As thousands of eager parliamentary candidates perform the obligatory glad-handing over the next few weeks, it is a sad fact that few are accountants. You can count on one hand the number of current MPs who have swapped spreadsheets for the stump, yet some of the qualities required for political life are also core to a financial one.
Traditionally lawyers have dominated politics, with accomplished courtroom performers finding it seemingly natural to cross the floor into the Commons. Along with the incumbent, Tony Blair, the legal profession has produced at least four other prime ministers including Margaret Thatcher and Clement Attlee. None, however, has ever been an accountant. The closest we’ve ever got
is probably James Callaghan, who worked briefly as a tax officer for the Inland Revenue and Stanley Baldwin, who, in his early career, was financial director of the family iron- mongering business.
In today’s front bench teams, the profession doesn’t figure at all. Gordon Brown used to be a lecturer and TV editor while his opponents are a former merchant banker (Oliver Letwin) and an economist for Shell (Vince Cable).
But perhaps more worrying is the lack of financial training among select committee MPs, who voters rely on to scrutinise government policy and planning. On the Public Accounts Committee and the Treasury select committee, whose role it is to dissect the figures on public spending, there is just one accountant, the Conservative former minister David Heathcoat-Amory. The chair of the PAC, which parallels the work of Whitehall watchdog the National Audit Office, is Edward Leigh, a respected former lawyer.
In fact, there are few accountants in the whole of the Commons. Julia Drown, David Taylor, David Heathcoat-Amory and Harry Cohen are part of a very small club.
Drown, Labour MP for South Swindon, is about to leave that club. After eight years in the Commons she has stepped down to spend more time with her young family. She says her background in accountancy (Drown was director of finance at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford for 11 years) has proved invaluable in both her constituency and as a member of the health select committee.
‘Being able to understand statistics has been very useful. People can be scared of numbers and it’s easy to get accountants who try and blind people with science. Having trained people counteracts that. Because I’m familiar with numbers I’ve been able to explain complex benefits to my constituents and I was able to help in Child Support Agency cases,’ she says.
Drown, like Taylor and Heathcoat-Amory, concedes that she is puzzled by the lack of accountants in political life, given their often complementary qualities. ‘Accountants tend to be down to earth. They study people and have a lot of common sense.’
She wonders if the reluctance to enter the Commons is a personality thing. ‘Perhaps accountants tend to be quieter people who are less prepared to stand up and speak out.’
But Heathcoat-Amory believes it’s more practical than that. ‘Politics is not well paid. Certainly no one goes into it to make money. It’s become increasingly difficult to do business outside as well.’
The MP for Wells says he’s seen his ‘little group’ dwindle over the years. His former accountancy colleagues include Tim Smith and Cecil Parkinson, probably remembered more for their misdemeanours than services to the profession.
Taylor, Labour/Co-op MP for North West Leicestershire, says accountancy is a well paid and enjoyable profession that people just don’t want to leave. But, also one where people can get too detached from the real world. ‘You can start to see people and problems as balance sheets and figures. In contrast politics is refreshing and I feel useful.’
Taylor and Heathcoat-Amory, however, share concerns that, while MPs may have oratory and communication skills, lack of financial training could limit their ability to do their jobs fully. ‘MPs tend to be too ready to accept at face value what is in financial statements,’ says Taylor.
‘It fascinates me that while most MPs have got a grasp of public sector activities, when it comes to the national economic level they get a blank in their head.’
Heathcoat-Amory complains that too many MPs can’t read balance sheets and have little business experience. ‘The lack of accountancy skills is a real problem if we are to run a successful business economy. The Treasury is trying to manage £500bn a year and although civil servants are well trained, accountancy skills there are quiet rare,’ he adds.
But the future is looking brighter. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats report an increase in candidates with accountancy backgrounds standing on 5 May. The Lib Dems are fielding six, including ACCA-trained Nasser Butt in Mole Valley. Butt, who was also a councillor, says he’s standing because he wants to change things.
He’s spent two years preparing, and says his background as a management accountant in start-up companies has helped him build a better and more organised constituency base. ‘It now has all the ingredients of a seat that could be won.’ he says.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry, the Labour candidate for Portsmouth North, is among at least four standing in the south of England with accountancy training. A CIMA-qualified accountant, she says politics is her vocation and she wants to ‘give something back’. She says few colleagues want to join her because it would mean ‘leaving a safe, secure career’.
But this bright new future depends on the ballot box and some candidates are contesting tough seats. Kaleem Saeed in Boris Johnson’s Henley is a prime example. So the next House of Commons could end up looking much like this one.
Heathcoat-Amory says more should be done to encourage accountants to consider entering politics. ‘There is a need for more accountants. Anything the industry could do would be most welcome. We need to put it on paper – “accountants needed”.’