Monday, June 06, 2005

The Political Class

The Virtual Stoa, as part of his "Tim Collins Watch" series, linked to this piece in the Guardian, about MPs who lost their seats, and in particular, the former Shadow Education Secretary who had the dubious honour of becoming the one and only "decapitated" Tory.
I had hoped to talk to Tim Collins, former shadow education spokesman and the most prominent of the Tories who lost on May 5, but he too has gone to ground. "His defeat was totally unexpected," says a press spokesman at Conservative campaign HQ. "He has had many requests for interviews, but has declined them all." Little wonder: Collins is 41, a politician from the cradle, living and breathing the Westminster air. He has not just lost his job; he has lost his oxygen supply.
When I read this - and it is a theme which somewhat extends throughout the piece - I realised one of the biggest problems that faces the politically interested as they try and fight a wave of apathy. We are actually in danger of creating a political class, devoid and out of touch with "ordinary life", nurtured as politicians from a young age. Take a look at the BBC profile of George Osborne, for example. Although heir to the Osborne and Little wallpaper fortune, all his experience up to now has been political - speech-writer for William Hague; part of IDS's PMQs team; an advisor to Douglas Hurd. David Cameron is much the same - as indeed is Collins, who was awarded his CBE for political services.

A look around the Labour benches tells a similar story. Ed Balls was parachuted into a very safe seat largely on the back of having been a key advisor of Gordon Brown. Ruth Kelly, David Lammy, David Miliband - a large number of the "rising stars" have taken up parliamentary seats at young ages, having had pretty political backgrounds to begin with. The career path for budding politicians is no longer to go to Oxbridge, become a successful professional, and then go to Parliament. It is to be immersed in a political culture from the moment you leave university to the moment you find yourself in the safest of safe seats, from which position an assault towards the political top can be maintained.

This, of course, has a very real separation from the people the politicians are supposed to serve. I don't necessarily take this to support the Lib Dem (or, indeed, George Galloway) line that "MPs need to be more representative of the population." It's an old trick - it was a key contention of the Anti-Federalists when opposing the US Constitution. And it was claptrap then, and it is claptrap now. We should want the best people as our representatives in Parliament, and focus purely on their qualities, not their demographics.

What I am saying, therefore, is that these aren't the best people for Parliament. One of the reasons I am not enthusiastic about the Notting Hill Set (despite my admiration for Osborne, funnily enough) is that I am convinced they are more bothered about presentation than policy. In the same way that Labour's "orange jump suits for young offenders" plan will be quietly shelved, having painted a potrait of a party that is tough on crime, so the political class are more concerned about electability and how to sell a policy, rather than a deep and detailed consideration of how it should work, and whether it will actually make a difference.

Their tribal loyalties are found at a young age - indeed, that is the only way Cameron, Osborne, Kelly et al can find their way into such lofty positions at such young ages. Age, of course, shouldn't be a barrier. It wasn't a problem for Pitt, and the maxim "good enough, old enough", must surely apply. Yet I wonder how positive for democracy it is, when being an MP is in many ways just another position on the political career ladder.

The one thing that was certain about the French and Dutch "no" votes last week was that they were indicative of a deep hatred of the political elites in their countries. Germans have always been hostile to their political elites too; it is just that their system offers them little way of venting their anger. The EU project, in short, has hit the rails because the politicians became separate from the people. Why a constitutional treaty was deemed necessary in the form it took is beyond me - especially given all the signals that the European elite were given by the "petit oui" over the Maastricht Treaty. The response of the elite, though, has done little to allay fears of an unrepresentative project. Chirac appointed an unelected protege to be the new Prime Minister; Juncker, President of Luxembourg (and current holder of the rotating presidency), vowed to continue the ratification process regardless of the voices of a third of the EU's founder members.

That is the voice of the political class speaking. They don't believe that anything is impossible provided they can sell it in the right way. That's not necessarily a bad thing. At times, we all need opinion leaders in Parliament, not just subservient slaves to the people. After all, the people holding positions of power are privy to far more information than we could ever hope to garner ourselves. But democracy cannot function in the same way that a business is managed. In a free market, consumers can always vote with their feet. In a political process dominated by established parties and the political class, making a real choice with your vote can seem harder and harder. That - and not the fact that a stroll down the road is an onerous task - is the real reason why turnout and voter interest is falling.

For all that politicians have to find solutions, they should be solutions to the problems that people themselves are asking. When they don't, they aren't fulfilling their purpose. But when they live within their own little bubble, dominated by focus groups and the latest fads in thinking, they don't give themselves a fair chance. Someone needs to stand up and challenge the orthodoxy. For whilst we have the Tim Collins's of the world as our representatives - as wise and intelligent as they may be -we are being ruled by a class with a separate and distinct interest to our own.