How We Choose MPs: Responding to Nick Nuttgens.

Dear Nick,

You have given thought to the way in which we select MPs in the UK and suggested that we might exchange some ideas about their role and the qualifications that they should have to enable them to carry out their work.

In 2017, Professor Meg Russell @ConUnit_UCL and @DanielGover published their book “Legislation at Westminster” concluding that parliament works better than it is given credit for in having an impact on policy development but there is plenty of room for improvement.

On 15 November 2017, a seminar was held in parliament to discuss their findings, during which David Natzler, Clerk of the House of commons said, “Most members of the UK parliament do not come to Westminster expressly to legislate, but to support their parties.”

In “What do MPs do?” it says that MPs work in parliament to support their parties. I can find no definition of MP’s duties and responsibilities as legislators. This seems odd to me and I feel that, before the way in which MPs are chosen is considered, serious thought should be given to what exactly they should be asked to do as legislators; how their duties and responsibilities should be defined.

Of course, that is a potentially complex task that must be undertaken by constitutional experts but, in simple, layman’s terms it seems to me that measures should be taken to make it clear that MPs are, first and foremost, independent lawmakers. And in that capacity they should not be told what to do by a small number of political party managers. On behalf of all their constituents (not just the members of their local party associations) and in the interests of the country as a whole they should be able to consider all the facts surrounding a particular issue and vote freely according to their consciences. The facts should be presented to them, together with the pros and cons of viable options, by an independent civil service.

When we consider the complexity of modern day issues, the task facing our legislators in parliament and the associated responsibility is awesome. And, it follows that those chosen to represent us and make laws on our behalf should be of the very highest quality, highly respected, beyond reproach and thereby trusted by all of us as citizens. In all probability suitable candidates will:

  1. Be very well educated, probably with a first class degree(s).
  2. Have demonstrated success in a professional capacity.
  3. Have sufficient professional expertise and experience to return to a professional career after serving as a lawmaker if necessary, thereby ensuring complete freedom of thought.
  4. Be of sound, well balanced character, capable of objective thinking and not ideologically biased.

All of these characteristics, but particularly the latter, are subjective and the question arises, “who should do the assessment and compile a short list of prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs) who might be put before the electorate?”

As Isabel Hardman has pointed out in her book “Why We Get the Wrong Politicians”, there is a strong case for finding a better process for the selection of PPCs. It should not be left to a tiny number of people on political party panels.

Once again, this is a complex subject that should be examined by constitutional experts in due course, but there might well be a case for establishing a system (supervised by a reformed Electoral Commission(EC) with new powers) whereby aspiring PPCs make application initially to the EC in their own right, not as representatives of a particular party or organisation. After vetting by the EC (necessary to ensure good character and the capacity to handle sensitive information in due course) a suitable number of candidates might then be put before a citizens panel that would, in turn, produce a short list of candidates to be put to the electorate. Then the short list might be sent by post to those on the electoral role together with the CVs of the candidates. There should be the opportunity for voters to put questions to candidates in writing but there should be little need if any for widespread campaigning which we know can be manipulated.

We know by now, I think, that dirigiste or command economies do not work, individual and group needs are too complex to be managed by highly centralised states. At the same time we know that markets are not perfect and if they are not regulated to some extent they can descend into chaos. In the UK, we can also identify the major problems that we face, and have to be managed, such as the establishment of a sustainable health and care system. So we can see that those we choose to address these issues in parliament have no need for old ideologies of the left and right but they need to be the best brains that we can find to consider relevant facts, objectively, on our behalf before reaching a consensus and setting out viable plans for the future.

The Brexit crisis has demonstrated, for all to see, that the UK’s governmental systems are failing to address the issues of the day. Parliament has become dysfunctional. Part of the fix is to ensure that we have the right politicians functioning properly as legislators in parliament and it is to be hoped that an appropriate assembly of experts will be able to consider the issue before making recommendations for reform of the MP/Legislator selection processes that are now needed.

Author: Francis Bebbington

Septuagenarian pondering political process

2 thoughts on “How We Choose MPs: Responding to Nick Nuttgens.”

  1. A very interesting blog, Francis. I must read both Hardman and Russell/Glover when I get out of here and have a bit more of a functioning brain. Sorry it took me a while to write this.

    I agree that we need a definition of the legislator role that would help to inform selection processes. I’m not so sure about your desire to eliminate parties – I’ll say more about that – but certainly would like to consider the pros and cons of whipping. Instinctively, I oppose it but I suspect it has evolved for a reason. Might one risk of the free vote approach be pork barrelling – individual MPs feeling accountable only to their own constituents’ interests?

    I absolutely agree that the Civil Service’s role in promoting high quality debate and policy development could be reviewed. One suggestion I have is to create a protocol/ guidance document on this – see below. Key here is to make the clash of political visions, beliefs and values explicit so that claims can be tested against outcomes. I once watched May and Corbyn arguing at PMQs about whether taxing the rich brought in more revenue or not; the argument was about beliefs, not evidence.

    I’m afraid I question your list of desirable attributes for political leaders. I don’t believe that epistocracy is either desirable or politically feasible.

    1. I absolutely don’t think that a first class degree should be a requirement for MPs. Reasons include: (a) It would exclude working class people when they should definitely be represented and may well have a more realistic understanding of industrial and social issues than cosseted middle class people; (b) First class degrees don’t always go to the best or most innovative thinkers – they may go to dutiful swots, not the people developing amazing practical projects.

    2. I do think that MPs and Ministers should bring relevant skills and experience. That may not be ‘professional’ however. Experience as a shop floor worker, for example, should be represented in parliament. If you’ve always lived in a relatively comfortable middle or upper class world, you don’t have an accurate picture of society. Every MP should know what a prison is like, a hospital, a mine, an Amazon warehouse, etc. I think they should all have experience of the real economy and I question people going straight from university into politics, no matter how bright or motivated they are. I’d suggest that the Desirables Person Spec includes “At least five years’ work experience outside of academic study and paid political work.” (I think many people wouldn’t like that proposal though!)
    Where I think we are on the same page is wanting to see Ministers with credible skills. I once considered applying for a job as Deputy Director of Children’s Services for a big city. The Person Spec included: ‘at least three years experience of complex change management in a senior position.’ This was when schools were being thrown into upheaval by Michael Gove, whose only work experience was as a journalist. And another huge lack amongst Parliamentarians appears to be project management skills. King and Crewe’s book, The Blunders of our Governments, gives examples from across the political spectrum of ill conceived, badly planned, badly costed projects that have led to unjustifiable levels of waste. It would also seem not inappropriate to call for experience and skills in leadership; this might reduce the chances of the shop floor worker making it through but not necessarily – she could have become a union organiser or a manager.

    3. MPs’ employment status and future employability are things that do need reconsideration. The risk that MPs make policy decisions on the basis of keeping their party in power and themselves in a job should be obviated. But your proposal smacks of the old days when only the landed gentry could stand, or afford to stand. I’m shocked to see that an unseated MP may only get £17k as an out of office payment: Becoming an MP requires a huge investment of time, energy and money; the job itself is more than full time (although some do manage to fit in odd KIT days ); there is no doubt that it hugely disturbs a career. In my view, they should all get at least six months’ salary when they step down – perhaps accompanied by a no revolving door policy. That would give them time to regroup and reduce perverse incentives.

    4. I absolutely agree about needing MPs with good thinking skills. In fact, right now, short of the major review, there are two practical things I would especially like to promote, both of which could be rapidly implemented:

    1. A Person Specification for parliamentary candidates across all parties. To prevent this from restricting applications unduly, the knowledge, experience, skills and attitudes listed should be ‘desirables ’ not ‘essentials’ with the understanding that few candidates would meet them all. Whether this should be matched to a Job Description could be explored. I believe that a committee of MPs not long ago decided against a detailed JD.

    2. A written protocol that spells out the characteristics of high quality debate. While much intelligent debate does already take place, especially in Select Committees, and public perceptions are skewed by the circus of PMQs, I still hear hardly any ‘meta’ dialogue in which the quality of arguments is being assessed. Greta Thunberg asked what the point of children going to school to learn facts is if governments just ignore facts; I ask what is the point of schools and universities running courses in critical thinking, logic, philosophy and political psychology if none of the skills and understandings that they teach are either acknowledged or practised by those charged with leading us? Again, what I propose cannot be prescriptive, nor so specific as to become ideologically weighted; rather the protocol should lay out the features and vocabulary of high quality debate, so they can be referred to as and when appropriate.

    I take issue with your notion of there being ‘sensible’ people who are not ideologically biased. This notion seems to be doing the rounds (See Change UK, Renew, etc.) The assumption seems to be that avoiding paralysing tribal ideological positions means embracing a kind of soft neo-liberalism, described as ‘centrist’ or ‘pragmatic’. I do think that we need more refined analysis on a case by case basis, but that would include articulating clashes of values and beliefs where they occur, and talking them through intelligently. We/our representatives should be much more ‘literate’ both politically and emotionally – able to describe what is going on, recognise the underlying values and beliefs at work, then submitting them to the tests of logic and feasibility.

    In other words, I sort of agree that the answer is regulated markets but I think your own position is ‘ideological’. What I’m looking for is nuance: all rigid principles should be challenged and qualified by specific conditions, caveats and exemptions. Eg ‘Taxing people in the top ten per cent produces x income, providing that caveats a, b and c are met.’ ‘Markets need to unencumbered in respect of y, but the profit motive must be tempered by centrally imposed human rights and health and safety regulations.’ Strong research leading to clear evidence should underpin parliamentary debates. (Incidentally I don’t understand the absence of PowerPoints in Westminster.)

    I don’t think parties are going up be eliminated. Even so-called independent candidates would have political biases and would tend to connect up with others who share them to develop persuasive manifestos. But maybe ending whipping would allow more independence of thought once elected, and explicit standards for constructive debate might help better decisions to be made. I’d favour PR so that a wider range of values can be represented (including Green, which I support) and then there would need to be more EU-style cross party formulation of policy.

    What do you think about my two specific proposals above?




    1. Hi Nick,

      Thank you very much for taking the the trouble to read my note and for your comprehensive reply. I hope that you are out of there very soon, if not already, and that you are well.

      I think that we are pretty much on the same page in that we both, along with millions of people, feel that all is not well with our governmental arrangements and there is a need for reform. Your two specific points are very important. We should look at a Person Specification for parliamentary candidates and guidance around the quality of debate in parliament. One parliamentarian commented recently that most MPs do not debate, they simply read out statements.

      My over-riding concern is that no change will come about unless there is cross-party agreement to set up an independent body, Royal Commission, Constitutional Convention or something similar that can consider potential for change in all areas of governance, make recommendation and work with parliament to implement them. The process could take many years.

      I do not know the answers. Some of the areas for consideration, such as the relationship between the executive and parliament are complex and they need the consideration of a group of highly qualified people. But we can as ordinary citizens easily identify some areas that might be considered for change and improvement. I made a list a few weeks ago (see below), but a much more authoritative summary has been set out by members of the Constitution Society in the paper:

      “Brexit and the Melting of the British Constitution” Blick and Henessy:

      Click to access Blick-and-Henessy-and-the-Melting-of-the-British-Constitution.pdf

      It is well worth a read.

      With best wishes,



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