Book review: Why we get the wrong politicians

Book review: Why we get the wrong politicians

by Stuart Crawford
article from Friday 7, December, 2018

ANYONE who has ever expressed even the most remote interest in becoming an elected politician should be forced to read this book, because it will almost certainly put them off attempting to do so. As someone who has been selected to be a prospective parliamentary candidate on three separate occasions for two different political parties, I can only say I recognise the territory only too well.

The author, Isabel Hardman, has drawn on her experience of being a Westminster lobby journalist since 2011 to set out a fairly convincing argument as to why the great British public might not get the politicians it properly deserves.  Her hypothesis as to why so many MPs are “white, male and stale” has a number of strands.

First and foremost is the financial cost. She reckons that a wannabe MP is looking at a minimum price of circa £20k for standing, with no guarantee of even being elected, and this does not include loss of earnings. Generally this money comes out of the candidate’s own pocket, and it helps to be wealthy.  

Then there are the other costs; family, health, and feelings of worthlessness if you do get in. Westminster is notorious for divorce and family breakdown, driven by separation, a well-known drinking culture in subsidised bars, and the temptations of pretty, adoring, and all too often available junior staff.  Little wonder, then, that mental health of MPs is a serious issue with in-house help frequently sought by our elected representatives.

Worst of all, though, would seem to be the feelings of lack of ability to actually do much as a backbencher, most of whom seem to be told what to do and how to vote – lobby fodder in popular parlance. I tend to agree with Ms Hardman when she says that most people who set out in politics do so for the right reasons and in the hope they can make a difference, but all too often those hopes are quickly dashed. There’s too much to do, too little time, and in the end it becomes drudgery.

All of this is written from the perspective of the Westminster Bubble, that insular, self-congratulatory, navel-gazing, inward looking cabal which one of my London-based, public school educated, Oxbridge graduate Scottish friends habitually calls the “smug, liberal, metropolitan elite”. A quick look at the eulogies on the jacket of Ms Hardman’s book tells its own tale.

Which got me thinking – do we have the same thing north of the Border? Is there a Holyrood Bubble, a Scottish-themed replica of the chatterati in London?  I think there undoubtedly is, a small introverted group which likes nothing better than to talk about itself.  The nuances are different, however. Instead of lawyers turned politicians we have public and third sector graduates, plus far too many former councillors promoted well above both their intellectual and competency levels, feeding a political media corps too close to its subject matter in both geographical proximity and ideological outlook to say what needs to be said.  There’s a book to be written here too.

But to get back to the matter in hand. Is this book any good?  Well, yes it is, but maybe not as good as it might have been. The major problem is, I think, that much as Ms Hardman rails against the Westminster Bubble, she is herself part of it and perhaps too close to her subject matter to see the wood for the trees. This manifests itself most obviously, in my opinion, when having listed rather well why we get the wrong politicians, she is a bit light on what we should do about it. 

Now, to be absolutely fair, that bit is not in the book’s title – there’s no “and What We Need To Do About It” there.  And she does have some thoughts on the separation of executive positions from parliamentary roles, bursaries for candidates from poorer, non-traditional backgrounds, or even paying candidates to stand so they don’t have to give up their days jobs (and incomes) which are pertinent. But her central thesis, that we get the wrong parliamentarians because of the current parliamentary system is, in my view, bang on the money. 

This book is as good a place as any for would be parliamentarians – Westminster and Holyrood – to start if they’re seriously considering a political career as an elected representative. As one would expect from a practiced political journalist, it is well written, easy to read and entertaining, and I both enjoyed it and learned from it. Overall, I would give it 7 out of 10, but others have been much more generous.

For those with an interest in British politics, this might well be the Christmas present for you. And it needs to be on all political parties’ reading lists.

Why we get the wrong politicians by Isabel Hardman, Atlantic Books, ISBN HB 978 1 78239 973 5, 330 pages, £18.99.

Stuart Crawford is a social and political commentator© Stuart Crawford 2018

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