8 May 2017 10:19am

Debate: do we still need career politicians?

With not enough diversity in politics and public distrust at an all-time high, what needs to change?

Caption: With not enough diversity in politics and public distrust at an all-time high, what needs to change?

Nick Perks, trust secretary at Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust

“In a flourishing democracy, political power and responsibility should not be limited to people from any one group or profession. While the proportion of UK MPs who are career politicians has increased, this is probably not the most important issue when it comes to ensuring that our parliament reflects the public.

“Just 29% of Westminster MPs are women, and the proportion of MPs from a non-white background is half that of the general population. In contrast, one-third of current MPs attended a fee-paying school, compared to just 7% of the general population.

“The 17% of Westminster MPs with a previous career in politics include long-serving local councillors as well as high-flying special advisers. The number of MPs from a business background has risen, while the number from manual employment has fallen nearly to zero. Diversity brings strength. We need a varied legislature and executive.

“Finally, the future jobs of MPs matter as much as their professional background. The revolving door between politics and highly paid directorships, consultancies and other roles is well oiled and poorly stewarded. It may be that the career politicians we need to watch are those (from whatever party) more focused on future career opportunities than current responsibilities.”

David Perdue, US Republican senator

“Career politicians created the economic and debt crisis we are in right now. That’s why the approval rating of Congress is 10%, the lowest it’s been in the 70 years that Gallop has tracked their rating. Yet we re-elect the same people 92% of the time.

“I don’t think the Founders ever envisioned the rise of the career politician. They wanted people from various backgrounds to bring their unique experience to representative government, help solve the issues of the day, and then return home.”

Michelle Brook, director of Policy and Research, The Democratic Society

“Done right, bringing a wider range of voices into the development of policy and services helps make these better informed, better match citizen needs, and increases the democratic validity of the process.

“One extreme of citizen involvement is empowering citizens to vote in a binding fashion on all legislation.

“Among the reasons why this is a bad idea are that issues aren’t separate from each other and require a coherent overall strategy, and that direct democracy risks further privileging those with the time to engage.

“Politicians can play a crucial mediating role – being held accountable for delivering broad policy directions that their parties have set; and listening to the public while making decisions on the basis of more than just the loudest voices.

“But if democracy is to work well politics shouldn’t be a foreign realm that only a few get engaged in. It should be a familiar part of living (and thinking) together.

“We need politicians. But we also need politics to be less a career and more a part of all our daily lives.”

John Hewson, economist and former federal leader of the Liberal Party of Australia, writing to the Sunday Morning Herald

“Politics has become a daily conflict game, dominated by career politicians concentrated on winning points on the other side, rather than on developing and delivering good public policy, and good government”

David Mellor, ex-cabinet minister, on George Osborne becoming Evening Standard editor

“Being an MP has been an act of public service, not a job, and certainly not a career. The progression of inexperienced young people from university, to research jobs at Westminster, to a seat in parliament, legislating without any experience of the world outside the Westminster bubble, is no more edifying than Osborne’s many jobs. And much more damaging, I would assert, to the principles of good government.

“There’s no reason for MPs to be full time. There isn’t enough for them to do, particularly with the money they now have to employ staff to do their correspondence and casework. So if you want to see full-time MPs in action, get an MP to take you around the bars of the Palace of Westminster after lunch, or onto the terrace, and there you will find a lot of them.”

Bob Gray, US House, Georgia, District 6 candidate

“I’m not looking for a career in politics. I’m running because we need more doers in Congress and less politicians.”

Alexandra Runswick, director of Unlock Democracy

“Criticisms levelled at career politicians are symptoms of much larger problems. At the heart of these concerns is the idea that career politicians are not representative of the constituents they serve. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with committing to a career of public service as a politician, or with treating politics as a skill that needs to be developed. The problem is how unrepresentative politicians are – in terms of gender, race, and class – and how remote this makes them from their constituents.

“Diversity in politics ensures different perspectives and experiences are reflected in policymaking. We’ve made progress in increasing the numbers of women and BAME MPs, although not enough. However, MPs represent an ever narrower range of occupational backgrounds and it is as much a problem if politicians all come from law or business, as if from politics.

“Introducing proportional representation would help diversify our political system. While it may not prevent the stereotypical self-serving career politician from entering Parliament, it would mean voters could get rid of them more easily.”

Jack Corbett, associate professor in politics at the University of Southampton

“Career politicians are rarely loved. We don’t tend to trust them either. But we used to tolerate them. These days the public appear increasingly enamoured with politicians from non-traditional backgrounds who promise to shake up the system. Populists present themselves as an alternative to the career politician. They claim to be more authentic and better attuned to the views of ‘ordinary’ people.

“The problem with this line of argument isn’t that the diagnosis is false – there are good reasons to question the representativeness of a persistently male, stale and pale political class – but rather that the cure might be worse than the disease. Non-careerist politicians are rarely ‘ordinary’; they actually tend to be more elite. But they are often amateur. During elections, this can be an advantage as challenging the script makes them appear relatable, even human, when contrasted with the careful spin of their careerist opponents.

“Governing is different because lasting change is rarely won so easily. More commonly it is a hard, slow grind of incremental gains. Amateurs either fall by the wayside or professionalise to achieve their ends. In which case, career politicians may well be the price we pay for modern democracy.”