Lobbying and the Empty Politician
January 5, 2011
I read with some amusement and no few chortles of recognition Paul Sagar’s piece for Liberal Conspiracy on why he’s not renewing his Labour membership. His argument is, broadly, that he doesn’t actually enjoy the experience of grassroots political campaigning – the squirming on the doorstep, the often cretinous colleagues, and the naked tribalism. All of this is simultaneously an absolutely fair representation of grassroots campaigning and a colossal missing of the point.
The interesting part of his argument comes towards the end, when he points out that in order to succeed you actually have to enjoy ‘propagandising, disseminating and tub-thumping for [your] chosen tribe’. This produces politicians whose aim is to play the game; MPs for whom winning is more important than the prize itself.
Anyone involved in politics knows these people. They tend to be ferociously ambitious without having a reason to be so. They’re the sort of people about whom you ask, ‘What are they in politics to achieve?’. They’re also the answer to why lobbying is so successful and so influential.
Say you are one of these ambitious, amoral go-getting types, and that your only real objective is to get elected regardless of what happens afterwards. You want to become an MP, or a councillor, purely for the prestige and not for any particular burning political passion. Your relentless focus on your ambition means that you eventually find yourself in Westminster. What do you do when you’re there? Do you spinelessly toe the party line in hope of sliding into a ministerial position? Of course you do. But what else do you do? Being snivelling toady can’t take up all your time. And, all of a sudden, all these other important people want to meet with you and talk about an issue dear to their hearts – and about which, in your newly elevated state, you can make a difference. So, you do so, and get a celebratory slap on the back and an invite to lavish annual dinner. You haven’t taken any bribes, but you’ve certainly been paid in prestige. That’s why you got into politics, after all.
The ambitious are perfect targets for lobbyists, whose goal is to tickle the self-esteem part of their brain with the intention of getting something out of it. They’re in every party (yes, even the Lib Dems) and they, more than anything else, are the cancer at the heart of our politics. They are the Empty Politicians; those waiting to be filled up with ideas not of their own design by people with money to spend. They are the enemy. They are why you campaign at a grassroots level, to secure the election not simply of your party but of those you actively want to be elected.
Non-politicians often make the mistake of assuming that politicians are all the same. They’re not. And it’s the job of footsoldiers such as Sagar latterly was to work to winnow out the Empty from amongst them.