Tony Blair is a terrible career adviser

If you want a career in politics, don’t listen to Tony Blair. Seems odd, I know, given how successful a politician he was, and how I am regularly accused of being a Blairite zombie, but there you go. Sometimes hard things have to be said, even about your idols.

For once, I’m not talking about Blair’s lamentable failure to mould the Labour party in his own image, leaving grubby patronage to others, and so allowing some of his political legacy to be undone.

No, something else has caused this rupture between Labour’s former leader and I. In his discussion with the Mile End Group and John Rentoul, he told my friend Matt Forde1:

“You know, I advise any young person who wants to go into politics today: go and spend some time out of politics. Go and work for a community organisation, a business, start your own business; do anything that isn’t politics for at least several years. And then, when you come back into politics, you will find you are so much better able to see the world and how it functions properly.”

I can’t reiterate enough how terrible this advice is.  If you are a young person interested in politics, and you want a successful political career, don’t follow it.

But wait, surely having some experience in business, of the outside world, of being connected to that nebulously defined entity ‘the real world‘ is what voters hunger for?

It is – all the research indicates it. People want their MPs to be GPs, teachers, local community figures. No wonder they get upset when all they get is various besuited thirty-something university graduates who have worked as policy advisers for a charity, a business association or some such.

But that’s what they get. The reason they get it? Politics is about connections. If you’re not around, you don’t build relationships, aren’t in people’s minds, don’t know what’s going on or why it matters. The chances of you making a mis-step, or miscalculating the environment increases.

Sure, if you’re a celebrity, or have political connections through your family background, or have a lot of family wealth,  you can make up ground rapidly, , so for those people there’s a little more room to behave differently2.

For the rest of you, politics is a field where just being around matters a lot.

Look at the Labour party now – the leading figures of the party are almost exclusively lifetime politicos. Blair complained about not being able to drop good people like Andrew Adonis into parliamentary seats. He couldn’t do that because the network of ex-student politicians, trade unionists and local sons and daughters were so entrenched in the decision-making networks that quietly promote people.

Yes, there’s a new wave of politicians entering the shadow cabinet or on its fringes – most of whom weren’t special advisers, but who have been intimately involved in Labour politics and campaigning for nearly two decades. Chuka Umunna and Rachel Reeves for example, both have business experience outside politics, but were active and connected in politics throughout, and had networks of support they could rely on inside politics. This isn’t ‘working in politics’ quite, but it’s not exactly going off and doing something completely different instead.

That remains the case today: The rising group in the Labour party is probably a group of ex-Labour Students, ex-NUS, ex-Compass, late twenty, early thirty somethings, all of whom have been in and around politics all their adult lives (They’re more left-wing than the same generation a decade ago, but culturally, they’re identical). You can find members of this loose group in the Leader’s office, in Trade Union political officer jobs, in Party HQ, and in worthy left-wing think-tanks and campaigning groups.

Want to break into that informal network now? Well, if you’ve spent the last decade being a Sales manager in Devon, it’s going to be a lot harder.

Of course, there are exceptions, people like Dan Jarvis, who did indeed do something completely different. But the point about Dan and others like him is that their promotion required a deliberate effort to select candidates who don’t conform to the stereotype. If you’re a nascent politician, the lesson here is that it’s probably best to go with the grain of the bias inherit in the system, than to hope to be one of the lucky, talented few who buck the trend.

So how would I advise someone who wanted to be Labour MP?

I’d say get involved in student politics, and be utterly loyal to the dominant faction. Then use that to secure a low paying job working for an MP, preferably in London. If you can’t afford that, because you actually need to earn money after graduating, do the same, but out of London.

Then get a job as a campaigns or press or policy officer for a worthy cause, so you can talk movingly about it in your selection meeting. Then try to get a similar job in a large provincial city. The whole time, use that position to stay completely connected to politics. Make sure you’re involved in some progressive campaign. Go to conference and speak at fringe meetings. Write pamphlets and articles for the Fabians, or these days, Left wing websites. If you change jobs, or come into some money, or have money, offer to do some thing for free. Be as pushy as you can be, because that’s fine.

Whatever you do though, stay connected, stay plugged in, stay working at it.

Do not, I repeat, NOT, go off and do something other than politics. Do that, and the likelihood is you’ll end up being a few years behind your contemporaries, and much more likely to make a mistake when you do come back in.

That’s unless of course you’re rich, famous, or utterly brilliant and outstanding.

Are you?

Are you really?


(Oh, and as for me: Well, I’m not an MP for several reasons. Partly I went off to do something else instead for a few years. Partly I lack a few of the skills a Labour MP needs – such as a love of very hard work, long hours and the ability to find knocking on strangers doors or phoning them up a pleasant pastime -or to fake this- and partly, I can be a bit of an anti-social grouch who prefers sitting in reading a book to going to a dinner or a networking event or a meeting.

It’s not that I hate people, it’s just that I lack the kind of social stamina most MPs have. It’s an amazing quality, and I’m rather envious of them for possessing it. Mind you, the key thing is probably their greater ability to work really, really hard. Oh, and, as I’ve got older, I’ve started having my own opinions, and insist on sharing them, which is a sure way to alienate and bore people)

  1. By the way, Matt is exactly the sort of person who probably should be an MP, but is doing himself no good at all going off and being funny, charming and having his own career. Being a comedian only gets you to talk about politics, or run for Mayor of London, not become an MP. Sort it out Matt! []
  2. It occurs to me that these might be the sort of young people Tony Blair speaks to about careers in politics, in which case the advice is not so bad. Chelsea Clinton can do whatever the f she likes. The Hoi Polloi, not so much []

19 Responses to “Tony Blair is a terrible career adviser”

  1. Peter Scott

    You describe the position very well. But what is to be done to change the process and select more candidates from different backgrounds. Working Class Labour people rather than those who can afford to come through the unpaid intern route or whose Dad is an MP?

    • Michael

      Have a look at the type of people who have won the by-elections for Labour since 2010. I think the majority are from working class backgrounds. The problem is that they went on to do jobs that aren’t seen as working class. I think too many people are unable to make this distinction.

      • hopisen

        By-election selections are far from typical, however. Much more ability for central control of process/timing/shortlist, which has major influence on type of people selected. In this parliament it’s tended to be about an even mix of absolute insider and absolute outsiders, which I suspect reflects what central control would tend to deliver in most seats. (indeed, when there’s been attempt to give candidacy to a local councillor type, it’s gone less well)

  2. Luke

    The whole real world thing is odd. Everyone’s quite happy for their lawyer/doctor/accountant to have dedicated their entire working life to a rather narrow and unusual field.

  3. Carl Gardner

    This is exactly why I think the entire candidate selection process, for all parties, needs to be upended. That’d be a far more positive change in the political system than the things bodies like Unlock Democracy tend to worry about.

    It’s easy and lazy to say “they’re all the same”, but the way MPs are selected, and the outcome, does actually give a reasonable basis for voters to think all MPs are the same.

    We need to change things so that more people can come into politics later, and so that networking and connections become much less important. We have a real problem when advice like yours is sound (and I think it is).

    • hopisen

      I’d agree – and Peter’s question is relevant too.

      Obviously I can’t speak about the tories and LibDems, but there are changes Labour could makes that wouldn’t seem big but might make a difference: A lot of the selections are about knowing the system, and the process and being around a lot before they happen and having the connections to get nominations, and preventing others from getting nominations. We could open that up a lot, and give more people a say.

      However, there’s a broader issue which I don’t have a good answer to. Politics relies on free Labour – not just as internships by because in large part what we mean by volunteering is ‘working for the cause’. I don’t know how to address the fact that this means theres an inbuilt advantage for people who, either by having money, or by workig full time, are able to use that to support their ambitions. ore troublingly still, I don’t know what method that would replace the winnowing by working and connections that happens now. Surely some sort of central control would be rejected. Maybe party leaders should get a ‘captain’s pick’ for selection that allows them to bring people in from outside? Seems a bit dictatorial though?

      • Adam

        Any even then, the ‘captain’s pick’ is ultimately about having the right connections.
        The captain’s pick already exists in the current system where leaders can give someone a seat in the Lords a la Adonis. Not that he was a bad pick.

  4. Nichlas Poulcherios

    Now that we have gifted youth out of work interested in politics and people findoutlets and attachments abroad working with Labour In Charities,youth programmes,service abroad,Voluntary.
    Trade Unions can be invided on a rotation to send ordinary membersof gifted qualified engineers builders Electritians,Teachers, nurses Policemen Probation of. Socialworkes, Doctors,Architects endless list to participate.
    With the 16 year olds get them ready for the vote now Form a Junior Members of House of Commons.Then you must have legal binding on oath policy to adhere and to be impinged if you violate.To stop Camerons to come Never cheating on us, and have our Majesty the Queen going into all the Motions reading of her Governmentetc etc with the Government knowing full well is all a reading of promises and lies to be broken by something different. Fewer Solicitors the better, they live on lies.
    Ian sure others will find some more.
    Nicholas REtired Senior nurse

  5. MArk

    Doesn’t it all come down to politics becoming, in effect, “professionalised”? You can rail against it all you like and maybe it is undesirable, but I suspect there is an inexorable logic at work here.

  6. Michael Ryan

    I disagree too many luvies and individuals lacking in the experience of the world of work will continue to produce MPs lacking in the skills to emphathise understand and have the confidence to tackle the gross inequalities of our society.Too many of our MPs across al parties come from priviliged backgrounds .Ill equipped to grasp what many experience throughout their lives.The Labour party needs a mix and cross section that relects our community ;not the elite list that central office trots out .

  7. Dave Weeden

    First, it seems to me that Tony’s advice is aimed at, and taken by, David Miliband (brother of the more famous Ed).

    Second – having listened to ‘Any Questions’ on Radio 4 this afternoon and listened to Nick Cohen endlessly say that we should be like the US in this, that, and the other – Tony’s recommendation doesn’t seem to have hurt George W Bush, Bill Clinton, George HW Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter…

    Angela Merkel, who is clearly an exceptional politician, being a sort of double-outsider (female and Ossie), had a career before politics. So did old whassername, Margaret Hilda Roberts Thatcher. But no one remembers her.

    Against this, there’s a story I remember from Andrew Rawnsley’s “Servants of the People” (but I’ve come across versions elsewhere): after winning in 1997, Blair and a crony were walking outside Westminster, where new MPs were sitting in a park, and TB said, “that guy looks like the guy who used to do our photocopying”. The aide replied, “that was the guy who did our photocopying.” Now, Gordon Brown recently described himself as an ex-politician, meaning ex-minister, although he is still an MP. The former photocopier, although always a political courtier, never was a politician, by that standard.

    Christ, Bliar and I agree on something. Where’s my gun?

  8. Dave Weeden

    Having thought a little, which I’ll admit I didn’t before the previous reply, I’d to add a little.

    Tam Dayell says much the same as the Poodle in today’s FT. (The FT fails to mention that Dayell started out as a Tory; unlike the last Labour PM but one, he grew out of that juvenile stage.)

    In Alan Clark’s Diaries, AC is hauled before a whip and asked who is his favourite MP. (Who asks such questions?) Clark replied, of course, “Dennis Skinner.” After all, what other answer is there? Skinner isn’t a cosy career politician, following the career path of Bill Trumbull – do I have that spelling right? – from Sillery’s Oxford salons to obscurity. Skinner worked down a mine (this probably isn’t recommended for the ambitious, unless you never had the latin []).

    But thinking of Clark’s diaries reminded me of the other memorable bit (sorry, another ….) when he was accused of being drunk by Clare Short. Short became famous for that sort of thing: breaking the rules of the House. She didn’t start with friends. She got a name, and made them. And that is, IMO, what aspirant MPs should do.

  9. Mick Hills

    Hopi, at last, someone saying it as it is. All that time I thought I was the odd one out for not shrieking with excitement when we were told to door knock strangers for eight hours a day or to really look like you thoroughly enjoyed working 12 hour days and would be crest fallen to leave the office before ten at night. Your article is spot on as we stand in the Party now but the real secret is, as you said, have a normal job for goodness sake but you must dedicate the other hours to working in politics at some level. I think being an MP would drive me mad. I would have no friends because I would want to say what I bloody well felt. Not the done thing. Keep up the good work.

  10. David

    I think much is talked of front benchers experience out in the real world however the reality is both chukka and Rachael had extremely junior roles. I don’t think tats what Blair meant. Personally I think there’s a bigger a problem in hyping young inexperienced politicians into senior front bench roles before they’ve made their name / reputation bass on substance and not expectation. You don’t need to be front bench to do that

  11. Steven Weeks

    Alhtough probably very good advice if you do want to make
    a career as a Labour (or indeed Liberal or Tory) Mp this type of advice is precisely why some many people are alienated by
    politics today. As a Labour Party member of thirty years I can recall that going into politics meant getting involved in political activity to advance the cause you believed in. At the same time you did something else like have a job and a life from which you learned things. Then at some point later you put yourself forward as a representative. I also worked for the unions so I know there were other routes as well in which people were put forward because the union wanted them to be a voice for the union and there were a few political dynasties on both Left and Right. But the careerisation of politics has accelerated in recent years to an unhealthy degree. For Labour this has meant the dominance of former Labour Student activists and for the Tories Oxbridge Union types. This is not healthy for our politics. For Labour it had made our campaigning more efficient and professional but it has drained it of purpose. We need to look at new ways of involving wider set of people (not return to the days of union sponsored MPs). Please note some of my best friends and comrades are either ex Labour Students or trade union officials and this is not an attack on middle class dominance (I am pretty middle class myself) but plea to take stock and stop before we end up with the worst features of the USA party system

  12. Dave

    So what you are saying Hopi, is basically that there is no judgement of merit when selecting our Parliamentary candidates. Great, just great.

    You are quite right about the “quiet promotion” of people however. Even at the most basic, CLP officer level it is the tap on the shoulder that gets you elected to the EC rather than any free and fair election. That shows you how deep the culture is embedded.

    Re getting involved in the dominant faction and supporting everything they say – you are right of course. But the dominant faction can change with the leader. From 1994-2010 for example it was the Progress wing that were in the ascendancy, not the Compass lot.

    The only answer of course is open primaries. They at least solve the problem of the final vote being stitched up – although admittedly not the shortlisting process.


Leave a Reply