Sound-bites, u-turns and populism: the rise of the professional politician


Sunder Katwala and Aeron Davis discuss the implications of professionalisation in politics.

In politics today, there is growing disenchantment among the electorate. This is demonstrated by a long-term decline in voter turnout and party membership numbers. The level of trust in parties and politicians is also steadily dropping.

A modern breed of professional politicians has now emerged. These professionals tend to have short, sharp career trajectories, with little experience of work before they get involved in party politics and rise to the front benches.

This political class is often accused of being light on policy, lacking ideological commitment and not having particular experience or expertise. What they offer instead is good media and communication skills, knowledge of public affairs and PR and strong networks.

This new professional culture of politics is characterised by populist, ‘catch-all’ policy, an increasing emphasis on spin and presentation, as well as slick campaigning and hostile party politics. While these techniques may well help parties win elections in the short term, they also seem to lead to cynicism in the long term due to broken promises and policy u-turns.

Discussing these topics and more around the issue of professionalisation today are Sunder Katwala and Dr Aeron Davis. Sunder Katwala is the Director of the new think tank British Future, having previously worked as a journalist and as General Secretary of the Fabian Society. Dr Aeron Davis is a Professor of Political Communication at Goldsmiths College. He is also the author of Political Communication and Social Theory.

Sunder Katwala: So you’ve written about a new wave of professionalisation in politics in your book. How much has changed and what’s different about politicians today than from in the past?

Aeron Davis: I couldn’t say that I did a conclusive study. But I did look at the backgrounds of the fifty frontbenchers a couple of years ago from the Labour and Conservative parties. I looked at them in terms of dates as well: in terms of pre-2001 intakes and post-2001 intakes and in terms of age: those under 50 and over 50. And I looked at the demographic characteristics of their backgrounds. From that kind of thing, you could see clear patterns. I also got a sense of clear patterns through a wider set of interviews, with 50 or 60 politicians, 20 journalists and another 20 civil servants. And during these interviews, I touched on the issue about how politicians may have changed. The findings seem to match up in terms of seeing the differences. So there were quite a few clear differences between the younger and older generations, one of which was the kind of degree they took.

Years ago people did Law, Politics, English or History and now if you look at the younger members of the cabinet or shadow cabinet, half of them have taken PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) a purpose-made degree for people aspiring to be politicians. But it comes out in other ways. The older generation would have a clear and identifiable career in something like law, campaigning, education or business. Those were the typical things. But if we take a look at the newer generation, they’ve hardly had a career. They’ve only spent a few years between university and entering parliament.

S K: It seems to me that that was the bigger difference in a way, because the shift between those Conservative and Labour politicians who have done Law and History or PPE seems relatively narrow. But you did pick up a sense that people were getting into parliament younger and getting to the very top of politics much quicker than the previous generation.

A D: Yes, on average they were a few years younger when they entered parliament but, more importantly, they took half as long to reach the cabinet. So they were often in parliament less than a parliamentary cycle (so four or four and a half years) whereas, in years gone by, they would have been there for at least two parliamentary cycles before entering the cabinet.

S K: It seems to matter therefore what these politicians were doing before they reached parliament. For a lot of these ‘star’ politicians, getting into parliament isn’t the start of their political career.

A D: No and that was another distinguishable difference between the two generations. Because they’re political career, or their career in general, started by leaving university and going straight to work for a party or a think tank or in journalism. They were in careers that were connected to parties, so they often already knew party leaders very well. They were then given a safe seat, parachuted into parliament and very quickly elevated into the cabinet.

S K: So you take David Cameron, the current Prime Minister, as an archetype for this kind of career trajectory. He was a kind of emerging star, being in parliament only one term before becoming the party leader.

A D: Yes. In one respect, he’s quite different because he actually had a career of some seven or eight years unlike many of his peers. In other respects, there is no real difference because that seven years was in public relations and public affairs. But, like all the others, after university he immediately went to work for the party in policy areas behind the scenes. He worked there for a few years with previous party leaders, as many of them do and then took seven or eight years out in the 90s when the Conservatives were at a low ebb before coming back and was here for less than five years before being elevated to a shadow cabinet position.

S K: Where we have seen a broadening out to some extent, although slower than some people would like clearly, is in gender and ethnicity in parliament and we saw that come through particularly in the 2010 election. To what extent does that have anything to do with the narrowing and the professionalising? Is it the case that we are just getting a narrow and professional class that is going to have more gender balance and ethnic balance in it? Is that a trade off with the class narrowing and professional narrowing or is it just a separate issue altogether?

A D: I think it is connected, but I more class it as a separate issue. I still think that whenever you see the figures, we’re still very under-represented in terms of ethnic minorities and gender balance. We fall below many other democracies in that respect, although of course there are many that are worse than us. And even though we’ve made strides in 2005 and 2010, we’re still a long way behind. If you look at the front benches, there’s a great under-representation.

S K: In this instance, actually, an interesting dynamic has come about because there’s a shorter parliamentary apprenticeship than there was. In that sense, British politics is becoming more American in that people can get right to the top quite quickly.
Maybe the people who come in might not have such a long period. Certainly the
big change in 2010 was that ethnic and gender diversity was beginning to happen on both sides of the house. You obviously wouldn’t see that on the front benches of
parliament for three or four terms normally but it could actually be a lot less
in your period where people shoot through.

A D: Possibly, but the Conservative frontbench still hasn’t had much change.

S K: No, but that’s because the big intake was in 2010.

A D: I guess that’s true. Just comparing that with the Labour party. They put a greater emphasis on ethnic and gender diversity earlier on and that’s fluctuated. So we had more women and ethnic minorities in the shadow cabinet at different points, not that it has ever reached a high point.  

S K: I think your work illuminates something quite important here in that you could say that we are getting greater diversity front of house in politics. But, actually if you look into the back room, that will actually be the least gender balanced and ethnic balanced and the most class narrow. So David Cameron has made great efforts with his Conservative parliamentary intake but might have a less diverse group of people behind the scenes. Your research says that it is the people who are behind the scenes now who will be the party leaders when the go into parliament.

A D: Yes, and one thing I realised looking at the figures is that in the front benches a much greater percentage went to public school as opposed to a state school, a much greater percentage went to Oxbridge rather than to another university. So those biases are magnified at the front bench end compared to larger parties on the backbenches.

Sunder Katwala

S K: Cameron actually as a candidate had to overcome the perception that the Conservatives wouldn’t elect an Etonian. Poor old Douglas Hurd couldn’t get a fair run at the  leadership because he went public school. So David Cameron is the first public school leader since Douglas Hume. That could be taken in terms of ‘why does his background matter?’ or a sense that the whole thing really is becoming narrower and this is a general decline in social mobility coming through in politics. People can get quite depressed about that.

A D: Yes, I think it became acceptable when you looked at Tony Blair and the other political parties. The Labour party’s front benches were suddenly full of public school people, who had definitely been in the minority before but were no longer in the minority. So if it was acceptable for the Labour party, why wouldn’t it be acceptable for the Conservative party?

S K: Maybe David Cameron also had the skill set that the Conservatives required at that moment as an individual? You studied his election campaign quite closely. What was the key to him making the breakthrough at that moment?

A D: I think the networks were very important, although they didn’t immediately play. Knowing Michael Howard and several previous party leaders or senior party figures who backed him behind the scenes was important. Although it took a long time for him to get that support further across the party. But I think most important were his public relations and media skills; they were really important. Compared to his opposition at the time, David Davis, he was very media savvy, very connected to journalists in a way that David Davis wasn’t. So David Davis had a lot of support in the parliamentary party, but
didn’t know how to come across well on the public stage and didn’t have the
journalist contacts, in fact avoided journalists a lot of the time.

Whereas Cameron and the small select around him were all very connected to journalists, all media savvy, all had media backgrounds of some kind or another. And that eventually started coming through not just in the party conference, when
suddenly everyone noticed him, but it had been coming through for the previous
year to all the journalists and the commentators. They were noticing Cameron as
having a real chance, even if he wasn’t high in the polls, because he was coming across much better than David Davis and some of the other Conservative candidates.

S K: So if the Conservatives choose Cameron because they decide that he is the person with the best skills to communicate the party’s message to the voters, on the Blair model, that doesn’t sound in itself like a bad thing for democracy. As a party
that loses election because it’s out of touch, here is the guy most likely to put them back in touch.

A D: Well, some of the journalists and politicians I interviewed said that was what happened. They said in the party conference and during that time, they stopped voting for the person that they supported and they started voting for the person that they thought would get them back into power. After many years of failed Conservative leaders, they were getting a bit desperate. A lot of people naturally supported David Davis, Liam Fox or someone else to the right of the party but they just decided it was time to make a switch. And they voted for the person that they thought would win.

S K: This takes us back to the question of why professionalisation matters. Where would you identify in it dangers and threats to the quality of our democracy?

A D: It obviously goes both ways. If you’re more professional, in terms of having worked in the policy area, in the public relations/ journalism area, you know how to communicate better, you have an idea of marketing and communication skills and getting to know what the public or your party want. All that’s good in a way; what’s bad is what you might do with that. There’s an assumption in a lot of the literature around political marketing and political PR that it just improves communication and makes politicians listen more. But you could also say it just makes them more able to see what is wanted to be said. It makes them more able to work out what the public would like to hear and then to say it to them in the ways they would like to hear. So it depends which side you come down on whether it is a good or bad thing.

I think if you actually look at the Conservative party now and the transition from pre-election to post-election, you would say that the latter description is more accurate. They said we care about the NHS, they said we care about the environment, they said we care about public services, when really the underlying philosophy, which has only become clear in the last year, was that really they wanted to privatise all those things.

S K: One area where this might be a bit cyclical, in terms of the gains and the losses, is the sense that the novelty value has slightly gone once you’ve applied the  professionalisation techniques for twenty years. Do the public start hankering for more authenticity? You see a politician like Mitt Romney struggling his way through the Republican primaries. He’s clearly the guy with the money and the expertise but
he has got a John Kerry sort of problem in that he is an electable politician that people don’t want to elect. Do you see any hope in that there might be a different model emerging?

A D: I think it is a worrying thing. I asked my students this recently. I talked about celebrity in politics and I said would you like a professional politician who came across better and communicated better or would you like someone who you knew where they stood ideologically. And they nearly all said they’d prefer someone who they knew where they stood so they could either agree or disagree with them. But on the other hand, I can see how the professional people within parties, the pollsters and experts, find better results from being vague about policy, putting the emphasis on pragmatism and altering their position and media management. I think if you look at the longer-term
trends, that professionalism wins elections, but it also turns voters off in the long-term. It makes people more cynical in the long-term and less likely to vote and less likely to support a party or a candidate or have a clear party affiliation. All of those things have been dropping over the years.

S K: I find it hard to imagine that parties are going to say being a bit scruffier on the media is going to work because the professionalisation is here to stay. But they might
pick up the idea. You hear politicians like David Cameron and Nick Clegg who come from particularly affluent backgrounds expressing that they know it’s quite narrow and  needs addressing. What practically in the modern world could a party that wanted to take seriously this issue of narrowness actually do about it?

A D: That is a question that I ask myself. When you look at the literature and you think about it, a lot of the problems are not caused by parties or politicians. There are other explanations for the growing disenchantment and the cynicism, things like the media, things like the power of global finance, which puts less policy options or policy leavers in the hands of politicians, like a trend to interest groups rather than parties. There are all sorts of things like that but then there are a number of things which you can say are down to politicians, parties or political structures. So parties can be more or less democratic in terms of how they consult with their members. Political systems can be more democratic or consensual. The British system is the opposite, it’s regarded in
the literature as more undemocratic, more majoritarian.

It’s a first past the post system, a majoritarian system as opposed to a more consensual system where you can have proportional representation. The power of governments over parliaments is very strong. In other systems you have a more balanced mixture of parties, balance between the judiciary parliament and the government. And because we don’t have those kind of systems, those kinds of things do play in. We also have a highly competitive, distrusted media. We one of the most distrusted medias in the
world. People know we’re cynical but well before the Leveson inquiry and the phone hacking scandal, we always came bottom of polls across the whole of Europe about how much people trust their press. There’s a World Value Survey that’s done every few years. The last one I saw from 2008 roughly was out of fifty-six countries. Fifty-sixth was Australia and we were fifty-fifth.

S K: That’s a bad ranking but these are very difficult things for anybody to deliberately change, although we might see any number of things happen now in our media culture
which nobody could possibly have expected in terms of the outbreak of the hacking scandal. I just wondered within this professionalisation thesis generally, how you would read Barack Obama’s extraordinary rise. It’s both very much an outsider storming the citadel and it’s a tightly professional campaign, a system that raises a lot of money but has the grass roots. Is that something that made you think that something different could come from that or when it gets to Washington does it turn into the same thing?

A D: You’re right. Barack Obama had a very professional, slick set up. His campaign was typically professional, just like Cameron’s really. There were huge similarities in terms of saying very little about policy and coming up with images and soft focus stuff. They didn’t say much about anything, but both were also quite charismatic in front of the camera.

S K: Well that did engage people, certainly in the actual campaign.   

A D: But it also leaves people incredibly disheartened and disappointed. Blair and George W Bush both had the highest popularity ratings and the lowest popularity ratings of post-war presidents and prime ministers because they were both slick in front
of the camera in different ways, they had big personal appeals and they appeared to promise things that never seemed to be delivered. And Barack Obama’s opinion polls
have shot up and down again because expectations around presentation could not
possibly be fulfilled.

S K: And the expectations issue to me seems absolutely central. I think we could either be frustrated with the political system that just doesn’t give us enough voice or power as citizens or we could just be frustrated with the very nature of democratic politics in a society where other people have views we don’t agree with. I wonder whether, in the Obama case, people are disappointed because in a way they don’t understand what politics is, as well as any failings that he might have as a man or a candidate.

A D: That is another key issue. There’s an automatic assumption, especially from people on the left, that people want more democracy, they want more say and they want people to be like something.

S K: But that takes up a lot of time.

A D: It takes up a lot of time. Most people don’t have the time or the energy to really get involved and to participate, to understand. They’ll sign an internet partition, they’ll do something easy, but they won’t do something more substantial, either because they don’t have the time or because they don’t feel confident and don’t feel they will be listened to. So part of it is that they feel disconnected and disenfranchised but part of it is we have very busy lives and complex situations. As I realised talking to a lot of senior politicians and civil servants, they don’t understand the technicalities of a lot of the bills they have to deal with. And if they don’t, why should ordinary members of the public?

S K: So we end up leaving it to our professional, political class. If you could make one change that would give people more access to a broader range of politics, where would you put your energies and efforts?

A D: Well I think I would do a few things. I would look seriously at the electoral system. Part of the electoral system has a strong impact on the ways parties behave and how they market themselves. And I think first-past-the-post systems have moved more in one direction than other systems. I would seriously look at the media and the funding of the media. Again, this is not on the political agenda but I see a lot of the problems around hacking, but also a lot of the problems generally, around the funding models of
our media. We take for granted that we need media for communication between
politicians and the public. We also take for granted that a lot of that has to be privately developed and that has been the trend over many years. But that model has been breaking down for years and most people aren’t aware of that. The funding model for good proper research, journalism and investigation has been breaking down for many years, long before the internet came along and snatched up a large chunk of the advertising which made it even more unprofitable. So we don’t have the media we need to properly interrogate what’s happening in politics, to properly test and disseminate so they fall back on scandals, on phone hacking and celebrities as another means of generating easy, sellable news. So I think that ought to be looked at.

I think a third thing that needs to be looked it is the long trend of de-politicization, that’s what some people have termed it. What I mean by that is parties handing over power to QUANGOs and consultancies and experts. Many branches of the civil service, in the last twenty years, have been filled with consultants, business consultants, who are unaccountable and invisible to the public but directing many policy issues around the NHS or education or business, often linked to particular beliefs and particular networks that they are involved in. And I think that greatly de-democratises democracy in a way.
Politicians don’t want to say that but they are handing over power and so they’re making power less connected and less accountable to the public in that respect. And that needs to be uncovered I think.

S K: Is there any pro-democracy trend that you find the biggest glimmer of hope in? Do people invest too much hope in social networks and the internet as a possible countervailing force?

A D: I think they do, although it’s very mixed. I think the internet has brought a lot of things, a lot more information to people who are involved. It makes it much easier for interest groups to emerge, organise and publicise and it makes it a lot easier for people on minimal budgets to put information out there and to make an impact in certain circumstances. It makes it a lot easier for journalists who have the time to look up and find important material to publicise. From Wikipedia to Wikileaks, there’s now a much greater volume of politically important information out there. On the other hand, in terms of real organisation and communication, I have great doubts. Because what it also means is those sort of elite networks between businesses and finance, certain favoured interest groups and politicians and journalists are much closer and denser. They’re very private and they’re not opened out so it makes that communication between them more exclusive in some ways and less open than it might have been before.

One of the questions I ask many politicians is about their use of the internet to communicate with citizens and constituents. Some of them liked it and they were quite happy to write the hundred e-mails a day but many of them despaired of it because they said if I did this all the time, I’d never do my job. And as long as we live in a representative democracy, if politicians actually want to debate and be part of the many committees they are in parliament, they want to actually talk to constituents face-to-face, then they haven’t got time to do both. So they said that it’s not necessarily helping.
The majority of them are very cynical that it will make them closer to the voters.

S K: So it’s been a fascinating look around the rise of the professionalisation politician. It seems to me the conclusion is that, whatever people want to change, for now at least
the professionals are probably winning.

A D: Yes and professionalisation seems the way forward, whether it’s in politics, business or any other sector. But it also means that we’re more disconnected and the professionals are more disconnected from each other. People in parts of investment banking have no idea what people are doing in other banks or in industry. Parts of the civil service don’t know what’s happening in other parts of government because people are so specialised in their own boxes.

S K: Yes, well back in our own box and it’s a depressing place to end but thank you very much taking part in this podcast. 

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