Will Harris: Politics is such an outdated business

The House of Commons is a ridiculous place to conduct business, a rabbit warren of baffling proportions


Whatever one's opinion of politicians, few people would disagree that a well-organised political system is one of the keystones of a modern democracy. And it follows that while we don't necessarily like politicians or politics, we would want them to be able to carry out their duties in the best possible manner, whether in government or opposing government.

In the private sector I have worked with and for some of the biggest and best that this country has to offer. I've seen first-hand the single-mindedness of Tesco, the innovation and obsession with the customer of First Direct, the lightning fast pace of O2, and in truth I suppose I went into the world of politics with these high standards in mind.

The first thing that struck me is the calibre of the people employed by political parties. They are, for the most part, very clever, extremely well-read, interesting, and in it for all the right reasons. The quality of thinking is superb, the attention to detail, perhaps enforced by the adversarial nature of their business, is unlike anything I had ever experienced.

But that's where the good news ends. Apart from the people, the infrastructure of politics is outdated and old-fashioned. The House of Commons itself is a ridiculous place to conduct modern business, a rabbit warren of baffling proportions. The offices are for the most part small and dark, the technology outdated. Think Bletchley Park, with a handful of over-stretched brainy types struggling to crack the Enigma code with the most rudimentary equipment, and you're pretty much there.

If the political organisations were private-sector companies, setting out to dominate their sector and win customers in Britain and abroad, they would never be staffed, run, resourced or organised as our political parties are. And yet the practice of selling soft drinks or mobile phones, while an important one in the context of global commerce and a healthy economy, can never match the importance of government. What politicians do really affects our lives. They matter a great deal, but you wouldn't think so by the way they run their business.

There are two reasons behind all this. Politics is a binary occupation. You are either in government, in which case you do everything you can to remain in government, or you are in opposition, in which you do everything you can to get into government. There is no middle ground between the two extremes of opposition and government, and consequently all politicians of all parties will prioritise those things that more immediately meet their objectives and defer those things that don't.

Faced with a choice of investment in something that will show an immediate and marked return (like a speech, an advertising campaign, a photo opportunity) versus something that will bear fruit perhaps in six or 12 months' time, there is really no choice. Unlike the private sector, where commerce is for the most part a gradual process of putting successive successful quarters together to build a successful year, the world of the politician is measured day by day. In that context, most investments are short-term and required to pay dividends almost immediately.

The second limiting factor is less excusable. In this country we have at once a pathetically small portion of state funding for our political parties, and a stringent cap on what they can spend. The gap between them has to be filled by fund-raising, and the two main parties need to collect between £10m and £15m in an election year each to make ends meet. And that's bad for two reasons.

Anyone running a business will tell you that what they crave above all is certainty. Only by knowing what money you have got coming in and going out over the next six to 12 months can you determine the best decisions for your company. Few businesses succeed living hand-to-mouth, and yet that is precisely what we expect our political parties to do.

This uncertainty is compounded by another issue: influence. Both parties depend on big donations from individuals, unions, businesses and anyone else who feels happy to have their name linked publicly to a political cause. With those donations comes influence - not necessarily corruption and the granting of contracts or favours: that sort of give and take was studiously avoided in the world I moved in. This is more an issue of opinions being listened to over policy, or downright interference and meddling. In business, accountability goes up and down the line; you always know who your boss is. Who is more important in politics: the person you report to, or the person that funds the party?

So what does the future hold? What are the chances of a root-and-branch reform of the business of politics, which would transform the infrastructure of our worthy political parties into something resembling a Tesco, a First Direct or an O2? As easy as it would be to do, and as radical and refreshing as the results would be, I'm afraid the chances are almost nil.

If the flawed, amateur and imperfect system got one government elected, what possible interest would it have in changing it?Just remember that the government of the day has the massed ranks of the Civil Service working for it, while the Opposition are stuck in a draughty Nissan hut trying to crack the code, and decide for yourself how likely things are to change.

Will Harris has been director of marketing for O2, and for the Conservative Party


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