How spin doctors destroyed our democracy – and what we can do to repair it

In the first of a two-part series, The Independent’s founding editor explains how the professionalisation of politics turned the business of Westminster into a brand, with dangerous consequences

Andreas Whittam Smith
Thursday 14 July 2016 13:06 BST
When Theresa May warned her fellow Tories about being labelled the ‘nasty party’, she was using the language of brands
When Theresa May warned her fellow Tories about being labelled the ‘nasty party’, she was using the language of brands

In a letter to this newspaper, Gary Kirk summed up the terrible crisis that confronts us. He wrote: “There is no trust in MPs, it’s a widely held belief that they are more acutely aware of their own career and advantage than the actual matter of governing.” This is an accurate assessment and points to a difficult problem.

As Kirk goes on to write: “The latest and perhaps most serious post-war calamity is now upon us and the major perpetrators leave the scene to a financially secure future and leave the rest of us to carry the can.” Unfortunately, “carrying the can” is likely to be an arduous task for the “rest of us”. I shall try to describe later what might be involved.

In fact, the behaviour of leading politicians during the referendum campaign, with their untruths, their inaccuracies, their scaremongering and their crude threats, was not a sudden development. It has been in the making for some 30 years. There were two simultaneous developments.

The first is that the political class began to expand as new career paths opened up. Young people interested in politics could go straight from university into jobs situated on the fringes of Parliament – political advisers, research assistants to MPs, analysts in policy research bodies and lobbyists for organisation representing special interests. This meant that the Conservative Party could more nearly match the Labour Party, which had long relied on trades unions as incubators of political talent. At the same time, political reporting and analysis positions in the media became more numerous.

So when the Smith Institute analysed the 2015 Parliament in its study Who Governs Britain?, it found that some 40 per cent of Conservative MPs had previously worked in politics, public affairs or the media while the comparable figure for Labour was 45 per cent; in addition 15 per cent of Labour MPs had been trades unions officials. Thus in total some 60 per cent of Labour MPs are fully paid-up members of the political class.

Theresa May, first PM to lead UK’s post-Brexit era

Look at the early careers of the chief protagonists in the Brexit campaign, not only David Cameron and Boris Johnson but of their chief lieutenants – George Osborne and Michael Gove. In their different ways, these four have been in politics since they left university. Cameron’s and Osborne’s first jobs were with the Conservative Party research department; then they became special advisers to Conservative ministers before becoming MPs. Cameron had also worked as a lobbyist for a TV company. Johnson’s and Gove’s early careers were also strikingly similar. Both were journalists on national newspapers, writing frequently on politics, until they became MPs. Johnson was also editor of The Spectator.

The professionalisation of politics, however, has done nothing to eradicate the insecurity of political careers. Political parties can be in opposition for many years at a stretch, their MPs deprived of the power that is the chief reward of politics. From 1979, when Mrs Thatcher became prime minister, the Conservatives were continually in office for an unbroken 18 years. Then New Labour ruled for an uninterrupted 13 years until 2010. In addition, as recent events have vividly shown, the careers of party leaders and their close associates can often brutally be cut short.

There is thus an underlying desperation to life in the Westminster village. That explains the second development: in the 1980s the political classes enthusiastically took up the marketing techniques used by industry. They thought that the use of these new disciplines would enable them either to retain power for longer or to regain it more quickly.

As a result, political parties became brands to be managed. The renaming of the Labour Party as New Labour was an exercise in updating the brand. When Theresa May warned Conservatives in 2002 that “people call us the Nasty Party”, she was talking the language of brands.

Peter Oborne, the political commentator, wrote perceptively about these developments in his book published in 2007, The Triumph of the Political Class. He said that before the emergence of the political class the conventional mode of leadership was based on a vestigial idea of gentlemanly conduct. “The style had been laid down by the Duke of Wellington in the early 19th century, both as a leader of men on the battlefield and later as Prime Minister and national icon,” he wrote. “It was based on understatement, sobriety both in personal conduct and in speech, self-sacrifice, restraint.” Now, instead of understatement, there is boasting. Instead of restraint there are soundbites. Soundbites are the language of political marketing.

In this and other ways, the embrace of marketing techniques has changed the relationship between politicians and the electorate for the worse. For marketing techniques often have the result of treating buyers of products and services not as customers to be respected but as objects to be exploited. This cause and effect is well illustrated by the recent history of high street banking.

The introduction of aggressive marketing destroyed the personal relationship that bank customers used to have with their managers. And as relationship banking was replaced by transaction banking, so the high street banks began to engage in misselling financial products on an enormous scale. They could do this because they had lost respect for the users of their services. In an identical manner, the behaviour of the Remain and Leave campaigns in the referendum debate demonstrated precisely the same absence of respect for voters, which led to the same misselling.

So the problem is the political class. Its members place the demands of politics ahead of good government. There will never be a better example than the promise of a referendum by the former prime minister, David Cameron. He must have realised at the time that leaving the European Union would be a disaster. After all, that is what he argued during the referendum campaign itself. But he ordered the referendum all the same in order to reduce the threat that Ukip posed to the Conservative Party’s election prospects. It was a tactical move, nothing more. In the weird world in which politicians spend their time, there is no strategy, only tactics.

Members of the political class are unprepared for government. Before suddenly turning up as secretary of state at a major government department with a payroll in the thousands, few of them have ever had responsibility for the employment of more than a dozen people at most. It is like asking somebody to conduct an orchestra who cannot play a musical instrument or read scarcely a note of the score. But the orchestra, that is the civil service, carries on regardless.

Earlier this week, former Cabinet Secretary Lord Butler described the first Blair government as a “dysfunctional” collective entity. He was taking part in a debate on the Chilcot report. That is the big risk we run with a political class such as we have at present – dysfunction in government.

There is, however, a solution to this problem: I propose that MPs should be subject to term limits. This would mean that they would be able to serve for, say, only three sessions of parliament. To put it another way, they could stand for re-election no more than twice. Politics would no longer be a lifelong career but, rather, a public duty.

This would be very hard indeed to bring about. In tomorrow’s article, I shall describe what this arduous process might involve.

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