The other day I had a surprising encounter. It was with a well-known Labour MP on the moderate wing of the Party, now exiled to the back benches. The surprise was how terribly cheerful he seemed. ‘It’s great’ he purred ‘I can say what I like, talk to whoever I want to and even spend time developing my own ideas’.
This is, of course, in part a reflection of the parlous state of the modern Labour party. The MP is like a Premiership footballer whose former team was relegated and is now playing in a lower division. After the grief has passed, he is released from the grinding pressure to eke out points at any cost and can express his creative side in a less high stakes environment.
Moderates have little say in the Corbyn regime and Labour’s chances of winning power are slimmer than a German joke book. So politicians who a few months ago were managing their image like carrying a Ming vase on an ice rink are free to run barefoot through the woods picking up anything they fancy and throwing seeds into the undergrowth.
But the mood of my demoted friend shouldn’t be treated simply as a whimsical by-product of a greater misfortune. The miserable life endured by most MPs is a problem for us as well as for them. For the responsibilities and workload involved in being a conscientious MP, the pay’s not great, apart from a few Cabinet ministers they have very little power, and a grisly assembly of second rate journalists and bile-spitting on line activists are constantly out to confirm the public view of all politicians as self-serving simpletons.
This is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. There have always been some dodgy MPs but a combination of factors, including the greater say for activists in Party selections, means fewer impressive people are being elected to Parliament. An MP I heard speak at a recent event (a man referred to as ‘a senior back bencher’) was not only largely incoherent but seemed to have little idea where he was, who he was speaking to and what he was trying to say.
To have more politicians looking like they are actually enjoying themselves, able to develop their ideas and engage with in the real world with openness and curiosity, might raise the calibre of new entrants and provide more scope for existing MPs to grow on the job.
The bigger question is whether this endearing and healthy freedom could ever be combined with the rigours of electoral competition. If Labour became credible and my friend regained his place on the front bench, would he be doomed to return to a closed mind, a furrowed brow and a clenched bum? The current answer is ‘yes’ but surely this is something worth trying to address. Here’s two ways how.
First, isn’t it time to dial down the discipline of collective cabinet responsibility? Why can’t a front bench politician from time to time say ‘this is the policy and, of course, while it is, I will vote for it, but I have some doubts so I’m talking to my colleagues and others about possible alternatives’. Politicians often say such things in private so isn’t it better to acknowledge and manage friendly differences publicly than stick to a pretence which is brittle, dulling and unconvincing. Wouldn’t it be better if a core skill for a modern politician was disagreeing elegantly rather than sticking to the line unconvincingly?
Second, freeing up politicians to behave like intelligent human beings would also be the consequence of abandoning what I have called the policy presumption (the idea that the most important and effective driver of change in the world is national policy).
If what mattered in government and politics was less policy argument and more engaging stakeholders and the public in a process of change, something that requires a complex, creative and diverse set of skills, more politicians would be free to succeed in many more ways.
However much he is enjoying his release from the front line, my political friend still hopes one day to have his mitts on a red box. I’ll be encouraging him and others to use some of their freedom to imagine how a future generation of politicians could be successful, authentic and, yes, happy too.
The public are ahead of policy-makers and, indeed, most of the business world. COP26 is an enormous opportunity to catch up. Global leaders should take it.