Resurrecting The Citizen Politician

BY SAM HOOPER

After Brexit, attracting more exceptional citizen politicians and fewer mediocre career politicians is the next crucial step towards democratic renewal in Britain.

A worthwhile article by new Labour MP Laura Smith for LabourList underlines the urgent need for more politicians who look and sound like contemporary human beings rather than cautious clones who have been training to become MPs their whole life.

Laura Smith writes:

“I’m new to politics. I’ve never been in local government; I was an activist, a member of the union and came from a long-standing Labour Party family. I haven’t come from a background of jargon and empty words, and I know what it’s like when life throws you a curve ball that takes the wind from your sails and the plans that you had made lay shattered in a million pieces. I can say with integrity that I will try my best to fight against the injustice that members in my constituency feel, and I’ll do it with vigour and sincerity.

Entering Westminster has been an eye opener without a doubt. Never have I been more sure that the ambitions of many there come from a place of self-indulging hypocrisy, and the decisions that they make are sheer games rather than coming from a place of care.

I don’t know the parliamentary protocol nor do I care much for it, I speak with a northern accent, I came to the door with an overdraft, no savings and a limited wardrobe purchased on a credit card to try and look smart.

I am what I am and that is representative of millions of women in Britain. My class has been with me my whole life, forged from the experiences of my Scottish mining grandfather, and I’ve ridden on the roller-coaster of the ups and downs of life. I’m proud to be working class, I’m proud of my people and for as long as my constituency wish to keep me in Westminster I will fight for the working people of this country.”

How refreshing it is to hear a politician – especially a Labour politician – speak passionately about the politics of class rather than the politics of identity. Both are divisive, to be sure, but the former is at least reassuringly familiar and relatively harmless these days, while the latter is doing more than anything else right now to tear apart the fabric of British society.

I would probably disagree strongly with about eighty percent of what Laura Smith stands for, but there can be no denying that this is exactly the kind of decent, committed person we should want to attract to Westminster – somebody with strong convictions, a record of community service but also, crucially, a life outside politics (Smith held real jobs and ran her own business).

It cannot hurt to have more MPs of all parties who know what it is to live on a budget as Smith has done, or to have struggled with debt, unemployment or work-life balance issues, to complement those who know how to be an ambitious party functionary but little else. Being an MP is a calling and not a career, but certain accommodations can and should be made which would make serving in Westminster more appealing while still demanding sufficient dedication to public service.

Smith’s dismissal of parliamentary protocol will also chime with many people, including all those SNP MPs who didn’t understand why clapping after a speech was verboten while braying like a donkey at Prime Minister’s Questions is positively encouraged. While there will always be an important place for tradition and rituals which remind us of our heritage and the small part we play in our larger shared history, it is also undeniable that certain habits and protocols are hopelessly outdated and serve no useful purpose. There is no reason why Parliament should not adopt electronic voting, for instance, rather than wasting time while MPs physically traipse in and out of the Commons chamber to record their vote.

But most impressive in Laura Smith’s article is the fact that she clearly went to Westminster with a purpose greater than her own political advancement. Not every MP can or should be a statesman, a philosopher or a leader, though MPs of all backgrounds and ideologies have fulfilled these roles. We also need MPs who care deeply about their constituents and about particular issues, campaigning MPs who want to use their term(s) in office to make a specific difference. Indeed, such MPs can often be far more valuable and effective than those who merely spout reheated rhetoric from four decades ago, be it Michael Foot-style socialism or unreconstructed Thatcherite dogma.

Yet too often we let motivated MPs of this calibre languish for a term or two on the backbenches before they either become disillusioned and stand down, or else lose their inner fire and slowly transform into unremarkable, uninspired time-servers.

One of the best recent citizen politicians in Parliament was former Conservative MP Dan Byles, a man who was the first in his family to attend university, received a prestigious Army scholarship, served on active duty in Bosnia, rowed across the Atlantic, climbed mountains and served on the board of several charities before serving a single term in Parliament from 2010-2015.

This is exactly the kind of person who should now have a senior Cabinet role, and whose charisma and leadership skills might presently be leading the Conservative Party in a more inspiring, less suicidal direction. Yet despite becoming one of relatively few first-term backbench MPs to rack up some real accomplishments to his name (including constitutional reform of the House of Lords via a private member’s bill), Byles stood down in 2015 to “pursue new challenges”. Some of our most exceptional people no longer feel that they can make a meaningful difference by serving in Parliament.

Westminster attracts the power-hungry, the ambitious but also – thanks to elitism and nepotism – the mediocre and the self-serving. And too often, the genuinely talented are overlooked in favour of the well-connected. Witness Theresa May’s government, which managed to find a place for the utterly unremarkable Ben Gummer (son of former Tory minister John Gummer) in Cabinet while leaving thoughtful and intelligent conservative voices like Kwasi Kwarteng or James Cleverly to languish on the backbenches. Note also how Harlow MP Rob Halfon, who could actually articulate a positive (if controversial) vision for conservatism, was sacked as a minister while Theresa May kept faith in Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who entered politics not to advance any deeply-felt political agenda but to “get a grip on her life” and add another accomplishment to her CV.

As if the chaotic Brexit negotiations did not already make it abundantly clear, the calibre of leadership we manage to attract at the national level does not serve us well. This is in significant part due over-centralisation at Westminster and the neutering of local government in Britain, where at present there is probably only one executive role outside of Cabinet – the mayoralty of London – which might remotely prepare a politician to plausibly step into the role of prime minister. But it is also because we expect too little from the people we choose to represent us.

To take the next step in renewing British democracy, we must break the stranglehold that national political party headquarters wields over candidate selection. We must do away with affirmative action shortlists and central casting candidate lists alike, empower constituency party organisations and allow them to nominate candidates who they feel best represent their values and their concerns. We must devolve and decentralise significant powers away from Westminster to the counties and the regions, so that local government can transform from being adult daycare to a useful incubator of future national leadership talent.

And we must re-embrace the idea of the citizen politician, valuing the contributions of those candidates with different backgrounds.We must identify and advance talent wherever it is found rather than demanding that passionate and inspired MPs with executive experience outside politics first spend years acting as bag-carrier for other ministers before being trusted with any real responsibility.

Only if we begin to take these steps – and particularly if small-C conservatives can seize back control of the Tory Party from the dead hand of Theresa May, just as the Corbynite Left deposed the centrists within Labour – can take the next step after Brexit and finally begin the democratic renewal of Britain.

The alternative is more of the same uninspiring, grinding disappointment with which Britain is becoming so familiar.

Sam Hooper is a former management consultant turned political commentator, currently living in London with his Texan wife. Sam can usually be found online, droning on about politics, free markets, civil liberties, conservatism and classical music. Sam is a proud conservatarian, blogs here and tweets @SamHooper
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