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We wouldn’t go to an amateur dentist so why are we suspicious of professional politicians?

There's a fear that politicians are merely polishing the surface, allowing the decay to spread.

Last week’s programme for Archive on Four on Radio 4 – Read My Lips: Why Politicians Speak the Way They Do – was subtly provocative. In purporting to answer the question posed in its title, the discussion developed into a skilful defence of the professionalisation of politics. The three principal guests – Alastair Campbell (Tony Blair’s head of communications), Daniel Finkelstein (political adviser to William Hague before becoming a Times columnist) and Frank Luntz (a pollster and consultant) – have all worked professionally with politicians to improve their ability to communicate. The presenter, Jonathan Powell, was Blair’s chief of staff. Only the satirist Rory Bremner stood outside the profession.

The programme responded to the popular perception that the political class is paralysed by spin doctors, “out of touch”, and unable to connect naturally and authentically with voters. Not so, apparently. Finkel­stein argued that politicians “are much more in touch than they were”, possessing an “acuter understanding of what the electorate can follow”. Campbell believes that, in response to the 24-hour media, “politicians had to force themselves to become clearer, sharper, more focused and on-message”.

Luntz paid tribute to a technology known as “the worm” or “dials”. As a politician speaks in public, a focus group provides feedback in real time, instantly converted into a graph that captures the popularity of each phrase. “Up or down, second by second, like or dislike,” Luntz explained, “it is a precise way to measure any communication by politicians.” This is the political equivalent of the stats now flashed on screen during televised sport: distance covered, passes completed, yards advanced, tackles made.

But does this kind of approach capture what it means to be a good politician? Or do the obsession with quantification, and the risk aversion that follows, encase politicians in a linguistic and conceptual prison, rendering them passive and inauthentic, simply churning out soundbites to tickle their audience’s prejudices, like bored but savvy GCSE students writing exam scripts merely to elicit the necessary ticks?

Luntz takes the opposite position: the problem with modern politics is that it remains too amateurish, not too professional. “If politicians spent more time, more care, thinking about the language they use, they would have a longer shelf life.” What Luntz means, surely, is that if politicians spoke more carefully, they would have a longer shelf life if (and only if) their opponents did not follow suit. In a zero-sum game – which captures the business of winning elections but not the art of government – if two opposing parties simultaneously develop the same set of communication skills and tactical tools, it does not increase anyone’s shelf life. Two political machines – each of them increasingly sophisticated, cautious and precise in its tactical pursuit of the votes it might win (and only those votes) – essentially cancel each other out.

This model offers a partial explanation of the current political stalemate in this country. The parties are so effective at defensive ploys, undermining any positive but potentially risky move by their opponents, that everyone is, in effect, playing for a nil-nil draw, perhaps hoping to nick a result in the penalty shoot-out (the election campaign).

Rugby union perhaps offers a more apt parallel. I am now resigned to the fact that old-fashioned line-breaks, in which attacking players evade the first line of tacklers – the moment when the pitch opens up, speed enters the equation and this fan feels as if he has been injected intravenously with champagne – are very rarely possible in today’s game. Defences are too good. The professional evolution of rugby – the drift defence, the choke tackle, the defensive hit in contact – have conspired against the sport’s most ecstatic spectacle: freedom in space. The teams are probably “better”. But is the show? I’m not so sure.

In one crucial respect the analogy with sport, introduced by Alastair Campbell, does not apply to politics at all. The purpose of sport, strategically speaking, is so simple that the term strategy is almost a tautology for an older, simpler word: winning. So the professionalisation of sport, though sometimes counterproductive to the spectacle, has unarguably raised the overall standard of performance. Today’s teams, broadly speaking, would beat the teams of the past. Sport is straightforward: everyone knows what winning looks like.

In politics, the notion of winning is much less obvious. The concept of victory can be divided into two spheres, not quite separate but certainly importantly different. First, there is the business of winning elections; second, there is the question of governing well. Although you can’t do the latter without first achieving the former, you can certainly excel at winning elections without being equally good at running the country. Given that focus, attention and talent are always finite, the decision to concentrate on one goal inevitably leads to there being less energy to lavish elsewhere. When we talk about the professionalisation of politics, usually we mean the professionalisation of the political message. But has there been a corresponding evolution and advance in delivering political fundamentals?

Read My Lips referred to the idea that we like professionalism in dentistry, so why not in our politicians? To take on the metaphor, perhaps we feel reassured that dentists are professional in the good sense because human teeth fall out increasingly infrequently. We can test the professionalism of dentists empirically. In contrast, we wonder if politicians are merely focusing on whitening and polishing the surface, allowing underlying decay to spread. Perhaps it is too early to tell. But that is the fear. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.