It wasn’t quite our answer to the West Wing — too young, too cynical — but it filled a Bartlet-shaped hole in the TV schedule. Party Animals followed a clique of sexually bipartisan political advisers at Westminster in the dying days of New Labour. Matt Smith and Andrea Riseborough played researchers to a Caroline Flintish Home Office minister, pragmatic and idealistic in the right measure, while Shelley Conn and Pip Carter worked for her shadow number, a sort of dishy Ed Vaizey eager to modernise the Tories one decriminalised spliff at a time.
There was little in the way of Sam Seaborn idealism and the implausibly attractive leads seemed to switch romantic allegiances in the time it took to power-walk down a corridor in Portcullis House. But the 2007 BBC Two drama was a guilty pleasure for politicos and anoraks. It was smart. It was funny. It was sexy. The BBC cancelled it after eight episodes.
If only the Party Animals culture could be killed off so easily. In fact, we’re heading in the opposition direction, thanks to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), a sop to public opinion created in the wake of the expenses scandal that has failed to rise even to that low ambition. On Wednesday, IPSA announced plans to ban MPs from employing family members as staffers.
Like IPSA itself, the motivations behind this crackdown are a hodgepodge of good intentions and bad policymaking. The public is convinced MPs are still tanning the gravy train and no one ever found themselves on the wrong side of a headline-writer by making life more difficult for politicians. Moreover, the watchdog has spoken to the Equality and Human Rights Commission and they say that MPs who do not advertise jobs could be engaging in ‘indirect discrimination’ by failing to ‘reach people with a particular protected characteristic’.
IPSA chair Ruth Evans is not keen on MPs recruiting family members, or ‘connected parties’ as she calls them. Evans deems getting your hubby to go through the constituency postbag ‘out of step with modern employment practice’, insufficiently ‘fair and open’, and fails ‘to encourage diversity in the workplace’.
I’ll bet she’s a right laugh to work with.
Evans’ high-handed pronunciamento takes no regard of what MPs say works in their offices. Parliamentarians who employ relatives report that they are better disposed to working late nights and weekends; a 2010 IPSA consultation found ‘consensus that MPs’ family members can provide good value for money due to their willingness to work long and anti-social hours’ and ‘evidence of only one instance of abuse under the House of Commons system’. Perversely, these fresh guidelines concede the key arguments for MPs employing kith and kin — but proceed to overrule them anyway. ‘[T]his decision is not based on any identified abuse or misclaiming, the report concludes, and even ‘agree[s] with the MPs who have told us that connected parties regularly go “above and beyond” in supporting MPs in their constituency’.
This accords with another IPSA review, held in 2015, which found that ‘whilst connected parties earned more on average than other staff, they tended to hold more senior positions. They did not earn more when compared to those staff with similar job descriptions. There were no compliance concerns for most connected parties, but we recognised that there were few controls in place to identify wrongdoing in advance’. The fact that current employees who fall foul of the new rules will be allowed to stay on is an admission that there are no pressing concerns with the status quo.
What possible justification, then, for this bullheaded interference in how MPs run their offices? The custodians of parliamentary virtue are above such mortal concerns as evidence and rationale. ‘IPSA need not be constrained by its past decisions in determining new rules of the scheme,’ the new policy airily announces.
The stranglehold of the SpAd class, the nomenklatura of advisers without hinterland and both eyes on a safe seat, has not just been strengthened. It’s been institutionalised.
The SpAd class isn’t all bad; some of my best friends are SpAds. The slinky, Sloaney Aramintas who hang on every sound word of Brexiteer backbenchers; the former and future charity press officers labouring through the Corbyn nakba with knowing grimaces and well-sugared cups of tea; the wide-eyed twinky suits still living at home a year ago and now players in the Nationalist power base at Westminster. They have their place; some are brilliant and will go on to make great MPs.
But representing the people in their Parliament is unlike any other job. There is no contract, no terms of employment. The role is part advocate, part social worker, all the while advancing your political party and personal career. Yes, you need aides with strategic nous but a PPE and a summer internship at Edelman are worthless if you don’t know the No.62 route’s been axed and the No.18A doesn’t go past the GP surgery. Serving an MP requires deeper levels of trust, commitment, and locus than PAing for a chief executive, demanding though that can be. An MP’s wife or son or sister will know the community they are working for intimately and will help shape their loved-one’s outlook on local as well as national affairs.
It jars, doesn’t it, that word ‘love’? There is no place for love in IPSA’s sterile vision of modern practice and connected parties. Yet love is organic to the best kind of politics; love for a hometown, love for a party, love for a set of values. That love may be shared with a partner, or entwined in a family’s story, and when it is, the sense of duty it kindles, the passion it brings to the humdrum, the solace it offers in defeat — these are qualities to be cherished in public service, not frozen out by the cold, unfeeling prejudices of over-promoted accountants. With this attention-seeking vandalism, IPSA has put the Party Animals in charge. That’s one show that won’t get axed any time soon.
Stephen Daisley will be writing regularly for Coffee House. He is also a columnist with the Scottish Daily Mail