Why David Miliband’s resignation is another example of what’s wrong with safe seats
March 27, 2013
One of the common complaints amongst the commentariat is that of the rise of the political class, Peter Oborne’s phrase; a collection of MPs who have risen through the ranks of parliamentary researcher to think tank worker before jumping into elected politics. This professionalisation of politics is portrayed as a bad thing, as though newspaper columnists would prefer politicians who are ignorant of politics to rule over them. This is equivalent to only ever hiring amateur plumbers to fix leaky pipes, and has a great deal to do with opinion-formers resenting the way in which their choice of career has ruled them out of holding real power.
However, it does contain a grain of truth, and it’s something which David Miliband’s decision to leave the people of South Shields behind in order to pursue a different career in the States illustrates: the professionalisation of politics means that it is perceived as a career ‘option’ by people leaving university rather a calling to serve the public, from which quitting half way through would be seen as churlish. It can be seen as such because it has such a clear structure for the scions of old Labour and Conservative families: after a spell in a think tank, one proves one’s worth through being a councillor, contesting an unwinnable seat, and then being landed with a plump safe seat. One can opt for this path without having to demonstrate that one actually cares about the people one represents; when you’ll win regardless of how much engagement with the public you do, as Labour does in South Shields, then one is never required to confront one’s duty to serve them.
David Miliband has realised that he is unlikely to progress further in politics, in this case thanks to the likelihood of his brother becoming Prime Minister by default. He has felt able to duck out half way through to take up another career path rather than sticking it out for a couple of years in order to do right by the people who voted him in. He’s able to do so because he’s in a safe seat: South Shields will vote Labour even if they put up the resurrected corpse of Jimmy Saville. The seat hasn’t changed hands since 1935. Any damage to his party is minimised as a result. It’s very clear that he views politics as a career in which flitting between jobs, as one could do in other walks of life, is not a bad thing. Safe seats facilitate this view; if you can get a parliamentary seat purely through moving around to the most appropriate place to get elected, then you’re never exposed to the need to fight for popular support, which is what separates MPs (theoretically) from technocrats.
If the commentariat really want to prevent the rise of career politicians, then they would do well to support electoral reform the next time it comes round. Only by requiring aspiring politicians to risk their future on the altar of the electorate do you prevent it from becoming a ‘career choice’.