Archaic, inbred, outdated: why our political system is dying on its feet

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The Independent Online

A central test of any political system is its ability to attract men and women of talent and achievement into public life. By this measure British politics is increasingly showing signs of weakness. The reputation of politicians is in decline. Yet at the same time the political system is becoming more demanding, more professional and less attractive to ordinary people from the outside world.

A central test of any political system is its ability to attract men and women of talent and achievement into public life. By this measure British politics is increasingly showing signs of weakness. The reputation of politicians is in decline. Yet at the same time the political system is becoming more demanding, more professional and less attractive to ordinary people from the outside world.

When I was elected as MP for Tunbridge Wells on 1 May 1997 I was the first FTSE-100 chairman ever to sit in the House of Commons. In all probability I will be the last. Most of my business peers, on hearing I was going into politics, commented that I "must be mad". Others more politely said that they were "so glad I was doing it". I felt that, as I had been fortunate in my business career, it was right to put something back for the country and things I believed in. And I felt it would be a fascinating alternative to corporate life.

But there is no sign that others will follow. Political leadership today consists of people who have devoted most of their professional lives to politics. Business is not necessarily the ideal grounding for public life. But what is striking about today's government is the lack of outside experience. My 23 years in business represent more accumulated experience of management than the entire Cabinet. And it is not just business experience that is lacking. There are no former head teachers, no doctors, no leading scientists, no senior military officers in the Cabinet.

Unless there are considerable changes, the trend will continue. The deterrents to going into public life in any form are growing. Obviously there is a gulf in compensation, now greater than ever. But more than that, the culture of business life has changed hugely, whereas there is much about the culture of the House of Commons that is redolent of the past and concerned with protocol and status rather than effective government and opposition. The concern with status and protocol is something that many modern business leaders have flushed out of their organisations.

No matter what their track record, MPs are expected to prove themselves in the Commons. People coming from outside should have to put in the hard work to demonstrate their credentials. It is a healthy thing for the successful businessman. But the process of Westminster makes it difficult for ordinary people with a family to adapt to public life.

The confrontational style of Westminster engenders an approach that commands limited respect outside. Yet in these days of diminishing parliamentary influence, MPs feel they have little alternative to the ritual process of parliamentary strife. It can be a turn-off to people who just want to achieve something for their country. Few outsiders can see the point of behaviour in the chamber that makes speaking at the dispatch box the political equivalent of playing Galatasaray away from home.

Generally, the financial press look at the facts and write the story. But there are political journalists who will develop a story first and then generate the facts to suit it. So, Westminster is treacherous ground to well-intentioned businessmen used to stating things as they see them.

There are too many politicians and too many political journalists. So both spend inordinate energy thinking of things to do: as a result some MPs have become sucked into a race to ingratiate themselves in the never ending struggle to get coverage or an appearance on a late-night TV show.

Little wonder, then, that the attractiveness of public life to bright young people is in decline. In the most recent Mori poll, politicians rated somewhere below parking wardens as worthy of respect. The price we will pay is not just in the potential inability to attract talent and experience. The result will increasingly be a party-dominated system in which fewer politicians have the independence of perspective or means to defy the whips and speak as they think fit.

Today's generation of leading politicians remains a talented one. For the most part their dedication is impressive and most honourable. But the danger is that in future we will have an increasingly inbred culture, in which a narrow group of people will spend their careers in an insular system where rhetoric and words rate above the ability to make things happen.

Without change, Britain's system could be seriously disadvantaged. In the US, despite all the problems of political financing, the President forms an executive out of the "best and brightest". The Head of the Federal Reserve or the Secretary of State can be brought in from an investment bank or Harvard. Continental systems vary but there are, generally, fewer but better-supported politicians.

A more effective system in Britain would be one that attracts people of ability from all walks of life to spend part of their career in public service. There are several steps to achieving this: the Government's cobbled together House of Lords reforms could provide one such opportunity. It is "easy politics" to say the Lords should all be elected, but the advocates of pure elected democracy should pause and think. Elected democracy today in Britain does not always produce the pool of talent government needs.

To some extent the British system can move towards an American model. It is time to take politicians out of managerial positions for which they are ill-suited. Does it make sense, for instance, that the Secretary of State for Health, a man whose prior experience was in different fields, should be making day to day managerial decisions for the largest employer in Europe? Why not ensure that public bodies are run to a remit set by Parliament and appointments are made by objective selection boards?

And it is time to make Parliament more effective again: this might mean reducing the number of MPs so that they concentrate on the business for which they are elected. It might mean changing parliament so that there are more effective means of opposition than making ministers lose sleep or miss trains. It might mean reinforcing the right of Parliament to hear government announcements first, and building up the Select Committees.

Unless Britain wakes up to the threat to its politics we will see another decline in the attractions for public life, in the turn-out for elections and, eventually, in the calibre of ministers. The right response is to reform the system so that it is once again accessible to real people from all walks of life.

The writer is a member of the shadow Cabinet and a former chief executive of Asda

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