Speak to anyone who is not among the small minority with a career in politics nor among the even smaller number of their colleagues who are genuine unpaid conviction activists and you are likely to receive a pretty jaundiced view of the state of politics in Britain. And this is one area where distinction need not be drawn between Scotland and England. Just as both suffered from business stagnation and a blizzard of strikes in the seventies, so the blending of parties into the electable middle ground has created a hybrid sleekit crataur—the Rt Hon Camilegg MP—with elastic policies such as would appal Bevan, Disraeli or Gladstone (not to mention real characters like Dennis Skinner or Nicky Fairbairn).
For ever since the charcoal suit, mauve tie and hair gel was mixed up in the witches’ cauldron that and poured out to create the world of SPADs and PPSs, a level of steely eyed professionalism using every mass psychology and advertising technique available has dominated any party with serious pretentions of power. The culture of the backroom in Holyrood differs little from that at Westminster; indeed there is a pretty free flow between the two common to all parties.
An example of their egregious spin came through the door yesterday in the shape of a colourful at-public-expense report from Jim Hume, South of Scotland Lib-Dem. It’s unfair to pick on Jim because they all do it but quick analysis of the inside content shows eight photos of Jim in action that are honest (Jim ‘meets’…’volunteers’…’discusses’…etc) and four headline items that sidestep his impotence (as an opposition member or in the wrong parliament) to actually “support”…”help”…”protect” or “stand up for” as he claims.
The latest incarnation of Milli-management (definition: attempted micro-management that’s too clumsy to get it that small) comes in the shape of the South Shields by-election, caused by the resignation of the Miliband-that-should-have-been-King (David) to take up his £1/4m job in Mammon’s very own home town. Nobody grudges him the change or the money. And, since it ranks with the safest Labour seats in the country (hasn’t ever had a Tory represent it since the reforms of 1832 and George IV was swanning about Edinburgh in corned beef tartan and pink tights) there’s no danger of political upset.
So to what end this unseemly rush to control candidate selection? On April 2nd, when the timetable for the South Shields selection was announced, Labour HQ chose a ridiculously short turnaround selection processes, presenting the local party with multiple dilemmas. To become the candidate, the application had to be in within 3 days (April 5th); any hopeful must then clear their calendar at a few hours notice to get down to London for an NEC shortlisting meeting on April 6th (a Saturday), before campaigning furiously for a selection meeting on April 10th in South Shields, the successful one then dropping everything else from your life to run for the seat.
A significant number of candidates did put themselves forward for this needlessly truncated selection process – but they could fairly be seen as those in the know and with the wherewithall to take part in such a process. There were many potential quality candidates who didn’t even throw their hats into the ring because of the way the system is set up against ‘outsiders’ —i.e. real people not part of the political machine.
Of those selected, the front-runner had been Cllr Mark Walsh whose local credentials and 17 years on South Tyneside council made him seem a shoo-in, declaring “I’ve thrown my hat in the ring and it would be an honour to represent the town I was born and raised in.” But just an hour before the voting was to start at the selection, he withdrew his candidacy for ‘personal reasons’. Because of the unseemly rush, this may well be the whole story.
But apolitical outsiders (a.k.a.’voters’) are just as likely to see this as another internal party ‘fix’ that saw fellow Cllr Emma Lewell-Buck selected for dogmatic reasons such as gender equality that, while it goes down well with party faithful, are less well perceived by the public, including women who would rather see women succeed because they are good and not because they are handed an artificial bye. Cllr Lewell-Buck may indeed have been the best candidate—but why cast doubt with a bum’s rush?
South Shields was an opportunity to do something different, to tackle broken politics head-on. Here, Labour had latitude to be transparent about the way they went about things, a chance to do politics openly in a way that David Miliband, to his credit, had advocated. There was no hurry; no reason why proper time and consideration could not have been allowed, no reason why local amateur volunteers, who move more sluggishly then the career-impatient professionals at head office, could not be given time for proper involvement.