I was on Five Live’s Julian Worricker programme briefly on Sunday, making my nomination for most credible politician as part of their Political Awards (the piece was on at around 12pm, so about 2 hours in if you want a listen).
My nomination was for David Howarth. I have to admit, I struggled with this category (cynicism can be quite disabling at times), but I nominated David because of his work in exposing the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. Specifically, I interpreted ‘credible’ to mean a good Parliamentarian.
It was a shame therefore that much of the discussion on the programme was concerned with linking ‘credibility’ with the idea of being a good constituency MP, i.e. doing casework, listening and representing constituent’s concerns. The rise of the community-focussed MP has gone hand in hand with the diminution of local politics. As local government has been centralised and sidelined, so MPs have adopted the role of super-caseworker at the expense, it seems to me, of actively taking an interest in the work of Parliament itself. This has been helped by the anti-politics prejudices of the media, which has a confused notion of wanting to see MPs being both the proxies of the communities they represent while at the same time berating them for being mindless automatons.
The problem is, no individual can ever represent the diverse range of views to be found in even the smallest of rural constituency. Yes, I doubt that even the Western Isles has a Fascist Hive Mind – and the fact that it’s a hotly contested two-way marginal would tend to support that view. So, representing the community’s view is simply an impossibility. What we have instead is, at best, an MP that works to represent the views of a vocal minority.
And yes, I do accept that the Lib Dems share a large amount of responsibility for this sort of corruption of parliamentary politics. I don’t blame ‘community politics’ a concept which, at least in the Greaves and Lishman sense, I strongly support. I do however blame the way this idea has become the abiding strategy of the party and has influenced a new generation of politicians, particularly people like Grant Shapps. The key problem is, what is a perfectly laudable aim of involving people more in decisions that affect them has, via our political system, become a zero-sum race to the lowest common denominator.
There are two policy outcomes we ought to consider about this. The first is, but of course!, proportional representation (specifically STV in multi-member constituencies). No-one would advocate creating a system which abolished constituencies altogether. Indeed, my own preference would be for just 2 or 3 member constituencies in the Commons. Even just having 2 member constituencies would have a massive impact in terms of bringing an interest in political principle back into the Commons.
The second, more controversially, would be a massive curtailment of how much MP’s can spend on carrying out their constituency work. This has grown massively in recent years, yet all it does is replicate (undermine even) local government and the customer relations side of public services. Worst, it has created incumbency protection into our system, giving MPs a platform which they can use to help their re-election campaigns.
I’m a supporter of state funding of political parties (or at least incentive based mechanisms such as matched funding), and I’ve noticed that many of the critics of such proposals are in fact broadly supportive of existing funding mechanisms; nopublicfunding describes the existing financial relationship as “sensible and necessary“. The more I’ve debated with such people, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that the status quo does indeed need rethinking. Apart from anything else, it would stop the hypocrisy of politicians setting up Chinese walls between their constituency and partisan work.