I’ve been following the development of Democracy 2015 in a professional and personal capacity since it launched this summer and listened with interest to Andreas Whittam Smith’s speech at the Unlock Democracy AGM on Saturday. Sadly as a result of Whittam Smith’s speech on Saturday I’ve been forced to reassess the project, away from a relatively harmless hopeless cause and towards a dangerous, profoundly undemocratic idea – which fortunately is unlikely to go anywhere (I should emphasise at this point that these are my personal views only).
If you don’t know, Whittam Smith’s big idea is as follows: he’s trying to find 650 people to stand in every constituency in the 2015 general election, sweeping the board and helping to establish a reforming parliament that will take all the difficult and radical decisions that the politicians from established parties consistently fail to. The candidates, who will preferably be selected by primaries, will served for a single term and all have experience of “running things” – be it the head of a school, a trade unionist or a someone with a business background. And finally,this will all be paid for by supporters donating a maximum of £50 each.
As a former party agent and campaign organiser, it is easy to scoff at the practicalities of all this. Even leaving aside the election campaign itself, there is the question of how all these targets will be reached. Whittam Smith stated that he expected the £35,000 cost of running a primary in each constituency that the Conservatives have had to spend would be lowered if you had economies of scale – ignoring the fact that largest single cost will be on postage which will have a fairly flat marginal cost. If you think this all sounds hopelessly impossible and impractical however, Whittam Smith has a simple answer: he agrees with you but feels he has to try anyway.
That isn’t a remotely satisfactory answer. I don’t find it especially noble or inspiring to see people embarking on a project without any credible strategy or targets whatsoever. It is, after all, other people’s money – and blood, sweat and tears – which he is planning to use up on this project. He isn’t so much a Scott of the Antarctic as a Lord Kitchener: sitting safely behind enemy lines while sacrificing others on deeply flawed plans. I can guarantee that his followers will remain quite as enamoured as they clearly are if they end up with nothing to show for at the end of this little adventure.
Thus far, this is nothing I didn’t conclude from the first week of Democracy 2015’s launch. I was struck however during Whittam Smith’s speech on Saturday by how his analysis was not only wrong but positively scary.
His main broadside against the political establishment is that it is fundamentally incompetent. No argument there, we see evidence of this pouring out of Whitehall and Westminster on a daily basis. But his analysis is that at the root of all this is the fact that politicians are simply poor at managing things: replace them with people with managerial experience, so the argument goes, and everything will be solved.
I’ve been a “manager” for the last 5 years but it is only in the last 12 months that I’ve had to fully manage staff on a daily basis. What I’ve learnt as both a manager and an employee is that “management” and “competence” can often be wildly divergent. Often the most talented person in an organisation can be someone who lacks the temperament or inclination to be a manager. Often the people who rise the most rapidly are people who’s ambition is far greater than their actual ability, but manage to float to the top because other people lower down the food chain manage to keep things on the rails and because few organisations would risk giving an incompetent employee was a bad reference and face either being stuck with them or an industrial tribunal. And then there is the Peter Principle, the dictum that “employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.” Great members of staff can make terrible managers, and vice versa. So when Whittam Smith dismissed the idea of cleaners and lower down the work chain as making suitable MPs, he wasn’t just being snooty but actually quite naive.
Perhaps a good test of how good a manager an MP would be would be to force them to manage and motivate a team of volunteers, raise their own money, build relationships with constituent groups and the press and generally run a difficult and stressful election campaign? Of course that happens to be what most winning candidates in marginal constituencies do indeed have to do. Not all of them do (sometimes you can get away with recruiting the right campaign manager at an early enough stage and leaving them to it – the lucky ones have the right campaign manager allocated to them by the party), and not all of them go on to become good managers, but it’s as good a test as any and certainly suggests that the key to having good people with managerial experience in parliament is to have more competitive elections.
But is management the answer to everything? Here I just think that Whittam Smith doesn’t just misunderstand the problem but is actually seeking to reinforce the status quo which has got us into this mess in the first place. As well as believing that having more managers in parliament would improve things, his concern is that ministers spend too much time interfering with the peope who are meant to manage the implementation of policy – the civil service. As an aside, I think he has a rather uncritical attitude about the civil service (the civil service is often known as the fourth political party in party circles with good reason, as anyone who has tried dealing with them will know), but the simple question you have to answer yourself is this: if the problem is too much ministerial interference and micromanagement, how will promoting more of a management culture in parliament and government help? I can’t think of anything that would make it worse. Imagine the former head of a school blundering in as the new secretary of state for education attempt to run the department like a school?
I have a rather different analysis. In my view, while I agree that the problem is that politicians have become obsessed with micromanagement and find themselves out of their depth, the cause is that politics has converged. Because there are no longer any big ideas being fought over in parliament it is only natural that politicians will turn their attention to things like competence and organisation. If parliament was fighting a daily battle over what kind of immigration policy we should have, it would be rather more content to leave civil servants with the job of implementing government policy – and ministers would too.
If I’m right, then Whittam Smith’s proposal would only make things worse. Having hundreds of MPs elected specifically on the basis of their management skills and a mandate to crack down on incompetence will only lead to more micromanagement, not less. The civil service, will not thank us for it even if former members of their ranks like Gus O’Donnell and Siobhan Benita seem to have similar shortsighted views.
What’s more, it’s the same agenda that Tony Blair inherited from Bill Clinton and bequeathed Cameron, Clegg and Miliband: ideology is dead; what matters is what works and seizing power. Whittam Smith was extremely dismissive of the people who criticised him from the left and seemed proud of his position in the centre ground. It seemed pretty evident that if he has his way, Democracy 2015 will fight on a platform firmly in the middle of the major two parties, but with a populist, anti politics edge. That’s the platform Nick Clegg adopted in 2010 and it didn’t work out too well for him.
Where he differs from the Blair copybook is his insistence that his successful candidates should only serve a single term. Whittam Smith sees this as a way of avoiding corruption, but the main purpose of re-election is accountability. What accountability will we have over MPs who plan to vanish after five years? At one stage in his speech, Whittam Smith said that he was sure that his one term MPs would have no problems seeking future employment. I agree, but most likely in the same jobs all too many MPs find themselves doing: consultancy, lobbying and public affairs. How many will spend the last few months in office behaving like taxi cabs Stephen Byers and Patricia Hewitt? And how many will find themselves in the same position as Louise Mensch, bored of the role and walking after just a couple of years?
None of this remotely resembles anything which you can call democracy. When unaccountable “experts” take over a country we call them technocrats. It’s the last throw of the die for a failed state. Is the UK a failed state? It is certainly failing but I don’t see us having exhausted all other policies first.
What we need in the UK is almost the exact opposite of what Andreas Whittam Smith is proposing: greater accountability of parliament and a return of the battle of ideas. Neither are easy to achieve within a system which is as jury rigged to favour the status quo as ours, but even if it has as much a chance of success as the Whittam Smith plan, it is certainly a more worthy prize (which isn’t to say we should be as excited by adventurism and simply stumbling along in the way that he intends to proceed). By contrast, no good can come from a project which ultimately has nothing more to offer than the technocracy of modern politics without even the veneer of idealism.