Everyone’s got hot takes about what has happened in the last week and what is coming next, but no one really knows anything. We have had turbulence in recent years, Johnson’s victory is a mark of that turbulence, and there is turbulence ahead. All we can try to do – all most people can try to do – is not give up on the things we think are important, and try to be better at identifying winning strategies. Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer reminds us that Thatcher seemed invincible in 1987 and Cameron had pulled off a huge victory in 2015. Nothing lasts forever.
I carry books around with me all the time, but Why We Get the Wrong Politicians by Isabel Hardman was the first for a long time to attract comments from strangers. Very few people have kind things to say about our Parliamentarians. As 140 new MPs traipse down to Westminster, it feels a little churlish to suggest that they’re the wrong people before they’ve even been sworn in. But the book is named slightly slyly. Hardman is one of those kind people and her book is (rightly) generous to the people who put themselves forward to be our representatives. Hardman is clear about the ways in which life at Westminster chews up the optimism and health of our lawmakers and gives us poor scrutiny and short term policy instead. (She also talks about ways in which our political class is too narrow and gives us good reasons about why that has occurred.) This book is really about how we get the wrong politics rather than the wrong politicians.
Everyone is to blame, really. The way in which candidates are selected and then immerse themselves in local politics means that rich seams of experience and insight don’t ever get considered. The way in which we as constituents judge MPs’ performance leads to inefficient behaviour being rewarded. The awful lifestyle damages MPs’ health (and it’s sad to have to point out that we should care about this). Hardman is particularly scathing on the way in which policies in general and new laws in particular are scrutinised. Proper scrutiny is discouraged by whips and people with expertise in the field being considered can be specifically excluded from the process. Short term considerations lead to poor long term planning. And the way in which policy proposals can catch the eye of the real decision maker is haphazard (getting your cause in front of the prime minister at a surgery may be more effective than working through Westminster and Whitehall) – it isn’t that we don’t know this but example after example makes the point in a rather deflating way.
I agree with Hardman’s analysis (how could I not?) but not necessarily with her conclusions: for example, having devoted several chapters to Westminster’s dysfunctional culture, she is dismissive of changes that could help to change it, such as proportional representation.
But for me the best bit of this excellent book was that it made me think more clearly about MPs’ incentives. Hardman writes
There is no culture in Parliament that rewards dispassionate lawmaking
Bad policies are passed by the Commons because there is a culture in which joining the executive is more important than being a serious legislator
I used this lens when Theresa May was trying to put her doomed deal through Westminster. The deal probably could have carried a reluctant majority, but there was no advantage in ERG or Labour moving first. In the field of public health, there are incentives and disincentives from a local perspective on being seen to support a reduction in health harms.
What Hardman also does, therefore, is help us think about the 140 newbies and in particular those Conservatives who have taken previously solid Labour seats. The incentive for these people is different from MPs in safe seats who might be pitching to be a future minister. No: their incentive is to show their constituents that they are going to be worth re-election once Brexit is thought to be done and if Labour decide to elect a leader with mass appeal. MPs are always vocal about their communities but these guys will more than most have to show that they have made that difference in Westminster for the folks back home. Incentives and disincentives change when your party finally has a majority, or when the leadership question is settled. But that is very different from the system itself changing – so don’t let the presence of a new Parliament lull you into thinking the right politics is arriving any time soon. This book will remain painfully relevant for a long time to come.