Tuesday, May 26, 2009

We should embrace the break up of politics

I saw Esther Rantzen on Question Time a while back and was impressed by someone who was free to articulate what most people understand but respectable politicians find impossible to say. She came across like a solid, normal person with an admirable commitment to public service. That's head and shoulders above most of the politicians rattling round the House of Commons.

Whilst you certainly wouldn't want her running foreign policy or in charge of designing intricate legislation, hers is the kind of voice that could help ground Parliament with a more common sense, unspun approach. It seems to me a swathe of independent MPs would be an extremely healthy thing for democracy in this country.

The tribal loyalties of the voting blocks in Parliament are a barrier to genuine political debate. Whilst they gain their support through appealing to certain sets of aspirations the political behaviour of the parties is mediated through layers of whips, press officers, leader's speeches and backroom deals.

Those layers are specifically designed to iron out any idiosyncrasies that particular MPs have and to steel them against any pressure their constituents might put on them to vote the other way. The tight party system hinder supporters and the public having a direct say over their representatives and it should go.

Whilst I think that an injection of independents would be a very healthy thing I would prefer that many of those MPs were from community campaigns like Richard Taylor in Kiddeminister, but beggars can't be choosers. I'm not a fan of celebrity politics but if you get the odd one popping up here and there supporting a good cause I guess it's all to the good.

The core difficulty with Rantzen-ism is whether it's consistent with a politically coherent choice at the ballot box, and that's something that the most doctrinaire will have problems supporting. However, I personally find the need for ideological micro-managing to be highly over-rated and ineffective. The desire to insist that people speak and think exactly as you do stands in direct opposition to 'power to the people' no matter how radical you think your slogans are.

As part of the political mix a number of sensible, unwhipped independents could be a very good thing. Not that this has to be exclusively made up of those who are not members of political parties. Electing Adrian Ramsay in Norwich, Salma Yaqoob in Birmingham and John McDonnell in Hayes and Harlington would all be fantastic advances for grassroots politics even if each one of them is a committed supporter of their respective parties.

Building that movement for democratic change can't just be a movement for structural reforms, it needs to be a progressive rather than purely populist movement. Whilst Martin Bell was a thoroughly nice chap (if a bit lacking in the policy department) without some basic safeguards you could get lumbered with reactionaries and fools.

Over the next few months I suspect we'll see a ground swell of independents some of whom will be atrocious and some will be eminently supportable. Whilst those of us who are loyal supporters of particular parties might be resistant to this development I'd argue that we need to keep an open mind and be prepared to cooperate, compromise and support these candidates when appropriate.

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