It’s time to end Labour’s dynasties

Family TreeThe Paul Richards column

I was saddened to hear of the death this week of Senator Teddy Kennedy, who has died aged 77. He lived rather longer than Mary Jo Kopechne, who was only 28 when she drowned in the car Teddy Kennedy drove off the road and into the Poucha Pond on Chappaquiddick in 1969, after a party. But hey.

Kennedy’s death has got me thinking about Labour Party political dynasties at Westminster. How healthy is it that so many of our Labour MPs come from political families? Labour Party members are imbued with egalitarianism and reject the idea of the hereditary principle, apart from when it comes to our MPs.

It’s not just the Benns, who are the Ming of Labour dynasties, with four generations of parliamentarians (John, William, Tony and Hilary) and a fifth (Emily) standing for East Worthing & Shoreham at the next election.

There are also plenty of other Labour MPs whose relatives were MPs before them. Stockton MP Dari Taylor’s father Daniel Jones was MP for Burnley from 1959 to 1983. Former chief whip Hilary Armstrong succeeded her father Ernest as MP for North West Durham. Ex-education secretary Estelle Morris is the daughter of former Manchester Openshaw MP Charles Morris and niece of former Manchester Wythenshawe MP Alf Morris. Greville Janner, MP for Leicester West from 1970 to 1997 is the son of Sir Barnett Janner, who was a Leicester MP from 1945 to 1970. Chorley MP Lindsay Hoyle is son of Doug, the former Warrington MP.

Sometimes the family connections transcend party lines. Burnley’s Labour MP Kitty Usher’s uncle is Peter Bottomley, and her aunt Virginia, which must make family Christmases interesting. Or take Alistair Darling. His great-uncle, Sir William Darling, was Conservative MP for Edinburgh South for 12 years after the Second World War, a fact I doubt he put on his selection CV.

Not all dynasties succeed. Tamsin Dunwoody failed to succeed her mother Gwyneth in the Crewe & Nantwich by-election. She was beaten by that evil toff Timpson, whose family firm cruelly exploits you by mending your shoes and cutting spare doorkeys. David Prescott failed to get selected by local party members in his father John’s seat of Hull East. Philip Webster in The Times reported:

“David Prescott found himself the victim of a whispering campaign in Labour circles with some unfriendly MPs accusing him of trading on his father’s name and others suggesting that it was bad for the party’s image to be seen to be handing a parliamentary seat from father to son.”

Who might be next? Will Straw, son of Jack, is one to watch. He’s about to stick it to the Tories with a new website. And what about Ewan Blair? He’s interned for both a Democrat and Republican senator, has an MA in international relations from Yale, and his mother has helpfully told the Sunday Times that she would be “pleased and proud” if he became an MP.

Should we be concerned that being related to an MP makes it more likely that you succeed in politics? After all, nobody thinks it’s bad for football because Brian Clough’s son Nigel, or Alex Ferguson’s son Darren, have followed their fathers into club management. And no-one cares that Guardian journalist Patrick Wintour is son of Fleet Street legend Charles Wintour and brother of Vogue editor Anna, do they?

All kinds of professions and trades, from the army, to the law, to journalism, to running a butchers are populated by people for whom it’s ‘in the family’. And politics is such a strange trade, shrouded in such mystery and misunderstanding that it seems natural that those with some insight, such as the sons and daughters of MPs, should be the ones who pursue it.

And yet, isn’t politics meant to be different? It should not be seen as a family business, nor a profession to be followed like soldiering or the bar. That’s the Tory idea of politics, with families such as the Cecils in parliament for centuries, or the two Sir Tufton Beamishes, father and son, who represented Lewes from 1924 until 1974.

Labour politics should be about great causes and advancing the lives of others, not following a family tradition. Some of Labour’s most effective politicians over the past century have come from families with little or no tradition of politics: Keir Hardie, Ernest Bevin, Barbara Castle, Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson, or Denis Healey.

If our commitment to democracy and our belief in meritocracy means anything, it means selecting our candidates on their merits, not their surnames.

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