Tristram Hunt, Labour’s slightly wacky and accident-prone Shadow Education Secretary, has revived Labour’s plans to license teachers. This is something that Ed Balls wanted to do when Labour were last in power, and at the time it was a response to an avalanche of “bad news stories” concerning education and the (lack of) protection of the young by the authorities. The reason for Hunt revisiting this thoroughly bureaucratic and ill-conceived idea now, though, has much more to do with the rightward-ratchet of the centre-ground in British politics.
I am not a supporter of everything Michael Gove comes up with as Education Secretary, but his brisk approach and demeanour in themselves have some value. He has flown a number of “kites”, and the educational establishment has blown some of them away; but he has done more than most ministers to shake up notions of what the state can and should be doing in the provision of public services.
I am naturally opposed to the imposition of bureaucracy (one reason for being suspicious of the regime already imposed on teachers), and frankly the Hunt proposal is daft. The language used to sell it – “Classroom MOTs” – is insulting, and typical of the dumbed-down, oversimplified language politicians hide behind these days. I have a much better idea for shaking up public service – let’s have a “Parliamentary MOT”. Let’s license politicians.
The law already sets out various classes of people who may not be an MP; members of the police or armed forces, judges, civil servants, people subject to bankruptcy conditions. Beyond that, if you are over 18, and have the right of abode in the UK, you can serve as an MP. That clearly lets in any number of people, as the present composition of the House of Commons shows, who we would be better off banning.
We are constantly confronted by MPs commenting on legal issues who don’t understand the law (as the hysteria over the Mark Duggan inquest shows, with Diane Abbot in particular making a fool of herself), by MPs using statistical data incompetently, by MPs who don’t understand Parliamentary procedure or the constitution (and sometimes they get their way – the recent EU referendum bill, the abomination of fixed-term Parliaments), quite apart from the everyday realisation that the gang of ex-PR/MP’s interns/think tank/union clones who increasingly make up the Commons just have no real-life experience.
It is necessary that we start to remedy these defects. What we need is OFPIS, the Office for Political and Intellectual Standards. They should set tests for prospective Parliamentary candidates to ensure that they reach the minimum standards required of MPs.
There’s the obvious stuff, such as weeding out people who lie on their CV, call voters “trash”, amend their own Wikipedia pages, refuse to give up priority seats on crowded buses, or buy Twitter followers and Facebook likes. This will get rid of a large number of the types who are likely to lie about their expenses, etc, but further safeguards will be necessary, no doubt. Improvements to the scheme are welcome.
The curriculum should touch subjects such as constitutional and administrative law, Parliamentary procedure, political history, maths and statistics, English language skills, and the ability to ask a simple Parliamentary question without having to read the bloody thing off a sheet of paper. It should be simple to put a test together and mandate a number of set texts, such as Erskine May, Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, Tom Bingham’s The Rule of Law, JD Mackintosh’s The British Cabinet, Sir Gerald Kaufman’s How to be a Minister, and so on.
In that history is basically your predecessors making the same mistakes that you are in danger of repeating, a working knowledge of Crossman’s, Castle’s, Benn’s, Clark’s and Mullins’ diaries should be assumed. This list is biased towards Labour, because unfortunately most Conservative politicians write exceptionally dull memoirs, and because Labour politicians make more mistakes anyway. I expect once the Lib Dems start racing to get their books out in Opposition after 2015 they will prove to be especially divulgent and bitchy. Vince Cable is probably going to etch his on sheets of metal using the acid dripping from his tongue.
Now there is a problem with this, which I acknowledge readily – it is the sort of learning one might already expect from university graduates in Politics, and God knows there are plenty of them around Westminster already messing things up. If you think my generation – broadly the Cameron/Clegg/Miliband cohort – are making a mess of politics, you wait and see what those who are coming up afterwards will do if we’re not careful. Owen Jones, the loons who have taken over the Bow Group, battalions of UKIPpers still chasing their first Westminster seat in 2020, and any remaining Young Liberals who have resisted the depredations of elderly perverts and stuck with the party after annihilation in 2015. The upcoming generations pose a grave threat, and we should take precautions.
The problem is that many of them don’t seem to have actually absorbed much useful knowledge. Modern youth politics, as anyone who follows the dismal proceedings of Conservative Future and its analogues in other parties will know, is mostly about getting drunk, sleeping with your fellow members, making politically-embarrassing Facebook status updates, and defecting to/from UKIP every few weeks. In my day as a student we had neither Facebook nor UKIP, and life was much simpler.
We’re too late for 2015 I suspect, as a great many candidates are already in place. Solid, decent Labour men like John Denham are being elbowed out by Westminster bubble journalists. We probably won’t be in time to intercept Gerald Vernon-Jackson when he eventually knifes Mike Hancock.
But by 2020 we should have OFPIS up and running, and we can cascade the process down the political ladder until we have purged even local authorities. People such as the Lib Dems currently wrecking Portsmouth are on borrowed time, even if the electorate don’t finish them off first. This modest proposal will greatly improve the quality of political life in this country, and I hope it will meet with widespread support.