Richard Mabey is an entrepreneur and former corporate lawyer. He is a member of the Kensington, Chelsea and Fulham Conservative Association.
On Friday, I will be voting to select the new Parliamentary candidate in my home constituency of Kensington. The person who gets my vote will be the candidate who I think has the most impressive real world experience. Let me tell you why.
In a recent Ipsos MORI poll, it was revealed that only 16 per cent of the British public now trust politicians to tell the truth. This puts those representing us in Parliament in a category of trust so low that they can only look jealously upon their former banker, lawyer and estate agent bedfellows. No matter who wins the keys to Number 10 in May, and let’s hope it is a majority Conservative administration, there will be one unavoidable priority: restoring trust in the British political system.
The current Government is to be commended for the part it has played in removing some of the structural impediments to a trusted parliament. Reforms like the Lobbying Act will go some way to clean up the way politics is both conducted and funded. However, we do not only need better safeguards (staffers at the Commons already have a gargantuan regulatory burden to contend with), we need to do more to select and promote better people.
There can be no doubt that the Conservatives have attracted some remarkable people over the years. But what has made them remarkable? Is it a mastery of policy? Is it the strategic nous that it takes to get to the top? No. Think of Boris with his years of writing at the Telegraph and editing the Spectator; think of William Hague learning about business at INSEAD and McKinsey; think of Margaret Thatcher seeing the whole spectrum of careers from chemistry to the Bar. It is real life experience that sets these leaders apart from their peers.
And yet. If the courage and conviction required from great leaders is the product of experience, what can we say about those of our elected representatives who have never worked outside of politics? It is a fact that over the last two decades, we have had more and more candidates from inside the Westminster bubble. As Lord Turnbull, the former Cabinet Secretary, put it: “they lick envelopes in Central Office, become a Special Adviser, and on and on it goes, and by the time they are in their mid-thirties they are Cabinet Ministers, barely touching the sides of real life”. This has got to stop, and in our final candidate selections before the General Election, we have a chance to do something about it.
Of course, to Turnbull’s point, these candidates actually can come straight from university. Indeed it is perhaps emblematic of our political system that the age at which a candidate can stand for the Commons is now 18 (reduced from 21 by Labour in 2006). This stands in stark contrast to the US system, where a candidate must be 35 to be President, 30 to be a Senator and 25 to be a Representative.
One has to ask how these people are viewed by an electorate ever-sceptical of the Westminster bubble. And one cannot help but wonder whether, if the minimum age were to be higher in the UK, potential candidates would, like US candidates, do something before furiously ascending the greasy pole.
When Burke talked of Parliamentary representatives as enfranchised experts, bringing “mature judgement” and “enlightened conscience” to the table, he cannot possibly have imagined a situation where SpAds with no experience outside politics were propelled into safe seats by the central party. Nor would he be satisfied with the pseudo-career politician, with the inevitable suite of arbitrary awards. He would have wanted those whose judgement had been matured through a plurality of real experience and achievement and that means people who have had a job outside of politics.
So what can be done to get more real life experience candidates elected?
In policy terms, only open, postal ballot primaries can deliver to voters candidates that they actually want as their representative. MPs like Dr Sarah Wollaston are great examples of how this system can deliver real-world expertise. Open, postal ballot primaries must become more than just a political experiment and become an everyday part of the Conservative selection process. The leadership of the party has nothing to fear from getting the best candidates into Parliament. Rather, it should embrace these candidates and propel them into Government.
We must bring back the old-fashioned notion that there is no such thing as a political career. Our elected representatives are enfranchised experts who have achieved remarkable things outside of politics who now wish to give back to their country. The idea of Ministers propelling their press officers into Parliament can no longer be given credence by the party and we, as party members, must ensure that this happens.
We want lawyers, doctors, social workers, public sector leaders, teachers, diplomats, business people and, frankly, anyone who has the experience necessary to give to the electorate “mature judgement” and “enlightened conscience”. Through selecting and promoting the right people we can win back trust in our politics and, on Friday, we will see whether the party selects a candidate that can make the Party proud.