A gap in the market is the dream of every entrepreneurial marketer. Just such an opportunity seems to be beckoning in politics. And, as it happens, one of the marketing profession’s icons, Sir Paul Judge, may be the man to exploit it.
Last March, Judge set up Jury Team, a political movement designed to mobilise support for independent members of parliament with strongly held views on certain issues, but no conventional party political allegiances. The plan was to field enough candidates to fight the European Parliament elections in June, then get ready for a General Election next May. Despite considerable media hoopla and a piece of YouGov research suggesting that 55% of the electorate would support the new organisation, the launch was a bit of a damp squib.
If, however, a week is a long time in politics, then two months is an eternity: What recently seemed a tiny bit naive now admirably captures the public mood, which has swung from apathetic disenchantment with the professional political class to active loathing of it. And the longer MPs are seen to be blocking change, the deeper that loathing is going to get.
Indeed, senior Tory strategists want a General Election now because they fear “later” would give the likes of Jury Team enough time to consolidate its position with the electorate.
However, it is one thing to judge the mood of the electorate correctly and quite another to exploit it successfully. Has Judge got what it takes to leave a lasting mark on British politics?
Most readers will know Judge as an eminent marketer. He orchestrated the buyout of Premier Foods from Cadbury Schweppes, then floated it on the stock market and eventually cashed in just under £50m personally. Some of you will know he was a member of the Milk Marketing Board, chairman of Food from Britain, fellow of the Marketing Society, chairman of the Museum of Brands, Master of the Worshipful Company of Marketors not forgetting to mention president of the Chartered Institute of Marketing.
And yet this sketch of his CV hardly does justice to a multitude of other activities. He is, for instance, a director of Standard Bank Group, chairman of Schroder Income Growth Fund and a prolific non-exec director. Then there’s Judge the philanthropist and educationalist (in 1990, he gave £8m towards the foundation of Judge Business School at his alma mater Cambridge University). All these interests may be said to have come together as head of the Conservative Party’s Central Office during the John Major years. Judge is, in short, at the heart of the British establishment and has a wealth of contacts, and favours, he can call upon.
But what would he and his party do if they actually attained some power? Well, they would certainly change the character of Westminster. As a party organisation, the Jury Team seems to have acquired elements of both a marketing franchise and TV reality show: McDonald’s meets X-Factor, you might say. The idea is that the central body provides funding, media training and advice to candidates, who are to be selected in open primaries from a much broader base than the present political system.
The common factor with these candidates would be their commitment to upholding standards in public life rather than any specific ideological beliefs. The sort of people we are talking about are Richard Taylor, the former Conservative MP who became Independent over the issue of keeping his local hospital open; TV presenter Esther Rantzen; former Treasury minister Phillip Oppenheimer; Shami Chakrabarti director of campaign group Liberty; and Martin Bell, the “Man in White” who fought his way into Parliament over the issue of corruption in 1997.
Judge told me that a major reason he wanted to get involved in politics again was that parliamentary independence has been corroded by an increasingly presidential system of government that only pays heed to the broadcast media’s voracious appetite for sound bites. “Prime ministers have become like Roman emperors. It’s all about bread and circuses.”
The European parliamentary elections on June 4 are a “test market” for Jury Team, the aim being to capture share of mind as “the party of governance”. Although the result for the two main parties is expected to be appalling, Judge does not believe this will precipitate a General Election. He is more hopeful of one in October, after the by-election forced by Speaker Michael Martin standing down.
And what of the “roll out”, should Jury Team be more than modestly successful? Reforming parliament will be a five-year mission, says Judge.
As a party organisation, the Jury Team seems to have acquired elements of both a marketing franchise and TV reality show: McDonald’s meets X-Factor, you might say.
Given that mission, a key political tenet of Jury Team is to abolish the parliamentary whip system, which obliges MPs to vote along party lines rather than according to their consciences. And here we get to the heart of the matter. While some of its organisational techniques are hyper-contemporary, Jury Team is nostalgic for the great age of parliamentary sovereignty – between about 1780 and 1860 – when MPs did vote according to their consciences, and when backbenchers could bring down a government.
In today’s political climate, it is hard to see how a free-voting parliament can provide the wherewithal to deliver coherent legislation. But Judge believes he has devised a system of departmental boards and independent select committees that will overcome that objection.
One last thing. I suggested that if Jury Team wanted to recruit a candidate standing high in public esteem, with proven leadership skills and a track record in getting things done, they could do worse than try Joanna Lumley. Although she has personally disavowed any intention of standing as an MP, the bookies don’t believe her and have slashed the odds from 10.1 to 5/1. That’s not the problem, confides Judge: she’s a Green.