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Careerism – the cancer in the heart of Labour

Career laddersThis morning, the Times (“Hewitt ‘cashes in’ on Bupa job” – £) revealed that Patricia Hewitt, former Labour health secretary and sometime Bennite, has taken a job with Bupa — £52,000 a year to attend ten board meetings. She did much to enlarge the role of the private sector within the NHS and her experience will no doubt help Bupa, who the Times reports “has been struggling to stem a decline in its membership” to make up for that by taking over more NHS activities.

It is easy to provoke outrage from the behaviour of someone whose political career:

  1. started by writing identical letters to both Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley during their leadership contest, expressing “the devout hope and profound conviction” that each would lead the party and offering her services as his press secretary, and
  2. finished by being suspended from the parliamentary Labour party after being exposed by Channel 4 in a “cash for influence” sting operation.

However, that is not the most important issue. How do we prevent the selection of candidates who are so clearly lacking a moral compass? How do we select candidates of sound political conviction and morals?

From the outset, let’s be clear that this is not simply a matter of left and right. There are social democrats on the right of party of great conviction and sound morals. And there are left-wingers whose principles can be dangerously flexible. The problem is that we make little effort to understand candidates’ motivation for wanting to be an MP. How often do we ask “what is it that made you a socialist?” Is it surprising that so many of our MPs and councillors have no discernible political motivation at all. When we get to vote in selections like the current euro-selection, it is often hard to discern where candidates stand on anything. They may be articulate, have educational qualifications, knocked on many doors, and frequently claim to be “excited” and “passionate“but what is it that drives them in politics besides mere ambition?

At the root of the problem with the selection process is that it is skills-based just as if we were seeking to employ a professional “politician“. The Labour Party’s person specification for a member of parliament is almost entirely about skills and knowledge: the knowledge relating to the world of professional politicians and the skills largely those that can best be acquired by being employed in a junior role in the world of professional politics — campaigning and communication skills, “representational and problem solving skills” which are about casework — or management skills.

Evidence that we aren’t seeking the sort of people we actually represent is provided by the requirement to “give evidence of your ability to deal with the public” (who are perhaps an entirely different species).

Where is the requirement to show evidence of combatting injustice and exploitation, discrimination and poverty? Of commitment to causes, of  challenging unreasonable managers, mean landlords, and faceless or unresponsive bureaucrats?

What we need from the process is not the means of selecting the ‘right’ skillsets, but a process which identifies those with a real passion to fight injustice and oppression, who can explain exactly what it is that gave them that determination, and who have thought through what stands in their way. A formal presentation of their ideology would be welcome but is not essential. Those seeking a career in politics need not apply.


  1. Elspeth Parris says:

    Yes! If that were what they were looking for, then I’d apply!

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      Elspeth – well you should apply because it is what many of us are looking for!

  2. Jon

    It is also a question of selecting working class candidates, I do not even care if they are on the left, although I would prefer it.


  3. Jim Mackechnie says:

    Yes – what indeed motivates people to become MPs? In the case of Tom Harris, the Blairite MP for Glasgow South, it certainly doesn’t seem to be the desire to create a socialist society. Neither does it appear to be a desire to bring about even modest economic and social reform. Not does a wish to help his constituents tackle the challenges of austerity Britain come into the frame. Explaining how difficult it was for him to step down from Labour’s frontbench team, he told the Herald newspaper : ‘I love politics and I came into politics to be a minister’.

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