Is it time for all CEO shortlists?

credit: wsj

There has been plenty of snide commentary about Selby by-election winner, Kier Mather becoming an MP at 25, and just slightly less about Charlotte Owen becoming a peer at 30.

Raising a thirty year old to the peerage raises questions about exactly what the House of Lords is for, other than an opportunity for Prime Ministers to stuff the chamber with supporters. There was once a view that the upper chamber was place for the great and the good. That lent itself to age and was an argument put forward for an unelected chamber. An argument along those lines has now become increasingly difficult to make. The argument for a democratically elected chamber or no second chamber at all becomes stronger each time a party hack or some other stooge of the Prime Minister is inducted.

There will be many who will make this case, especially on the Labour side, when Gordon Brown unveils his constitutional review undertaken at the behest of Kier Starmer to plot a new constitutional settlement. It remains to be seen if Sir Kier can resist the urge to reward supporters with peerages if he becomes Prime Minister.

The election of the other Kier has so far been criticised because of his youthfulness but very little comment is made about how few established figures seek election to the House of Commons. It is rare for a chief executive of a large company, a leading surgeon or renowned scientist to stand for election. Sir Kier Starmer is unusual for having had a notable legal career, earning a knighthood and then entering the House of Commons. He will be approaching his mid sixties by the time he reaches No10. Kier the younger is unusual not so much for his age but that he hasn’t been a local councillor or MP’s bag carrier.

Look ahead to the selection battles and candidates standing for both major parties ahead of the next general election and a clear pattern emerges. There is a clear trend towards local councillors or party worthies who have spent years delivering leaflets across their chosen constituency. It’s surprising we don’t have more postmen in the House of Commons as putting leaflets through letterboxes is increasingly the main skill required by local parties for selecting a candidate. It seems local parties like to pick people they know rather than a future star or give a place in parliament to someone with a distinguished record in another area of life. We have made significant strides in every type of diversity in Parliament except life experience.

Leading a FTSE100 company, creating great wealth and successfully managing a large organisation is, it seems, less relevant than how many doors you’ve knocked on in a local council by-election. Our politics is poorer as a result for the lack of real outside world experience.

The Conservative Party now keeps a close eye on phone calls made and leaflets delivered by would be candidates. Those who fail to deliver (literally) will find themselves at risk of being taken off the party’s official candidates list or their names withheld when party HQ puts forward names for local shortlists.

The Labour Party seems little better at finding established figures with a background of achievement in their chosen field. The trend towards selecting local councillors is even more pronounced in the Labour Party.

Michael Crick, the indomitable veteran journalist, maintains an assiduous record of local selections on his Twitter (or ‘X’) account TomorrowsMPs. It is a fascinating archive and tells the trend towards the local something Crick himself has criticised as trend that reduces the number of future ministers with real experience or running big organisations or independence from the party machine.

This will increasingly leave us with a diminished parliament until we change the way we think about what it is we want in either chamber.

The argument made by Crick and others, notably Paul Goodman of the ConservativeHome website is that a lack of senior level experience will leave the ministerial ranks depleted of ability. This mistakes the role of a Secretary of State for that of a CEO. The two most effective ministers of modern times, Sir Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove, entered government with little board room experience but plenty of understanding of what it was they wanted to do in government. The importance of having a distinguished career is to provide challenge and independence from the party machine not a ready supply of departmental chief executives.

Many will point to the salary of an MP as a likely barrier to established figures putting themselves forward, especially those from private sector backgrounds. Some retiring MPs who have made the case for higher pay, but the political reality is our MPs are already among the top five per cent of earners.

It’s an impossible conundrum, the MP for Chelsea and Fulham might feel very underpaid when he meets his constituents, the MP for Merthyr Tydfil will be almost embarrassed by their comparative high income. Unless the public can be persuaded that our MPs should be among the top earners in the country the pull of Parliament will need to be found elsewhere. The public view of our MP class has plummeted in recent years it would take a huge about turn to restore the perceived status of the two little letters ‘M’ and ‘P’.

The trend towards online abuse will leave many asking if it is worth it. Previous generations had slower and more considered communication with the electorate, some will welcome the ability to comment but it has lead to a torrent of abuse directed at public figures. But perhaps it is the gap between leading an organisation with the power to get things done and the reality of being a backbench MP that puts many off. There have been recent examples of high profile figures who have entered the House of Commons from the top of another profession only to become quickly frustrated with life in the political foothills.

The trend towards the local might lead to MPs with a strong sense of pride in their local area but it leaves us with a House of Commons lacking in MPs with a track record at the top of their profession. If we want to encourage the great and the good to enter political life will have to decide whether we can wrestle back the House of Lords, returning it to something closer to a council of elders or make it easier to stand for Parliament.

This might mean the parties at both local and national levels need to be a little less concerned about how many leaflets a prospective candidate has delivered and more interested in providing a platform for leaders of industry, the arts and academia to enter into public life. This might yet mean the House of Lords but it seems increasingly unlikely if rumours of a few hundred Labour supporting peers are to be believed. These peers, like candidates for the House of Commons will be chosen on their commitment to the party cause.

We should welcome young talent and recall some of the famous names, such as Charles Kennedy, who entered parliament at a young age. The problem is not Kier Mather or Charlotte Owens it is why so few notable figures, already established and well known in their field, end up in parliament. Our politics would arguably be better for some attention paid to this forgotten form of diversity. All CEO shortlists might be a step too far and many disagree with the very idea of rigged selection battles but we should all be concerned when the entry route into parliament is based on delivering leaflets or serving the party machine.


Frank Young works for a Westminster think tank and is writing in a personal capacity

Frank Young

Frank Young works for a leading Westminster think tank and is writing in a personal capacity