British politicians aren’t a very popular bunch. According to an Institute for Government report, they regularly rank, along with journalists, as the least trusted group of professionals in society. They are regularly seen as conniving, expenses-fiddling, self-interested, sharp-elbowed rascals, whose competence compares to some of the characters on The Apprentice.
And yet, this excited, anti-political mood that has beset us is perhaps neither fair, nor entirely rational. It is a mood stimulated in part by a vibrant and sometimes vicious media that preys on scandals, mistakes and the dreaded ‘U-turn’. The ‘political class’ is seen as a group with vested interests that are neither beneficial for The People, nor in conformity with the democratic ideal. Nor, we are sometimes told, are they always required.
It is this negative impression of politicians that Peter Riddell seeks to confront in his short political treatise, In Defence of Politicians. A political editor of The Times for many years and now the new director of the IfG – a think-tank focusing on improving the workings of government – Mr Riddell has extensive experience working in politics and with politicians. He is acutely aware of some politicians’ flaws, and acknowledges that the culture in the ‘Westminster village’ can sometimes lead to corruption and its members being out-of-touch, hence the sub-title of the book: In Spite of Themselves. But Mr Riddell argues that this is not the whole story, nor does it apply to all MPs. While some MPs fiddled their expenses, most did not, and in any case, when contrasted with the level of political corruption in many other countries similar to Britain, the scandal shows that British politics is, comparatively at least, quite clean (think of some recent French presidents for an example of this).
The central argument of the book though is not the negative one seeking to show why politicians are not so bad, but a positive one that aims to show why they are both needed and desirable, even if the way they operate can be improved. Indeed, Mr Riddell admits to using the terms ‘politicians’ and ‘representative democracy’ to describe similar phenomena, suggesting the former is necessary for the latter. Democracy, he argues, cannot function without politicians – a definitional point if democracy is indeed ‘representative’. Although this is intuitive, it is a point often shrouded by the ranting about the political class. For Mr Riddell, politicians are not elected to bring about an ideal society, but to create the compromises between different groups and interests that allow society to function as well as possible. Indeed, it is this that justifies representative democracy: this apparent ‘compromise’ of democratic values – by removing the direct control of the demos and vesting it in representative politicians – is needed for a well-functioning, modern state.
This point turns out to be a key premise that underpins the rest of what is argued in In Defence of Politicians. It is a conservative (with a deliberately small ‘c’) argument about the role of politicians. Mr Riddell laments the hyperbole that exists in much political discourse, typified by the claims that one party would do x much better than the party in power, and how each new government claims to be a host of superlatives (“greenest”, “cleanest”, “most equal”, “most liberal”), which is deliberately contrasted with an apparently inept, outgoing administration. The media, as mentioned above, is in part responsible for this sensationalism and exaggeration, as is the Internet (including an often hysterical blogosphere, in (?) which we hope SJF is not included). Politicians too, are not absolved of blame here, given that they play a key part in inflating expectations (epitomised by Tony Blair’s famous phrase: “a new dawn is breaking, is it not?”).
While great expectations and promises that can’t be fulfilled are certainly a problem, there is also a generally apathetic mood that becomes anti-political because interest is only generated when there is ‘a good scandal’. Too busy to worry about the nitty-gritty of policy, many members of the public prefer to focus on the human elements of politics, such as personality and fallibility. Some have suggested that this is due to a sense of detachment and powerlessness, with our constitution and electoral system often blamed. But Mr Riddell points out that this is a phenomenon that is occurring throughout most of the developed world, regardless of the system of representation. ‘Big Bang’ constitutional reforms are therefore misguided if they are advocated as a method for promoting public involvement in politics, and smaller, more incremental steps might have more of an effect, such as increasing each MP’s involvement in his or her constituency, or allowing petitions to be debated in Parliament (as the Coalition has proposed). This again reveals Mr Riddell’s conservative instincts, but while I believe he may well be right on the previous point about the role of politicians, I disagree with his general scepticism about the merits of constitutional reform.
Electoral reform is a good example. Abandoning first-past-the-post (FPTP) in favour of a more proportional or preferential-based voting system might not immediately increase voter participation. But it would solve other problems. It would make more votes count; it would lead to parliamentary representation that is more in keeping with the wishes of the overall electorate; and it would weaken the apathy and complacency that come with the existence of ‘safe seats’. The current system maintains the Conservative-Labour duopoly at the expense of the smaller parties: almost one million UKIP voters don’t have a single voice in the House of Commons.
Still, Mr Riddell makes a persuasive case about both the need for politicians, as well as some of the errors that they need to correct and reforms that need to be made to make them liked (again?). None of his suggestions should be painful for politicians to take, and focus on improving the effectiveness of MPs; representation and diversity; the policy-making process; the independence of parliamentary bodies (such as committees); and participation. His suggestions range from opening up the selection process that parties use when choosing their candidates, to formalising the minimum standard of service that constituents can expect from their MPs. None of his reforms are radical, but all are the grounded in research and a thorough knowledge of the political system. It is safe to say that they are therefore prudent.
Peter Hennessy, an eminent scholar of British politics, has described Mr Riddell as a “true and candid friend” of the political class, and hopes that politicians take his advice on board if they are to work to improve “public trust in politicians and the political process”. Indeed, if Mr Riddell’s relatively small but shrewd suggestions do end up being shelved, then it will be the sub-title of this book upon which we should reflect most deeply.