Sister blog of Physicists of the Caribbean in which I babble about non-astronomy stuff, because everyone needs a hobby

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Review : Why We Get The Wrong Politicians

This is a truly excellent little book by journalist Isabel Hardman. I'll cut to the chase : I unhesitatingly give it 10/10. It should be required reading, or at least, many of the main points here about how Parliament actually works need to be included somewhere in the national curriculum. It's exceptionally clear, lucid, well thought out, and hugely readable. Any points I might disagree on are so trivial as to be not worth mentioning.

This book is completely focused on the British political system; it may not be at all relevant to other countries. While we all think we know roughly how politics works, Hardman goes deeper. Not only does she explain how the procedures we don't usually see are supposed to work (it's not all jeering debates in the House of Commons), but she also describes how they actually do work - or more often how they fail - in practise. And she explains why they fail, looking at the faults in the system itself every bit as much (or more) than the faults of the elected officials. I came away thinking, "yes, that makes perfect sense", but more importantly, "this is a solvable problem".

The book follows a rough narrative of an MP's journey from seeking office to leaving it. Along the way, Hardman describes procedure, backing up statistical evidence with anecdotal descriptions. This makes it a very compelling and utterly persuasive read. Rather than focusing exclusively on what's wrong with the system, she's also not averse to saying which aspects (and indeed which politicians) work well. She names names where she can but protects anonymity where necessary, always giving credit where it's due but not flinching from assigning blame.

Anyway, she has a few major points that need to be mentioned.

1) The selection procedure

Anyone wanting to become an MP has to be either quite mad or very rich, or both. Becoming an MP incurs expenses, which can be largely recouped if you remain in office long enough, but if you fail then you're hung out to try. The average amount a succesfull candidate spends out of their own pocket is of the order of £40,000. That immediately makes politics almost a non-starter to the average bloke (or bloke-ette ?). It's just about within reach, I suppose, of ordinary people, but the commitment needed to raise that kind of capital demands candidates who are raving ideologues and not the most rational of sorts. Conversely, those who do have that kind of cash to hand are largely so unrepresentative of the general population that they simply cannot understand how their policies will impact people.

It's not exactly that MPs are out of touch - Hardman gets annoyed by this claim and presents a more subtle view than that. She has nothing but praise for MPs across the political spectrum in terms of the work they do in their local constituencies, something we very rarely hear anything about : in fact, most MPs get more more direct experience of people's issues than the rest of us do. The problem is that solving local issues doesn't mean MPs are aware of the broader problems that aren't brought to their attention, and requires a very different skill set from being able to scrutinise legislation.

Unfortunately, in order to become a candidate, local party bodies are almost entirely concerned with what the would-be MP will do locally, with little or no interest in the national issues that form a key duty of state officials. It's also pretty much vital that you're on that career ladder already, i.e. by becoming a councillor or otherwise making yourself known at political conferences. This alone demands an enormous level of personal commitment - to the point of being self-destructive for most normal people. The kind of people willing to spend insane hours travelling to long, boring, pointless meetings are by definition not representative of the general population. This need to be in the in-club means that selection procedures, no matter how rigorous, can't always eliminate the worst sort of nutters from consideration.

So straight away the selection criteria means we get politicians who are not wrong, exactly, but weird. It's not that they don't care - they do, in fact, often make extraordinary efforts to help their constituents - it's that they often have no knowledge of major policies (they simply and quite literally have no time to be experts in the very thing they're supposed to be expert in) or how the public at large feel about them.

2) Climbing the greasy pole

Once an MP is elected, they're now in an enormous financial debt to their party. What do they do next ? It seems that while there's a very great deal they could do, there's very little that they actually must do. There's no formal training as to how to go about being an MP, perhaps largely because they have few remarkably formal roles or powers. Many MPs therefore end up becoming enormously busy on whatever tasks they can find, which is often useless and takes away time that could, and should, be spent examining potential legislation :
One new Tory MP told me rather miserably after a year in the job that he felt as though he was, 'failing the country in my duty to it. I am voting on things I don't understand, and this upsets me.'
Part of the reason for this lies in how career success in politics is evaluated. Pretty much the only way of advancing one's career is to become a minister, because this is the only available metric. And in order to become a minister, one has to follow the government's will on essentially everything. Ability to scrutinise legislation, to deliver criticism where it's due, is not merely unwelcome but even actively discouraged. Furthermore, when a minister leaves office, they're subject to zero official accounting for their actions. Even if their policy is a disaster, they can all but disappear from the public stage (Blair being a rare exception).

A related issue is what Hardman calls UPQs : Utterly Pointless Questions. To advance one's career it's necessary to be visible and a visible toady. This leads to MPs asking such tough questions as :
Will the minister join me in congratulating Havant College on its pioneering partnership with Google, which ensures that every student has access to a tablet computer ?
Which is of course not really a question at all, just an excuse to lavish praise. But if that's what it takes to achieve career success, who among us would really deny it ?

3) The whipping whips

While Hardman is largely sympathetic to the plight of MPs, she has little good to say about Parliamentary whips who enforce how MPs should vote. The volume of legislation is such that MPs simply cannot possibly understand everything, so the whips simply tell party members how to vote according to party policy. But the whips aren't just present in the main chamber, they also pervade the much less visible committees where legislation is drafted. With the exception of select committees, which Hardman says still function reasonably well, whips are present at most stages of legislation, making it very difficult for party MPs to even raise potential problems. Governments have fallen into a dangerous culture of thinking that any internal criticism is unacceptable. The only thing that prevents the whole thing from collapsing is that opposition MPs are, at least, still able to point out flaws, but often the government will simply ignore these to avoid looking weak and foolish.

Perhaps even worse is that these committees aren't even selected on the basis of expertise, but again on which MPs aren't likely to cause trouble for the government. So you get a bunch of MPs, who, by necessity, have to follow government diktat, discussing legislation they almost certainly don't understand, who have been given no training in how to scrutinise legislation, are usually overworked doing mostly useless things, who are highly unrepresentative of the general populace and therefore not always able to understand potential consequences, and who risk their careers through criticism... not a great mix, is it ?

And given the level of financial commitment the MPs have made to their party, it becomes easier to see how the whips are so powerful and rebellions so rare. Who among us would really be willing, given such a debt, to vote against those holding the purse strings ? Unless we happened to be one of those exceptionally self-funded sort, we'd be risking serious financial ruin if expelled from the party. It's all very well for the public to sit back and deride the often immoral and frequently stupid decisions, but few among us would really be willing to incur tens of thousands of pounds of debt by risking expulsion.

Fixing the problem

This all sounds terrible, and it is. But there's a silver lining to this systemic cloud : fixing a broken system is sometimes easier than fixing broken people. The thing to realise about politicians is that they are, generally speaking, basically like you or I, but put into extraordinarily difficult conditions. So, change those conditions.

One conclusion that seemed natural to me that Hardman doesn't discuss is the need for reform and strengthening of local government. MPs spend much time on constituency duty, which distracts from their task of examining policy. Having a different set of officials with equal (or greater) powers that local people can meet directly seems like the obvious solution. Simultaneously, there need to be more public opportunities to hear from one's MP : more town hall meetings, rather than one-on-one meetings, would be welcome. MPs need to be in touch, but primarily focused on national rather than local policy.

But large scale, systemic changes aside (Hardman suggests separating the officials making up the legislative and executive bodies, but this was one aspect I wasn't persuaded by), there are a number of smaller, much more readily achievable reforms that could bring substantial improvements : "it's more important to change the culture rather than the overarching structures of our political system", she says. It might be exciting to propose more radical, even revolutionary changes, but actually the system itself is not fundamentally broken. Rather it's the details of how things are enacted that can and must be reformed. Hardman suggests :

  • Reforming committees. This means removing many of them, which are currently pointless, and structuring the rest so that MPs can actually raise criticism freely and are selected on the basis of their expertise. The culture in which any criticism of the government is seen as disloyalty needs to end.
  • Post-legislative scrutiny of policies. Since MPs are rarely held to account once they've left office, there's little motivation for them to ensure their policy will actually work. Hardman suggests that this could be done with direct, face-to-face meetings with those affected. MPs are not all, contrary to popular belief, unfeeling monsters, and this would provide a more direct link between politicians and the public that escapes the media filtering.
  • Financially incentivise being a member of a select committee. Currently joining such a committee is rarely (though not never) a good way to gain a reputation and offers little or nothing in the way of prestige - the only way to climb the greasy pole is to become a minister. With the actual legislative process itself being a motivation, MPs would be more inclined to take part and not simply vie for power. They'd aim to become good legislators and become an MP for the sake of it, not as a path to becoming a minister. Committee members could also be rewarded in other ways, such as gaining priority in debates in the main chamber.
  • Changing the selection procedure to become an MP, making it require less time and personal resources for prospective candidates. This is more difficult than internal parliamentary reforms, but necessary if politicians are actually going to understand the people they serve. The overall thrust of Hardman's book is that MPs should be essentially normal people with a diverse perspective and skill set (if still biased towards the legal profession), well compensated for their activities in Parliament. 
There are other aspects that could be implemented : MPs could be given some level of mandatory training in legislation before taking office; they also need to be fairly financially compensated for their work. I was reasonably persuaded that their salary, though high, does not reflect the extreme risk they take by having a potential multi-year gap in their career without knowing the exact duration (especially given the expenses occurred by having a second home in London). 

None of these reforms, Hardman acknowledges, are glamorous or even particularly dramatic. But I found the arguments that MPs are in fact trying very hard but completely trapped by a flawed system to be compelling. Yes, they can and should try harder to change this system - they're adults, Hardman says. But it's not at all easy to stand up to those who helped you reach office. Hardman gives many personal anecdotes of the immense stresses that MPs experience, and how they simply do not have time to do their job properly. I defy anyone to read this book and come away still thinking that "politician" means "many ticks".

This is not to say that other reforms won't be needed. I still think that the ludicrously hyper-partisan, hyper-critical media culture may be an even bigger problem for the failure of politics than internal parliamentary procedure. But equally, that doesn't negate the need for reforming Parliament - something which could give real results with relatively little difficulty or controversy. 

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