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April 30, 2010

The 2010 intake of MPs can transform government with a Blackberry coup

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard D. North - author of Mr Cameron's Makeover Politics: Or Why Old Tory Stories Matter to Us All - argues that the new intake of MPs may well radically change how Britain is governed.

There's a mass of guff about how social networking is transforming politics (Newsnight on Monday was a prime example, with Iain Dale rebuffing the theories very well). We should note that the real impact of cyberspace will be to empower backbench MPs. What fun. In place of the mantras about People Power and disintermediation, the real beneficiary of Blackberry and Facebook may well be representative democracy.

The May 2010 intake of MPs will have a unique opportunity. Their party leaderships are weak (and in two cases, nearly as inexperienced as they are themselves). Their party platforms are vague. Their constituents have no firm idea about what they are like. If there's anything like a balanced parliament, every backbench vote will count. This adds up to an opportunity for the new MPs to perform a generational coup. They understand two very modern phenomena which will transform politics: personal branding and peer-to-peer networking. The social media generation ought readily to spot how the individual MP can be restored to power.

Being inexperienced, the new MPs should find courage in the idea that the political legislators' proper role can be to work with the professional executive, not just boss it about and certainly not sneer at it or circumvent it. A certain modesty may become them and be the making of them. They are potentially the new meritocratic, public-spirited elite who can restore trust in politics and Parliament and produce a quite new quality of government.

We know Parliament has been crippled by over-mighty party leaderships. We know our brilliant Civil Service has been sidelined by an overly-centralised Number 10. We know the media has over-fancied itself as the scourge of the political system. This is a great moment for an inexperienced but savvy Westminster to insist that a case-hardened Whitehall lay out proper policy options for debate and decision.

This is a constitutional and political moment in which a new generation of politicians can make Parliament become something quite new. The new MPs need not be in thrall to the worst traditions of the discredited parliament, nor to the gangmaster power of the party whips. Above all, they need to insist that they are Edmund Burke's "representatives" of their constituents, not the mandated delegates of a union conference; not party hacks; and still less the social worker, nursemaid or ombudsman of every voter with a beef against the local or national state.

This is the parliament that can bury traditional class politics. It will be a parliament of indistinguishable, middle Britain types, mostly estuarine in tone in spite of some voices from all over the social scale. Many of the Tories will be rather Thatcherite. Apparently, a lot of the Lib-Dems will be quite lefty. I have no feeling for how New Labour the new Labourites will be, but I imagine there'l be more flux than we have seen recently. There’ll be plenty to argue about, including ideologies, but few simple fault lines. Take it all together, and we may see the three parties fracture along new lines, as I discussed in my 2009 book, Mr Cameron's Makeover Politics and the formula for Making Better Government (as my website of that name has it).

The new MPs have several duties. Top of the list will be spotting and supporting whatever policy has the best chance of securing economic growth and reassuring the markets about Britain's preparedness to pay down the national debt, sometime fairly soon. Second will be agreeing a pragmatic but honourable military policy in Afghanistan. Third will be developing a plausible policy for the future of the bottom 10 percent of society. Fourth will be the sketching out a long term policy for the future of the welfare state.

The country has faced all these sorts of issues in its recent history and we know that dealing with them will bend old hat party allegiances and identities out of shape. That doesn't matter. The old parties have great histories, and have mostly abandoned them, for good and ill.

We are in new territory which will see new, often temporary alliances, getting built on the ruins of old ones. I only hope the young MPs know how lucky they are to be picking up the reins at this moment.

Richard D. North is the author of Mr Cameron's Makeover Politics: Or Why Old Tory Stories Matter to Us All.

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