Imagine a thought process in which you were trying to select the right mix of MPs or MSPs. Where would you start?
Maybe you would start with social background because you want this group of representatives to represent people in a direct way:
- Let’s have a roughly 50/50 balance of men and women.
- You would also likely want to ensure adequate representation for people of colour, while making sure not to treat racial and ethnic minorities as a single ‘non-white’ population.
- You would seek representation in relation to disability, but with the same need to define disability in a way that does not diminish the people you seek to support.
- You might think about representation in relation to sexuality.
- You might also want some sort of representation by class, particularly since the so-called ‘working class’ doesn’t seem well represented, and new class-based issues have emerged (e.g. in relation to the loss of guaranteed work).
- By this stage, if you express such aims on twitter, it won’t be long before you receive the usual reactionary complaints that all MPs will soon be black lesbian trade unionists in wheelchairs – but don’t let it put you off just yet.
Maybe, instead, you would start with geography because you want individual MPs to represent their constituents. You want someone local. Not some mercenary jetting in to the next available seat.
Or, maybe you would start with ‘merit’: what does it take to be a skilful and effective MP and potential future leader? This is tricky too. Would they need to be thoughtful, intelligent, and articulate? Would you value obedience, or someone to toe the party line for the greater good, rather than a maverick that will get the party into trouble? Would you want someone with valuable experience in the ‘real world’? What would it be – science, business, the law? Is this more ‘real’ than someone with experience of working in a supermarket, cleaning toilets, collecting tickets, and/ or looking after children?
Or, maybe you would want someone new? Maybe you are tired of corruption, adversarialism and a sense that metropolitan politicians don’t represent you. Maybe you want to reject the ‘political class’ and want someone who has not yet been in politics. Someone that hasn’t spent years training to be a politician. Someone that hasn’t gone to a private school, Oxford or Cambridge, and worked for the party until the right seat came up. Someone completely different. A reluctant politician. Someone that you could rule out if they said they wanted to be a politician.
In short, maybe you want The Amazing Mrs Pritchard. She is fictional, though. That is a major problem.
Other real world problems include:
- Politics is, in many ways, a terrible job. Maybe it pays well, but not compared to the less-shite jobs that many MPs or candidates will be qualified to do. You are expected to work every day, for long hours, and take crap while you are doing it. In many cases, you have to do it as a candidate – taking shit for free and working full time, somewhere else, to keep it going – with no guarantee that you’ll be elected any time soon (or keep your seat).
- People aren’t falling over themselves to come forward. There might be a brief honeymoon period in some cases (as with SNP MSPs and MPs recently right now, and maybe Scottish Labour MSPs in 1999) but the choice will still not be great.
Most importantly, you face a major problem when you try to combine many of these qualities to produce a collection of MPs:
- How can you pick new faces if you need to choose people that you know are committed to the party enough to toil away as a candidate?
- How can a party try to select a group of people, using some sensible criteria, without looking like control freaks when they reject some candidates (the SNP in 2015, Scottish Labour in 1999)?
- How do you prioritize between, say, gender, geography and experience of the ‘real world’? Labour has been the most likely to prioritize all women shortlists (AWS), the Liberal Democrats the most likely to go local (and describe AWS as illiberal), while the Conservatives and UKIP have seemed to favour people with ‘proper jobs’ before entering politics. In each case, something tends to suffer as a result: the Liberal Democrats often have relatively few women, Labour looks like the control freak party imposing women and professional politicians, and the Conservatives struggle to be local.
- How can you select someone based on ‘merit’ if you haven’t tried someone out as a candidate? And did we even work out what ‘merit’ means in politics? (no).
- Are you willing to select a crapper candidate if they live locally or just thought about entering politics 5 minutes ago?
I say all these things because these kinds of arguments arise frequently in the run up to major elections. During these debates, it would be a mistake to portray one’s position on these things simply as principled when, in practice, we have to choose between a range of several principles that might guide selection.
I’ve been writing about these things in longer articles:
- Peter Allen and Paul Cairney (2017) “What Do We Mean When We Talk about the ‘Political Class’?” Political Studies Review, 15, 1, 18-27, PDF
- Paul Cairney, Alex Wilson and Michael Keating (2016) “Solving the problem of social background in the UK ‘political class’: do parties do things differently in Westminster, devolved, and European elections?” British Politics, 11, 2, 142–163 PDF
[Note: mildly edited and updated 11.5.21 when this issue arose again]