Beyond the Bradford Spring: lobbying, party-funding, trust and transforming our politics

Tuesday 3rd April 2012

The debates on Newsnight this evening about the Bradford West by-election and the role of lobbyists in our democracy, and the related and long-standing concerns about ‘cash for access’ and party funding serve only to underline the obsolescence of how we currently ‘do’ politics. How did we get here? It seems to me that several factors have converged to produce this state of affairs, but I’d like to make three observations in particular:

  1. The professionalisation of our politics has turned Westminster into a stronger gated community than any that new-build suburbia can offer – access to this community is through a subterranean (and invisible to most) network of internships, lobbyists and think tanks, where a new generation of ‘straight from college’ (Oxbridge or similar PPE preferred) special advisers are honed, themselves merely serving apprenticeships for elevation (sorry, election) to Parliament itself;
  2. For those seeking to influence politicians (honourably, as is usually the case, or otherwise), buddying-up to this network is vital, with the outcome that experienced business and third sector leaders spend a disproportionate amount of their time chasing these influencers – by purchasing access through the professional lobbyists, sponsoring (usually governing) party activity in some way or treading the wine reception floor, seeking to happen upon the youthful bag carrier for the minister concerned;
  3. For those wanting to access politics (that is, to be politicians) , especially those who might have ‘done something’ beyond this Westminster Village, they find the gates all but closed – one unintended consequence of the professionalisation of our politics is the end of the parliamentary road for the mid-career trade unionist, community leader or business executive who fancies their chances at the polls.
For me, these three developments produce at least three negative outcomes:
  1. Disconnected politicians with whom we share no history and for whom we have no empathy: trust in politics is the victim and every ignored protest march or expenses transgression strengthens the sense that voting doesn’t change things (even if it might) and politicians don’t care (even, as I suspect, most of them do);
  2. Bad policy: just as voters are cut adrift from politicians, practitioners are largely ignored by these ‘not so special’ advisers – with the result that impractical but headline hugging policies are foisted on professionals who are often locked into performance frameworks that have come from the same planet;
  3. The separation of the formal and informal political spheres: in earlier times the youthful rebel might have become the seasoned campaigner and the mid-life parliamentarian; as noted above, this is increasingly not an option. The result is a separation between the politics of protest and the politics of process, between the ‘civil’ and the ‘civic’ as some commentators put it – this separation is bad for democracy itself.
All of this produces disenfranchised citizens. Empowering citizens means creating a politics that isn’t accessed through the secret codes of the gated community but through the kind of rich civil society that emerges when individuals realise that they can have an influence without writing a cheque, or selling their soul in some other way.
To do this we need to build an education system and a community engagement culture that gives potential voters the knowledge, skills, confidence and desire to hold their politicians to account, and enables them to self-organise (to lobby), personally and collectively such that the professional lobbyist is obsolete. How about a strengthened (rather than abandoned) Citizenship curriculum in schools and free to access ‘social impact’ courses in every FE and adult education setting, developing skills in community leadership, public speaking, negotiating and accessing the media?
The result would make for a Big Society to which might all want to belong. And we’d get better politics and politicians too.
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Nick Johnson
Chief Executive, British Educational Research Association