6 March 2022

Weekly Briefing: Love and war

By

In these dark days we all need a distraction, and what could be better than a romance for the ages? Thankfully Matt Hancock, the Hugh Grant of the pandemic, has furnished us with just the thing – revealing to The Diary of a CEO podcast that ‘he did not have casual sex with anyone’ and that he broke social distancing rules ‘because he fell in love’.

But even if your tastes are more CapX than Mills & Boon, I recommend giving the interview a listen, because the host, Steven Bartlett’s questions – at least those that aren’t about snogging – offer a useful insight into popular opinion on politicians.

Bartlett is a young, black tech entrepreneur, star of the BBC’s Dragon’s Den, and presenter of Europe’s most popular business podcast – yet he tells Hancock that he regards politics as ‘an elitist club where they all come from Oxford’. This, he says, is a problem because ‘the decisions that are made for all of us are made by people who have walked a different path’. His other criticism is that someone like Hancock can be a minister in multiple departments with very different briefs. ‘I’ve always thought that the person making the call should be really experienced in that subject matter,’ he says.

His remarks reflect a common view that our democracy would be improved if it could attract more talented experts and if it better reflected the population as a whole. Leaving aside the fact that these are contradictory aims – by definition professionals with in-depth experience are not ‘ordinary people’ – how could this be achieved?

Let’s start with getting more ‘experts’ to become MPs. You don’t need to be a self-made millionaire like Bartlett to recognise that if you want the best, you have to pay. It’s all very well to claim that public service is its own reward, but that doesn’t mean it’s enough to tempt people who’ve reached the top of their chosen discipline to leave it. Yes an £82,000 salary is above the average, but it’s well below what’s on offer in many other managerial jobs. Take Hancock’s former field, health, where a bog standard GP earns £100,700 (and good luck getting an appointment). And few other professions endure a tedious outcry every time an independent body adjusts their pay – even if it’s to make a real-terms cut.

Then there’s the issue of diversity. My suspicion is that the problem here isn’t elitism – you need only look at the cabinet to recognise that background is no barrier to success in politics – it’s that being an MP is such a bad deal. Just this week, for example, Stella Creasy tweeted that she’d had to keep her young baby at work until 1am in order to vote.

Creasy is a proponent of the view that Westminster’s provision for mothers, despite being far better than many other workplaces, is one reason only around 30% of MPs are women. But it isn’t just late night votes that make Parliament an unfriendly environment for anyone with a family. If your constituency is further away than Creasy’s Walthamstow you can’t see your children at all for half the week.

Added to this are the demands of the role itself. MPs receive 1000s of emails a day from constituents, many of them either abuse or hobby horse campaigns. Let’s not forget that two MPs have been murdered recently in the course of their duties. And short of physical threats, the intense scrutiny on public figures can have painful and humiliating consequences – just ask the former health secretary.

So if we want better MPs, we should start by making the job more attractive. This will require structural reform. As our Editor in Chief has argued, you can’t run a 21st century power structure with a system designed for the 19th. Better pay and working conditions are long overdue. But I also think it’s incumbent on all of us to adjust our attitudes to people who stand for elected office.

If we share Bartlett’s desire for a stronger, more knowledgeable, more representative Parliament then we should stop treating its members with derision – including Matt Hancock.

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Alys Denby is Deputy Editor of CapX.