Has Britain (or indeed Ireland) got Government Talent?

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I was struck by the new French President speaking about those to be recruited to his government:

I will choose them for their experience, their competence, what they have done and not for what they represent or their political weight…

Gosh. There’s a thought. Leaving aside whether you think he is a good or bad thing, what a contrast this is to Westminster/Whitehall and even Holyrood, Cardiff Bay or Stormont (when it is actually up and running).

What will we get after our election: ministers chosen from a pool of c.350 MPs, with a prime minister looking first for intra-party political balance, then as a reward for loyalty, with competence and relevant experience secondary.

During the last Labour government, 9 pensions ministers came and went over 13 years. None had any experience of pensions. This is typical.

Macron continues:

We need to do away with this political class, which is all too often made of men over 50 who never had a proper job,” promising that his 577 parliamentary candidates will be half women and half political newcomers.

What skills are our MPs bringing to ministerial jobs? They are first and foremost politicians adept at all the wheeling and dealing needed to secure a seat, to be noticed by the media, to acquire personal influence in the Commons, and to progress a policy.

No track record of bringing about beneficial change on the ground is required. Macron again:

They (people in government) will be people who are important mayors, regional or general council presidents; people who have sometimes been ministers, but who do things and who will be able to run an administration and conduct a public policy.

Built into the French system is effectively a ministerial apprenticeship scheme. Executive mayors have full responsibility for the 107 departments plus the local councils, directly accountable to the area electorate.

One of their great benefits is the proving ground provided for these individuals to show what they can do.

These roles are about getting things done, achieving beneficial change on the ground, and not about politicising some philosophy into a grand policy with its most likely result being either no effect or unintended consequences.

The greater role of government these days is about running stuff, like schools or health services or trains. This is not about high politics or some throwback ideology, but about competent delivery.

Emmanuel Macron will call on a far larger and richer pool of talent than Theresa May (assuming her election). But does a bigger pool matter? Yes. The larger the pool, the greater the available quality.

I learnt this many years ago when my firm became big on diversity. Why? Had a global accounting and consulting firm at the centre of modern capitalism suddenly got ethics? No, it was the business case.

PwC’s success is based almost entirely on the quality and quantity of its people. Competition for the top students and other recruits is fierce.

Women, people of different races, with disabilities, or sex changes are just as capable of being fine accountants and consultants as white men. Diversity tripled our talent pool and the number of high-quality people we could recruit.

Why can’t UK government do a Macron? That’s very simple to answer: because of our Constitution, such as it is. It ensures that the competence pool for government is strictly limited. How so?

Well, first, executive mayors in our system are few. Although they are increasing, the people flow is in reverse! Westminster has a talent drain, as politicians leave to become local government executive mayors, where they can actually do something.

Second, our system limits a government’s talent pool to the winning party – with the odd exception.

Third, good old First Past The Post limits the effective competition for government to two parties only. Like any market, the fewer the competitors the lower the standards.

Over in France, for the first time since the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1959, neither of the two presidential candidates in the run-off was from the historically dominant parties. The duopoly has been broken – the supply of competence increased.

Couldn’t happen in Westminister.

Indeed, at the current rate of no-change, we face the prospect of another century of the same old Labour/Conservative politics, trapped by FPTP, with no way out of continuing governmental decline, and without the public understanding of the criticality of a constitution to performance, nor the revolutionary tradition to demand change.

Slow death.

The hope must be that as frustration grows, more will look beyond today’s retro arguments and a different politics will emerge. This would not be defined by the old labels of left or right, public or private, progressive or conservative, or any other banal either/or.

Whilst not used to theorising in the Descartes tradition of the French, the British are empiricists.

For inspiration, maybe kick off with Texas, where the revival of the Democratic party started with the question to registered but non-voting marginalised people: “What issue do you care about?”

Or be inspired by the fresh thinking of DiEM25, the pan-European cross-border movement of democrats set up by Yanis Varoufakis to reform the EU. Or by what has been achieved in Alaska with its Land Tax.

Things can change. My experience is that more and more people want to talk. And the more that conversation is about these new sorts of politics the more interest there is. Then will come the time for new parties and leaders to arrive and for the old to transform or die.

En Marche?

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