Careerism in (Labour) politics
Alex Smith at LabourList reports how a higher number of parliamentary candidates than ever are being selected from amongst those who have done nothing with their lives other than politics. His article concludes with the ridiculous non-sequitur that if we dislike this trend, we can always support primaries, as a means to involve ‘everybody’ in choosing the candidates our parties run for different seats. Apart from bearing no correlation to the reality of primaries, but amidst talk of careerism, it’s important to be sure we’re aiming at the right targets.
Firstly, who is to say it’s more likely that people who have done nothing other than politics will be less able to represent their constituents? Secondly, even if we assume that such people are less capable, by what pisspoor logic do we assume this automatically means there is something wrong with wishing to pursue politics professionally from a young age? Is it not more likely to be the case that, because the only people who can pursue such a course are privileged and wealthy, only the privileged and wealthy will end up benefitting from such a route and that this rather skews matters?
Take the first point. That someone runs their own business, or has had a long professional career or has been a solid manual worker all their life doesn’t kit them out any more effectively to represent constituents. When reading through the CVs of would-be PPCs, one often finds claims that the candidate in question has some experience representing people – but that’s equally true of someone who has fought for several years against Students’ Union bureaucracy whilst holding down a part time job and pursuing a degree as for anyone older and who took a different route before seeking to be nominated as a parliamentary candidate.
Usually an addendum is added to this point that ‘greater life experience’ counts for something. I know that we’re talking about hackery not the age of candidates here, but let’s face it, it’s young people who are overwhelmingly meant when we’re talking about candidates who have held no job other than a political one: in order to become an old candidate who has held only political posts, you must first be a young such candidate (or full time union official and so on and so forth).
Though I won’t link to it, there was quite a lot of anti-youth sentiment voiced when the stories surrounding Georgia Gould’s desire to be nominated came out. It is true enough, a lot of the people who seek a path straight to professional politics are young – but there are advantages to that, and some of the potential disadvantages are ephemeral. The biggest advantage of youth can be energy and enthusiasm – something we’ve been missing in the Labour Party.
As for the disadvantages, claims of greater life experience need to be balanced against the ability of young people to represent the experience of those their own age. The 18-24 age group is woefully under-represented in parliament. Moreover, youth doesn’t always mean a lack in life experience. Just because someone has recently graduated from university doesn’t mean they don’t know what unemployment, shitty wages and bad conditions at work are like. It doesn’t mean that they haven’t faced the blank indifference of the State. It doesn’t mean that they have no experience representing people – as part of the new generation of shop stewards for example.
Those young people, however, don’t seem to me to be the ones running for parliament. They aren’t the ones working as interns to gain constituency and parliamentary experience, they aren’t the ones getting jobs as parliamentary assistants. By and large, that is down to the more privileged; having passed through Oxbridge and held a few positions in Labour Students or the NUS, the next step is parliamentary researcher and then searching for a seat of one’s own. I’d contend that the restriction of young people seeking political jobs or Parliamentary seats to this group of young people is the real problem, not people seeking a career in public service from a young age.
This restriction happens in multiple ways. To begin with, the first rungs on the ladder of professional politics are unpaid. Regardless of life experience or political views, the unpaid nature of the work means that only those who can afford to work unpaid will be able to fill such positions. That’s before we even consider actually running for parliament; adults can build up savings years in advance to put their professional lives on hold in preparation for a parliamentary run. Young people don’t have that option unless they have wealthy parents and perhaps the backing of half the Labour establishment.
There are exceptions to this, of course. Lee Skevington over in Yeovil is quite young and is a PPC. He hasn’t been to an Oxbridge university, his parents aren’t rich; very definitely not a man on the inside track. He served his local constituency and fought hard to be selected as a parliamentary candidate. That said, Lee probably won’t win at the general election in Yeovil, where Labour is the 3rd party, thus he had the advantage of not battling the people of the inside track for a ‘safe’ seat like Erith and Thamesmead; so such exceptions can’t disprove my point.
Restrictions in favour of a small group of youg people also occur because networking is very much a part of Labour politics at the national level. The sort of situation as developed in Erith and Thamesmead, where senior party politicians were openly supporting a candidate, was the visible tip of the iceberg. These sort of connections, which need not be family based, can be established through national-level ‘activism’ – which seems irrevocably biased towards Oxbridge students and/or those who are friendly to the current Labour Party establishment.
Open primaries change neither of these things. In fact, open primaries could make them worse – the type of thing seen in Erith and Thamesmead, where one candidate was able to spend money on glossy campaign booklets and had her national contacts out campaigning for her, could easily be replicated for an open primary. Only with an open primary, it wouldn’t be seasoned activists making the decision, aware that people outside the constituency were trying to prejudice the outcome: it would be people who don’t watch the minutiae of party-political goings-on and who, lacking any other means whereby to make the decision, would be swayed by glossy campaign material.
There are other and more effective ways than open primaries to change things so that it isn’t just the privileged in with a shout at being selected as parliamentary candidates, or getting jobs that would allow them to experience parliament and take the first steps on a professional political career. For example, a change from unpaid to paid internships, lasting three to six months and rotating amongst all Party members who put their names down for it – provided they meet a minimum standard that would qualify them to work in any office or handle potentially sensitive information. The advantage of friends and contacts might not be reserved to the Oxbridge or NUS elite then – and nor would it be only the wealthy getting involved.
More obviously, if we want to field young people as candidates, but don’t want candidates who are universally attached to the national political establishment, then recruiting more young people to the local parties might be a start. It’s not easy, and is made harder with every step to the right taken by the party leadership. Yet it’s worth it and it can be followed up: making access easier for young people is a good second step. Payment of travel expenses for the under-21 and unemployed for coming to meetings or campaigning events; opportunities for young people to work with local councillors and find out how things really tick and what sort of things their representatives do – the good and the bad sides; youth-related campaign work.
I remember attending a talk in the local Waterstones given by Roy Hattersley. During the meeting, a young lad from the audience asked him a question about why the Labour Party seemed to have given up on all the things it once believed in. I chatted to the lad and his friends outside; they came from a local high school, they’d never been involved in politics before, they were just interested people and they’d shown up to talk to someone who might have some answers. Right there is the sort of material we could be recruiting to constituency parties and training up to run for parliament or city councils, getting them to tell us the best ways to help young people.
We don’t make the effort, however, at least not that I’ve ever seen or heard of – and I really would welcome contradiction. Thus the pool of young people seeking political office becomes self-selecting as well as being narrowed by external factors such as the privileges of money, time and the opportunity for building a network of political contacts. In fact, with Labour youth groups mostly targeted at university students, it is unsurprisingly former university students, having connected themselves to the national heirarchy, who end up running for parliament – as though a History or English degree makes one more capable of grasping difficult concepts or representing people.
These are the sort of issues we ought to be addressing if we want to cut down on the number of spineless hacks getting elected, having followed the Cursus Honorum from Oxbridge to think tank, NGO or sub-parliamentary role and thence to Parliament. I definitely want less such people, who simply parrot the leadership line and opportunistically address themselves only to ‘local’ issues rather than advancing principled arguments and firmly held beliefs. That’s not what politics is about for me – and it’s not something that will be solved simply by instituting open primaries.