How does an MP’s prior experience in politics affect their chances of becoming a minister? Wang Leung Ting suggests that, while political party insiders are indeed privileged when it comes to ministerial promotion, some are more privileged than others. What explains that is the fact that they have more experience in what the role will require.
British politicians have often been accused of being trapped in the “Westminster Bubble”: having spent their entire career in Westminster, and never having held a “real job” out of politics, they are thus ambivalent to the concerns of the general population. But, although this view of our politicians is not entirely without merit, recent research into British MPs’ career background and pattern of ministerial promotion shows that there can be a more functional explanation behind the rise of career politicians.
Political scientists have long observed that political elites and elected representatives are increasingly drawn from what can broadly be described as professional politicians. Throughout the post-war period, there was a gradual increase in proportion of MPs who worked in occupations highly associated with politics, such as lawyers, journalist and school teachers. Not only have their numbers increased, recent research has also found that especially those with experience in Westminster are being promoted to ministerial offices at a faster pace and eventually reach higher offices, while those with political experience in local government are being overlooked in the process.
As the role of government expanded throughout the 20th century, so have the responsibilities of elected officials. Gone are the days when politicians and MPs can maintain a thriving professional career alongside politics. And, as governance becomes ever more complex, the responsibilities of MPs and ministers too become increasingly demanding. Meanwhile, experiences that are most relevant to being an effective politician – such as public speaking skills or policy expertise – are most likely to be found among those who are already involved in politics. Thus, what appears to be nepotism among the political class could in fact be the result meritocracy when party leaders seek to recruit those who have the most relevant experience to be a successful MPs or ministers.
So how does an MP’s prior experience affect their chances of becoming a minister? The following analysis looks at all the MPs representing the three main parties who are first elected in the general election of 2010 and how their previous careers affected ministerial prospect. This will allow us to disentangle the effect of political connection and experiences related to ministerial responsibilities.
The table shows the result of logistic regression. The dependent variable is whether an MP became a government minister or shadow cabinet member during the 2010-2015 parliament. Model 1 considers how the length of prior experience in Westminster may have affected chances of promotion. Experience in Westminster is defined in the broadest sense to encompass a variety of positions that related to party politics at the national level, which includes staff to MPs, researchers in party-affiliated think tanks, special advisor to minister, among others. Not surprisingly, prior experience in national politics does provide a modest boost to MPs’ prospect as it is estimated that every year of Westminster experience is related to an 8% increase in odds of becoming a minister.
However, does Westminster experience per se best explain the pattern of promotion among the 2010 cohort? Model 2 on the same table isolates two types of experiences related to certain aspect of ministerial responsibilities: mass media and ministerial advisors. Experience in mass media mostly relates to the communicative role of a minister as spokesperson. Having previously worked closely with other ministers, we could expect those who have worked as special advisors to be more familiar with the ministerial role and so make them a more attractive choice for promotion.
The results of model 2 largely confirm these expectations. It is estimated that every year of prior experience in mass media or as ministerial advisor is associated with an 18% and 36% increase in the odd of being promoted to minister respectively. Taking these two specific types of prior experience into consideration has diminished the estimated positive effect of Westminster experience in general.
What these results suggest is that while political party insiders are indeed privileged in process of ministerial promotion, some insiders are in a more privileged position than others, and it is the amount of relevant experience to the ministerial role that explained their rapid rise. In other words, a more nuanced approach in understanding MPs prior political experience should take into account the specificity of skills and expertise associated with different types of positions, so that it can better explain the pattern of ministerial promotion. This opens the possibility of a more practical explanation to the increase prevalence of career politicians in the Commons, especially the Commons frontbench.
But, although MPs’ ability and expertise is indeed taken into account in the promotion process, what remains to be seen is whether this indeed translates to better performance. This would require further research into how a politician’s prior experience affects their behaviour and in the end their effectiveness as representatives or government ministers.