Resurrecting The Citizen Politician

Ben Gummer MP

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 rollercoaster 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 embrace this radical decentralisation and ideological renewal – here it is particularly important that committed small-C conservatives 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 we 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 has sadly become so familiar.


Theresa May - Conservative campaign bus - photo op campaign phony

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The Very Model Of A Modern Citizen Politician?

George Washington


Dan Byles, the Conservative MP notable for holding the party’s most marginal seat (North Warwickshire, majority of 54 votes) has announced his intention to stand down at the 2015 general election.

In a statement published on his website, the MP notes:

Before becoming an MP I served in the Army for nine years, deploying on operational tours in Bosnia and Kosovo. By the time of the 2015 General Election, serving my country will have been the primary focus of my professional life for some 14 years. For myself and for my family, whose support and understanding have been unerring throughout, I believe it is now time to move on to new challenges. I will therefore not be standing for re-election in 2015.

While it is sad to see Parliament lose a member of such evident patriotic devotion as Mr. Byles, more than anything else, the news comes as a tremendous surprise because it is so rare to see someone give up power and office so gracefully in modern British politics. Unless they are so unfortunate as to lose their seat in an election, MPs usually cling to their Westminster offices like barnacles to a ship’s hull.

Having undertaken whatever questionable manoeuverings were necessary to be selected as a candidate and then elected to Parliament in the first place, many MPs choose to stay in the politics game for the rest of their careers. And just as the baby boomers delaying retirement creates a lack of entry-level openings at the junior end of the job market, so the legion of sixty and seventy-year-old MPs refusing to step off the gravy train prevents any significant injection of young blood into the senior levels of British politics.

Of course, not all legislators can (or should) breeze into Parliament for a single term as a mere sabbatical from their real-life careers. Parliamentary business (particularly the important, mostly unseen work done in committees) depends on there being knowledgeable, experienced veterans able to see through the nonsense and bring their vast wisdom to bear on proceedings. Just as it would be damaging to have a Parliament exclusively full of big beasts and old-timers, so a Parliament of young and ambitious whippersnappers with their eye on a Cabinet position (or higher) would also be harmful.

But Dan Byles represents a type of politician that is far too rare in Britain – someone willing to serve his constituents in our national legislature with seemingly no further ambition to climb the greasy pole or to engage in Westminster’s devious games.

Sure, there are other young politicians who stay in Parliament for only a short term – as the BBC rightly notes, Byles represents the 23rd Conservative MP to stand down 2015, a significant number of whom also come from the 2010 intake. But this is not the dawn of the citizen politician that it appears to be – the ranks of the departed include those such as Louise Mensch, who arrived with expectations of power and rapid promotion, chafed at the club-like nature of Westminster and the unglamorous life of a backbencher, and departed early after focusing too much on what their government could do for them, as opposed to what they could do for their government.

Think also of the one-time rising stars of the New Labour governments such as James Purnell, who leveraged his brief ministerial career and failed attempt to destabilise Gordon Brown to secure himself a plum job at the publicly-owned BBC (after a spell as chairman of a think tank and public sector advisor to a global consultancy firm).

While there is very little to praise in a long life lived out on the backbench easy street, or a brief incandescent Parliamentary career aborted when the office holder realised there was no room for further personal advancement, there is a lot to praise in someone devoting a limited period of their life – either relatively early in their career like Dan Byles, or later in life at the apex of their career – to serve their constituents and countrymen.

George Washington, the first President of the United States, retired from the presidency in 1797 to tend to his farm and his business interests. True, there was not the same temptation to found self-aggrandising global initiatives, join the ranks of the lobbying industry or make the transition into television punditry back in the late eighteenth century – but even if there were, one suspects that George Washington would have had none of it. After a lifetime of service to his newly born country, he was happy to dissolve back into civilian life. How glib, shallow and egotistical do so many of our contemporary leaders and politicians appear when compared to this Washingtonian ideal of the citizen politician?

It may be the smallest of beginnings, but let the national service and brief Parliamentary career of Dan Byles be a reminder to others – particularly those who hold the most sway over candidate selection, both in the constituencies and in Westminster – that while there is no one model political career, that of the citizen politician is one to aspire to, and one to respect.