Are we being served?

September 11, 2008 at 9:23 pm | Posted in British Politics | 1 Comment

Over at the newish blog Power To The People, FrustratedVoter wonders why our MPs and ministers seem such an unimpressive, barely-competent bunch:

The problem must start when the local constituencies select their prospective member of parliament. What criteria do they use to determine who to select, is it because their face fits, they are mates with the constituency chairman, a determined party ‘activist’ or some other banal reason? Once elected, they could end up in a junior government post, or even in the cabinet. So how does the prime minister decide who is going to get which post? Experience suggests, that more often than not, the ‘plum’ posts are offered as a reward, rather than based on experience.

Yes I accept, that ministers heading government departments will receive advice and guidance from experienced civil servants, but surely that is not the point? Members of Parliament, if they are being paid to run a department, need to add value. Lets face it, when they talk at the public, they do so as if they are experts in their field and how many of us actually question their qualifications and ability to judge the issues they are covering?

I remember reading the obtuary of Leo Abse and feeling pretty depressed about the state of Parliamentary politics. Abse was a character who achieved more substantive reform from the back benches than most of our current ministers achieve through a lifetime in the cabinet, and though he was controversial his intellect & ability were widely respected. Looking around today’s Parliament, you can’t find anyone comparable. Where have people of Abse’s ilk gone? Has the quality of our country’s intellect dwindled? Do people of great ability and intellect decline the opportunity to work in politics? Or does our politics preclude such people from ever entering the business in the first place?

I think FrustratedVoter’s right to highlight the role local constituencies must have in fixing this problem. One of my constant gripes with Labour is the way the likes of Ed Balls, James Purnell and both Milibands were flown from their comfortable positions in Blair & Brown’s inner circles into constituencies they had (and still have) very little to do with. Was South Shields so lacking in people of ability that they had to hire a man who previously couldn’t have found it on a map? I doubt it, but Tony wanted his man in Parliament and so a relatively deprived constituency has to make do with someone who doesn’t really know the area and can’t, with the best will in the world, relate to the needs, fears & aspirations of the people he represents. When this is reproduced on a large scale, all you’re left with is an incestuous, self-perpetuating political class that speaks in a language nobody else in the country can relate to, and that’s not going to re-connect the public with politics.

As for the other point in this post about ministerial experience, well, I’ve always thought it’d be a splendid idea to promote people who’ve spent years in Commons select committees, scrutinising government departments, into cabinet positions. Why not appoint someone on the education committee to become a minister for that department, likewise health and transport? Surely they’ll have a depth of knowledge in that area to equip them for the challenges of the role and ensure they’ve not, as FV insinuates, simply having their hands held by senior civil servants. The catch, of course, is that cabinet appointments are primarily dictated by politics, and if that minister just happens to be a success in delivering a public service, then it’s mostly just a lucky coincidence.

Image by Flickr user buggolo (Creative Commons)

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  1. […] away from someone who maybe could’ve represented those constituencies better. As I said in an earlier post, their constituents have to: Make do with someone who doesn’t really know the area and can’t, […]


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