Why do we get the wrong politicians?

As the Brexit saga approaches its chaotic climax, a new book seeks to answer what is wrong in Westminster.

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The fact that Westminster Palace is falling apart and infested by mice, is perhaps a descriptive analogy for British politics as a whole. In the aftermath of the parliamentary expenses scandal – which revealed use of taxpayer money for private renovation projects – MPs have been too scared to allocate the necessary money to prevent bricks from falling from the ceiling and walls of Westminster, despite the fact that the palace is on the UNESCO World Heritage List as well as the very symbol of parliamentary democracy.

In her new book Why We Get the Wrong Politicians, Spectator journalist and BBC Radio 4 hostess Isabel Hardman tries to answer precisely that question. It is a timely question. With Brexit negotiations fast approaching a dramatic climax, the Tories are led by an embattled prime minister who barely survived a confidence vote in her own party and who does not really want to leave the European Union, while Labour is led by an old Communist activist who really does want Britain out of the “neo-liberal” EU. With only days left until Britain’s exit from the union will automatically be triggered by law on the 29th of March if an alternative route cannot be agreed upon, and neither the government or the opposition seem to have any clear idea of the way forward. It is safe to say British democracy ha not been experiencing its finest hour lately.

Politicians are NOT out of touch with ordinary people

So, who are these politicians making such an unholy mess of things? David Cameron answers Hardman that he does believe people who enter politics are reasonably normal, but that they are the sort of people who are prone to become completely absorbed in the political bubble. Hardman illustrates with a story from an event for military officers that she attended where also some MPs where present. The contrast between the two classes was striking: the bulky but polite military men who seemed comfortable in their own skins, versus the arrogant, less healthy-looking politicians who wore their uncertainty on their sleeves. Still, Hardman is relatively sympathetic to the men and women who voluntarily enter politics to “make a difference” in Parliament.

Hardman does not buy into the oft-repeated argument that politicians are out of touch with ordinary people. On the contrary, since the 1960s there has been a sharp increase in the amount of time MPs spend on work in their local constituencies, including surgeries (series of one-to-one meetings) with voters seeking help for everything between heaven and earth. In fact, constituency work takes up so much of MPs’ time (and mental bandwidth) that they have almost become glorified social workers.

Rather they have become glorified social workers

Contrary to popular belief, most MPs have far greater insights into the wide range of issues common people face in their encounters with different branches of the bureaucracy than most common people themselves, Hardman writes. By way of comparison: In Churchill’s day MPs could sit a lifetime in parliament and only make occasional guest appearances in the constituency they represented. The flip side of the medal is that all the time spent on constituency work leaves parliamentarians with less time and does not necessarily make them better equipped for the work they are originally supposed to do: namely, to legislate.

Lawmakers unable to make laws

The Tory MP James Gray created controversy in 2015 when he linked constituency work to the failure of politicians to properly do their job in parliament, and thereby giving the government of the day carte blanche to ram their agenda through parliament without being subjected to sufficiently rigorous scrutiny: “The complexity of government is certainly no less today than it has ever been. Legislation has in fact vastly increased in numbers in recent years, and vastly decreased in quality. Why? Because we are failing to scrutinise it properly in Parliament. Because we don’t have enough time to do so.” This is not a party political or ideological problem. It’s much worse than that, it is a systemic problem. Both the Tories and Labour have proved that they are no longer able to write laws that end up having their intended effect – Theresa May’s Brexit-in-name-only bill just being the latest case in point. Similarly, if a Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn should proceed with his plans to re-nationalise the railroads, there is a fair chance Parliament would fail to write laws to bring such a policy into effect. A perhaps more likely outcome would be ending up at a hodgepodge halfway station combining the worst of private and public railroads.

One horror story is the Health and Social Care Act of 2012, considered by many as the Cameron government’s biggest blunder – at least before Brexit. The aim of the law was to decentralise the National Health Service and “make the changes needed”. Neither Cameron nor then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne understood what those apparently much needed changes were, because they had given full responsibility for the design of the law to the allegedly brilliant Minister of Health, Andrew Lansley. However, Lansley’s genius turned out to be more theoretical than practical. In the end, apart from £3 billions of taxpayers’ money down the drain, Lansley’s resignation and mayhem in the NHS, the law achieved nothing and least of all its purported goal of decentralising public healthcare.

Cameron the Clown  

After the street riots in 2011, David Cameron promised to do “whatever it takes” to “turning around the lives” of 120,000 troubled families who cost taxpayers nine billion pounds a year and were considered to be the source of the societal problems that Cameron promised to speak “clearly, frankly and truthfully” about but which he obviously had no deeper understanding of. His “solution” was very much “whatever”; namely to throw £ 448 million out of the window and hoping something would improve, somehow. When the evaluation report for the program was leaked, it became clear, frank and truthful that the effect was near zero.

In the long line of parliamentary failures, The Cameron government’s military intervention in Libya deserves a prominent place, for not learning a single lesson and repeating all of the same errors from the Blair government’s war in Iraq eight years prior. In 2016 Cameron and Blair were duly reprimanded in reports from the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Chilcot Committee respectively. The Foreign Affairs Committee laid full responsibility on Cameron for failing to formulate a coherent Libya strategy, but also criticised Parliament for failing in its job as an effective counterbalance to the government. Parliament had failed to question Cameron’s analyses and strategies (to the extent that any analyses and strategies existed at all), just as they failed to in the lead-up to Iraq in 2003. Cameron – despite having launched himself as a future elder statesman in Parliament before Brexit sent him headlong out of politics – refused to testify to the committee. MP’s finally seemed to have learned a lesson when they voted down Cameron’s haphazard plans for military action in Syria in 2013.

Is Parliament too weak?

Hardman thinks one of the main problems in Westminster is that a culture of “yes-men” has evolved, allowing the executive to bomb Middle Eastern countries back to the stone age almost without any critical being asked in Parliament. Hardman argues that this is because the career incentives for MPs are biased towards getting a role in government, rather than doing their original job as lawmakers, giving rise to a culture where most MPs slavishly follow the party whips. Otherwise, their career prospects are limited to backbench irrelevance.

Hardman believes one solution would be to strengthen the select committees in Parliament. If becoming a select committee leader could be a career path with some of the same status and prestige as being a secretary of state or minister, the incentives would not be so heavily skewed in favour of the executive to the detriment of the legislature. Some steps in this direction have been taken, such as rewarding select committee leaders with £15.000 in extra remuneration on top of the MP base salary of 74.000 pounds. The Libya report is one example showing how important the work of the select committees can be for providing effective checks and balances and upholding the separation of power principle central to parliamentary democracy.

Hardman does not believe – with a glance at the United States – that the answer to Britain’s parliamentary tangle is a full separation of legislative and executive power, as some advocate. But as the House of Commons’ controversial Speaker, John Bercow, she is supportive of strengthening Parliament vis-à-vis the executive. Bercow made a controversial manoeuvre in this direction in January when he defied precedent and his own legal advisers by allowing Parliament to vote through an amendment to the government’s business motion – forcing Theresa May to come back with a Plan B within three days after her Brexit deal was defeated in the Commons. But would a stronger Parliament really solve matters? The Brexit saga has shown a Parliament no more fit to govern than the government. The Daily Mail has denounced Parliament as the “House of Fools”, an opinion roundly shared by the British public. In a piece in the FT last weekend political correspondent Henry Mance describes the state of British politics as one where: “the government is too weak to govern, parliament too timid and too disorganised to assume the role. It’s the stoppable force versus the moveable object. It’s that scene in The Italian Job, where the bus hangs on a precipice, rocking gently forwards or backwards.” Contrary to Bercow and Harding he concludes that: “What the UK needs most of all now is not a stronger parliament. It is a half-decent government.

Lords or Commoners

One anachronistic group which escapes relatively unscathed from Hardman’s book is the House of Lords, the British Parliament’s unelected upper chamber consisting of an unholy mix of ancient aristocrats and bishops along with modern experts and knighted party hacks. Labour MP Wes Streeting was elected in 2015 as a strong supporter of reforming the Lords to an upper house with elected representatives, as in the Commons. But after experiencing the workings of Westminster for a couple of years he  has defied his democratic convictions and acknowledged that: “The Lords are much better for scrutiny than the Commons”. Those who want to throw all the remains of the old class system on scrapheap of history (Corbyn for one) should therefore be careful what they wish for – even though archconservatives such as Jacob Rees-Mogg has been as critical of the Lords (and their handling of Brexit) as progressives like Streeting have been of the Commons.

Another point of appeal Hardman has against Westminster is that becoming an MP is expensive. Her survey of 532 candidates who ran for Parliament in 2015, shows that the candidates had to spend on average 11,118 pounds from their own pocket to fund the election campaign. Hardman believes this contributes greatly to the fact that Westminster politicians are not representative of the population as a whole but are heavily over-represented by middle-aged white men with private school and Oxbridge backgrounds, who have either grown up with old money or earned new money before embarking on a political career. Furthermore, the parties’ candidate selection process is strongly biased in favour of candidates who are already inside the Westminster bubble.

Hardman is convinced that British politics would be better served with more women in Parliament (the share of female MPs has indeed risen to 32 percent), along with more MPs from more resource-poor and diverse backgrounds – without fully or convincingly explaining why that would necessarily make things better. This half-baked progressivist conclusion also goes a bit against her own perception that the unelected Lords work better than the elected Commons.

How much of Hardman’s diagnosis of British democracy is transferable to other countries? To paraphrase Tolstoy: Well-functioning democracies are all alike; every dysfunctional democracy is dysfunctional in its own way. Reading Hardman’s book gives a solemn reminder that Westminster is the place where liberal democracy was born, but also where it has grown old and tired.


Adapted from version first published in Norwegian daily Klassekampen on January 16th.

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