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.
“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 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)
- 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! [↩]
- 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 [↩]