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.


4 Responses to “Lobbying and the Empty Politician”

  1. James King said

    How strange. The last time I met Paul Sagar was about two years ago when he was working for a Lib Dem MP. I didn’t know that he’d joined Labour, although I knew he’d have given up on us after the election.

    • PTIH said


      FWIW, I still support John Pugh as an MP. He’s one of the best in Parliament, by a very long way. Helped by the fact that he often refuses to tow the idiotic Lib Dem party line.

  2. Paul Sagar said

    Sorry, the above should have been posted under my own account – was logged into the wrong wordpress account (duh).

    Adam, re the OP:

    “And it’s the job of footsoldiers such as Sagar latterly was to work to winnow out the Empty from amongst them.”

    Funny, my overall impression was that the job of the footsoldier is to back the idiot in your constituency irrelevant of whether s/he is indeed an idiot. Because The Party has told you they are your candidate. And The Party getting its candidates elected is the greater good. And so forth. IMO, grass roots members have rather *little* power with regards selecting which idiots end up in Parliament.

    (Again, this does not apply to John Pugh, an honest, decent, hardworking MP if ever there was one, and who I would gladly vote for if i still lived in his constituency. Though campaigning would, as you’ve seen, possibly be a different matter…)

    • declineofthelogos said

      While I have little idea how it works in the Labour Party, that’s not the case in the Lib Dems. I’ve campaigned for the candidacy of people I respect, in the full knowledge that it would have an impact. Members have a vote on who represents them in elections – there’s no imposition of candidates from on high.

      However, I would argue that your broader argument about politics not being an exercise in applied ethics is feeding into your disenchantment here. I think you’ve made the mistake of assuming that the political party is the moral agent, rather than the individual who engages in politics. It’s your ethical principles that inform your political activity, and as such constitute the manner in which you engage with politics. It’s the broad aggregate of that engagement which constitutes a political party – it may be that you’re simply too individualist for a Labour Party which doesn’t really believe in individualism.

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