50 minus 7: 2015 election musings

Posted: 10 August 2014 in media, politics
Tags: , ,

It won’t have escaped most people reading this that in about nine months’ time, there’ll be a general election in the UK. I say ‘most’, making the assumption that the vast majority of people reading this are in the UK. For folks who’re not in the UK, this may well be the first time you’ve been told about it. Let’s face it, for almost all Americans, they’ve as much interest in when the UK has a general election as most Brits would have in knowing when California elects its governor.

But on 7th May 2015, the UK will go to the polls to elect a government for the ensuing five years. Long before then, in under six weeks in fact, there’ll be a referendum in Scotland about whether or not that country will gain independence. And the results of that decision may have huge repercussions for the 2015 general election, depending upon the result. If the Scots vote for independence, then it will; if they don’t, it will have, I believe, almost no effect.

This is the first time the public has known when a general election was positively going to happen, as it’s the first general election since the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 received its Royal Assent. And that means the election campaigns are going to be very different, particularly in length.

In the old days… heh, the old days, right back in 2010… the Prime Minister chose when to “go to the country”, as the phrase had it. Usually, from then until the election was no more than a few weeks. Now, like America and everywhere else with fixed term legislatures, the election campaigning will commence months in advance. The manifestos will certainly be released to the public much further from the elections than previously.

I’ve written about my views on the next set of manifestos before; I remain convinced that with the advent of – and in my view, continuing likelihood of – coalitions, the very nature of manifestos have to change; they need to. And they will. If not next time then certainly for the election after that.

And as a part of that, as an inevitable consequence of the last election’s result – coalition negotiations – the questioning of those standing for parliament and those forming the election teams need to be more demanding.

Four simple questions spring to mind; I’m sure there are more. I’m not suggesting that the list is exhaustive by any means. My point is that no matter what the state of the country, no matter how bad the Middle East is, whether we’re likely to go to war, whether in fact people are better or worse off, these questions should always be asked of those seeking to represent us in Parliament.

And, just before I start writing about them, again let’s deal with whether or not MPs represent us, and if so, how?

It troubles me that the membership of the House of Commons is not more representative of the country as it is now. Of course it does; I wouldn’t believe anyone who said it didn’t bother them. That doesn’t mean that any individual MP should be representative of the seat to which they aspire. Merely because there’s a large ethnic minority in a particular constituency doesn’t mean that the MP should be from that ethnic minority. Nor should the candidates for a particular constituency be a woman just because there happen to be more women than men in that specific constituency.

But as a whole, the chamber is wholly unrepresentative of Britain today. And that should be dealt with by the main parties; it’s shameful that they haven’t done it by now.

imageBut when it comes to representing the views of an individual constituency, I side with old Edmund Burke when he said, way back in 1774,

Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

Well said, that man.

Anyway, to the questions:

Let’s get the first one out of the way; it links back to the manifesto argument.

(1) What are the items in your manifesto that are deal-breakers in any coalition negotiations?
I think that this isn’t only a necessary question, it should be, perhaps suitably, a deal-breaker for seeking votes. If a party is standing for office, upon a manifesto, the voting public has not only a right but an obligation to know what things from the manifesto will be junked, and which will be put forward in legislation.

One of the oft-stated but most irritating comments post-2010 was that ‘no-one voted for this government’; no-one ever votes for a government. Ever. But what it is fair to say is that people voted for a manifesto. And the one thing that is absolutely true is that no-one voted for the coalition agreement, with the exception of the people who were already elected, i.e. the Lib Dem MPs. David Cameron, maybe sensibly, didn’t ask his MPs to sanction the agreement.

Next, let’s look at the ‘we know best’ attitude; the entirely unwarranted confidence with which candidates present themselves. So…

(2) If you lose the election, what do you think will be the reason?
I got told this question a long time ago, when interviewing for staff. But I think it more relevant for people seeking election. Standing for election (or running for office, as the Americans have it; have always found the two phrases amusing in their different implications but anyway…) Anyway… Standing for election, every candidate seems to know the answers to every question, or at least to be eager to convince the electorate of that. What’s wrong with admitting that there are hits against you and your party? What’s wrong with admitting ‘yeah, we got it wrong’? Why doesn’t it happen more? Well, that’s obvious: if anyone does it, they get hammered by both the press and their opponents who, in their turn, never admit to making errors of judgement of their own.

We should do something about that.

Something else that politicians are never asked, and it puzzles me. It always has, but now it’s beginning to bug the hell out of me.

I was reminded of it when in correspondence with a friend. Indeed, mention of it sparked today’s post in its entirety.

(3) What’s the end game?
As part of the last election campaign, the Conservative party pledged that there would be no ‘top down’ reform of the NHS. Well, yes, we know precisely how long that pledge lasted. Thing is, the next government – whoever it is, whatever its make up – will tamper with (or reform, take your pick) the NHS. Of course they will; it’s what governments do.

Same as they’ll reform the education system. And the tax system. And defence procurement. It’s what governments do. But they never admit what the end game is. I want a potential government to tell me what the end game is; what, ‘events, dear boy, events’ not withstanding, their ideal health service, or educational system or tax system will look like. So, candidate/potential government, all things being equal:

(a) what are your preferred tax rates, if everything went your way?
(b) what will the health service look like, when you get to the point where no further reform is necessary. (Note: not ‘what will it do’, what will it be?)
(c) what will the media ownership and diversification be when you’ve finished all necessary reform?

In other words, what will society be when you’ve done your bloody jobs?

Finally, and it’s an important one…

(4) What do you intend to do to increase political engagement in this country, and what evidence do you have that your policy will succeed?

Now, people can argue that “party political engagement” does not equal “political engagement”, and such people have a point. However, as long as party politics is the overwhelmingly important fact of life in getting people into the House of Commons, any suggestion that it doesn’t matter falls flat.

So let’s just stick to party politics for the moment. It’s been said that the electorate don’t reward disunity; well, if that’s true, the voting public will have a hell of a choice in the 2015 election. I cannot remember a previous time when there have been such obvious and such panicked undeclared civil wars in each party.

Unless the party leaders manage to create an environment where the public understands a reason to vote for a slate of policies, party political engagement will further fall, cynicism and scepticism in party politicians will rise and that handbasket on its way to hell will get lots of company along the way.

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