With a General Election due next year, this is the point in the electoral cycle where our next generation of prospective politicians are busy making their pitches to local party members for a shot at a winnable seat.
Writing in the Times recently, former Conservative leader William Hague made the argument that localism is over-emphasised during candidate selections, a view increasingly shared by many. However there has been less comment on the criteria which local party members – who have the power to select candidates, once party HQs have done their vetting – might do better to focus on instead.
While the local links, views and values of candidates matter, Hague is right that ability matters too, and that in the often parochial and factional dynamics of local parties, this is not always at the forefront of people’s minds as they select a candidate. For those involved in both local politics (where potential MPs are selected) and national politics (where actual MPs are expected to carry out a fairly difficult job), it seems clear there is a disconnect between the person spec and the job’s duties.
Of course being an MP isn’t like having a normal job, and the beliefs, priorities and life experiences of political candidates will always matter enormously, compared to other roles. But although many people might share our views or embody certain values, not all of them will make good politicians.
And it’s not a choice between ideals or ability, but the opposite – the stronger your political views, the more you should care about electing effective advocates for them, because that’s how beliefs get translated into outcomes.
But if being an MP is ‘a full-time job’, then it must be unique in having no agreed job description.
So, in an attempt to give an insight into the working lives of modern politicians, and perhaps to encourage those with some influence to think more critically about who they are selecting, here is a slightly tongue-in-cheek attempt at such a job description.
Being an MP is a senior role, but (Ministerial office aside), you don’t actually run anything, nor do you control any budgets. Your role is to represent your constituents’ views, but these will diverge, and at least a significant minority are likely to consider you personally responsible for the ills of the nation.
In the constituency, you’re a kind of local dignitary, where, whether ribbon-cutting at a factory, dancing at Navratri celebrations or fielding impertinent questions at a Sixth Form assembly, you are expected to come across as authoritative yet in touch with the common man, worthy of your elevated position yet relatable.
You will hold regular surgeries, where your constituents will quiz you on everything from your party’s policy on asylum seekers to their latest planning dispute with the council. During these, you will often be required to act almost as an untrained social worker to people with a variety of harrowing personal issues, some of which will be due to the failings of the state. Despite this, you are not a local politician, but a national one, and you should consider issues in terms of the national good, not just in terms of your constituent’s interests.
In Westminster, you will scrutinise and vote on legislation, and you may also join select committees, attempt to climb the rung of Ministerial office, or champion various causes. You’ll be supported in this by a handful of staffers earning less than the median wage, while spending much of your time dealing with crises that weren’t even on the horizon whenever you first decided to run for office.
You will work in a structure with no HR, you will almost never receive any constructive feedback on your performance, and your appraisals will take place approximately every four years and involve around 70,000 people, half of whom will not know your name, making a binary decision about whether to extend your contract or subject you to immediate dismissal. This is democracy, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
But what kind of person might be good at this?
The right candidate will….
Above all else, politics is a communications job, so my first criteria on a job spec would be ‘excellent communication skills’. Despite its transformations over the centuries, the role of a Parliamentarian can still be summed up in its first two syllables, from the French ‘parler’, to speak. For the majority of politicians without executive power, the most important thing they do, most days, is speak –sometimes privately to the powerful figures their position gives them access to, but often publicly, where their words carry weight because of their status and the setting, whether on television, at events, or in Parliament itself.
Some of this speech may have influence over actual outcomes, but rarely in a straightforward way.
But it is the core of the job, so if you can’t communicate at least well, and preferably with real rhetorical flair and force, forget it – and these days that includes on social media.
To run with the HR jargon, coming a close second has to be stakeholder management. All politicians have a large network of people they are trying to keep onside, and who all want a range of things from them they can’t fully deliver. Firstly, their own voters, whose lives they are supposed to try and improve through constituency work and in Parliament. Locally they will also work with leaders from business, the public sector and community groups, whose support they rely on but who will also have their own range of never entirely deliverable demands.
Then there’s the local party – the few dozen activists who selected them, the ones who will go canvassing on rainy Saturday mornings when any normal person would be having a lie-in, and which will contain the pool of councillors they must work with on local issues.
Being party activists, they’ll tend to hold strong views, whether on renationalising key industries or deporting asylum seekers, and they may well start to consider their local MP a disappointment for declining to take up these causes with the same fervour at every opportunity. Keeping these people happy takes up a lot of an MP’s time, not least because some of them may have been defeated rivals for the job of MP in the first place.
And that’s just in the constituency – in Parliament, there’s various factions to keep onside, the whips, and the powers that be within a party, with whom it is necessary to maintain good relations in order to have any chance of exerting influence. Then there are interest groups, whose support may be invaluable in furthering causes, but who always want more from politicians than they can give. And these relationships are never fully professional – they’re too based on shared beliefs and personal history, with people likely to have some combination themselves of the oversized egos, unrealistic ambitions and difficult personalities common to political actors.
Unless you are a backbencher with a safe seat and little interest in actually changing anything, then you will be managing a complex web of relationships, in an environment of constant political turmoil, where a short-notice decision on a contentious issue might alienate long-term supporters overnight.
Good people skills – insight into other people’s motivations, diplomacy, an appreciation for the uses of flattery, charm – are therefore invaluable. It’s easy to get on with your political soulmates; successful politicians make people who don’t agree with them like them too. You will deal with difficult people constantly.
Interest in policy detail is also key, as politicians must scrutinise legislation on any issue from transport to carbon pricing to the Gender Recognition Act, doing so at short notice and often with limited background knowledge. You don’t need to enter Parliament with a fully thought-through set of social and economic reforms, but eyes that don’t glaze over when confronted with policy detail, budgets and trade-offs is a must.
Last but not least, the job requires the constant exercise of judgement – when to speak up and when to keep quiet, who to ally with and who to risk alienating, which causes to pursue and which to leave alone. Exercising this kind of judgement daily is a background requirement, the foundation on which you try and achieve anything else, and the consequences for errors are high. And of course, this also applies to your personal life, so try and steer clear of extramarital affairs, drug use, ill-considered tweets, dodgy friendships etc.
Remember that as a Member of Parliament, access to you is now valuable, so whether it’s a foreign government with a patchy human rights record offering an all-expenses-paid ‘fact-finding trip’, or a highly personable lobbyist keen to discuss your thoughts on gambling legislation in the corporate hospitality box at Wimbledon, be considered in who you grant this to.
Oh, and obviously don’t bully your staff, sexually harass professional acquaintances or attempt to flog your access to government to the highest bidder. Even if ‘all political careers end in failure’, there are still varying levels of dignity involved to this.
So if these are the essential criteria, then in terms of desirable criteria, I’d add – a professional background beyond an existing career in politics, intellectual ability, an understanding of economics and international relations, the ability to manage urgent and competing priorities, experience of managing a small team, and being able to see things from multiple perspectives while retaining a sense of your own convictions.
In terms of personal qualities, candidates will also ideally possess personal integrity, moral seriousness, empathy for others, including those who are very different to them, the capacity to remain interested in people who aren’t useful to them (this particular quality is very hard to fake), self-awareness, a sense of humour, and, insofar as possible, the level-headedness to ensure that the strange life of a politician does not completely hinder their ability to act like a normal person.
Exceptional ambition is a prerequisite, but the job cannot be everything to you. Politics will never attract the entirely self-effacing, but ideally you won’t let the fact you are often treated like the most important person in a room convince you that you actually are. High energy is vital and extroversion an advantage, although introverts deserve political representation too – they just need more time to recuperate after events.
I don’t expect the average voter to assess MP candidates like this, but I do think party activists, and politically interested members of the public, could think more critically about the kinds of people we are sending to Parliament. Hopefully these criteria can apply to candidates with a range of views, and from a range of backgrounds, but might work as a starting point for understanding some of the demands of the role.
I recognise that in writing an ideal list, it may be read largely as an exercise in highlighting how far many politicians fall short of it. But politics is difficult, and just because some practitioners do it badly, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire to a higher quality of candidates in future Parliaments.
I’ve written before about what a dysfunctional workplace Parliament can be, but improved systems and processes can only be part of the story. Whatever happens at the next election, there is likely to be a big change to the personnel, so it’s worth thinking about who our new recruits should be, and what exactly we expect them to bring to the job.