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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.

  1. Barney Stannard
    September 1, 2009 at 11:17 am

    Hello again Dave. Good post: I agree very much with your points concerning primaries and accessibility. I see no real reason why primaries would help young non-establishment politicos on their way up. Certainly that hasn’t been a noticable effect in the U.S. As for the point you make about paid internships I’m in full agreement. I’m not sure about the rotation system you propose though. I understand that a lot of people get internships through contacts, but I think the rotation system simply wouldn’t have enough spaces. There are always tons of people applying for these things and a certain degree of selectivity is required – though this does open it up to contacts, which is a problem.

    On the problem of career politicians, I don’t think the real problem is to do with their ability to represent. The more common concern I hear is that such people have no experience of actually running anything, other than political machines, which have very little in common with much of the rest of the world. There are many tedious arguments I could make to back this up, but I suppose it rests on a the intuitive point that when picking someone to run the Health Service, or Education, or to regulate banks, you want someone who actually has some experience in business. They have a better understanding of how organisations work and how to get results.

  2. September 1, 2009 at 11:51 am

    On primaries and the rush of Labour luminaries towards them without bothering to think through anything as complex as power relations, I think we agree.

    On the fact that the major route to becoming an MP remains via being wealthy, and will remain even so with the advent of primaries, I think we agree.

    Where I think we may disagree, in emphasis rather than substance, is around the view that young people in the Houses of Parliament is, of itself, a good think as long as they can evidence a decent ability to represent the interests of their own age group.

    I am certainly not against young people being in parliament (I suspect you’d be horrified if I were), but I do find odd the argument that only young people can effectively represent the interests of young people, when what we should be looking for are representatives of any age who can take into account the totality of the interests (of the class) they are there to represent.

    That is not to say I oppose positive discrimination measures similar to those introduced for women (All women shortlists)and to a lesser extent BAME groups (the requirement to have at least one BAME person on an PPC panel), but this should be a means to the end of ensuring equality of entry to the PPC race for all, rather than the end of ensuring adequate representation of young people, since a crap young representative will end up represneting young peoploe worse than an excellent older person (and by excellent I mean someone with the capacity to see totalities of (class)interest.

    Coincidentally, I had in mind a post – now dropped because of competing posts – related to a bit of a post by Laurie Penny, which to me (as a middle-aged man) expressed the view that middle-aged men are, a priori, incapable of radical/socialist thought or action simply because they are old. This Wildean view of getting old seems a bit pessimist to me, and while I try not to make a big thing of it because there are other things to be getting on with, it grates from time to time that I’m written off in this way, in the samis way, presumably, that it grates with young people to feel that the validity of their views about how the world should be organised, are ignored by those in power. It might just be that our views are quite similar, despite the age difference.

    And underlying the whole ‘how do we open up becominh an MP’ debate there is an assumption (not in your post, but elsewhere) that becoming an MP is pretty well the pinnacle of political achievement, rather than a stage to be gone through and part of a wider political life. While Tony Benn’s actions as self-publicist post his retirement from the Commons may not be that praiseworthy, his statement that he was ‘leaving the commmons to get involved in politics’ should be taken more seriously, and MP selection panel questions should have some focus on how the candidates see their prospective MPdom within their wider political ambitions.

    On that score, and a long way down the political ladder, when I say to people that i will only serve one term as councillor because I’ve got ‘other stuff to do’, (and that I have no interest in becoming an MP even if I were young enough to be considered) people look askance, not least given the effort it took to become one in the erstwhile safest Tory seat in the area. The challenge for the left, which I know you understand but which we need to blog about more etc., is to get the message over that the parliamentary party needs to be just one part of the wider political movement, and even getting a bunch of decent socialists in there is not enough in itself.

  3. September 1, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    Barney; on the rotated internships, I think that actually within each political party there’d be enough room to give every interested young person a chance to see what things are like.

    On the subject of what sort of representatives we want, and with what sort of experience, as you might guess, I don’t really care all that much about ‘experience in business’, if by that you really mean “managing a business”.

    For a start, it’s not an area of expertise we’re deprived of at the moment. Secondly, this government has a habit of privatization and outsourcing to business, a process which is frankly laughable in terms of ‘getting things done’ so I think the a priori assumption that people in business know how to get results is deeply flawed.

    Thirdly, even ministers (who are at the business-end of politics if you like, by running a department and thus being in charge of hitting policy targets) who haven’t worked in business are advised and surrounded by those who do – recruited to the civil service, ‘special advisors’ or paid firms of consultants.

    Fourthly, those who are writing the policy are not just politicians. Business always gets its spoke in. Parliament passes laws, but by and large parliament does not corporately write those laws – as I am sure you well know.

    Paul; you are quite right that any given young person could turn out just as bad at representing other young people and than an older person could do it better. I wasn’t implying that to represent an interest, you yourself had to be part of the target group. As you know, I’m against BME and women’s shortlists. We’re all ignored, as you say, regardless of age.

    You’re only going to serve one term as Councillor?

  4. paulinlancs
    September 1, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    No footage that I know of. I did do a little 21 years on nostaglia piece http://www.bickerstafferecord.org.uk/?p=459 with the only photo taken of it and kept by my wife (picket line romance, but that’s another story for when you’ve bought me a pint one time). But the photo’s not been linked properly. Must dig it out sometime.

    Yup, just one term. I’ve got things to do in life (some plans for which will be set out at the record later this month, and involve socialism in action.

  5. paulinlancs
    September 1, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    ‘Footage’ comment referred to the previous meme post – sorry.

    On this OP, yes, acknoweldge that my comment dfifted a bit from critique of your post towards critque of generality of writing I see knocking about. As I’ve maybe noted elsewhere, I’m ok with AWS and BAME +ve discrimination if it’s not seen as ‘job done’ by the party – problem is that it is (rather same argument as the national minimum wage and Children’s Centres, on which I have posts forthcoming at some point – NL has forgotten the need to build on/critically examine its successes in desperation to celebrate them ad nauseam).

  6. Barney Stannard
    September 1, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    Dave: allow me to develop my point more fully. “Experience in business” was a short and particularly poor way of avoiding a detailed and difficult description of what I meant.

    The objection is not to people who haven’t managed a business per se. Indeed those who have worked in PR companies would perhaps be little different from career politicians. I think that the real need people see is for politicians to have experience in “getting things done”. That could be managing a business, working in a business, working or managing in a charity etc. Anything that involves people learning the skills to organise structures and people to yield substantive results. Obviously management is an obvious candidate for this, but it by no means precludes those who have organised a work station in a factory or run a small shop.

    Obviously this constraint isn’t universal. There is a clear need for people with expertise in PR, as well as for people with experience in law, medicine and so forth. Indeed their is a role for a career politicians: some of our most capable politicians have never worked elsewhere. I think what people are concerned about is whether we have reached, or are in danger of reaching, a position where there are far too few people with the kind of organisational experience I described present in Parliament.

    In response to the two substantive points you make concerning the failures of privitization and ministerial access to management I would say a couple of things.

    Firstly, that privitization’s record is mixed in the UK. Part of that is to do with poor business managment, some of it to do with the appalling way in which many sectors were nationalised, essentially setting up private monopolies. Business is by no means a panacea, and I would not hold it up as such.

    With regards to the civil service and private advisers that ministers have access too. True, but ministers have a bad habit of ignoring this advice if it is politically convenient to do so. I have a friend who is relatively senior in one department, who constantly bemoans the failure of successive ministers to listen to what he says. Frequently they flatly ignore his advice, not even bothering to disagree. I imagine this always has and always will be the case, but I don’t think career politicking helps, as products of that system are not necessarily so well placed to understand the force of their advisers arguments.

  7. September 1, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    Barney; thank you for laying that out more clearly, I’m more aware of what you mean now.

    While I think you are right, that we are losing quite a few people who have experienced life outside of parliament to those who have only been professional politicians, I don’t think we’re in danger of being overrun by the latter group. I think the problem is that each party leadership basically finds in the latter group a means to cow its own dissenters. They are the sort of people being promoted because they are good yes men (and women).

    Here lies the problem: I don’t think they are good yes men because they have only been professional politicians. I think they have become professional politicians because they are good at not disagreeing and making waves. With the paid internships and the better access for different groups, I think we might change that – without necessarily changing the current demography of the House of Commons.

  8. Barney Stannard
    September 2, 2009 at 11:26 pm

    Dave: I think you are right. Whilst they are relatively small in number, they are big in influence.

    Re the rotation policy giving everyone a shot. No way. Not a hope, or a prayer or a snowflake’s. I worked in Parliament briefly, and every job that went up would have close to forty of fifty applicants. Even if you cut out everyone who isn’t party affiliated and went to the University of South Kensignton to study Mobile Phone design you still have 10 or so to each place, each time.

  9. September 3, 2009 at 6:12 am

    As did I – but I see no reason to continue the argument. If indeed there aren’t enough posts, having created one pool, randomize it – select by lot. Everyone meets a minimum criteria – to eliminate influence peddling entirely simply select out of a hat.

  10. September 3, 2009 at 7:59 am

    The public perception problem with MPs has been with their excessive expense claims and failure to be an MP full-time. I would suggest it matters little what someone has done before becoming an MP – what matters is what they do *as an MP*.

    In terms of performance, the role of MP involves lawmaking (debating and voting on legislation), making representations behalf of constituents, and being lobbied by interested parties on legislation.

    There doesn’t seem to be a causative element to those MPs who have little experience outside politics being less able to represent constituents or listen to opinions. Experts from various fields have input in the legislative process through consultation documents, meetings with ministers, and evidence given to committees. Individual MPs have next to no involvement in the functioning of public bodies unless they have a ministerial post.

    Where there is public discontent it’s due to an MP spending more time at another job, spending public funds through lavish expenses, or failing to keep the promises they made when running for office (voting for unpopular measures, etc.)

  11. Barney Stannard
    September 3, 2009 at 8:21 am

    Dave: sorry didn’t mean to come across all know-it-allish. Disagree about the lot system (as you no doubt expected) but agree about the argument – don’t really see the point in continuing.

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