Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Can representatives think? (1)

Many though the faults of MPs and other elected representatives are, I'm not going to join in the easy flow of contempt for them. Would those who have nothing but contempt for them and for politics in general please propose their alternative way of resolving common issues? There are other ways, of course - dictatorship, for example, or a marketisation of everything that means if A is fifty times richer than B, he's fifty times more powerful.

No, I want to discuss what degree of independence MPs and other representatives should have - and if their independence is limited, by what.

I was moved to this by learning that polls show the British electorate think (1), that MPs should always vote in keeping with the majority view of the people (not sure if this means in the whole country - probably in their constituency only) and (2) that if an MP is elected as a member of a party on a manifesto, he or she should stick to the manifesto commitments 100%.

These two ideas are clearly contradictory. A manifesto is bound to contain some ideas which don't command majority support. A party that only put forward commitments it was sure would enjoy such support would be cowardly and likely to be blown here and there by shifts in public opinion. Actually, there's evidence that English people at least, whatever they say to pollsters, prefer would-be Prime Ministers and governments that know their own mind to ones that seem not to, even if the former stand for some things those voters don't like. Mrs Thatcher benefited from this and her Tory successors lost support through appearing as reactive populists. A national manifesto commitment may command majority support in the country as a whole, but not in our MP's constituency.

Even if they weren't contradictory, I'd suggest the ideas are misconceived. A party in opposition can put forward policies that appear to be practical according to the best analysis and information available to them at the time. Coming into government, they can find, for example, that confidential information paints a different picture, or the situation can have changed drastically, for example if an apparently healthy economic situation has turned into disaster; or civil servants or other advisors or voluntary organisations can put forward compelling arguments why, to achieve their goals, these are the wrong policies. All that without the possibility of facing a need for coalition with partners whose aims are largely different, or that the promises weren't entirely sincere in the first place!

Insincere promises get politics and politicians a bad name. But there are honest reasons why a manifesto commitment cannot or should not always be implemented, though these situations should be relatively rare. So what is a "pledge", like the U.K. Liberal Democrats' pledge on student funding? Since anyone who knows something about practical politics knows a manifesto commitment should represent a sincere intention but cannot be 100% solid, if a small minority of manifesto commitments are picked out to be pledges, I can only imagine this is suposed to mean these promises alone are sacrosanct - so to make such a commitment knowing there is perhaps a 10% chance it may have to be broken is a bad mistake. To pursue the example, the Liberal Democrats, my party, knew it was very unlikely they would be able to govern alone or even as the biggest party short of a majority. What actually happened, that circumstances meant there was very little alternative to a coalition, could be no great surprise. For me, the dropping of that policy as part of the give and take of compromise in a coalition was understandable, but it raises the question of whether a "pledge" is just overblown language for an intention.

What about MPs voting with their consciences, or with a collective party decision, and against the wishes of their electorate? I'll look at that in the follow-up post, probably after I return to the tale of Odanglesex County Council and the Away Day.


  1. If you look at the wording of the tuition fees pledge, it expresses the intention of a party expecting to be in opposition: “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative”. If you are in government, you don't vote against things because you are making the proposals. You might pledge not to put them up. Whilst I share your general view about representatives ( and accept Burke's dictum that a representative owes you his judgement), I am disgusted that Danny Alexander, Nick Clegg and others involved in the leader's "reference group" had concluded in March 2010 that in coalition they would have to sacrifice the party's view on tuition fees but nevertheless went ahead and fought the election on the basis of the NUS pledge. They were dishonest to the electorate and to the party and we are all paying the price now.

  2. Thanks, David. I take your point that the wording of the pledge implied the party would be in opposition, but it's actually quite plain: "I pledge to vote against any increase...", not "unless we're in government". I agree with your concluding remark. I actually think political reality meant this specific pledge (ANY increase) could not be 100% firm, so it should not have been a pledge, but an ordinary manifesto commitment which, as I argued, sometimes cannot be honoured even if the intention was sincere.