Are our senior politicians fit for purpose?

How’s that for a loaded question?

I briefly touched on this back in August 2011 when mumbling about history and economics, and also expanded on this on the back of the recent party conferences when looking at the (financial) barriers there are that stop people from engaging in policy making.

Matthew D’Ancona in The Sunday Telegraph poses the challenge directly at the Prime Minister rather than the political establishment as a whole – saying that Cameron must show that he’s not powerless in the face of the economic storm. But what if he already is? In the days of burgeoning political awareness, the first time I became aware of the powerlessness of some of our senior politicians was when Sterling crashed out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992 – taking Norman Lamont with it. This realisation made me question just how much power politicians really had.

In the run up to the Euro’s launch both in 1999 when exchange rates were frozen, and when the currency was formally introduced in 2002, I asked my economics tutors why the markets never launched speculative attacks to bring down the entire project.  Their responses were the strong messages that the politicians were sending out at the time that they intended to make the single currency work. In the face of the economic crises since 2008, it feels that we are now seeing markets going in for the kill after scenting the blood that is the lack of political leadership in the midst of economic turmoil. The phrase “They may have been bastards but at least you’d heard of them!” seems to come back to haunt me – how do the current global politicians stack up against the politicians of yesteryear? Or are we seeing (as far at EU institutions are concerned) a similar crisis that we saw during the outbreak of the wars in the early 1990s that led to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia? As a young teenager I grew up with images of the conflict on the news, wondering why the European powers were either unable or unwilling to put a stop to the fighting.

In whose interest?

I can’t remember who tweeted it, but someone said that what the big financial markets want in terms of political leadership is not necessarily the same as what the people both want and need in political leadership. David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference in October 2011 had the word “leadership” liberally sprinkled throughout his speech. Yet I couldn’t help think that there was something missing in all the talk of leadership. There were numerous real life and theoretical examples of people ‘doing’ leadership or asking others to show leadership, but I couldn’t help but feel that I was no nearer understanding what Cameron’s definition of leadership is, how it manifests/shows itself and why he thinks the examples that he used demonstrate leadership (as well as what politicians can learn). One of the problems with our body politic at present is that all of those references to leadership could have been sprinkled into the speeches of Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg and none of us would have noticed any different.

One of the paradoxes I find is that some of our political institutions and the practices of political parties end up suppressing leadership rather than encouraging and nurturing it. The close control by party machinery in both Labour and Conservative Parties I think is symptomatic of this – in particular the whipping system. While Labour made hay with the Tyrie/Hilton furore during the Conservative Party Conference, would a similar move in the Labour Party have looked out of place? Would a convention of ‘The chairs of parliamentary select committees should not be whipped’ (in a political sense) be a first step? After all, my view is that it is the job of select committee chairpersons to speak out on behalf of the nation when they spot problems with government policy in the area that their committee has competency to scrutinise.

Expanding candidate selection.

The Institute for Government ran a number of events during conference season on increasing the diversity of candidates standing for election. In the last general election we saw the turfing out of swathes of MPs not just through the change of administration but also because of the number of now ex-MPs who stood down on the back of the expenses scandal. Thus we have seen the more talented and competent backbench MPs having a much higher profile than their predecessors – see the first instalment of the Puffles’ Twitter List for which ones I rate and why.

Learning about the politics of Parliament takes time – I’m sure you can all think of examples of politicians that have been promoted too quickly and/or promoted to posts beyond their abilities. It’s not as simple as taking those that show potential and sending them up. Yet we see the problems associated with the current set of senior politicians coming from a very limited gene puddle pool. It’s not just that limited pool either – theirs is a generation that cut their parliamentary teeth in the pre-expenses and pre-social media era of strong party discipline – especially with Labour. As a number of Labour politicians said, the 2011 conference was the first for 20 years to take place without the presence of Blair and Brown. It is why I find the terms Blarite and Brownite strange in a present context – can those who were previously in one camp or another break out from the shadows?

Puffles’ Twitter feed explodes with people tearing their hair out during important parliamentary debates & select committee hearings as people despair at the inability of some politicians to really nail the individual being questioned. With regards to select committees, I blogged about this here following a Hansard Society event. In the Commons Chamber I do ask myself why many MPs seem unable to ask more probing and forensic questions as well as why ministers seem able to get away with coming out with points in debates that get quickly shredded in social media world. Is there a role for a politics’ collective to produce regular crowd-sourced briefings for MPs to advise – very transparently what questions would be good to ask and what lines of questioning to follow, and why?

Scrutiny or delivery?

Is the inevitable conflict of roles part of the problem? Parliament – & in particular the Commons – should play an essential role in the scrutiny of the government. Yet any civil servant who has worked with ministers on taking legislation through Parliament (as I have) will tell you that the standard of scrutiny in the Lords is far tougher by some measure compared to the scrutiny that comes from the Commons. If you don’t believe me, watch what the House of Lords does with the Health and Social Care Bill.

The only route to top ministerial office is through the Commons. This means that people who might be excellent at being a minister are asked to apply for a role that they may not want to do and/or are not cut out for. It’s one of the reasons why I’m sympathetic to the principle of separating executive (government) from legislature (parliament) – there is an inherent conflict of interest to be an ‘executive member’ (i.e. someone that makes decisions) of an an organisation that you are also constitutionally charged with scrutinising. If your MP is a minister or a whip, you may want to find out why s/he does not stand up in the House of Commons to ask oral parliamentary questions of other ministers.

Now, I quite like the idea of the scrutiny role, but don’t like the idea of the ministerial role. Georgia Gould of Labour in 2009 said the opposite – and got into hot water over it. Irrespective of her New Labour hereditary credentials, having ambition for ministerial office is not something I have a problem with – especially when a person genuinely wants to achieve it to help other people less fortunate than them. The problem Gould found was that some in her party resented the idea that she should use their constituency party and local area as a stepping stone for ministerial office. They wanted someone else, and in the end Teresa Pearce was selected by Labour and elected in 2010.

To what extent would we have a better calibre of ministers and MPs if we separated the scrutiny from the executive role? Would it keep the compliant obedient types in search of a ministerial post out of Parliament? Would it encourage those genuinely interested in scrutiny to stand for Parliament?

Comments on a postcard please.


3 thoughts on “Are our senior politicians fit for purpose?

  1. I argued in my most recent blog that the “global financial crisis” we currently have is in fact a global POLITICAL crisis. We have an almost total absence of credible political leadership in the Western world at the moment. However you may feel about the current UK government, you have to admit that they are at least presenting a united front. I think that – not their fiscal policies – is the main reason why the UK is not currently suffering market attacks as the rest of Europe and the US are, where politicians’ performance is at best pathetic and at worst laughable. I’m beginning to wonder if the actual policies pursued are of less importance than the credibility of the politicians pursuing them. (I know that’s heresy!)

  2. I agree with Frances Coppola that the global financial crisis we currently is now a global POLITICAL crisis. It is voiced globally left, right and center from a diverse range of cultures. Economic solutions are possible, but politically impossible. EuroZone has no coordinated way to for people to affect change when they need desperately need it. EZ would be a hilarious cartoon if it were so real, or rather unreal. But even cartoons have messages; one that agrees with the blog author’s argument

    I will use Greece as a warning for your own political system to increase the diversity of candidates standing for election.

    Here, the main Greek political parties are centrally control through means of a proportional representation system. MPs disagreeing with the center, or failing to exchange a bribe or favour, do not move far up the party list. Disconnected with the electorate, parties become a game that encourages cronyism and corruption. MPs are selected from a narrow range of professions dominated by traditional ruling families. So when a crisis occurs it is incompetent and incapable of dealing with it. There are no Winston Churchills or Tony Benns (depending on your taste) to come in from the margins.

    For good or bad, UK parties, particularly the labour party before Blair, allow constituents and local parties members to have a greater say. Giving locals greater freedom to choosing their own candidates may result in ‘bad’ choices, but it is also more democratic and produces a greater diversity of candidates. You never know who and what you need in a future crisis.

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