Monday, May 12, 2008

The right to be wrong

Under First Past the Post it's very clear that we elect individuals rather than parties. Electors can expect that individual to adhere to their personal campaign pledges and for their policies (and voting pattern) to at least resemble that of the party that gave them their support, but no more than that.

Some people think that an MP should not deviate from the party position in any significant way - a position most succinctly put by Janine a little while ago. For my part I think this would be an untenable position for any political force that grew beyond the limits of a religious sect. People took the mickey out of New Labour's penchant for issuing pagers to their MPs but, in fact, they've always tolerated far more dissent than parties of the hard left or right.

I'd go so far as to say all parties of any size are effectively coalitions with few, if any, areas of total consensus - although every party has a political theme. Take leadership challenges. All the main parties, and some of the smaller ones, can undergo significant shifts and fights without sending the entire party into a terminal crisis. Even the Green Party, which is definitely on the smaller side, marked a sharp leadership change when respectablist and councillor Keith Taylor was replaced as principle speaker by "ecosocialist" academic Derek Wall. Some people were happy, some were sad, but the party continued to crack on with business. The same applies to the leadership referendum.

But UKIP, Veritas, the BNP or any of the hard left variations have never been able to accommodate real (or regular) democratic change within their organisations without suffering splits, purges or simply obliterating themselves. These are organisations that are built on intolerance to deviation, without ideological or social breadth. To put it more kindly, they are tight caucuses who require tactical and philosophical coherence above that of the mass parties.

In the last ten years internationally the left has attempted to undergo a period of broader regroupment. This has been moderately successful where the left learned how to work constructively in a pluralistic environment, and it has failed where the culture clash between belligerent centralisation and coalition building has proved too great.

The concept of a hard core, always on message, gang may have some appeal and perhaps some uses at particular moments of history, although the reality can be somewhat unappealing at times. It tastes more of preparation for a coup that will never happen than a force truly connected to an up swell from below - but I accept others disagree with me on this.

The reason why I bring up the freedom of the individual to disobey the party line, or at least the issue that brought it to mind, was the ongoing debate about the proposals going through Parliament to restrict the time limit on abortions down from 24 weeks to 20. Now I'm absolutely, 100% in the 24 weeks camp and find little traction in the arguments for reducing that limit. I'm for extending women's rights, not rolling them back.

There are others who take a different view, with whom I agree on other subjects. George Galloway for one. I have a great admiration for the man, despite some points of disagreement, but on this question we part company. A religious man, he is strongly opposed to abortion and there will be no shaking him from this position. However, according to the Guardian, he intends to abstain on the question.

Whilst, of course, I want all MPs to vote the way I want them to I'd like to jump to Galloway's defence here. To abstain on this question where he has very strong views is a far more principled than any organisation could expect of him. He recognises that a great number of his supporters hold a similar position to mine on this question and he is sensitive to that.

As the only representative of his party in Parliament there is an heavy responsibility that would not exist in a party with a great number of representatives. To dissent from the party line when there is a swath of others to demonstrate that line is one thing - to dissent when you alone can vote puts you at odds with your supporters in difficult way. It creates a new dynamic in the relationship between individuals and their organisations where both parts need to exercise their understanding, which appears to be the case here.

I don't defend his views on this topic but I do defend his right to hold them and still be regarded as a member of the left. He's not alone, just in the minority.

This doesn't solve the question though of how you square the party position with allowing the individual representatives their head. I suspect there are no hard and fast rules. There are a handful of questions that could not go unpunished (supporting an invasion of Iran springs to mind) but it's more a question of a general adherence to the party holding, in general, to its core commitments. This does not apply to the individual's pledges. If you commit not to go into coalition with the Tories then you can't go there, it's just tough if you change your mind.

The Greens take decentralisation too far and the traction between party policy and party practice is too shadowy, too insubstantial, but that instinct against hard centralisation is the correct one. To forbid your members any deviation can only lead to a sterilisation of debate. To move forward and remain ideologically vibrant you need the clash of ideas not just between the party and its opponents, but internally too - and that means you need to believe that disagreements are worthwhile rather than grounds for explusion.


andy newman said...

Very good post Jim

Anonymous said...

But "free votes" are used mainly when it comes to women controlling their own bodies and lesbian and gay rights.

Lesbians and gay activists within the LP have been challenging this as it should be about equality, and why should your sexuality be a matter of conscience if you are a lesbian or gay man? It just seems a cop-out for MPs.

I wrote a post about this at my own blog (sorry for the shameless plug).

Jim Jay said...

It's not just about free votes though. Labour MPs(and others) vote against three line whips and are not thrown out of the party - I think this is a good thing.

The urge to insist everyone votes a particular way without persuading them of the case comes from a very isolationist place on the left, and reflects its small size I suspect.

Internationally, where the left has mass organisations, or even going back to the Bolsheviks, party members could disagree on fundamental issues (like leading Bolsheviks publicly opposing the October Revolution) and they don't lose the backing of the party. This happens all the time and not just on the issues you mentioned.

Freedom of thought is seen as an enemy.

Matters of conscience, like embryo research for instance, is short hand for the fact that every party has to have support from religious types or it will fail and tear itself to pieces. It's the method used to prevent splits and resignations.

I'm not particularly arguing for "conscience" votes but I am arguing that the left's centralisation has led it into control freakery far worse than the excesses of New Labour and we need to unlearn that.