In defence of the ‘Westminster bubble’

Andy Burnham, in standing for the Labour leadership, has placed great emphasis on his desire to “take Labour out of the ‘Westminster bubble’”. Yet his opponents, particularly in the media, have taken great pleasure in pointing out that Burnham himself has been a professional politician for most of his life, and so is as much in the bubble as anyone. What both sides seem to share is the view that professional politicians are necessarily out of touch with the general public, spending too much of their time in an echo chamber of like minded people of similar background and life experience.  The implication is that this leads to a narrow set of perspectives being reflected in political debate.

I think this is a mistake – the ‘political class’ has been unfairly maligned, and the ‘Westminster bubble’ is bigger than people realise. MPs are required, in order to do their job, to interact with a broader spectrum of society than almost any of the rest of us. In the course of an election, they have to knock on doors, attend hustings and meet constituents from across their constituency.  Then, once sworn in, MPs are required to hold surgeries, typically on a weekly basis. While electoral districts vary significantly in demographics, almost all include a cross-section of classes, professions and ethnic groups. Indeed, the only place I can think of that brings together a similar array of people to an MP’s office is Accident & Emergency.

Some might object that meeting people with diverse backgrounds and experiences is no substitute for having those backgrounds and experiences yourself. In other words, professional politicians can talk to as many people as they want, but it cannot make up for not having a ‘real’ (ie ‘non-political’) job. The problem with this line of criticism is that (ironically enough) it neglects the danger of relying on too narrow a set of experiences. This logic suggests that living in poverty is necessary to truly understand the issues around poverty. But the risk is that living in poverty may cause you to be over-optimistic about your understanding of poverty. You might, for example, think that because you managed to pull yourself out of poverty, anybody could do the same, failing to notice the peculiarities and contingencies of your own case.

Finally, the criticism of professional politicians ignores the possibility that there might be certain knowledge and experience that is beneficial to being a senior politician. Think of it this way: there are few businesses that believe that there is no advantage to promoting junior staff from within; and that in fact it is always preferable to bring outsiders into management positions. Rather, most organisations acknowledge that coming through the ranks is a good way to understand how the organisation works, and to develop specialist knowledge and skills. Why should the government be any different? Special advisers and think tankers spend their entire working lives dedicated to the issues they would have to tackle as MPs and cabinet ministers. For almost everybody else, these issues are primarily interests that they pursue in their spare time. Of course, there is a benefit to bringing in some outsiders to challenge an excessively rigid system, but that doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I’m not sure what all this means for Andy Burnham as it’s not clear exactly how strong his objection to the ‘bubble’ is. If he is pandering to popular opposition to professional politicians,  my argument could be an objection to his unfair criticism of his colleagues. However, if he if he is arguing that he is better than most at taking advantage of the opportunities for understanding the world outside Westminster offered by his position, and that others ought to follow him in this, then I am happy to defend him against the shallow criticism of the media.

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