A review of Why We Get the Wrong Politicians by Isabel Hardman (first posted to Good Reads)


Sorry to disappoint from the outset, but this is not a book which is about why we get the wrong politicians.

Indeed, in her conclusion, Hardman acknowledges that she has “led [the reader] on rather”. She would argue, based on her experience working as a Westminster Journalist (experience which makes her infinitely better placed to comment than I), that most politicians are rather like the rest of us in nature – imperfect people attempting to balance career ambitions, family life, and genuine beliefs in what will make the country better. Of course, these politicians exist on spectrums of quality, but by and large, her focus is not on why the wrong people become politicians (or more specifically MPs – she completely ignores devolved or local politics).

There’s one exception to this – one area where she does touch on why we actually get the wrong politicians, or at least why we get the wrong balance of politicians. The book’s first full chapter (after the preface and introduction), explores the process of actually getting elected, and details just how massive an undertaking this is. In short, it takes years of your life, is financially ruinous, and often doesn’t actually result in a sucessful candidacy. This means that the vast majority of politicians are drawn from a fairly narrow class of professional or the independently wealthy – lawyers, doctors, business people who can uproot their lives to stand for parliament, and who can earn enough working part time (or not working at all), to get by while they stand.

All of which brings me to what this book is actually about. Why, given the decent (if narrowly drawn) politicians we have, do we get the wrong legislative politics? This book is to the functioning of parliament, what King and Crewe’s The Blunders of Our Governments is to the functioning of the executive. Namely, a blow by blow summary of all the ways the system is working ineffectively. A parliamentary system where MPs are dropped into being MPs without support or training, a physical model which disrupts personal life, a system of promotion which discourages MPs from doing the jobs they were elected to do, a decaying public realm and social safety net which increasing means constituency casework dominates and MP’s life, and a public which expects our MPs to be paragons of virtue. All of the incentives and structures run against an effective politics.

Hardman outlines a range of possible reforms such as shrinking the payroll vote, or having Select Committees scrutinise legislation. Oddly enough, one major reform she ignores (perhaps this is too much the preserve of the Lib Dems and other politics nerds) is public funding of election. One for the next ambitous junior cabinet office minister to consider.

Perhaps the most interesting idea Hardman toys in her concluding discussion is separating the legislature and the executive. Although she keeps her personal views out of frame, one gets the feeling she isn’t convinced – largely because of problems with the system as it operates in the US. Of course some of her concerns (partisan gridlock, the inability for legislators to call witnesses from the executive at short notice), are choices which need not be replicated. We could, for example, design a system where party leaders were not MPs, but in which leader of the party which could command a majority could serve as Prime Minister, and appoint other non-MPs to executive roles. There would be no need for partisan gridlock, as the PM would continue to serve only so long as they held the confidence of the house – they just need not be an MP. Equally, issues around being able to place urgent questions to ministers could be addressed by formalising the power of MPs to call members of the executive to answer questions. Indeed, one gets the feeling that Hardman isn’t really grabbed by the idea in general, so doesn’t consider how the obvious failings of the US system could be addressed.

There remains one structural issue which is conspicuous by its absence. Hardman writes:

One final objection to a full separation of powers in the UK is merely practical. It isn’t going to happen. The British public tend to be disgusted by the political system but bored by attempts to change it, as the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum showed (that is one reason why the process by which MPs are elected isn’t covered in this book: there is a case for electoral reform, but it was made and voters didn’t like it). Constitutional change interests only a niche group of people in Westminster. Even when voters are angry, they aren’t excited by the prospect of further upheaval of their institutions.

Setting aside the fact that the AV referedum didn’t really engage with the case for reform in general, but only with one specific, and very unappealing, model of reform, this whole approach seems to be both an abdication of responsibility and to run counter to the rest of Hardman’s argument. Throughout the book, she has presented cases for constitutional or structural reform which at first glance, many people might view as painfully dull. Who, outside the Westminster Bubble, really cares about bill committees, second readings, or the value of a strong Public Accounts Committee chair? The entirety of this book is predicated on the view that those issues can be made engaging, and that the case for reform can be sold to readers. It’s hard, therefore, to take her argument electoral reform is somehow different, somehow unsellable, as anything other than a way of concealing that it isn’t a topic she has much interest in.

Nonetheless, this is a valuable book for those who want to understand how the institution of Parliament works. In short, if I were a part of a new government looking to develop a programme of reform to the structures through which the country is run (and didn’t care a fig about voting systems or devolution), this wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

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