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The Column icon The Column: Issue 44

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The Column is a monthly feature that explores the world of creativity and aesthetics.

Impress Me Mr President
Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable

This is the tale of how
I found myself in the presence of some of the political elite of the UK. I wanted to contribute in some modest way to making the political process more democratic and inclusive in an increasingly authoritarian political landscape. It was to my great surprise that I was invited by the president of a major political party to discuss my thoughts and views with him.

The Importance of the Parliamentary Assistant

My initial contact with Simon Hughes MP, President of the Liberal Democrats, was via email. MPs (Members of Parliament) each have their PAs who are the door keepers responsible for effective communication. It soon became clear however that my communication with Simon's PA would be a slow and frustrating experience.

I receive many hundreds of emails daily in the context of my work as a Creative Director for a software company and in my capacity as Director of AbleStable. I had to keep a special eye out for emails from Simon's office as the poorly written subject lines would otherwise be filtered by Anti-Spam mechanisms, and despite my requests to copy emails to another address to help ensure a message did not slip through the net, there was never any effort to do so.

This poor administrative performance showed just how important a line of clear, prompt, and professional communication between parties is crucial in encouraging a productive and dynamic exchange, whatever the professional relationship. If my experience was common, the majority of those contacting Members of Parliament in the UK on a non-constituancy level (those not seeking to meet about a local issue) would soon loose interest as delays and poorly expressed replies blunted the edge of enthusiasm.

The Parliamentary Assistant is initially the single point of contact between MPs and the public. Their skills to communicate effectively is of great significance to the democratic process, and although I am by nature a persistent and patient operator, many who have potential in contributing to the political process would no doubt be dissuaded from doing so by the arrogance and unprofessionalism they may encounter.

The seat of democracy

Simon expressed a wish to meet with me in London and arrangements were eventually made. Simon has a high reputation of being an outstanding local constituency MP with a public commitment to the democratic process.

The Houses of Parliament and Portcullis House My first meeting was in Portcullis House situated next to the Houses of Parliament on the banks of the River Thames in London.

I was unusual in being the only visitor not dressed in formal attire. The men had suits and ties, the woman, well chosen outfits from an upmarket store. I was in a short sleeved shirt and jeans. It was clear people viewed this as a formal context where a certain kind of outward appearance counted. The general approach to apparel was that one needed to assert ones inclusion as someone who not only could afford to dress in a particular way, but also as someone who understood the rules of social engagement. My immediate reaction was that this formality may well be intimidating or excluding to certain groups from less economically fortunate backgrounds.

Portcullis House features a large atrium where people sit chatting over a drink and light snack. I started talking with Simon's PA before he joined us. She, in common with her colleagues, took it upon herself to inform me she had been educated in a "top" university and was keen to assert this irrelevant fact. She was not however a good communicator as her tendency to pomposity and self-importance, a characteristic I was later to observe was common among her colleagues, undermined any authority she might have as someone with potential influence or insight.

First Meeting

I noticed Simon approaching out of the corner of my eye. He removed his tie on route and welcomed me. I was reminded of the film Primary Colors as I saw a master politican at work. We spoke about why I had initially contacted him. I had felt the Liberal Democrat Party over the last few years had begun to move in a direction that better met with my own political views, but that a more enlightened commitment to representing the interests of the vulnerable, the environment, and a move away from the feeding frenzy of self interested capitalism, appeared to have stalled as the new leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, took over. Simon sought to assure me the new leader was every bit as committed to the Liberal agenda, but that his presentational style might have inadvertently suggested otherwise.

A Conference Invitation

Following that first meeting I was invited by Simon to be his guest at the Liberal Democrat party conference to be held in September. My hunch at the time was that my views may have been of value as I had no political ambition, am not a member of a political party, nor represent any media interests. In other words I have an independent voice with no hidden agenda. My judgment was that people in political office rarely meet others who have not got an axe to grind, are climbing the slippery steps of a career ladder, or seeking a juicy story for the press or media.

I spent considerable time during the week of the Liberal Democrat conference listening to speeches and debates, as well as reading and watching media reports about the Party and its direction. Political parties are of course crucial to any democracy as they gather many like-minded people together under a single banner who then speak with a more influential and representative voice. At the same time I have always been fiercely independent. The idea of belonging to a club of any sort has always gone against my unconventional grain.

I have found operating outside organizational frameworks has advantages, both on a personal level, but also for the organization that is the recipient of any contributions I make. My voice remains devoid of anything more than a wish to contribute, rather than one which has an additional agenda driven as much by personal ambition as principle - not that this is always a negative force, but rather that personal ambition has a tendency to muddy the waters. As someone not associated with a particular club (in this case a political party), one can be honest without the need to present ones statements within the confines of an assumed political framework ("political" used in its broadest sense).

I very much valued my time at Conference although I did not however always enjoy it. Simon was at all times very generous in his invitation to view the inner circle of the Party on that day. I observed many influential and powerful figures, I also viewed the staff and structures that surrounded these people. I felt enormously privileged to be Simon's guest and remain powerfully curious as to the next stage of my involvement in the process.

The charisma of leadership

It was clear that as I followed Simon and listened to him speak, his relaxed and supportive nature charmed and connected with all those he met. As I have pondered on what makes an effective political leader over the last few months it is clear the quality of charisma which moves others to action is crucial. Charisma cannot be learned, it is innate, like talent. You have it, or you do not. Effective leader's must have it. Sir Menzies Campbell does not.

Simply the best

I rubbed shoulders with powerful media figures, Lords, Lady's, and members of the political elite. All seemed to hail from a particular economic and social background, an issue that concerned me as parliamentary democracy only truly works long term when public views are represented by people with similar experiences about the world.

I attended a BBC dinner with guests that included the higher echelons of the party and other influential figures. I had brief conversations with members of the second chamber and asked whether it concerned them that there was an assumption that parliamentary assistants and other officials in Government most likely come from Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge Universities). "But that's where the best people come from." was the reply. I said I wasn't so certain...

The idealism of youth

I was fortunate in having a companion during my conference visit. At the end of the day we spoke about his reasons for being there and I asked whether the experience had cemented his taste for politics. We spoke about our ambitions for the political process, and despite his being in his teens and my being in my forties, he judged me to be an idealist, and he a pragmatist. Perhaps it should have been the other way around...


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Authors background
Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author. Mike is also the Creative Director of 2BrightSparks, a software company.

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