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14 May 2001

When it’s just a demotion to get elected

Election 2001 - Top Blairite advisers are struggling to get seats, but most don't care, rep

By John Kampfner

Most of them don’t want to do it, which is lucky because many of them aren’t wanted anyway. Special advisers and other operatives at the heart of the Blairite Whitehall project are finding it difficult to swap their existing posts in government for new jobs in parliament.

Several who have actively sought seats have been rebuffed; others have not put themselves forward, deciding not to risk humiliation. For many, however, the calculation has been different. “I’m in on most of the important meetings. I see all the top people. My views are sought,” says one ministerial aide. “If I go on to the back benches, it would take years for me to climb back to where I am now.”

Most of the “specials” are staying put. And although Labour HQ at Millbank has had the power to choose shortlists for vacant seats since February, it has been careful about imposing its will.

The story so far: there have been two successes from Downing Street itself. James Purnell, a member of the policy unit and an ultra-Blairite Young Turk, secured Stalybridge and Hyde in Greater Manchester, while Jon Cruddas, the broker with the trade unions in No 10’s political unit, is taking over in Dagenham. Crucially, both have connections with the constituencies they hope to represent.

Among those from the lowlier ranks who have gambled and won is Andy Burnham, a special adviser at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. He gained the right to represent Leigh in March, but only after taking three months of unpaid leave to win over sceptical activists.

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However, several have failed to be adopted in recent years. Ed Owen, a special adviser to Jack Straw, went for Wigan when it came up for a by-election in 1999. He was roundly beaten. Andrew Hood – who worked as special ad-viser to the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, and then to the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon – was rejected in Bassetlaw. Undeterred, Hood went for Birmingham Erdington, a plum seat vacated at the last minute by Robin Corbett. It led to a high-profile tussle, in which Hood was perceived by local activists to be the tool by which London prevented them from getting in their own man. Ironically, he was beaten at the final selection hustings by the News of the World‘s Sion Simon, the epitome of the Blairite newspaper columnist. Derek Scott, the economics expert in the Downing Street policy unit, has failed to make the shortlist in either Worcester in 1997 or Erdington now.

The case of Shaun Woodward, the Tory defector, shows how difficult it still is for Tony Blair to assert his will over local activists. He managed it for another Tory defector, Alan Howarth in 1997, when Newport East “suddenly appeared”. But whenever Woodward’s name has been linked to a seat – Durham North and West Bromwich being the most recent – there has been an outcry from local stalwarts. The lesson Millbank and Downing Street have learnt is: “Wherever possible, go local.” And even when a Blairite candidate can show local roots, he or she has to work the constituency assiduously for months.

Some new Labour advisers have toyed with the idea of running for parliament, but have concluded that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages.

That applies particularly to the big fish – among them Andrew Adonis (Blair’s adviser on education and one of three former SDP men in the policy unit) and Ed Balls (Gordon Brown’s adviser, or the “deputy chancellor”, as he is dubbed in the Treasury). Balls, though, has been making appearances in various Yorkshire seats close to the Pontefract and Castleford stronghold of his wife, Yvette Cooper, the health minister.

For senior advisers, the downsides to becoming an MP include a pay cut, longer hours, commuting to far-flung corners of the land, more scrutiny of their private lives, less influence, and less access to the Prime Minister or departmental ministers.

On the other hand, MPs become, at least potentially, political players in their own right, with prospects of a place in the Cabinet. Some look forward to constituency work, to being able to effect real change on the ground. What is startling, however, is that almost nobody talks about the virtues of parliamentary activity – making speeches, sitting in on debates, working on the standing committees that scrutinise legislation.

A generation ago, the only serious career path in politics was to become an MP. The arrival of the army of advisers has changed that. The experience of many of the class of ’97, the dozens of ambitious new backbenchers who have found themselves underemployed and undervalued, has reinforced the message. There might be the odd last-minute parachute into a safe seat vacated suddenly before the election campaign is formally declared, but nobody is banking on it. Most of the current crop of advisers are happy to stay where they are. They know where the real power lies.

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