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July 29, 2005

Proposition One: How to get MPs we can admire

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard D. North explains why he thinks we might have better politics if political parties continue to decline. The views expressed here are those of Richard D. North, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

Proposition One: How to get MPs we can admire
The Burkean MP
Members of Parliament have always had to balance their obligations to their conscience, their constituency's interests, the national interest, the interests of individual constituents, and their party. In recent years, their party interest has predominated. Arguably, this powerful party obligation has come with severe deficits in the other areas.

The Burkean ideal - as it was famously presented in Burke's Speech to the Electors of Bristol - was for MPs to be representatives, and not delegates. His idea was to stress that an MP's job was to be a powerful individual, not a hack. He was to be his own man, and to be attractive to his voters by being so. He was not to be a mouthpiece for his constituents or his party. He was to think of himself as a national figure with local obligations.

Quite soon, we may see this ideal of representative democracy become reality.

The Blatcherite convergence robs the two main parties of their claimed divergence, and exposes the way such differences as exist are between individuals and sects within parties, rather than between the parties themselves.

To be honest to this situation, to make something useful of it, we need MPs to be honest about their divergences. And we need MPs whose divergences interest us. That's to say: the decline of party divergence potentially throws the spotlight of both scepticism and admiration on individual MPs.

That ought to produce a better sort of political life. It will be inherently more honest. That will attract a better sort of politician.

It may be that the main parties recognise that their survival will depend not so much on discipline as seeming attractive to more independent-mined MPs and the voters who are drawn to that maturity of attitude.

It may be that the public needs to understand that a party platform need not be specific so much as indicative. Voters may learn to vote for a team whose general views and tendencies they trust, but without the expectation that there is much ideological purity about.

At the extreme, technology should make it far easier for individuals who aspire to parliamentary candidacy to build constituency support groups, or even new parties. There may of course still be parties of significance, and even the new breed of independent MP may include a degree of loyalty to one or more of those parties (depending on issues) on his or her own platform.

It might seem that a "post party" world will produce grandstanding MPs, who play to celebrity rather than competence. But for this to be a problem, we have to suppose that tens of thousands of constituents will fall for such people. Below, we look at some similar objections to the Burkean MP.

The fragmentation of the two main parties might well lead to a proliferation of parties, and it would be a liberation if many of these never suggested that they would aim to form governments. They might, for instance, prefer to be the launch pad whereby individual parliamentary stars became ministers. It may not be necessary for parties to produce fully-fledged platforms which answer the hypothetical question: "What would you do if you formed a government?" There might, rather, be parties - say a Green Party - which accepted that it was aiming to influence government toward this or that policy rather than expecting to run things. Of course, we see that the Green Party has great difficulty in garnering votes because voters are not drawn to its anti-capitalist, high-taxation world. So it is probable that we may see parties which are declaredly Blatcherite, but with candidates who emphasise one aspect or another of difference to the mainstream, perhaps by being determinedly green, or keen on human rights, or whatever.

In this new world, pressure groups, campaigners and think tanks will become even more important. Whilst they might not field many or any candidates, candidates would use them to bolster their platforms. In this sense, many small political parties might be mostly seen as the political wing of this or that part of the pressure group world. But they could not become single-issue obsessives, because they would be in parliament to help keep the administration under review across all its policy areas. And to repeat: mono-thematic candidates would not attract sufficient votes.

In this new world, pressure groups would be under intense pressure to produce real-world platforms. This is partly because they would be tempted to become attractive, not to a hard core of non-political idealists, but to electors who have one hand on their heart and another on their wallet.

In short, may we not maintain and improve representative democracy when we improve the representative nature of our MPs?

What's more, we can argue that the profession of civil service administration may grow in strength under such a situation. The two party system produced a myth that ministers could run their departments. A more fractured parliament would be inclined more modestly to assert that its job was to provide political steer to the civil service, but to do so within a more settled and clear understanding that administrators have a real profession and real experience.

An alternative view
Let us now consider an alternative view. One might argue that after Blair, New Labour will to some extent return to being proper tax-and-spend Old Labour. Keith Joseph's ratchet effect might well still apply: occasional, quite easy leftward rises in tax-and-spend would not prove correspondingly easy to reverse. If we had a clear tax-and-spend party, that might open up space for a Conservative Party which need only be slightly less tax-and-spend to become the "natural" party of government again. Such a Conservative party would still be divided between purist Small State people and pragmatic Quite Big State people. Labour would be electable, but only occasionally and when the country felt that the pragmatism of the Tories had strayed into arrogance. It would only be electable if it was much more "Tory" than "Socialist".

Let's assume that few natural Tories liked the Macmillan, Home, Heath or Major governments any more than natural Labourites have liked any Labour Governments. Let's assume that Margaret Thatcher thrilled and scared her party and the country, but only succeeded in freeing the market, and sidelining the unions, whilst being famous for dismantling the welfare state, which actually expanded on her watch. Blair thrilled and scared his party, but delighted the country at large whilst being unable and unwilling to change any of Mrs Thatcher's main policies.

So New Labour and the Conservative "modernisers" and "realists" are Blatcherite and Old Labour and the Tory right are respectively to the left and right of that position.

In the new Blatcherite world, Old Labour might exist to tug the country slightly leftward again and Conservatives exist to correct that, either back to default Blatcherism or - less likely - slightly rightwards of it.

Who would win in this scenario? Both parties would be riven with factions. Only candidates prepared to endure a perpetual dishonesty would go into politics. And the country would be condemned to listen to platform manifestoes which were not proper expressions of their party's sentiment, whilst the House of Commons echoed to the rhetoric of inflated party difference. That is: politics only a little worse than we have known except under Mrs Thatcher (who was mostly rather honest about her prejudices and ambitions).

One could see this working, but not very satisfactorily for the politicians or the voters.

A supposed advantage of parties
As MPs balance party, nation, constituency, constituents and conscience, it is sometimes said that party interests have the advantage of providing a counter-weight to the pork-barrel geographical parochialism which afflicts elected members in federal institutions such as the US (or, rather differently the EU). The parties produce a national manifesto which provides a platform which empowers an MP to deny his constituents the right to press their more limited claims.

This is a subset of the more general supposed advantage of parties. This is that they allow one to elect a dolt and yet to be sure that he or she is linked to something larger than the candidate or Member, with which the voter can agree (or not).

How could we ensure that MPs with weak or no party allegiance did not fall prey to constituency sectarianism, one-note-samba merchants, or celebrity show-offs?

Firstly, it might not matter if there were rather more one-note-samba MPs who were "overly" keen on some matter of interest to their constituency. George Galloway may or may not make an interesting MP, but we can hardly deny that he more faithfully represents a large section of Muslim thinking on foreign affairs than do most MPs, and perhaps more than the scattering of Muslim MPs we have. In that, he is not so much a prisoner of his constituency as representative of a large tranche of wider British opinion. Better that this opinion be represented than that it feel suppressed.

Secondly, pork-barrel politics tends to be about national governments protecting particular industries in exchange for non-related cross-issue deals with constituency representatives. These habits have not become entrenched in the British polity, and the power of parties is sometimes invoked as a reason. But it may actually be more a matter almost of habit and culture. MPs are supposed to fight for the constituency's interests, and to behave with decorum when they are over-ruled. The national government will stress that they have balanced these local interests against others, and come to a national balance.

These benign habits may have become entrenched the more easily because there are so many MPs representing so many constituencies: none has very much power, and any particular member banging on about a particular interest will encounter a good deal of loud scepticism from the many members whose interests are wider.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.

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