Never mind about Parliament, Hazel: what about actually giving real power to real people?

by Stephen Tall on November 9, 2008

Forget Hazel Blears’ ill-considered assault on ‘nihilistic’ blogging, in her speech to the Hansard Society this week: let’s consider instead her attack on politicians who live on ‘Planet Politics’:

… there is a trend towards politics being seen as a career move rather than call to public service. Increasingly we have seen a ‘transmission belt’ from university activist, MPs’ researcher, think-tank staffer, Special Adviser, to Member of Parliament, and ultimately to the front bench. Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of those jobs, but it is deeply unhealthy for our political class to be drawn from narrowing social base and range of experience.

Few people will disagree with her analysis. Indeed, ‘The Rise of the Career Politician’ (Peter Riddell, 1993) and ‘The Triumph of the Political Class’ (Peter Oborne, 1997) has been the subject of two (very different) books. Much of the hand-wringing, as ever when hands are wrung, is overwrought: a narrow political class is not a modern political phenomenon. It’s simply that the narrow class which dominates politics has changed over time.

Oborne, a chippy Tory whose vapid broad-brush polemic disregards almost any event that hasn’t taken place in the last 25 years, does at least make the comparison between the early C.21st and the late C.19th:

In all the Political Class contains approximately 5,000 fully fledged members – most MPs, peers, MEPs, MSPs, lobbyists, quangocrats, researchers and special advisers. This number, which is growing all the time, is comparable to the ‘top 10,000’ who governed Britain in the nineteenth century before the arrival of universal suffrage. (p. 13)

The big change, then, is not that a political class, drawn from a narrow section of society, exists. Rather it is the steady increase in those who are effectively full-time politicians when they are elected to the Commons, or appointed to the Lords. As Riddell explains:

A large part of the explanation for the rise of the career politician lies in the increasing specialisation of all jobs over the past fifty years. Virtually every trade or occupation now demands a full-time commitment. The days of the gentleman amateur have gone … In general, those wanting to reach the top in any large organisation have had to give up the idea of running for the Commons. Political ambitions are frowned upon as a sign of not being seriously committed to the company. Only the self-employed, such as lawyers, small businessmen and farmers, or those in public sector jobs allowed time off, such as teachers and lecturers, are able to pursue political ambitions, whether on their local council or in the Commons.

Ms Blears herself is a prime example of this. After graduating in 1978, she trained in the law, before working for four separate local authorities as a solicitor in their education departments. She was able to combine her professional life with serving as a councillor for eight years, as chair of a community health council, and as trade union branch secretary, while also standing for Parliament twice, prior to her election as MP for Salford in 1997.

And I don’t say this with a sarcastic undertone to diss Ms Blears. She dedicated her life to becoming an elected politician, and chose a career path with the flexibility to enable her to do so. Fair do’s.

Where I think she is being naïve is in thinking that some kind of Emily’s List is all that is needed to diversify the backgrounds of those running for elected office. The reason the political class is drawn from such narrow backgrounds is because of the time and commitment which is expected to achieve success, not the least of which is finding a compatible career.

Is it really so surprising that those who work long hours and/or are in the private sector – whether they’re employed as the cleaner or the chairman – should decide that politics isn’t their cup of tea? The sacrifice that is expected, both of self and of family, is just too high for many sane people to think that being a professional politician is a viable life choice.

And even if politicians were drawn from more varied walks of life than is now the case, what guarantee would we have that they would behave much differently than today’s political class? In his sparkling new book, Britain Since 1918: The Strange Career of British Democracy, David Marquand quotes a comment made on the eve of the First World War:

The men who direct the great dominating interests, commerce, the law, finance, the press, are brought very close together. Even the brilliant platform rhetorician, who may have been lifted into power as the champion of the masses or the minor bourgeoisie, is apt to forget his clients and his past in this constant association with opulent and well-born persons, whose luxuries and tastes he shares. (p. 39)

And even if politicians were drawn from more varied walks of life, and resolutely pursued the interests of their electors, this would still beg the big question: are they using their power well?

Surely part of the explanation for career politicians, certainly since Victorian times, is driven by the growth of the franchise and the growth of the state. Government now touches more parts of more people’s lives than either Gladstone or Disraeli could ever have imagined.

Politicians are expected to understand the complexities of means-tested benefits, housing waiting lists and drug treatment co-payments. These, after all, are the issues on which constituents seek out politicians’ help, expecting them to act to make their lives better. In turn, this promotes ‘active government’ (a subtly different concept from ‘big government’). Here’s Riddell again:

… active government is a characteristic, and possibly a result, of an age dominated by the rise of the full-time politician eager to be busy … the distinguishing feature is not the scale of government but rather its level of activity. That reflects the desire of career politicians to do something, to find an outlet for their ambitions. Change is the order of the day. Active government initiating a heavy legislative programme has been as much a product of the Thatcher era as of the earlier collectivist phase since 1945. (p. 269)

And so we see the warped full-circle of what has made the political class what it is today. Anyone with political aspirations needs to choose the right sort of career, at the right sort of age; they will then get sucked into a system which will change them far more than they can change it; they will work their socks off all year round, to the detriment of friends and family, to prove to themselves and their electors, why they deserve re-election; and their fate will as likely depend on the national political picture as on their personal endeavours over however many years.

All of this is seen and understood by the public, who look on bemused from the outside; a bemusement which would likely turn to astonishment if politicians like Ms Blears then suggested they might want to become part of this political system. Sure, there are steps which can and doubtless should be taken to broaden the intake of Parliament. But ultimately high-politics is a vocation which will remain the preserve of those with a copious combination of high-stamina and high-ambition.

The much bigger point, not addressed by Ms Blears, is this. Too much power is concentrated within Westminster. In short, it is not the individuals who inhabit our political system who are our principal problem: it is the political system itself.

It is a system which invests too much kudos in those few, flawed individuals with the cojones to climb the greasy pole It is a system which assumes MPs’ omniscient omnipotence to benignly shape our lives in ways they believe we will find pleasing.

Here’s what we should be doing: working out how we can make Parliament matter less; how real power can be devolved not only to local councils, but further still to parishes and area committees, to cooperatives and residents’ and tenants’ associations; and – above all – to individuals. No-one should need to feel that they have to be elected to Parliament to have power over their own destiny; that power should be in their own hands already.

If only we had a Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government who understood this. If only we had a Government which truly believed in putting Communities in Control, which really did want to return real power to real people. If only their words were more than verbiage. Over to you, Ms Blears.