? That’s just another way of saying “skills” – not connections, degrees, high-flying career, etc. Whatever your hinterland, the assessors are looking for evidence of valuable skills. And it’s up to you how you show them.”

    I took a career break to be with my four children while they were preschoolers. The new approval process means that I was able to show my transferable skills, insulated as I am from the world of corporate ethics 😉 . However, I’m not insulated from community life – school governing, youth leadership, environmental and local campaigns.

    We need them all: mums, professionals, social entrepreneurs, you name it.

    There aren’t any hidden figures “breeding” an “insipid political class.” It’s certainly not coming from the Candidates’ Office – where I’ve seen at first hand the team’s dedication to helping everyone reach their full potential. Anyone reading this who is thinking, however tentatively, about having a go, should definitely get in touch with them at [email protected] where they will find the warmest of welcomes and a wealth of resources.

    There’s certainly a case for people from all backgrounds to seek elected office, and that’s not a matter of breeding, but of information and encouragement. We can all play a part in this.

  • “Far from being baseless my opinions, although not based on any numerical figures, are based on my experience in politics so far. If I wanted to present my opinions as facts I would have written a thesis and not an Op-ed.”

    The Whelan article is merely a journalist rehashing old news stories and applying a new appellation to them. We should count ourselves lucky he didn’t call it Political Class-gate. It’s a collection of anecdotes, not evidence of an actual phenomenon existing within the British political system.

    I don’t wish to be nasty, as I am aware that you have worked hard for the party, but your above quote is very telling. Generally, people like to back up their opinions with facts, otherwise they’re just random assertions. I’ll demonstrate this by making a random assertion too: the notion of the political class is a media-driven phenomenon with little basis in reality. It’s merely a construct to supply a particular media narrative with an easily conceptualised bogeyman.

  • Political Pod-Man 9th Jun '09 - 6:35pm

    This is largely rehashed offensive nonsense. It is shockingly illiberal of you to talk of a ‘political class’. I think you need to read outside the Daily Mail and stop attempting to write like them – it’s not working and it’s narked a lot of people here. Try a little less polemic and little more factual evidence.

    Right.

    Opinions out of the way.

    Realities:

    When it comes to being part of a community – knowing people by name and face – your average researcher is higher up there than the checkout workers at Tesco and many local GPs.

    When knocking up happens, researchers do not switch off their brains and turn into party drones. That is why we are successful at the grassroots – because our ‘career’ employees on the ground are able to connect with people on a genuine basis.

    While it appears you would love Alan Sugar to lead us to celeb victory or positively discriminate(!) in favour of ‘groups'(!), that is not meritocratic, nor is it likely to garner more than novelty.

    Please, in future, don’t provoke these rants from us, they’re not fun to have to write.

  • Political Pod-Man 9th Jun '09 - 6:37pm

    That should be ‘a little more factual evidence’, natch.

  • Ruth Bright 9th Jun '09 - 6:38pm

    It is not candidates from a private sector background who have a tough time -it’s candidates from non middle class backgrounds.

    I have just spent a few minutes trawling websites of our MPs (yes I SHOULD get a life). It’s amazing how many of them – Julia Goldsworthy, Norman Lamb, Jeremy Browne and many others mention the worthy professions of a parent or parents in their potted biogs.

    Would I have been selected as a PPC had my local party known I was the daughter of a convicted armed robber. I doubt it!

  • A problem which I have identified is that there is no longer any meaningful opportunity for working-class people to get experience of leading & managing others outside politics.

    In days of yore, when an intelligent workman could become a union official or gain promotion within the factory, he had an ideal grounding for becoming a politician.

    But now in industry, as much as in politics, it is graduates who sail into these roles, & those who start at the bottom are going to stay there & will get no realistic prospect of proving themselves.

    I think this is a tragic loss, but I can think of no realistic way of throwing it into reverse.

    Because I do think we should have more businessmen & professionals, but we also need those who’ve done their time on benefits & tried to manage on a low wage. No, they don’t always have more wisdom than wonks but the level of intelligence & awareness would be raised if there were more such people.

  • Political Pod-Man 9th Jun '09 - 8:04pm

    asquith – give ’em a birching and five years’ national service. That’ll give ’em leadership!

    Just kidding.

  • Yes, let’s not forget to hang them as well. It’s for their own good. 🙂

    Seriously- it is much harder for the working class to enter politics than it once was, even though many of us are more than capable.

  • Since this appears to be a topic of some interest I thought I would link the breakdown of MP’s demographics I often do in these debates.

    http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/notes/snsg-01528.pdf

    As you can all see, 7 out of 62 (11%) Lib Dem MP’s have their former occupation as “political organiser”. Clearly a crisis. Only 29% (18) are from business, clearly we need to take action to get some more urgently. Or perhaps this post was waffle to attack some party workers.

    Hmm. Looks like some facts could have been a good thing to use after all.

  • I’ve never been so glad of voting RON.

    This article makes a common, but ridiculous assumption – that people who are involved in politics are not part of “the public”, that they are isolated from “the community”, that they have no experience of “the real world”.

    I’m as much a citizen as anyone else, the difference is that unlike most of them, I proved it last week by voting. I’ve just had to move out of my flat and back in with my parents, due to being hit by the recession. I’ve houseshared, I’ve enjoyed street parties with the neighbours. When my uni friends were going into law, business, investments, accounting, etc, I rejected their substantial pay packets in favour of months long internship, and then an organiser’s salary in the mid teens (for a 60-70+ hour week). Why? Because I cared. About that ‘real world’, about my community, about making it better. For that I have sacrificed, slogged, suffered, and done it all smiling, because it’s something I believe in, something that I think needs to be done – it is a calling, a duty.

    Would you like to explain how my mate who went to work to Foxtons, spent his evenings spitting champagne out of limo windows – (or an illiterate who works on the till at Tescos) – and has no idea how to organise a community event if his life depended on it would make a better MP, community campaigner, representative of a constituency than I would, and therefore why I should be actively disadvantaged against them in a selection?

  • As a voter, I have a fairly simple rule about career politicians: if you went into politics straight from uni then I won’t vote for you, and I have no interest in listening to anything you have to say.

    It works for me.

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th Jun '09 - 11:18pm


    The danger of this is for future MPs is that it insulates them from corporate ethics and warps them into political pod people. At best it makes them numb, at worst it manifests as corruption or sexual repression erupting into a scandal twenty years later. Take John Prescott, for example: if a senior manager in multi-national corporation, had a relationship with a woman he held power over, abusing his power, the share-holders of said corporation would begin aligning his golden handshake immediately.

    What a load of crap – Sara sounds like some spoilt rich kid who thinks the only people who count are big businessmen and of course they’re all wonderful and squeaky clean. Typical of course that who does she choose to knock – a bloke who for all his many faults DID come up through a proper working career. But he’s working class so beneath Sara’s contempt.

    What rubbish we have here – does Sara really think there is no sexual exploitation in the City? It is never known for City bosses to have affairs with their secretaries? The City boys are good clean-living people who would never go to strip clubs, etc? Oh COME ON!

    Later we find Sara bad-mouthing councillors:


    Understanding parliamentary procedure, how to run an MP’s office and the complexities of local government doesn’t necessarily make you a good community representative or a good campaigner.

    Right, so going out and winning council wards, writing and delivering the focuses, doing the street letters, organising the petitions – knowing what works in a place which – like most of Britain WON’T elect a Liberal Democrat just on the party label without a good campaign – DOESN’T make you a good campaigner? Dealing with mountains of casework, meeting the people at the rough-end of life who rely on you to intercede on their behalf with the providers of local services DOESN’T make you a good community representative?

    But living in a big secluded house, having private transport to a big City office, having pots of money so you can send your kids to private schools, have private medicine, now THAT makes you a good community representative?

    What we need is fewer spoilt rich kids in politics, whether from a business or high elite politics background.

    Underneath, Sara has a point, but Peter Oborne already made it in the Daily Mail and she has nothing to add to it. See how the Daily Mail has twisted a good point – politics is inbred – to its usual end, which is to place ever more power and influence into the hands of the rich and to do down any challenge to that.

    The funny thing is that all that has been most unpleasant and failing in the New Labour government HAS been from it trying to put “business practices” into public services. That’s what all this culture of relentless targets and meaningless jargon is all about. And it has failed, dismally. Just like the City boys whose supposed clever wealth creation turns out to be mainly a Ponzi scheme, and the only reason we can’t call them completely immoral for it is that mostly they actually really believed in it themselves.

  • Sara Scarlett 9th Jun '09 - 11:42pm

    Dear Mark,

    Thank you for your response. I do, and always will have the utmost respect for you. You have been one of the patient and wise people I have ever met in my life.

    I have, however, decided to cease responding from this debate as the comments have descended into ad hominems. I will send you my reply via email.

    Thank you,
    Sara

  • Have to agree with Tinter.

    In the North West, in our four most winnable seats, we have a local small-businessman, a council leader, a university lecturer and a financial advisor.

    Hardly a list of party apparatchiks…

  • Mark Littlewood 10th Jun '09 - 12:04am

    Wow. Pleased to see another big debate prompted by a Liberal Vision supporter 🙂

    I think Sara is basically right in her original article. Political parties have been unable to reach out to wider society in finding optimal candidates.

    There is the danger of the creation of a very narrow career ladder. It’s not obligatory, but it is unhealthy. I have even heard it suggested that the number of FOCUS leaflets you’ve delivered, number of by-election campaigns you’ve attended etc., is weighed in whether your approved as a candidate. I’m sure this is urban myth. I sure hope so.

    I remember when the whole issue of Greg Dyke being a possible candidate for London mayor was suggested. One of the arguments raised against Dyke was that he couldn’t possibly be the LibDem candidate (or even supported by the LibDems) because he hadn’t been a party member for the statutory 12 or 18 month period. There might be many arguments against Greg Dyke. But this – surely to God – isn’t one of them.

  • Mark L, I just linked the statistics on the breakdown of MP’s. Business and the profesions provide most of parliament already. Indeed, that proportion is only set to increase when labour get booted out, as they are the most keen on Political Workers as MP’s.

    In the face of actual evidence you are wrong that this is a major problem, perhaps you could provide some of your own? Rather than simply reasserting your views.

    Sara, you opened by calling a number of people involved in our party “pod people” who are “at best numb”. So I don’t think you really have much cause to cry ad-hom at others. There have been plenty of valid points made.

  • I think that Sara is essentially right in this article, but as ever I think there are perhaps some more weighted ways to address the issue.

    I fully buy into Peter Oborne’s writings on “the political class”. Putting blame aside, Westminster institutionally has developed a culture and attitude which is out of touch with the general public. On some of those matters I might be in the bubble myself (e.g. the European Union), whilst on others I look on in despair (MPs expenses).

    Westminster today does not operate as a successful Parliament, and MPs as a whole are not fulfilling their roles to the degree that the electorate has a right to expect. Quality of constituency work varies massively by individual (from Simon Hughes’ dedicated work to those of MPs from other parties who bully their constituents), and very few MPs have any pretense of seriously assessing legislation that many of them don’t even understand. I could anticipate the disagreement with Sara’s reference of “a corporate culture”, but let me put it differently – I think the Parliament today takes the worst elements of a corporate “all you can get” culture with the worst elements of an old fashioned club. The two clearly do not work well together, and in the absense of a class of independently wealthy MPs interested in public service, Westminster does have to become more like a company in terms of standards, policies and disciplinary procedures which keep things honest.

    So how do people with political-only careers fit into this? I think there are a couple reasons:
    – First, as an “insider”, they’re a lot less likely to be part of the solution in addressing our Parliament’s lost relevance I mentioned above. Assuming an average of 4 years between elections, the number of career politicos has been growing by 20% each election. Compare that to the number of people from manual labour (-15%) and business (-7%). I don’t think these are trends which are likely to see Parliament go “back to basics”.
    – Secondly, I have concerns about the skills which are available without the political class to people who aspire to be MPs and eventually Ministers. I’ve had discussions with people in Westminster dominant in policy areas I work in who are barely able to hold a conversation on the topic. This is not a rare thing. Campaigning, connecting with individual voters, organisation, time-keeping and the like are all skills which are available to learn within Westminster; but if trends continue and in 20 years 80%+ of people in Parliament have never been involved in wealth creation, I have concerns as to whether Parliament will have the nouse to oversee it.

  • I agree with some of your article, but your sentiments regarding seeking power versus ideological purity do need some thought. If we believe something strongly enough it is our duty to stand up and say so. Such duty however only comes from a firm ideological or philosophical base. Look what happens when we seek power for its own sake, we get a Tony Blair or a Gordon Brown.

  • BigotBasher – no – surely the kind of people Sara is talking about means those who actually work for the party, so council leaders are not party apparatchiks in many cases – as is the case with Gordon Birtwhistle in Burnley – I actually don’t know what his previous job was but I’d bet you a steak dinner it wasn’t working for the party!

  • None has yet mentioned the most important point in this whole debate. It is the local Party members in each constituency who shortlist and then vote on who they wish to see as their PPC.

    If the local Party doesn’t like the fact that someone has no ‘real life’ experience then that person doesn’t get to be a PPC. Simple isn’t it?

  • Helen Duffett 10th Jun '09 - 2:37pm

    Hi Nick, I touched on it at 5:05pm yesterday:

    “Approval and selection are two separate matters – it makes sense to have a pool of able, talented people from all backgrounds from which local parties can select candidates. It is at the point of selection that members can go into more detail about suitable people who have reached a certain standard.”

    Thanks for expressing it more clearly – it’s a point worth stressing that candidates are chosen by members of Local Parties.

    It’s not a top-down thing – and reminds me of the way people often ask why party bosses didn’t make Vince Cable leader of the Lib Dems.

    It’s down to candidates to apply and it’s down to members to choose them.

    Addressing the barriers to entry will help the best possible range of people to give it a go.

    What do commenters think is putting people off applying at the moment?

  • How many MPs do we have who followed the degree-researcher-MP route?

    The only two I can think of are Julia Goldsworthy and David Laws. David certainly had a career outside the party before working for it.

    Of the target seat PPCs I can think of two who have previously worked in Parliament. And one of those hadn’t done so for several years before her selection.

    Without any figures I’m not certain this isn’t a complete straw man argument

  • Lets start with a realistic beginning? How about not having leadership candidates who just come from one public school?

    We could broaden it out to include Eton and Harrow next time?

  • OR if you like . . .

    We should worry about a better social balance as much as we do about race, gender and sexuality.

    The failure to engage with working people, having created the universal franchise, was the downfall of the Liberal Party. Finally getting engaged with them might just be the reverse.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Jun '09 - 11:47pm


    I remember when the whole issue of Greg Dyke being a possible candidate for London mayor was suggested. One of the arguments raised against Dyke was that he couldn’t possibly be the LibDem candidate (or even supported by the LibDems) because he hadn’t been a party member for the statutory 12 or 18 month period. There might be many arguments against Greg Dyke. But this – surely to God – isn’t one of them.

    Yes, of course it is. We want people we can reasonably trust will do what is right for the party. Someone who has not shown long term commitment may be someone who is just in it for themselves. Isn’t that just the sort of person people say they don’t want in politics?

    I’m afraid we have had cases of people who have been rapidly promoted in the party, because they are people who look good, only to embarrass us, perhaps by defecting or bad-mouthing us because they don’t realise or accept such things as targetting.

    The person we did select as candidate for the Mayor of London WAS a bit like this. He has moaned that he wasn’t supported. Actually he was supported too damned much. Tactically, the better thing would have been to have dropped pushing him in favour of pushing voting for our GLA candidates. However, it is clear he would have thrown a wobbly and damaged us if we had done this.

  • I too just stumbled into this. Thanks, Sara, for raising such an interesting topic. I notice that many of the people complaining over her *ahem* ‘honest’ choice of language, have had equally choice things to say about all people who work in business! Didn’t anyone’s parents teach them that two wrongs don’t make a right? Anyway…

    We need businessmen, we need teachers, we need councillors, we need people who work for thinktanks, we need even bankers and lawyers. Mainly we need people from any and every background- even Old Etonian bankers (David Rendell and David Laws were/are cracking MPs despite having one of these two supposed vices)- who have the values and skills that we need. Saying that ‘wealth creation’ is all shows a lack of understanding about the importance and issues facing those government employees devising important programmes aimed at our poorest.

    Those who think we need more middle class people, obviously don’t realise the importance of the issues facing the working classes. Equally, those who won’t have people with RP, don’t appeciate the very real issues that affect every family.

    I honestly couldn’t care less what someone looks or sounds like, where they went to uni or school, or whether they are employed or unemployed. If they share my values, are skillful and knowledgeable about why they would want to be in parliament, and have personal integrity, then that is good enough for me.

    What is true- beyond all the hype and hyperventilation on this thread- is that it is a smaller and smaller culture of people who are getting involved in politics more widely, working in Westminster and applying to be PPCs. I’ve done all three. And often some of the people I come across are driven, idealistic people who I can readily admire. Sometimes they are strange obsessives, more complete by the arcana of election-winning and procedure than having a generous-spirited vision of how they want their community, the country and the world to change for the better. As a party that celebrates diversity and going against the grain, I won’t sing a paean to ‘normality’, but there are healthy approaches to getting involved in politics, and unhealthy. The funny thing is that, regardless of background, people respond to those with a hinterland- Ken Clarke’s jazz and Notts County rather than drab New Labour drones or strange ‘political types’ with more interest in beating the opposition than ideas about why it’s necessary to.

    [/rant]

  • Richard Coe 27th Jun '11 - 9:53pm

    @rantersparadise
    So did you got to Eton or Harrow?!!

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