Review: Why We Get the Wrong Politicians – Isabel Hardman (2018)

Isabel Hardman’s Why We Get the Wrong Politicians offers a clear and lively explanation of the parliamentary system’s working in both theory, and in practice. I recommend it for all those with an interest in why our system seems to be mired in crisis, regardless of existing levels of knowledge: she offers clear explanation of the systems workings for those unfamiliar with the detail of our parliament, along with insider knowledge and accounts of how it actually works, and why.

The Peterborough by-election depressed me.  The top two candidates were so patently unfit for public office that it really made inescapable the growing feeling I’ve had that our political system is in crisis. 

I turned to Isabel Hardman’s well received 2018 account of Why We Get the Wrong Politicians.   This had been sitting on my shelf for a few months, seemingly awaiting just such a moment of total loss of confidence in the system from me, so I note here I have the first edition hardback.  It has since been updated and issued as a paperback, with an updated Brexit section and preface on ‘how it’s just got worse’, and I would like to read these further thoughts from Hardman.

Hardman is a well-connected political journalist and the book benefits from her access to senior politicians and is enlivened by many anecdotes and individual examples from many current or recent figures.   She has also done the more methodical homework though, surveying and interviewing broadly to give a solid basis to her analysis.

Despite it being individuals or individual decisions that often attract our ire, Hardman’s focus is on the broader cultural and systemic problems in parliament.   While this doesn’t quite address the concerns Peterborough raised for me, on the problems with our parliamentary system overall she has some very interesting and thoughtful things to say.  

I particularly enjoyed the sections on getting selected and elected, the reality of the scrutiny process, the current role of constituency case work, and on the value of the House of Lords in the current system.

Describing the trials of ‘getting in’Hardman makes painfully clear the cost, in terms of money, time, and emotional labour, of getting selected as a candidate and then campaigning for election. From having worked (unpaid) on Labour parliamentary candidate selection campaigns I can confirm the volume of work, the high personal cost to candidates, and the lack of party support are all accurate.

The result is that while the electorate might not want type of people we get as candidates, the ways the parties operate make it very difficult for those without significant personal or institutional resources backing them to succeed.  Without an existing  job in the ‘Westminster Bubble’ (for example as a special advisers), large personal wealth, or trade union backing the cost is just too high for most people to even consider.  We can see this being played out in recent Labour selections as the selections boil down to battles between the alternative backers: Momentum vs. the unions.

Hardman also skilfully shows us the difference between the neat diagram of how legislation should be scrutinised and the rather disappointing practice. In theory there is plenty of scope and space for scrutiny, but  in practice the pressures on government to avoid defeat, and on MPs to behave as partisans means that what looks a good system in principle is widely seen by those involved in it as not fit for purpose.

I had always assumed that the progression towards MPs becoming ‘glorified social workers’ was something they would resent.  When put in context however it’s easy to see how dealing with constituents’ problems effectively is one of the few areas where backbench MPS can get a real sense of achievement and job satisfaction.  Hardman also highlights the benefits of surgeries and casework to MPS legislative role; it is through this contact with their constituents that MPS can directly see problems that legislation can solve, or may well have caused.  She gives strong examples of how it is only through casework that problems with, for example, the bedroom tax are brought home to MPs. 

This allows her to bring out the cost of all this work too though. Many of the MPS seeking to solve the problems this welfare change has wrought had voted for it, unaware of its potential impact.  Hardman finishes here with the astute point that  all the time away from legislative scrutiny dealing with casework  means it is more likely bad laws will be passed, adding to the problems being picked up in case work that could have been – should have been – solved earlier if sufficient time had been dedicated to MPs legislative role.

The House of Lords comes out of her consideration well. It is not whippable in the same way as the Commons, and has cross-bench expert peers, leading to actual, productive scrutiny of legislations. As parliament’s website notes, Lords select committees are able to examine specialist subjects, taking ‘advantage of the Lords’ expertise and the greater amount of time (compared to MPs) available to them to examine issues’. 

This is not a rose-tinted view – Hardman is well aware of the problems with the Lords. She registers the cultural problems from cronyism, especially Cameron’s Lords stuffing chumocracy – something no party is immune to as attested to by the recent egregious examples of the elevation of Shami Chakrabarti and Martha Osamor.  Nonetheless it rather confirmed and solidified my inchoate view that simply abolishing or replacing Lords with an elected chamber is likely to make things worse, rather than better.

There is plenty more analysing the various problems, from expenses to the size of the payroll vote, all of which leave us with a far from optimal legislature.

The final chapter turns to what could be done to improve matters, and offers a sensible discussion building on the main points of the preceding argument. Hardman is good here on ways to strengthen the legislature and scrutiny, and convincing on the need to improving career paths in the legislature making it an alternative to the current only really attractive career path heading into the executive. 

She does also address the more difficult issue of how to lower the financial and time hurdles facing would be candidates – one of the principal reasons we end up with an inadequately diverse parliament.  This is far more difficult as these processes are controlled by the parties and dependent on them. Accordingly Hardman offers a less coherent plan, though nonetheless with useful ideas for broadening the funding available to would be candidates to include charities and NGOs.   This is a Good sensible, useful set of ideas and I would like to read more on her thoughts on how to improve parliament.

Conclusion

Isabel Hardman offers a Readable and interesting account of our political system and its failings, achieving the rare feat of having something for everyone however familiar they are with our political system.   Hardman’s account offers a sloid overview of the current malaise and its systemic causes.

Early on Hardman offers a snapshot of the power small unrepresentative groups have in supporting and selecting candidates, as part of her overall systemic account of the problem.  I was convinced by this and found her suggestions for improvement useful.  From here I am planning to look more into the area of the party member selectorate, and the bodies supporting candidates through the selection process – especially in Labour with the unions and now Momentum.   Any suggestions for reading on this are very welcome, at the moment I’m going to start with David Hirsch’s Contemporary Left Antisemitism