Career politicians are elected young, promoted quickly and dominate the highest offices of state

By Peter Allendoctoral researcher and sessional lecturer in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London.

Originally posted on the British Politics and Policy at LSE blog.

Writing about Jeremy Hunt for The Guardian the other week, John Harris lamented that Hunt, like many of colleagues in our political elite ‘style themselves as expert players of the game, but know far too little about the political fundamentals’. It is widely accepted that this political class, comprised of young and fiercely partisan political operatives who are entrenched in the ways of Westminster, has ‘triumphed’, with career politicians dominating the House of Commons, resulting in claims that parliament is desperately out of touch. The emergence of the ‘professional’ route into politics stands in contrast to the longer-established traditional route via local councils, whereby prospective MPs would rack up experience at the local level before turning their hand to national politics.

What do these changes mean for how politics works? Parliamentary scholar Philip Cowley has noted that these same patterns of ‘career politicians’ reaching the top appear to be present in our current three main party leaders, and has also suggested that we may be looking at a twin-track career path within the Commons, with preferential promotional routes for those MPs with pre-election Westminster experience, something that would seem to be the case. At the same time, the lack of local council experience in the coalition cabinet is also clear, with only Theresa May, Eric Pickles and Vince Cable having been local councillors.

For MPs who want to get anywhere fast, it would seem that being close to your party, and being part of the Westminster village, is everything. MPs who worked in politics and around Westminster prior to their election to the Commons also dominate the most important governing roles in the country (those frontbench positions in all parties). Of the 242 MPs elected for the very first time in 1997, 51.7 per cent of those MPs who made it to Cabinet-level positions had this sort of insider experience compared to only 10.3 per cent who had experience on local councils. 44.8 per cent of those MPs whose only political experience was having served on local councils remained backbenchers for the thirteen years following their initial election or until they left the Commons, whichever came first. This was the case for less than a quarter of MPs whose sole political experience was having worked in or around politics at Westminster prior to their election.

MPs with insider backgrounds were also more likely to be promoted in their first term, with 60.5 per cent of these MPs making into frontbench roles before 2001 compared to only 51.7 per cent of those MPs with local council experience. In terms of which offices these first promotions landed them in, 28.9 per cent of insider MPs bagged jobs at the Minister of State level compared to only 6.9 per cent of MPs with local experience whilst the opposite was true of the lower level role of Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) which was the first office destination of 62.1 per cent of MPs with local experience and only 36.8 per cent of those with insider experience.

These insiders are also more likely to enter parliament at a younger age, with 56 per cent of these MPs entering parliament in their thirties compared to only 24.8 per cent of those MPs with local council experience. In turn, age seems to be a useful predictor of reaching very high office, with over 90 per cent of MPs reaching cabinet-level positions being elected between the ages of thirty and fifty. It appears that being close to Westminster and your party prior to election in the form of working for a party or in other political Westminster-based jobs is a catalyst to being elected at a younger age, being promoted faster and higher than other MPs, and ultimately to a high-flying Commons career and a seat at the top table. Is this phenomenon adding to the dislocation that many see as occurring between our politicians and the electorate?

The tone and content of criticisms regarding the ‘political class’ that focus on the character of our politicians, not just the system they are a part of or the outcomes provided by it, suggest that there is a wider problem facing our political elites with many people seeing them as being unrepresentative of the wider population and lacking in legitimacy. It is less clear that there is an obvious culprit for this. Despite the fact that the Commons is dominated by whitemiddle-class men, and the current cabinet dominated by millionaires, the criticisms of our political elite are focused on more abstract notions of not being ‘real people’ as opposed to more specific, and ultimately more reparable, claims by traditionally underrepresented groups such as women or ethnic minorities (both of whom are still underrepresented in the Commons in proportion to their numbers in the population overall). Clearly, parties cannot implement all ‘real person’ shortlists when selecting candidates.

The role of parties has changed in the past fifty years, what political scientist Peter Mair called the ‘withdrawal into the institutions’, with the activities of parties now focused heavily on the national political scene as opposed to being rooted in local communities. Getting involved in politics has become a marginal activity, with one estimate placing the number of people seriously involved in political activism in the UK at only 100,000. When a broader decline in participation is combined with this withdrawal, it is inevitable that activism will professionalize for that small minority who start early and stay involved in politics. My research suggests that early, intense and professional engagement will pay dividends in the longer run, with this uniquely highly-involved group putting themselves in prime position to end up running the country.

Career politicians are elected young, are promoted quickly, and dominate the highest frontbench offices. These patterns reflect broader processes at work in British political life. Politics is of minor interest to many people, something peripheral to their daily lives – to paraphrase Mair once more, the public have withdrawn from political life and the parties have withdrawn into the institutions. My research highlights that they have also withdrawn into themselves, picking only their favoured sons (and occasionally daughters) for the very top jobs. Should we be concerned about this? Most probably, as a smaller gene pool from which our elites are selected is likely to result in a smaller scope for original political thought, something we all want. But there is no silver bullet or quick fix. A reappraisal of what we want from our politicians, and what they can realistically provide us with, is required.

Follow Peter on Twitter @peteraallen and read more of his research on his website. The article this blog is based on is available at Parliamentary Affairs Advance Access.


Too many councillors leaving leaves councils too homogeneous

Tulip Siddiq is a Camden Borough Councillor and Birkbeck alumnus and Peter Allen is a doctoral student in the Department of Politics.

Councillor turnover is an under-researched and under-addressed problem facing councils across the country today. It is best defined as a councillor leaving their council duties for any reason other than electoral loss.

The 2010 Census of Local Authority Councillors shows that only 67.5 per cent of councillors were certain that they would stand for re-election, with the remaining 32.5 per cent being either unsure or definitely not standing again. This is even worse in London, with just over half (51.3 per cent) of councillors signalling their intention not to stand again.

Explanations of councillor turnover are not straightforward and it is possible to highlight several factors that are in play.

What is clear is that it is a phenomenon that affects male and female councillors differently, with existing research has consistently finding that women councillors are more likely to drop out after a single term, a finding replicated across the 1990s and into the new millennium.

The 2010 Census of Local Authority Councillors finds 69.1 per cent of men definitely standing for re-election compared to 63.5 per cent of women.

Political scientists Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher have noted that this leads to a ‘double-whammy’ for councils, whereby younger, more diverse councillors are standing down at the same time as older, more traditional councillors are remaining in their positions.

This is not a positive step in terms of increasing the number of individuals from traditionally under-represented groups like women and ethnic minority councillors.

However, another potential line of questioning is whether councillor turnover is a bad thing in itself?

It is possible to argue that it is not, and that having new faces in our council chambers on a fairly regular basis is good for our politics, and in turn the electorate. The catch here, though, is that if it is the same people staying for longer, and the same people dropping out quickly, the theoretically anticipated regular overhaul of practice and personnel simply doesn’t happen and instead facilitates the proliferation of the status quo.

Existing research has shown non-political factors to be the most instrumental in a councillor’s decision to drop out of their elected duties. The two key areas of note here are the impact of being a councillor on both their working and family lives.

Are there solutions to address these concerns which will in turn encourage councillors, especially women councillors, to remain in their elected positions for longer than they currently do?

Currently, the average basic salary for councillors is around £6,000, rising to an average of just under £10,000 in London. Therefore, most councillors will have another ‘day job’ in order to supplement their income.

This creates a vicious cycle whereby councillors work in a non-council job during the day and then perform their council duties in the evening. Unfortunately, council officers who are meant to support councillors work during the day which means there is often a time lag between cases being taken up and policies being implemented.

One possible solution is to create some sort of legal protection for councillors, whereby they could claim a day or two a week from their employers to work as a councillor, and that this would be seen as a prestigious thing (in time) for the company.

The main point is that it is not just a case of councillors putting in ‘face time’ at these meetings.

Hours have to be dedicated to doing casework for constituents especially in poverty-stricken areas. Time has to be spent preparing for meetings where councillors might be contributing to council policy or strategy. Days are spent researching and writing speeches for full council meetings especially if there are deputations from your ward.

As noted above, one explanation put forward for the high turnover of women councillors is that having two jobs leaves no time for family and children. The introduction of some sort of legal protection might mean that councillors could afford to solely concentrate on their council duties and perhaps, be in a better position to retain their status.

A second option is the introduction of term-limits for local councillors.

The introduction of term-limits to local elected service would ensure that the turnover of councillors discussed above was enforced as opposed to something that would be left to occur organically.

Existing evidence is mixed as to whether term-limits benefit women, although it should be noted that much of the existing evidence is taken from the United States, and as such, is not directly applicable here.

Having said that, it should be pointed out that term-limits would only achieve this desired aim of a more diverse set of local councillors if implemented in conjunction with the improved terms of both pay and working arrangements outlined above.

This is a two-strand approach which makes being a councillor both a desirable and possible activity for all kinds of people but at the same time prevents prolonged over-use of this new system by introducing legal limits on how long someone can be a part of it. As such, these ideas tackle issues of both recruitment and incumbency, traditionally gendered problems.

An obvious term-limit would lie around the current average length of service (more or less two four-year terms), although there are arguments in favour of both curtailing or extending this.

The ideas discussed above are simply that; ideas. There lie clear barriers between theoretical concerns and policy implementation, not least in the form of decreased levels of central government funding for local councils. Such barriers should not be transformed into methods of gaining tacit support for the status quo.

If anything, a time such as this is an ideal one to formulate new ideas and to get serious about the improvement of local government in this country.

This article originally appeared on Left Foot Forward

We need more women councillors for everyone’s benefit

Tulip Siddiq is a Camden Borough Councillor and Birkbeck alumnus and Peter Allen is a doctoral student in the Department of Politics.

The 2010 National Census of Local Authority Councillors, published by the Local Government Association, shows static growth in the numbers of women local councillors in the UK. It reports that women make up 30.6 per cent of all councillors in England despite numbering 51.2 per cent of the population overall, and in fact is a slight drop on the 30.8 per cent seen in the 2008 census.

Despite hundreds of separate local elections taking place in the time since the last census of this type, and therefore hundreds of opportunities for the pool of individuals who become councillors to become more diverse, the numbers of women have remained more or less the same.

The low number of women MPs at Westminster is cause for regular discussion in the media, amongst academics and within political parties themselves. This issue has also been highlighted by both domestic and international organisations.

Conversely, there is considerably less of a spotlight on the number of women in local councils. The stagnant figures shown above suggest that a renewed focus on the role of women councillors is both necessary and timely.

The relationship between women and local government is undeniably a close one.

Women interact on a daily basis with the services provided by local authorities in terms of childcare, education and adult care services. Research has shown that women make over three-quarters of all phone calls to council offices, yet despite this near-constant engagement, women are underrepresented on local councils.

It is worth acknowledging that the percentage of women councillors is significantly a higher percentage than that of women MPs at Westminster (currently at 21.5 per cent), but is still short of the 50 per cent mark of parity. The argument for women to make up half of all councillors in the UK needs to be made forcefully if this situation is to change.

The key argument in favour of parity, and possibly the strongest, is justice. Quite simply, it is not fair that women are so underrepresented in local government. This argument posits that there should be no conditionality on the equal presence of men and women on councils as it is simply a question of justice.

However, it is also possible to argue that women councillors can make a difference for the women they represent, and could introduce a feminized view to local governance more broadly, something that has the potential to aid all constituents.

That is not to say that women should have to help women in order to ‘earn’ their place on the council, but that the presence of higher numbers of women in local politics will make this feminization process more likely to occur.

Speaking from my own experience, after taking on the culture portfolio in Camden council, I was forced to make an enormous cut to the sports budget because of the lack of government funding. However, my priority from the outset was to ensure that girls’ sport was not disproportionately affected by the financial situation.

It is an oversight that could have occurred easily and without any malicious intent, as more boys play sport than girls in the borough. From my own experience as a girl growing up in a country where very few sporting facilities were available for young girls, I was keen to maximise the opportunities available.

This is not to say that a male cabinet member for culture would have lacked this vision, it is just that it might not have been the top priority for him.

Finally, the role of local government as a political springboard for political careers should not be underestimated. Therefore, the number of women councillors overall should be considered in this context.

Over 40 per cent of newly-elected MPs at the 2010 General Election had been councillors, but nearly three quarters of these MPs were men, suggesting a springboard effect from local to national politics that is biased in favour of men, something also seen in data from the comparably-large 1997 intake.

If women are not able to use this pathway to Parliament in the same way as their male colleagues, it makes it even less likely that the number of women in the House of Commons will increase significantly without the use of quotas.

So, what can be done to increase the number of elected women in local politics and, in turn, the House of Commons?

Crucially, political parties must work harder to encourage women to stand for their local councils – existing research suggests that women are less likely to decide to stand in local elections on their own than men, acting only when asked by a political party. Political parties, and the networks within them, need to acknowledge this by making women feel valued as members of their organisation and political community.

A mix of practical barriers, such as childcare facilities and work-life balance, combined with negative perceptions of local political life as patriarchal, need to be combated in order to remove as many obstacles as possible and create a meaningful and practical equality of opportunity.

Political parties need to ensure that women are recruited to stand in local elections, are given the best opportunities to be elected, and work to increase retention levels once they are councillors. (Women have consistently been found to be more likely than men to stand down following only one term of service).

Addressing issues such as the time poverty of councillors, a political culture perceived as patriarchal and updating local governmental practice to best support councillors in their work will ensure that a more diverse range of women (and men) will consider becoming, and staying, local councillors.

This is something that will be of benefit to all involved in political life, the institutions in which they work, and the people who they are elected to serve.

This article originally appeared on Left Foot Forward.