Compulsory canvassing for special advisers
Hazel Blears has been making speeches about the need for 'democratic renewal', and expanding the number of people who get involved in politics who are not 'career politicians'. I thought I'd offer one modest observation which might assist.
As an ambitious young man with political ambitions who'd just left university, Barack Obama decided to take up a job working with people who were marginalised and disengaged from party politics. My idea is that we should make it more enticing for people who have political ambitions in Britain to do similar kinds of jobs.
At the moment, as Blears notes, it is possible to have a career in politics where every job involves talking and working almost exclusively with other people who are politically active. Think tanks, working for MPs, non-government pressure groups all offer well paid, flexible and agreeable jobs which are worthwhile and rewarding, and help people develop their political careers through networking etc. Being a lawyer (like Hazel Blears and many other MPs) offers many of the same benefits, as do a few other professions. There is also a clear career progression which runs something like doing student politics > working for an MP > councillor > working for a lobby group/think tank > special adviser > MP.
I don't disapprove of any of this, but one important omission is that there is a real shortage of jobs (and career development opportunities) which are about democratic renewal, organising in communities, running local campaigns, getting people involved in the democratic process, recruiting volunteers to campaign politically, training community leaders and other activities which involve working, living and socialising with people who aren't already politically engaged. Here, for example, is what the Industrial Areas Foundation in the USA does.
One particular advantage of this is that the job opportunities that are currently available for politically interested people are overwhelmingly aimed at university graduates, whereas grassroots organising jobs wouldn't necessarily be (being able to speak one or more community languages, for example, might well be a greater advantage than having a politics degree).
In addition, over time the creation of a sizeable community organising sector would have other positive benefits. After the first few times when special advisers, think tankers or lawyers backed by the Great and the Good get absolutely destroyed in selection meetings by people who are active in their local communities with skillz in campaigning, recruiting people and mobilising volunteers, word would get round that this kind of experience is vital for wannabe politicians - exactly as it should be.
Because there is nothing wrong with being a politician, and the idea that things would be better if we had more representatives who had so-called 'real world experience' but no political skills is daft - all that would happen is that their officials and the other politicians would run rings round them and they would be figureheads. But political skills, particularly for lefties, aren't just about knowing the right people in Westminster, understanding the current political system or putting together an interesting pamphlet, but about having experience and the skills to inspire, mobilise and organise people who are marginalised or excluded and empower them to campaign for change. And I rather suspect (though would be happy to be proved wrong) that there is hardly anyone working at the Department of Communities and Local Government or who is a special adviser to any department who has those skills.
So my idea is this. We freeze at current levels the number of people who are employed across the progressive movement whose job it is to talk to other members of the current or future political elite, and our MPs, unions, think tanks, NGOs and the Labour Party itself dedicates itself to raising money, hiring and training a whole new generation of people whose job it will be to talk to and work with people who aren't currently engaged or interested in politics. And, who knows, that way we might even get our very own Barack Obama.