How do we get the Right Politicians?

A reply to "Why we get the Wrong Politicians", by Isabel Hardman...

“I don’t rate any of them!”

Many of the London Elite took their disgust and voted for the underwhelming, over-claiming, virtue-signalling, Juncker/Barnier-endorsing and short-lived Jo Swinson, an opposition vote, that conferred only marginally more credit to that candidate, than a spoiled ballot paper. And when the election results dawned, the champagne socialist, self-appointing infallible intelligentsia’s lack of empathy with the rest of the English electorate, was laid bare.

“If you don’t rate the candidates and you could make the case better yourself, why don’t you stand?” Good question. But would a high calibre cadre executive accept the challenging and competitive campaign trail let alone the expense and remuneration, the scrutiny and victimisation or the democratic leadership style? Business leaders are used to leading from the front, setting the organisation strategy and being followed. They do not work with a permanent constitutional opposition whose key function is to unseat them, nor do they depend on having an elected majority to command, subject to a whip, and half their team, voting with their own conscience, for a different strategy. Politics is littered with business names who tried to make it in politics and abandoned the Process as they comprehend volunteers are not employees and that the reciprocal relationship between government and business is a composite one. Nor has the US high profile entrepreneur leadership role model offered an enviable political prototype for Britain.

And yet, to govern UK PLC, it does require the same leadership and people management skills of communication, charisma and confidence underpinned by integrity, intellect and judgement. As with all senior governance roles, government or commercial, strategic vision, critical thinking, organisational change management, financial planning and risk assessment, not to mention in the current context, crisis management skills, and much more are all in the expected skillset for our cabinet colleagues. Perhaps voter mistrust is born out of paralysing debate provoked by tragic choices which government leaders often have to make, not least, the current dilemma of finding a corona lockdown exit strategy, trade-off between losing lives or livelihoods.

Political acumen is as integral, and also as mistrusted, in the board room as in the echelons of Westminster. Balancing the interests behind credit and debit is the insuperable task of politicians: our tax payers and businesses contributing to HMRC against the demands of Treasury funding for defence, home office, health, social security, education and transport. Conservative politicians are guided by their values of prudence, responsibility and integrity on the one hand and their endorsement of compassion, tolerance, respect, independence and endeavour. Politicians’ choices might be driven by social conscience but will, in all likelihood, be judged by expediency. Is it equitable for business executives to denigrate and vilify our politicians so entirely?

Why do voters mistrust politicians so much? Most candidates go into politics to make a difference, setting out their pledges, and yet their scope to solve the immediate complex problems are limited, and doomed to generate some disappointment, disillusionment and mistrust. Will the Red Wall seats which so recently lent their vote for a vision of One Nation Levelling Up be vindicated or left disenchanted? In recent years, social media censure has played a huge part in making our candidates and their families, especially women, extremely vulnerable to hatred and opposition anger. The traumatic murder of MP Jo Cox, ahead of the referendum, shined a spotlight for the nation on the shocking risks faced by our female politicians in public life.

The daily scrutiny of our MPs, who never take their re-election for granted, abates not. Is it because the opposition parties’ mandate of holding the government to account is executed through a relentless undermining of every good intention and achievement - and this Punch and Judy politics wears thin on the public trust and perception of truth? Or is it because the vitriol, the hyperbole, and the falsification from the opposition benches are a means which justifies the ultimate end, of winning back power? Is it then our belligerent democratic structure and our vindictive sensationalist media reporting that invades the heart and conscience of the altruistic campaigner and noble-intentioned and principled parliamentary candidate, deflating their philanthropy to a spitting image of a defensive prevaricating party automaton?

And yet democracy and party politics offer voters a real choice on fundamental questions which affect their daily lives from Brexit to Gay Marriage and Equal Pay. Party politics offers real choices on investment like building HS2 versus nationalising the railways; or investing in rail services and consumer value versus endorsing rail strikes to keep guards on trains. Margaret Thatcher famously never lost the chance to educate voters about the financial choices before them and the spending responsibilities of government and the limitations of socialism ideals, “eventually you run out of other people’s money”.

“But I can’t vote for a career politician who has never proven their worth in business. They don’t know the world of business and if they want to be the party of business, of free market trade and of capitalism, they need to understand it!” Is this a legitimate contention? Is it important that a law-maker understands law? Does the Health Minister need a medical background, the Education Minister a PGCE or the Defence Secretary a military history? What professional background do we expect of our politicians?

At the heart of Conservative values is a trust that the numbers add up. The electorate vote Conservative because they fundamentally accept the “Labour isn’t working” mantra, that tax and spend does not drive the economy or employment and that Gordon Brown’s quantitative easing and bottomless borrowing and Corbyn’s magic money tree will harm the next generation who will have to pay it back. Elementary and mandatory, Conservative MPs must be P&L numerate.

How well do we manage HR, succession planning and people development at the heart of government? In ‘The Gatekeeper’ Kate Fall, David Cameron’s wingman, tells us that Number 10 does carefully match competencies to cabinet roles.

David Cameron in his book, ‘For the Record’ devotes huge time to these statecraft priorities and the selection of ministers to execute those briefs. Cameron describes reshuffles as vital to the life blood rejuvenation of the party and the administration, promoting those who stood out, bringing in fresh thinking and developing the next generation.

By contrast, Boris has always been admired for his ability to delegate and his energy, enthusiasm and empowerment is perhaps significantly more effective than Cameron’s mission for reform: a cursory glance at the Health portfolio under an antagonistic Hunt vs the ardent Hancock is a case in point. Given today’s colossal Covid-19 challenge, which leadership style would the NHS front line and the public most trust? Crucially, the City are won over by having one of their own in the Chancellor seat and Boris Johnson’s promotion of Rishi Sunak with his exemplary Oxford PPE and Stanford MBA education, followed by a career in Goldman’s and tenure with the genius philanthropist, investor-activist, hedge fund magnet, Chris Cooper-Hohn, convey an exclusive authority and respect.

In 2015, David Cameron vowed to reflect a representative, modern Britain career spectrum, educational background, equality and diversity within the party. A new window was opened for women, for class and for race. Movements like the Conservative Women’s Organisation chaired by Fleur Butler and #askhertostand and Women to Win led by Baroness Jenkin, the tireless campaigner for 50:50 women in parliament, have opened the door to a new community representative and the new Conservative party candidate’s spectrum includes professionals to professors, engineers to entrepreneurs, nurses to teachers and even a former dolphin trainer.

The Candidates Department, is looking for exceptional local candidates from all walks of life who have lived and worked within their borough or adjacent, and who have earned the right to represent their community through professional, personal, public and political qualifications. The Parliamentary Assessment Board tests for leadership, intellect, conviction, resilience, communication, and interpersonal skills; and once on the candidate’s list, the competition to be selected as one of three potential constituency candidates is impressive and requires the endorsement of both the Candidate’s Department and the association chair, recognising the merit of their political CV and campaign record. Indeed, to earn a place on the Candidates List, the expectation of commitment to long hours of campaigning in specified marginal target seats, often in addition to fighting a non-target, unwinnable seat, is part of the contract to stand.

“Can this person win an election?” When the association membership votes for their parliamentary candidate this is the question they must answer above all. Whatever else a candidate may have on their professional CV, the overriding requirement will be: to be a winner. Authenticity, a huge factor in Boris’s charm offensive, is a compelling element behind membership voting instinct. A winner needs name recognition and credentials to own their right to speak and the ability to make people want to listen. Name recognition and credentials have often been built over years as a local councillor, magistrate, police and crime commissioner or public figure and speaking with authority is conferred from this responsibility. Within the voting membership name recognition and approval will usually come from their responsibility and relationship with their association and their earned reputation for campaigning. In a thriving and well-run association with a broad and representative membership the system is robust and defensible.

So, do good campaigners and election winners make good MPs? The process is there to ensure that the candidates that make it to the nomination and through an election are usually very deserving. But the job of winning an election requires a completely different skill set to the job being an MP.

Let’s look at the job of an MP and how well prepared our candidates are. They start by representing their constituents on local issues from transport infrastructure to health care and education provision and the high street, local business and employment, to social issues and environmental dangers such as flooding. These issues will usually have come up during the campaign and the candidate will be very confident on what needs to be improved … but what they can actually do about these campaign issues is perhaps considerably more limited than most voters will be aware when the budget allocation and the decision-making capacity usually rests with the council, which may or may not be controlled by their own party. Nevertheless, the power of the House of Commons portcullis-headed note paper is not to be underestimated and the network of that MP can be crucial to securing Treasury and Department funding. A question in the House fulfils the perception of an MP’s role of standing up for their community but how effective is it in reality?

Most MPs also spend one day a week, usually Fridays, on surgeries with constituents who have reached a roadblock with authorities for housing and homelessness, immigration and deportation, health care provision or other. Supported by case handlers, MPs unpick here the complex individual cases, often caused by poor legislation and government policy implementation, such as universal credit, and this work can often be a bellwether for policy amendment. Some MPs find their surgery work fulfilling and others find it a time-consuming distraction, but it certainly requires a different patience, practicality and compassion to the campaigning skills needed for election.

The higher profile part of the job is on the House of Commons green benches and contribution to debate and voting and participation on House of Commons Committees policy development. As Isabel Hardman says in her book, ‘Why we get the wrong politicians’, new MPs get little training for this law-making scrutiny; there are too many topics to cover in depth; there is whip pressure to conform to on voting expectations and any independent thinkers can swiftly re-evaluate their cabinet career ambitions. As a new MP, more important than being a disruptive and critical thinker on policy, is advocacy for the Party and PM, being loyal and trusted, listening to colleagues and connecting ideas, and seeking consensus.

But how do we bridge the gap between a good constituency MP and a cabinet minister? The campaign skills we need to represent our constituencies, like winning a Club Match, are an Open Championship long shot from the corporate governance skills needed to run UK PLC, to manage economic security, reform education and health, liberalise social attitudes, lead COBRA crisis meetings, debate war strategy and geopolitics, lead on the international stage and everything in between. There is a mindset world of difference between local representative and national authority and international diplomacy. MPs need to build an encyclopaedic understanding of British economics and history and world geopolitical strategies.

MPs are keen to make their name and get recognition. Like in any commercial organisation ambition, awareness and acumen are ingredients of success. But what really permits ‘climbing the greasy pole’, to echo a Disraeli turn of phrase, was confided to us by Kemi Badenoch, newly-elected MP for Saffron Walden, in her introduction to Theresa May at Conference 2017, “I would not be here today without the white, middle-aged, conservative men who mentored me, Graham Brady, Frances Maud, Guy Opperman, thank you: I couldn’t have done it without you.” That generosity, encouragement and conviction of our mentors is evident everywhere in the party encouraging young talent and aspiring new candidates and MPs to develop their understanding, voice and reach. Our enormous gratitude, including my own, goes to the very special people within the party who offer their time and wisdom to all of us looking to contribute to public life in the best way that we can.

My own personal special thanks to Carl Hunter, Liz St Clare, Anne Jenkin, Fleur Butler, Mark Davies, Father Martin …and the wider Conservative family who I admire immensely.

Helen Edward, Deputy Chair Political for South West London Conservatives

Follow Helen on Twitter here!