Paddling in a Shallow Gene Pool

Geraint Talfan Davies examines the professional background of our AMs and MPs

The row over MPs’ expenses, and its much paler shadow at the National Assembly, has given David Cameron the space and lever to promise to cut the size of the House of Commons by 10 per cent, and to cut ministerial pay by 5 per cent. It is hard to know whether this is mere populism, prudent economy or constitutional change. However, we can be certain that if the reduction is ever implemented it will produce a sharp focus on performance and selection procedures in our political parties.

Putting aside the constitutional implications – and some would argue that it poses considerable risks for the union – the prospect of such a change makes it timely to consider the background of our elected representatives.

In the Summer 2009 issue of Agenda I argued that “for those in Cardiff Bay used to hearing gripes about the calibre of Assembly Members, it must have been a vicarious pleasure to hear similar complaints about MPs”. But I also argued that we need to take care with this language: “To argue about the calibre of elected members seems to be an act of personal denigration, in the vast majority of cases undeserved. The real issue is about the increasing narrowness of the gene pool from which elected members are drawn, and that is certain to be a much bigger issue for a body of 60 members in Cardiff Bay than for the 646 in the House of Commons”.

This set me wondering whether the general impression of a narrow gene pool within the National Assembly was well founded or not. On the basis of a review of publicly available biographies of all those elected in the three elections – 1999, 2003 and 2007 – there is one unequivocal conclusion. The dominance of the public sector in Wales has been given full expression throughout the Assembly’s first decade.

In the three elections 89 people have been elected. Of those, 33 (37 per cent) claim some experience of the private sector, including the private professions. Of these 33, nine are no longer serving as a result of retirement, death or defeat, leaving the current Assembly with 25 (42 per cent) claiming some time in the private sector: Labour with 9 (26 per cent of their group), Plaid with 4 (27 per cent), Conservatives with 9 (64 per cent) and Liberal Democrats with 2 (33 per cent).

But this is to stretch the definition of private sector experience to the limit. For example, it would include two of the three candidates for the Labour leadership – Carwyn Jones, as a barrister, and Edwina Hart out of banking, although her key involvement was as a trade union official. It would also include Plaid’s Gareth Jones, as an educational consultant, although his work would undoubtedly have had a primarily public sector focus, plus the Conservative Nick Ramsay’s two years as a driving instructor. I think it is fair to count three farming AMs –  Mick Bates, Kirsty Williams and Brynle Williams – in the private sector, although farming puts you pretty close to the public till.

Many careers cross the public/private divide. Every one of the 41 Labour AMs since 1999 has had some prior work experience within the public sector (excluding political service), either in local government, the health service, education, or the BBC. The same is also true of all but four of the 23 Plaid Cymru AMs. The exceptions are Dafydd Wigley, the accountant Mohammad Asghar, and two new regional list members, Nerys Evans and Bethan Jenkins, whose only post-university work experience has been within the party. Amongst the Liberal Democrats only Kirsty Williams has had no work experience in the public sector. The Conservatives are the one party to buck this trend, with only six of their 18 past and present members having had some public sector experience.

It can be argued, of course, that experience of the public sector is just as important, if not more important to the Assembly, given that the role of government is primarily to do with the delivery of public services. But even then it is pertinent to ask what are the reserves of senior experience in larger organisations – whether public, private or voluntary – on which the Assembly and the Welsh Government can draw. Inevitably, any assessment involves some subjective judgements both about organisations and about the definition of senior experience.

Any tally of those with experience of sizeable organisations would not encompass more than a dozen members across the three terms, half of whom are no longer serving. This leaves Leighton Andrews (BBC), Andrew Davies (Ford), Edwina Hart (BIFU), Rhodri Morgan (South Glamorgan County Council), Nick Bourne (Swansea Institute of Higher Education) and Paul Davies (Lloyds-TSB). Those no longer serving would include two former leaders of large local authorities, Sue Essex (Cardiff) and Pauline Jarman (Rhondda, Cynon Taf), a deputy chief constable, Alison Halford, a vice-principal of an FE college, Alun Pugh, and Dafydd Wigley a financial controller with, successively, Ford, Mars and Hoover.

Such work experience as exists within the Assembly is primarily derived from small scale enterprise, with almost none drawn from the senior ranks of any kind of organisation. Arguably, Alison Halford and Nick Bourne (Deputy Principal, Swansea Institute of Higher Education) are the two who have held the most senior managerial positions in organisations of any size.

The work experience of AMs does, however, cover the gamut of the Assembly Government’s functions – health, social services, youth work, teaching and lecturing, equal opportunities, farming, banking and finance, and the quasi-private sector of small business consultancy. It can also boast no less than seven drawn from journalism, marketing, public relations and the media, not to mention one minister of religion. But what marks out the non-political work experience of too many in this cohort is not the lack of range, but the brevity not to say shallowness of the experience.

Is the picture any different among the 40 Welsh MPs in what is still the senior legislature? Apparently not. If 42 per cent of current Assembly members claim some private sector experience, only 37 per cent of our MPs do so. In the largest party group – Labour – 35 per cent of Assembly members are in that category against only 27 per cent of MPs. In each of the other three parties, two of their three MPs have worked in the private sector. In the 29 strong Westminster Labour group, 24 have public or voluntary sector experience.

Overall, one might also argue that the work experience of MPs is even more limited: one farmer, Roger Williams, against the Assembly’s three, Mick Bates, Brynle Williams and Kirsty Williams; three from journalism and PR (Ann Clwyd, Alun Michael and Don Touhig), against the Assembly’s five (Leighton Andrews, Alun Davies, Sandy Mewies, Alun Ffred Jones, Kirsty Williams). Welsh MPs can count proportionately more lawyers – two solicitors, David Jones and Ian Lucas, and one barrister, Elfyn Llwyd, to put against the Assembly’s two, barrister Carwyn Jones and solicitor, Ieuan Wyn Jones, although one might also want to count Nick Bourne, as a former law professor.

Neither is it easy to find senior managerial experience amongst the MPs. Labour’s David Hanson was National Director of a charity, the Society for the Prevention of Solvent Abuse, and Lembit Opik headed the Corporate training and Organisation Development Department for Procter and Gamble. After that it is pretty thin, and certainly thinner than the Assembly.

However, it would be a mistake to take too managerialist a view of political representation – management and politics are different disciplines. A key task of politics is representation, and that requires a different knowledge and empathy. But any legislature, especially one that also constitutes an executive, also requires some aptitude for executive action and for the scrutinising of government, for framing and s
crutinising legislation, as well as some sense of what constitutes sound strategy and the impact of policy and legislation on the behaviour of organisations as well as individuals.

The only necessary caveat about the above arises from the frequent vagueness of the biographical details that elected members put on their constituency or party websites. In these days of accountability and compliance there is a strong case to be made that a detailed and public account of the life experience of candidates and members is just as important as an account of their expenses.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA. This article, reported on by today’s Western Mail, appears in the Winter 2009 issue of the IWA journal just published.

One thought on “Paddling in a Shallow Gene Pool

  1. Do you have a table of the raw data that was compiled for this please?

    I wonder if there are any long-term patterns when AMs' backgrounds are compared against the voting record.

    Just a Google Spreadsheet like the ones used at the Guardian Data Store would be handy.

    Thanks for a thorough analysis.

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