Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Can representatives think? (2)

Back to the subject of what should direct the votes of MPs and other elected representatives. In the first post I argued that an election manifesto should be a serious commitment, but that there were very good reasons why the commitment could not be absolute. I also pointed out that while people criticised MPs for not doing what their electorate wanted, the same people valued decisiveness and knowing what they wanted in prospective governments and leaders.

The late 18th century politician, political philosopher and reformer Edmund Burke took a stand on MP's independence from direction by their voters, arguing that he owed his voters his considered opinion, not his vote. They turned him out at the next election, but at that time, and into the late 20th century, many voters would have accepted that while on certain high-profile issues, they themselves could make a good judgement, on most they didn't have the information or wisdom and MPs might - so they would vote for someone who seemed to share their values and approach rather than seeking precise agreement on policies. I remember a more recent politician, the Liberal MP John Pardoe, answering a question on the popularity of capital punishment and his own opposition to it by saying that his voters knew they weren't going to get that policy from him, so if they voted for him, it was on other grounds.

Increasingly, though, people have access to masses of information. They're also used to being able to buy what they want on Amazon or in the supermarket and it's easy for this to determine how they see politics - not just a choice between Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative, or between four or five individuals standing for office, but shopping from a detailed and specific menu. The availability of information is empowering, but the shopping analogy is dangerous when applied to politics, which concerns collective decisions on common issues (so you can't always get what you want) and where issues are interconnected in ways that may not be obvious.

In Burke's time, though, party ties in Britain were very weak, especially in the Whig Party, which was a very loose alliance of factions with no central control. A thoughtful MP like Burke really could follow his conscience or his judgement unless the personal interests of his patron were endangered - and richer men than Burke had not even that limit to consider.

That is not a credible way of running a modern government: it doesn't work anywhere. Back in days when the British Liberal Party had no local councillors in most areas, the idea was popular amongst those Liberals that councillors should be free of party discipline and follow their individual judgements all the time. This was never an idea that survived long once they had a group of elected councillors, because a group that behaved with no coherence would be torn apart. A group actually running a local authority needs to behave with some consistency so managers and others can make plans and we don't end up with popular decisions in one field of work that make nonsense of other decisions in a related field. An elected group can debate things and make a collective decision, taking into account what it knows of wider opinion, but once that group decision is made, those who lost the vote should vote with their colleagues except in rare and limited circumstances - ot otherwise there's chaos.

Most British people view a general election mainly as an exercise in electing a government and do expect the government to have some direction and coherence - which requires some party discipline, though the discipline can either be top-down (do what the leader says) or bottom-up (that's the decision the conference or the group of MPs reached). However, MPs who vote with party discipline against strong local views on something are often punished. If they weren't, people would certainly feel disempowered and ignored. So is Burke still right or not?

I don't think there's a simple answer. Most Liberal Democrat local council groups allow some flexibility for councillors pressing local issues where arguments for the priority to be given to road safety measures on one road, for example, aren't strategic issues. It gets more difficult when a ruling group has taken hard decisons on a schools reorganisation which must involve some schools closing, but everywhere a school is threatened, the closure is unpopular. If every closure were voted on individually with everyone voting freely, there would be no reorganisation with disastrous effects if school rolls were falling. So it may be necessary for a representative to make the case of his voters, do what (s)he can behind the scenes, but accept the final decision.

There is also the competing factor of issues of conscience. I find these hard to define, since to me all political issues are moral issues and all are practical issues, but it seems reasonable to accept there will be a few issues where individuals have deeply-felt beliefs which cut across party boundaries and where it's unreasonable to expect them to be bound by party discipline. However, that may well lead them into votes which go against what most of their voters want!

To sum up: I think people want politicians who:

Trouble is, you can't have more than one of those - unless you can go along with a messy compromise of bits of each.

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