There is a growing trend for people to come into politics more or less straight from university. They are undoubtedly clever but this does not compensate for a deficiency of experience in other walks of life that might inform their political judgements. Tony Wright argues that as the recruitment agency for politicians – the political party – loses its popular base, finding ways to make the selectorate more diverse becomes more urgent.
There is no shortage of reasons why, beyond particular events like the fiddling of expenses, people might take a dim view of politicians. Politicians today are perceived as inhabiting a political bubble of their own making. It is now a generation ago that Anthony King produced his pioneering analysis of the rise of the ‘career politician’ in Britain, with its treatment of politicians as an occupational category. He charted the way in which, by the 1980s, the non-career politician had virtually disappeared from the top of British politics, a trend which has consolidated itself since. This might be inevitable, but one of its consequences was that we are increasingly being governed by people with a diminished experience of the world beyond politics.
A little caution is needed before we dismiss politicians as completely detached from reality. Firstly, the constituency system ensures that politicians have to encounter the people they represent on a regular basis (unlike in those systems where regional party lists enable politicians to float above their electorates). Secondly, there is now an obsessional concern with knowing what the electorate is thinking and feeling about everything at all times. Thirdly, it is difficult to see parliaments of the past (almost entirely composed of men) as somehow more representative than parliaments of today.
When all this is properly said, though, there is a charge that does carry more weight. It has been nicely expressed by Lord Turnbull, a former cabinet secretary:
There is a growing trend for people to come into politics more or less straight from university. They lick envelopes in Central Office, become a Special Adviser, and on and on it goes, and by the time they are in their mid-thirties they are Cabinet ministers, barely touching the sides of real life.
The fact that all three main party leaders currently fit this sort of stereotype gives it a particular force. In fact the picture is rather more complicated (and requires more detailed evidence than we currently have), but there is enough truth in it to feed a developing public sense that politicians increasingly inhabit a closed political world of their own and lack experience and understanding of other worlds and lives. As I heard someone express this recently: ‘if they have never had to worry about paying the gas bill how can they represent people like me?’ This can easily become the perception that it is only the game of politics itself that they are interested in, and the rewards that go with it, rather than any wider purpose.
King also warned of another consequence:
It is hard to escape the conclusion that the demise of the non-career politician has led to a certain loss of experience, moderation, detachment, balance, ballast even, in the British political system.
If this kind of analysis of politicians as an occupational category was an interesting academic exercise a generation ago, it has now become a matter of pressing political interest. We increasingly want to know who politicians are and where they have come from (and how we can exercise some control over what they do).
It may have been Aristotle who first identified the need for politicians to know ‘where the shoe pinches’, but the general absence of this kind of shoe-pinching knowledge among today’s politicians is now widely noticed. They are certainly clever—perhaps more clever than ever, furnished with their degrees in Politics, Philosophy and Economics and the like—but this does not make them wise. Nor does it compensate for a deficiency of experience of other walks and conditions of life that might inform their political judgements. When people say that they think politicians are ‘out of touch’, these are the sort of considerations they have in mind.
This in turn leads to the quest for that elusive quality of authenticity in politicians, and for ways in which the talent pool of politics can be widened and deepened. Some politicians have understood that authenticity is now the most useful asset they can possess, which has produced the bogus authenticity of a Boris Johnson and the saloon-bar simplicities of a Nigel Farage. They trade in the fact that they are not seen as ‘normal’ politicians but this does little to increase diversity in politics.
Finding ways to expand the selectorate becomes more urgent as the political party, which is the recruitment agency for politicians, loses its popular base. The collapse of membership and attachment not only concentrates power at the top of the party, but also narrows still further the already small group of people involved in the selection, and re-selection, of politicians. The number of participants is now so small in many cases (the exact numbers are not disclosed by the parties for obvious reasons) that we are approaching a crisis of representative legitimacy.
Local primary elections in which everyone can take part are one alternative. However, limited experiments so far (notably in Totnes, which produced a local GP as the Conservative candidate in 2010, who then became a robustly independent MP) have not encouraged the party leaderships to extend the experiment. Yet they will have to, if they are serious about opening up politics to more kinds of people.
Confining politics to those who are required to demonstrate devotion to a political party and chosen by an ever tinier group of the party faithful excludes almost the entire population. It also makes those who are selected unrepresentative of everybody else. If we really do want lots more people from a range of backgrounds and with a variety of life experiences to be involved in politics, then we have to find ways to bring this about. The consequence of not doing so will be to further increase the perception of politicians as a separate political class out of touch with the rest of society.
Note: A longer version of this article was published as “What is it about politicians?” in The Political Quarterly. This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.
About the Author
Tony Wright joined UCL as Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy after retiring from the House of Commons at the 2010 general election. He joined the Department of Politics at Birkbeck College as a Professorial Fellow on 1 September 2010. As a Member of Parliament he chaired the Select Committee on Public Administration for over a decade. He also chaired the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons – referred to as the ‘Wright Committee’ – which secured major reforms to the way in which the Commons works, in the wake of the parliamentary expenses scandal.