Labour’s careerism problem

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Careerism. It’s a topic often discussed by members huddled after meetings but it is not one that is openly debated. Beyond the odd taunt thrown at a member there is no real discussion: for the most part this word – its meaning and its consequences – are rarely explored.

The moment you hear the word careerist an image of a young member, most likely a Labour student, jumps into your head. They’re impeccably groomed, fiery, networked, and above all else driven. It’s an unfair representation of young members, Labour students, and surprisingly careerists themselves.

Careerist in my mind means someone who puts their own advancement above all else, where the party or its affiliates becomes a vehicle for their ambition and ego. There are few greater crimes in politics than to be self-serving, to be the caricature that the public detest and the media loves to hate. It’s this that makes any accusation of careerism not only a grave insult but also potentially damaging.

Careerists exist at all levels and ages of the party – just attend a CLP meeting, meet your local Labour councillors, mingle with MPs or join an affiliated organisation and you’ll be able to identify people who fit the bill. Whether it’s left or right, young or old, the careerists are everywhere, like some political version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Common traits aside there are in my opinion two types of careerist: the ambitious with a set goal in mind that are at least competent or those that are title-grabbers who pursue role after role but do little in the way of work. We often discuss the former but not the latter in careerist terms.

These are the people who stifle debate to suit their own needs, label questions as dissent and change as undemocratic. They are councillors hanging in there for the pensions, or members climbing from role to role without merit or achievement.

Both strands of careerist exist; however an unintended consequence is that many older members now characterise younger members as careerists due to their drive and commitment at a young age. It has become almost a given that active members under 30 are given this unfair title at some point or other once they express interest in a role.

This is not to say that there are not young careerists in the party, but a blanket application of the term risks alienating sections of an already small membership. As a party we have roughly 200,000 members (a pitiful number when compared to other western democracies) but how many of these are active? How many are young? Surely a minority on both counts. The risk is that careerist becomes a catch-all term for any young member actively participating and that by misidentifying commitment and drive for self-interest we risk further alienating those young members and supporters who we desperately need involved.

However what I find most disturbing is that within the party there seems to be a startling level of acceptance of both careerists and title-grabbers. Whether it’s a member desperately clinging onto a position long after they should have resigned or another intimidating opponents in an election, it’s accepted as ‘just how it works’.

This is simply not good enough. By accepting negative and unproductive behaviour as cultural it becomes entrenched and once it’s entrenched the difficulty in removing it amplifies.

If we do not challenge these views then we risk further apathy among our own members and the politically interested being turned off by our own ‘traditions’. We are not in a position or situation to allow this to continue, and even if we were (and have been) it’s wrong.

We need to challenge the misinterpretation of young member’s motives, the entrenched culture of accepting careerism and finally the individuals themselves. Only by speaking out and offering an alternative do you change a culture and practice.

If we don’t we risk a further loss of faith in politics, not from the public but our own members.

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