Saturday 8 November 2008

26 years: the average apprenticeship for a post-war PM

Trevor Phillips would have made a more useful intervention into the discussion of barriers to a British Obama if he had tried to keep apart two quite separate issues, which he seemed to conflate in his Times interview: the institutional cultures of British politics (which are more to do with a Parliamentary system than internal party cultures) and the issue of disadvantage on grounds of race, and "institutional racism". (He is quoted in The Times using that phrase, but said on the Today programme that he does not use it).

A bit of number-crunching exemplifies the point I made earlier about how the British Parliamentary system presents barriers to a new candidate bursting through.

Taking our thirteen post-war Prime Ministers, on average they first entered Parliament 26 years before becoming Prime Minister.. This falls to an average of 17 years and 3 months for Prime Ministers since 1979. (We have had only four PMs in almost 30 years, though Obama will only be the fifth US President since 1980).

The PM with the shortest Parliamentary apprenticeship is John Major's - at eleven years. David Cameron would beat that if he could win the next election - though he would have been an MP for nine years by 2010. (For a full breakdown of when each British PM entered Parliament, see this earlier post).

This could be the point Trevor Phillips was heading towards. And there is a difference here with the US system's openness to insurgent candidates, and less emphasis on experience.

But it is possible to underestimate the emphasis the US also places on experience. However, Obama's election is also very unusual in US political history. On average, American Presidents since FDR first held elected office (of some kind) over 16 years before they were elected to the Presidency. (And Obama was first elected to the state Senate 12 years ago, though only to the national Senate in 2006).

There are two examples of electoral careers of less than a decade prior to the White House: Eisenhower (with no electoral experience at all) and Bush junior (Governor for six years). Eisenhower is a unique case given his role in World War Two.

But there are both pros and well as cons to a situation which makes it harder for a Dubya or an Obama to come through so quickly.

Here is the US data. The figures in brackets are the time between that election and the Presidency, not the time spent in that role.

Barack Obama
State Senate 1996 (12 years)
National office, US Senate 2006 (2 years)

George W Bush
State Executive Office (Governor), 1994 (6 years)
(Defeated state legislative candidate 1978)

Bill Clinton
Executive State Office (Governor), 1978 (14 years)

George HW Bush
House of Representatives 1966 (22 years)
Vice-President 1980 (8 years)

Ronald Reagan
State Executive Office (Governor) 1967 (13 years)

Jimmy Carter
State Executive Office Governor 1971 (5 years)
Georgia State Senate 1962 (14 years)

Gerald Ford
House of Representatives 1949 (25 years)

Richard Nixon
House of Representatives 1949 (20 years)
Vice-President 1953-61

State House of Representatives 1937 (26 years)
National Senate 1948 (15 years)

House of Representatives 1946 (14 years)
Senate 1952

No experience in elected politics

Harry Truman
US Senate 1934 (11 years)

State Senator 1910 (22 years)
State Governor 1929 (3 years)

1 comment:

Robert Alcock said...

I agree we need a holistic approach to moving towards a more representative political system - i.e. an approach that embraces gender, class, race and more besides. Therefore, today's news that Harriet Harman wants to see the creation of a Speaker's Committee of MPs to examine the make-up of the Commons is to be welcomed as a start. But keeping the whole matter “in-House” would be ironic in itself – and that’s why it’s important this debate has begun within civil society.

I’m struck by the prevalence of state level executive experience among
post-war US presidents and wonder it if there may not be lessons for over here. OK, the situation is far from analogous – as well as being vast, the US is officially constituted as a federal state; the UK isn’t.

But what about UK local government? Municipal politics once provided a foregrounding for many a Labour big-beast - from Herbert Morrison (London County Council) to Ken Livingstone (GLC) to David Blunkett (Sheffield City Council). Each has had their fair share of critics, but I’m sure few would dissent from the view that the backgrounds of Ken and David have given them real insight into the everyday struggles of working people.

There are many impressive figures coming through the younger ranks of Labour MPs – and some have already landed in the cabinet. But it now seems a spell working as a special advisor in Westminster/ Whitehall has replaced local government service (or trade union officialdom) as the entry-level qualification for a thrusting young Labour MP.

Look away from the bubble and see municipal politicians such as Sir Richard Leese, Labour leader of Manchester City Council, doing their best to use the heavily circumscribed powers of local government to gain real results for their populations. He has headed up our second (maybe third) biggest city since 1996. Yet the overweening locus of power – and therefore the only place where a committed and able aspiring leader can make her name – remains SW1. Even Ken, Herbert and David moved to the green benches eventually (Ken wasn’t given an option to stay on at the GLC).

Both Tory and Labour ministers have seemed to think populations will recoil from extensions of local government power, fearing a tide of town hall meddling and inflation-ripping council tax rises. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore. Anyway, it should be for local politicians to make their case directly to the electorate, who will then sanction changes— such as moves to elected mayors —as they see fit, at the ballot box.
The real problem for Labour is the erosion over a number of years of its local government base, with by far the largest number of UK councillors being Tories. The reverse was true under John Major: the electoral implications of Westminster incumbency hardly provide an attractive backdrop for ministers pondering devolution measures