Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 3 November 2013

A SpAd state of affairs

Imagine you are are very interested in a particular field of business. Now imagine that after closely studying this type of business you realise that becoming a PA or advisor to someone senior within that field is a good way to get a solid grounding in it for your future career prospects as indeed it often can be. There's no substitute for close interaction with industry leaders.

So after all this how would you react if when having come to this conclusion, all the PA and advisor jobs in the field you are passionate about are all stitched up behind closed doors without adequate due process and in some cases even an interview. You'd be pretty miffed I'd expect.

Of course industry used to work almost exclusively like this with a nod and a wink and a "My nephew would be a good fit for you Sir Charles". It would be naive to think this does not still go on to some extent but over the years as a society we have started to recognise that you don't get the best people like this. This is why there are rules in place about open interview processes and laws against discrimination.

But there is one field where this sort of nodding, winking and "jobs for the boys" culture is rife. It is of course politics.

A fictional SpAd from off of the telly box
If you were passionate about politics at the previous election and were of a Tory or Lib Dem persuasion you may have been interested in becoming a Special Advisor to a government minister. Dozens of them were appointed in May 2010 and as various of them have left dozens more have been appointed since too. Maybe I'm not looking hard enough but I've struggled to find job adverts for any of them*. The process of appointment for these people is opaque at best, some may say deliberately so.

I understand it's a tricky situation because ministers are looking for people they can trust and who understand both aspects of their department and also the delicate politics of the party they represent and more widely the impact of policies. So it is natural for them to fall back on a largely self-selecting coterie of people, many of whom have studied PPE or similar at top universities and have spent much of their careers in politics or think-tankery (or of course the media). But the big problem with this approach is that it forms a self-perpetuating clique of like-minded (and often like-looking) individuals all of whom come from relatively similar backgrounds.

If SpAds simply remained SpAds this would be an irritating but somewhat hidden phenomenon. But they don't remain advisors. They increasingly try to get elected themselves and often succeed. David Cameron, George Osborne, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Nick Clegg were all special advisors either to cabinet ministers or in Clegg's case an EU Commissioner (Leon Brittan) before they got into politics. That's probably the 5 most senior people in politics today and all of them to a man (and that is also part of the problem - they're often male) came up the SpAd route. And you don't have to look much further down the food chain to find people like Yvette Cooper, Oliver Letwin, Andy Burnham, Stella Creasy and David Laws all of whom had roles as political advisors of one form or another before they got elected.

This is not good for our politics. Most people agree that we need our MPs and government to be drawn from as wide a spectrum of people as possible. So this sort of cliquey back-room approach to appointing people to these roles that are more influential in some cases than many MPs and even junior ministers (just read Damian McBride's book for copious evidence of this) is very bad.

Indeed those same politicians who lecture the rest of us and legislate in order to make sure we are open and transparent in how we hire people in our businesses are doing almost the exact opposite when it comes to their own advisors.

It's time for this to change. We need to see a much more open process for hiring these sort of advisors. It may well be that the think-tank wonk who drinks in all the Westminster bars and is personally known to the minister and their partner is the best person for the job. But it may be that someone they have never heard of who has been quietly beavering away understanding politics and the policy area in question would fit the role even better.

I'll be much happier when we start to see a fully transparent hiring process for every advisor role appointed in Westminster. That way we know anyone can apply and it will be much harder for them to stitch things up in favour of the usual suspects.

*I have not been able to find any adverts for SpAds at all although I am happy to be corrected if anyone wants to point any out to me.


Scarlet Standard said...

Since at least 2010 (no idea about before) all Labour Spad jobs have been advertised on our website and W4MP.

we also have our diversity policy on the website and details of our "positive about disability" membership.

Details here:

Mark Thompson said...

@Scarlet Standard

Good to hear and I was not aware of that. I'm not sure the other parties do this but maybe someone else will come along to set me straight....

Anonymous said...

A fair few former Labour Spads are also moving into key roles in voluntary sector organisations that might be expected to be vocal critics of government policy, and then transforming the policy function of those organisations into harmless extensions of the Spad & think tank network (eg Mike Dixon & Polly Billington at Citizens Advice). Anyone would think there's a plan.