Where next for Britain’s ailing political tribes?
So I attended an event on the 25th November (2013, should you be reading this in the distant future) organised by the ERS, in conjunction with Centre Forum, Policy Exchange, and the IPPR. Not quite at Westminster Palace, although the police were kind enough to point me I the right direction. Who says you can’t ask them for directions when you’re lost 🙂
The panel consisted of Matthew Taylor (CEO of the RSA), Stella Creasy (Labour), Tim Farron (Lib Dem), Katie Ghose (CEO of the ERS), Dr Sarah Wollaston (Conservative), and Richard Harrington (Conservative).
The event overall had the speakers each begin with a short speech, then the audience was invited to make comments and ask questions, and the panel was invited to respond. This continued for a couple of rounds, and then ended with each panel member making some closing remarks.
While I am sure many other members of the public had incisive points, I was unfortunately much too focused on my mission to sow dissent among the ranks of the MPs present, and failed to take the excellent notes about their questions and comments that I should have done. My primary purpose, to raise awareness of “none of the above” (NOTA), was unfortunately not possible, as it didn’t have direct application to the direction the overall discussion was moving. However, NOTA is only one part of a multi-pronged movement for democracy to reclaim our government. One of the key problems with parties themselves is that they are very monolithic and operate on a “top-down” basis, rather than a “bottom-up” decision-making process, and this was very much on-topic.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak twice; the moderator was keen to avoid having any member of the public speak twice. Although the ostensible reason is doubtless to avoid having anyone get undue amounts of speaking time, it has the unfortunate effect of denying the opportunity for actual debate and discussion.
My first point was to note that when I had organised letter writing to MPs, inevitably many of the letters from MPs of the same party would be similar in all salient points, differing only in minor issues of word choice. It’s all very well reading about the party line, but when I write to my MP, it is because I want to know what my MP himself (or herself) thinks; I can read the party’s own website to find the party line. Both Tim Farron and Dr Sarah Wollaston took my point and railed against the idea of boilerplate letters imposed from on high. Sarah even went so far as to say that she would endeavour to highlight in her future letters whether any particular words were truly her own or were “party line”.
Halfway through the evening, Richard Harrington told an interesting anecdote. Some senior dignitaries from the Communist Party of Beijing were visiting Watford, and were invited to attend a hustings, at which he and representatives from the other two major parties were to speak to members of the public. At the dinner afterwards, the Chinese communists commented that this event was exactly the same as what happens in Chinese politics; they noted that in all major issues, there was very little difference between the parties.
Ladies and gentlemen, when politicians from a government that is widely acknowledged as monolithic tells you that you are just like them, it is a strong cause for concern in any nation calling itself a democracy.
My second point came right at the very end of the evening. I pointed out that the party whip system is essentially undemocratic. If the MP being whipped was going to vote on party lines anyway, it is unnecessary. And if he was going to follow his own conscience (or better yet, the will of his constituents), the whip is essentially overriding the proper democratic decision-making process in favour of party ideology.
Dr Sarah Wollaston responded to this point, and agreed that the whip is used far too much, but said that it still has a place. I can grudgingly see a case in votes where a deadlock would result in the government shutting down completely, as happened recently in the USA (although they still didn’t beat Belgium’s impressive record).
Stella Creasy (who was also a chief whip at one point) had a rather different view. She said that the whip was essential both to actually get things done and force the right decision to be made, and because she had a duty to her voters to ensure that the right views (her views? Her voters’ views? Her party’s views? She never made that bit clear) were made as strongly and vociferously as possible.
Unfortunately, the format of the evening didn’t allow me to respond to her. Had I been able to, I would have found multiple issues with her words.
In her closing remarks, she said she wanted to see a “less managerial” style of party involvement. That directly contradicts her love of the party whip.
I also noticed that in praising the use of the party whip, she was simultaneously saying that the democratic views of the voters of the MP being whipped are of no relevance in the decision-making process.
Finally, I would argue that any decision that can only be successfully carried out by making use of the whip inherently lacks even a popular mandate from MPs (never mind the general public). Such an unpopular decision has no place in a supposedly democratic country to be carried through to a conclusion.
- Sarah Wollaston: Female MPs fear being ‘derided’ in Commons due to their high-pitched voices (telegraph.co.uk)
- Should we insist on older MPs and clear out the adolescent spads? (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)