The Conservative Future scandal and career politicians
By Romy Biscoe
Recent allegations involving the leadership of Conservative Future, particularly in regards to Mark Clarke and the suicide of Elliott Johnson, need to be taken seriously, and attempts at remedying the situation need to be thorough. The issue involving Johnson’s suicide is the gravest concern resulting from the scandal, and there needs to be an independent inquiry that establishes liability for those involved, particularly considering the allegations of bullying, sexual harassment, and sadly, Johnson’s death.
My biggest regret, taking political orientation out of the equation, is that we have lost an intelligent and dedicated mind from the world of politics. Clearly he was a talented individual with an aptitude for political writing and debate, becoming Political Editor at Conservative Way Forward earlier this year.
What the scandal has led me to consider is the role of those at the top of the organisation and whether their motives were right or not. The point of this article, however, is not to vilify any individuals in particular, since no-one has yet been formally charged. Questions need to be answered over the leadership’s role and how the organisation was run under their control.
Fundamentally, this scandal is the result of poor organisation and personal mistakes of individuals, both in terms of the allegations themselves and the inability of the organisation to uncover what is being reported. As Kate Allen and George Parker said in their article for the Financial Times, Grant Shapps’ resignation is reflective of how he has tried to claim responsibility for the scandal, but it is not going to go away. If the allegations are true, there needs to be a serious look into the way Conservative Future was being run, and thus what can be done to make sure that, under new leadership, the organisation goes back to doing what it was and is meant to do; some of which, was focusing on issues affecting young people, and encouraging bright new minds into the Conservative Party.
Rightly or wrongly, the scandal has led me to reflect upon the role of career politicians, but also in this case, whether power has been given priority over conviction. It is clear that the allegations of blackmail made by Johnson suggest that Clarke was heavily invested in control, and that much of this culture of intimidation became apparent in RoadTrip2015, of which he was in charge.
Isabel Hardman’s blog for The Spectator points to Clarke’s insistence on wanting to be selected for a safe seat, and that this led to an entanglement of power struggles between individuals wanting to keep their political networks in tact. Hardman also questions whether those entering politics are doing it for the right reasons, and whether we get the ‘wrong politicians’ as a result. This suggests that perhaps the party as a whole is not solely to blame. It can be questioned, however, the power that these individuals held at the top of Conservative Future, and whether the organisation was thwarted as a result of their leadership, and to what extent it will be tainted in the future by this scandal.
I saw a friend’s post on Facebook which drew attention to the fact that many members of Conservative Future want their career to entirely be in politics, rather than having politics as a hobby. Interestingly, an article written in The Telegraph earlier this year by Asa Bennett drew attention to research done by the UCL Parliamentary Candidates project. It looked at the rise of professional politicians in the mainstream parties, compared to those wanting to become MPs from within the party, whether in the form of activists or lobbyists.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Scottish National Party had the least number of people from outside politics, and the Conservatives were narrowly pipped by UKIP in the number of people with business backgrounds involved with the party.
The standard argument against career politicians is that they are out of touch, having never experienced life in the work place as the general public have. Perhaps they lack the insight into ‘ordinary’ working lives. Tony Blair once argued that it is a problem in Western democracies that people go straight from university, as both Ed Miliband and David Cameron did, into the party as researchers, for example. He argued that this means they lack experience and would be “better able to see the world” if they had had a job prior to entering politics.
Whether you agree with this or not, it is good to see that the number of politicians who have had other employment experience outside of politics is on the rise, and as Asa Bennett draws attention to, it looks to remain this way for the foreseeable future.
In regards to the Conservative Future scandal, there needs to be fundamental changes made to the leadership following the banning of those whom the allegations have been made against, from the party. Jack Murray, Manchester Conservative Future Chairman, has said in light of the scandal:
“Whilst the events at the top of Conservative Future have of course been awful, the actions of those few are in no way representative of the organisation as a whole. Each and every time I meet members of Manchester CF, I see honest, hardworking members who campaign and help to create a better country and city. From selling poppies, to volunteering on World AIDS Day, members continually make a difference. Don’t mistake a rotten apple for a rotten tree.”
Hopefully, following the scandal, therefore, Conservative Future can remain an active influence on the party as a whole, and continue to expand its membership. Fundamentally, however, there needs to be justice for Elliot Johnson’s family, and to ensure his death changes the way the organisation is run and the motives of those involved.