If you’re at all ambitious in Westminster these days, the most important thing is to show that you’re not a professional politician. Generally, the accepted definition of ‘professional politician’ is someone who has done something normal as far away from Westminster as possible before entering Parliament.
But some alter the standard definition at their convenience to also mean ‘has a northern accent’ or ‘isn’t from a posh family or school’. That second may make someone stand out in Parliament: given how expensive it is to stand in an election, it helps if you’ve got wealth of some kind, and private schools are disproportionately represented in Parliament.
Today Andy Burnham has released a leadership video that shows his wife rather undermining his claim not to be a ‘professional politician’. ’Remember what you said to me on the first night when I said, oh what do you want to do when you grow up?’ she asks, while sitting neatly on a sofa with a cup of tea looking like she’s part of an Everyday Couple. ‘What did I say?’ asks Burnham, looking a bit shifty. ‘You said you wanted to be an MP,’ she retorts.
Now, given this video was released by Burnham’s campaign team, it’s hardly an unwitting exposé of his tendencies towards being a professional politician. His own CV suggests that he falls into the conventional definition of a professional politician: adviser to Tessa Jowell, parliamentary officer for the NHS Confederation, and special adviser to Chris Smith as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport until gaining his own seat in the House of Commons. Yet he rails against the ‘Westminster Bubble’ and proclaims he has an ‘outsider status’. In the Spectator recently, Robert Philpot explained what it was that led to Burnham feeling like an outsider, even though he appears very much inside Westminster.
Ed Miliband, too, wasn’t an outsider: when he was asked by young people during the election campaign about his life experience, he gave the bizarre response that he’d worked in the Treasury and taught at Harvard. But he claimed in his 2011 conference speech to have ‘the heritage of the outsider. The vantage point of the insider. The guy who is determined to break the closed circles of Britain’.
Both men seem terrified of being considered comfortable within those closed circles, even though they quite clearly are creatures of the Bubble.
Mind you, few people attack the SNP’s Mhairi Black for being a ‘professional politician’, even though she graduated from university while being an MP, which makes her transition into the Bubble more seamless than those who slummed it as advisers for a few years. In her case, it’s the SNP’s anti-politics image that helps Black, and her own demeanour. Perhaps in a few years time she will find that she has to defend herself against the ‘never-had-a-proper-job’ charge too.
Meanwhile, George Osborne doesn’t like the constant doing down of professional politicians. In the Sun today, I reveal that the Chancellor interrupted a colleague who seemed to be going down that road by saying ‘hang on, we are all professional politicians, we are not going down that road, we are the Guild of Professional Politicians and we will be the best professional politicians that there can be.’
Instead of trying to pretend he has a special vantage point, Osborne wants to show that professional politicians can do as good a job for ordinary people as people who’ve come in from the outside. That hasn’t gone down well with one of his ministerial colleagues, who got in touch today to say:
‘Of course Osborne doesn’t like the “professional politician” issue because he is the ultimate metropolitan, never done a job, researcher-cum-politician. It’s how these guys “do politics” that people object to. The politics that is limited to day-to-day tactics, manipulation, image. Rarely delivery. Politics is about people. In my experience professional politicians like Osborne are frightened of people.’
Clearly this minister is not a Friend of George. But the point they make is spot on: it’s the way politicians behave once they’re in the Bubble that puts voters off - and probably having experience outside the Bubble makes a big difference to that. If from the tender age of 21 you are inculcated in the ways and rituals of Westminster, then you might forget that it is a strange, often petty world.
But all MPs, whether creatures of the Bubble or not, see more poverty, family breakdown and sadness in their constituency surgeries than many of the most prominent critics of the Westminster Bubble. If you want to see how difficult life is for a lot of people in this country, one of the best things to do is to spend an hour or so sitting in on an MP's surgery. MPs do these regularly - although some do let their staff and local councillors carry out the majority of appointments, which may help themselves grow distant from the people they represent.
What the division between ‘good politicians’ and ‘professional politicians’ boils down to, apart from a silly zero sum game where people who work in Westminster talk a lot about any time they manage to spend outside SW1, is someone’s motives.
Did you decide as an undergraduate that you wanted to go into politics because you fancied an ego boost or because of some great driving moral purpose? The answer for most politicians would be a mixture of both, probably, because people are complicated. But the mixture is different in each case, and it’s actually rather difficult to open a window into someone’s soul and work out whether it’s selfish ambition or moral mission that’s driving them. It is not dissimilar to the difficulty politicians have in showing that they have empathy, other than by pointing to personal circumstances such as children which paint a picture of their character.
In some cases, a tipping of the balance between ambition and moral mission might be easier to discern if the politician in question spends their whole time playing games. That, as the minister quoted above argues, is what puts people off. It’s a disease that politicians in all parties suffer from, even though they must know that it ultimately makes voters more suspicious of all in Westminster, thus making it more tempting for characters like Burnham to claim they are not part of the Bubble. For instance, someone in the Labour leadership contest has thought fit to brief that Liz Kendall is in a relationship with her campaign manager, something both vehemently deny. That sort of horrible gossip puts people off politics and it puts people off going into politics as they fear their own family could be damaged. That's professional politics as we know and hate it.
What Burnham and co mean when they claim they’re not ‘professional politicians’ is that they’re not ‘selfish politicians’ who are out for themselves and will mow down anyone in their way. The problem is that we make very poor assessments of our own characters and it is rather difficult to prove your motives, whether you’ve been a coal miner for 40 years before entering Parliament, or whether you’ve spent your whole life at the Westminster coal face.