April 2012

I bumped into an old colleague the other day.  Comparing notes and then checking the published lists I realised that at least six of the candidates in our forthcoming local council election were ex-employees of that council.  And they were all people who had either worked at a senior level (one an ex-director) or closely with councillors.

That’s a good idea you might say – what better way to use the experience and knowledge of those skilled professionals than as elected representatives?

I don’t agree.  This sort of thing often ends in tears.  It’s all to do with expectation and understanding of roles.

Here’s what can go wrong.

  • The new councillor carries their professional baggage with them and thinks they know better than the director responsible for that service of the council.  But they may be out of date, plain wrong, and in any event are elected to represent the people of their area, probably as the member of a political party, and not to be the in-house expert on the subject.  This problem is made worse if their political colleagues say ‘Ooh, you’re a teacher/social worker/engineer.  You should be on the committee that deals with that’
  • This can lead to senior officials devoting disproportionate effort to keeping the ‘expert’ councillor onside (or neutralised!)
  • The councillor and/or their ex-colleagues still working for the council can have inappropriate expectations of each other: it can be difficult to maintain a proper work relationship
  • If so minded, the ex-worker councillor can pursue a grievance against a former colleague/manager through their new role (I have seen a councillor like this pay attention to the performance of their former manager that almost amounted to harrassment)
  • Despite all their experience on the other side of the fence, former professionals do not always understand the fundamental difference between management and politics and can quickly become disillusioned by requirements of the political life.

So there’s plenty of reasons to move on if you’re an ex-council official and not to try for a second life in the same organisation.  Of course, that’s not to say that some won’t be successful as councillors…

A prime minister and chancellor said to be out of touch with ‘ordinary people.’   Party leaders rushing to publish details of their meetings with donors.  The main parties trashed by ‘Gorgeous’ George Galloway in the Bradford by-election.  They’re at it again, aren’t they?  B****y politicians!

Well, that’s the common perception.

But who’d be a politician?  Everyone’s whipping boy (and girl) and ranking somewhere between pimps and estate agents in public perception of worth.

Who’d be a politician is an interesting question because given our party system, one answer is that damned few are qualified to even seek election, let alone achieve it.

The truth is the gene pool for our politicians is alarmingly small.

Back in 2009 the House of Commons library published some interesting statistics on political party membership.

In 2008, membership of the three largest UK-wide political parties was estimated to be

  • Conservative – 250,000
  • Labour – 166,000
  • Liberal Democrat – 60,000

In the same year, there were 46,147,877 people on the electoral roll in the UK (Source: ONS)

In other words, 1.03% of the electorate were members of the three main parties.

From that number, the parties need to find candidates for thousands of elected positions for the EU, UK, and Scottish parliaments, the Welsh assembly and for hundreds of local councils.

Consider also that most members of political parties will never be candidates for election.

Many won’t want to seek election.  Some may want to but would not get past their party’s selection procedure.

Let’s assume that the ‘non-candidates’ are 90% of a party’s membership.  It seems a reasonable figure although I have no evidence for it and would welcome better information if anyone has it.

These assumptions mean that the political ‘gene pool’ for the three main parties to seek electable candidates is no more than 47,600 people, or 0.103% of the UK electorate.

No wonder BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme today was able to find an Asian woman from Bradford whose interest as a candidate for election had been solicited at different times not only by Tories, Labour and LibDems but even by Respect, which is where we started with George Galloway (she turned them all down).

When we have it, we are neglectful of and indifferent to democracy.  What a contrast to countries where people yearn to be free and turn out in vast numbers, when they can, to vote.  A few years ago South Africa reminded us of this.  Today – literally – Burma fulfils the same role.