Abolish the Lords, but you'll never destroy the dynasties

Politics, like the stage, is clearly a profession where heredity passes on strong benefits
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I HADN'T realised until the obituaries yesterday that Al Gore's father had been a prominent US senator. Like father, like son. If, as seems likely, George Bush Jr and Al Gore tussle for the next presidency of the United States, it will be an extraordinary demonstration of the power of the hereditary principle in politics.

Now look at our House of Lords. The former Tory leader was of course a hereditary peer - and, as a Cecil, a top of the range one at that. The present leader is technically not a hereditary peer, but in practice is one, since Baroness Jay is the daughter of Lord Callaghan, the former prime minister. (She was married to Peter Jay, the economic journalist and son of Lord Jay, the former cabinet minister.) I don't think anyone would contest the fact she would be unlikely to be leader of Labour in the Lords had her father remained a merchant seaman all his life - any more than Peter Jay would have become British ambassador to Washington had the two of them not had such strong political connections.

Indeed in one sense Viscount Cranborne has greater democratic legitimacy than Baroness Jay. He was elected as an MP and served between 1979 and 1987. Baroness Jay, by contrast, has never passed the test of the ballot box.

So the distinction between hereditary politicians and non-hereditary ones is much more complex and subtle than it is made out to be. Some politicians are pure hereditaries, some are quasi-hereditaries, and some merely come from families which have a political tradition that has shaped them and helped them along the way. Peter Mandelson, grandson of Herbert Morrison, comes into that last category.

But the key point is that politics is clearly a profession where heredity passes on strong benefits, not just here, but in many very different countries. The phenomenon is even more apparent in the US and in India, where there seem to be genuine dynasties that can carry on for generations.

Of course the same phenomenon occurs in many other walks of life: you see it in medicine, in the law, in the City, occasionally (though rarely in large companies) in business life, even in journalism. But the area, aside from politics, where it is most evident is in the entertainment industry. You have to be able to cut the mustard for there is no room for the second-rater, but being a Redgrave or a Fonda immediately lifts you above the herd.

What, then, have politics and the entertainment industry in common, which, for example, the civil service or big business do not?

For a start, entry barriers are high. In both professions you have to invest a lot of unpaid time to get yourself on to the bottom of the ladder. Work in big business or the civil service and you are paid from day one. In politics it is hard to get paid at all; while in the entertainment industries, although pay at the top is outstanding, when you start it is dreadful.

In politics the difficulty of entry is further increased because there is a duopoly: in most countries the political industry is dominated by two large players, so if you are interested in holding office you effectively have to plump for one or the other. In the entertainment industries the problem is the reverse: the structure is unusually fragmented. But the outcome is the same: having a "name" enables you to short-circuit the tedious selection process.

Second, politics and entertainment are both capricious trades. People are up one minute and down the next, depending on luck and knowing the right people. It is much easier to have a durable career if you have good family connections. The fact that your family is a known part of the industry will mean your name is more likely to rise to the top of the pile when the next good job happens along.

Third, in both politics and entertainment image is enormously important, more important than substance. In most professions, image is of only incidental importance; competence is what matters. Airline customers are not interested in the image of the pilot; all they want to know is that the plane is being competently flown. The brand is the airline, not the individual.

Brands exist in politics and entertainment, and they can be built up or damaged. Think of Disney; think of our two major parties over the last quarter century. But in politics and entertainment, the individual is in relative terms much more important. The New Labour rebranding exercise would not have been credible without the personal brand of Tony Blair. For a period in the 1980s the Thatcher brand was stronger than the Tory one. Top actors' brands are stronger than the studios that make their pictures.

Would-be politicians with no family background in the trade have to create the brand image for themselves from a standing start. Some are brilliant at self-publicity: think of Ken Livingstone or David Mellor.

But being brilliant at creating an individual image carries a risk, in that you may overcook the cake, as I suppose both Livingstone and Mellor have done. One way of achieving brand recognition without taking the risk is to be a member of an established political family. As in entertainment, the ready-made image gives a head start.

Or rather it does if it is the right image, and this leads to a fascinating possibility. Maybe by dumping the explicit hereditary principle, the changes about to be made to the House of Lords (whatever the detail turns out to be) will make it a chamber where family background becomes more important, not less.

To explain: the explicit hereditary principle is a great turn-off for most people in Britain. That is why hereditary peers who wanted real power - Wedgwood Benn, the Earl of Home - had to renounce their peerages and sit in the Commons. Being a hereditary peer is a bad brand if you want power.

But being part of a political family is, in general, a good brand. The new House of Lords will inevitably have large numbers of people from the "right" families, be they appointees of the government of the day or people elected through some electoral college.

They may not be Tony's cronies but they will in large measure be somebody's cronies. Because the explicit hereditary principle will be demolished, the less explicit power of family background will be enhanced. The Lords will still be built around active political families; but it will in the future have a legitimacy which at present it cannot possibly have.

The hereditary principle is dead; long live the hereditary practice.