Let the blaring horns and inchoate advertisements sound! The silly season is under way.
But away from the bluster, party grandees on both sides voice nagging consternation: where is the next generation of political candidates? There are opposition strongholds to be contested and back-bench seats to be filled. Someone needs to do the grunt work that is the lot of the striving political aspirant everywhere.
But increasingly there are fewer to turn to. More of the old guard retire each day.
Why does that matter, you ask? Why should we care who the next generation of crooks are?
Well, it matters very much: not just to party apparatchiks but to everyone interested in long-term economic growth and development.
Our prosperity is intricately tied to our institutions. Political economists Carlos Pereira and Vladimir Teles at the Brookings Institute, a think-tank, have used data on more than 100 countries over 30 years to investigate the link between political systems and economic growth. As they put it: the “longer the same elite is in power” and “the more party-centred the electoral system is, the smaller economic growth will be.”
There is a solution to both of those problems: encourage more people to enter politics. By the simple law of numbers, this would encourage a greater plurality of views within parties and reduce the hold of party or ethnic loyalties.
More talent in the field also increases the chances of upsets and allows for increased mobility within parties. And that mobility needn’t necessarily threaten existing leadership. Party leaders can stick young whippersnappers in opposition strongholds to try their mettle; or groom successors who will turn to older mentors for advice. Brighter slates attract more votes.
The toughest problem is not convincing party leaders, but convincing people to throw their hats in the ring. The truth is that most people, young or old, have embraced the narrative that politics has been corrupted beyond redemption, and to enter it means tarnishing their reputations forever.
A run for office in a developed country carries much less risk. If you lose, you shrug and return to your life and career. If anything, your reputation is enhanced.
In TT, however, there is no turning back. You will forever be associated with a profession whose main traits are still considered to be duplicity and venality. Then there is the fear of reprisals once out of office. These risks are not inconsiderable. Little wonder that many of those most qualified to step into the ring – leaders in their own fields already – keep well away. The negative narrative becomes self-fulfilling.
In order to attract qualified talent to public life, we must improve the reputation of politics and politicians. And in doing so, we must distinguish between personal reputations (many of which well deserve their blackened state) and the reputation of public service as a whole.
Hang on, you might say. Surely the reason we revile parties and politicians is because they have stolen funds and implemented terrible policies. We should fix that first!
No one is arguing against tackling corruption or enacting the bevy of procurement and campaign-finance reform we so desperately need. But practically, to do those things we must bring in new political candidates who will support them. And the only to do so is to raise the stature of politics. People must feel able to work with one of the political parties without having their reputation sullied.
This is not impossible. Banker Wendell Mottley, economist Winston Dookeran, businessman Gerry Brooks and lawyer Timothy Hamel-Smith have all worked in different regimes in one capacity or the other, taken some knocks to be sure, but retained and even enhanced their reputations for worthy public service.
They have done so in large part by keeping their focus on policies, ideas and getting things done. Indeed, for those serving on the front line this makes good politics. It broadens support beyond the party base and captures votes from the disillusioned middle.
We must encourage any shift to real discussions of issues, ideas and policies. When a politician enacts a good policy, we should give them credit instead of saying, “You should have done this years ago” (true though it may be). That will make them more likely to keep making better policies, in the hope of winning more support (and votes).
Politics done right remains one of the most powerful ways to effect societal change. By restoring respect to the tradition of public office, we can attract those fit to hold it.
Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker, and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh