How the pundits are becoming more influential than the politicians

As Owen Jones and Evan Harris show, you can make more headway pushing your agenda from the TV studios in Millbank than the green benches over the road.

"I think Owen Jones has more influence on politics nowadays than any other Labour frontbencher. He’s everywhere".

So tweeted Iain Dale the other day in a conspicuously non-partisan piece of commentary. Now, Iain was referring to the ubiquity of Owen and his ability to pop up anywhere, anytime. But I was reminded of this tweet when I was reading Bagehot in the Economist this week, who opines on the inability of a typical backbench MP (let alone frontbench spokesperson) to have any affect on policy, or indeed on government. Bagehot cited the Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston as a fairly typical example of the issue.

"In an effort to mollify Dr Wollaston, party bosses offered her a junior, unpaid job in the government, which she huffily rebuffed. In an institution that prizes loyalty above usefulness, this was a serious blot. When she then criticized the government’s complicated NHS reforms and rebelled in a vote on Europe, the stain became ineradicable. Three years into her political career, she finds herself more or less written off by her bosses. She will never be allowed anywhere near health policy. 'Maybe I was naïve', she laments. 'But I thought the whole point of being an MP was to scrutinise legislation and improve it'.”

And so it seems to have come to pass that if you really want to be out there, agenda setting and driving policy, you’d be better off campaigning on issues and popping up in the media at every conceivable opportunity, rather than being an elected representative of the people. In the Lib Dems, for example, Julian Huppert (MP for Cambridge) has been consistently fighting for and voting for Lib Dem policy  on justice and security (on which he is an acknowledged expert), tuition fees and NHS reform. Yet Julian has been on the losing side on every one of those issues. Contrast that with another unelected Lib Dem who finds himself at the heart of policy making, not just in our own party or even in the coalition government, but even plonked in the leader of the opposition's office dictating legislation. Step forward Hacked Off’s Evan Harris.

Of course there are exceptions to the influence wielded by backbenchers – witness the much tweeted- piece on welfare reform by Labour MP Simon Danczuk, or the select committee work of Andrew Tyrie or Margaret Hodge. But the former seems very much the exception – and the latter about marking others homework more than anything else.

Now, I don’t decry Owen Jones and Evan Harris for furthering their beliefs from outside parliament – far from it, I take my hat off to them as they force parties to adapt to their tune, rather than vice versa.

But when elected politicians are seen as having little or no influence on policy – and you can make more headway pushing your agenda from the TV studios in Millbank than the green benches over the road – it’s little wonder that folk outside the bubble may still be interested in politics, but have little time for Westminster.

Owen Jones: coming soon to a TV screen near you.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.