A prize example of reformist waffle

Waffle exists everywhere, but there’s a particular sort of waffle when it comes to discussing political reform – and in particular the reform of Parliament.  Anyone playing Parliamentary Reform Waffle Bingo would have had a full house after reading this piece, published yesterday in the Observer.  The article itself is not great, but many of the ‘expert’ suggestions that follow take the biscuit (you must get bonus points for writing ‘overarching holistic agenda’).  The best, though is this:

Politics should be reclaimed as a public service, with a majority aiming to hold public office in their lifetime.

Sounds jolly impressive, but let’s try to work this through.  Say there are around 200,000 elected public offices in the UK.  This is a really rough and ready estimate (no one seems very sure how many parish councillors there are, and with around 9,000 parish councils these will make up the majority of any figure) but it’ll do for now.

There are, currently, around 63 million people in the UK, of whom 52 million are aged 15 or upwards.  (The same person advocating this proposal also advocates votes at 16, naturally).

So, at any one time, *roughly*, 0.4% are in elected office.  Let’s be really generous and allow for, say, five people, to have contested each of those positions (although in reality many parish council elections, which make up the majority, go uncontested). That makes around 2% of the adult population attempting to hold public office in any one election cycle.  (Although even this figure assumes that each person only stands for one post).

Average life expectancy in the UK is just over 80 years, so from 15 to 80 would give someone (roughly) 13 five-year cycles in which they could stand for things. So, if we introduce term limits allowing people to stand for just one five year term and never stand for any other position after that (and, in fact, only allow people to even stand for election once, whether successful or not) we can get that figure up go from 2% to 26%.  Even this is well short of a majority and is based on such heroic assumptions that the real figure will be much much lower.

To get to a position where a majority attempted to stand for elected office, you would have to increase competition for each position massively and/or have an enormous increase in the number of such posts available.  Neither seem very likely or to be very popular (‘more politicians’ is not an obvious route for democratic engagement).

It’s possible that our maths is out (this is real back of the fag packet stuff), and if so, let us know…, but it’s also possible that this is just another example of a fine sounding claim being made that doesn’t actually make sense.