One of the things that never seems to get mentioned in discussing the failings of representative democracy (or else I missed it), is what I would see as the regressive nature of political parties.

Political parties arose because of ideological argument about the role of the monarchy, and developed along the same lines with a natural tendency towards a 2-party system (monarchy/church v people/enlightenment to establishment v workers, if you like). The problem now is that the ideological strain is not so clear – Thatcher and Benn were, I think, the last of the breed, and the current lot are only vaguely attached to a programme (I include Jeremy in this). It seems to me that, for example, the labour movement is now too heterogeneous to encompass a single set of ideals, and nationalism is essentially a displacement activity.  With ideologies splintering I suggest that broad church parties’ time may be over; it is in any case increasingly difficult for parties to justify their positions on newly-emerging issues on purely ideological grounds . Blairism was essentially a claim that “we can manage the economy better than you” rather than a vision of a different future; the major parties since then have largely followed that same approach. Only the Green party is now ideological, and that doesn’t suit a lot of the issues we face.

But this might not matter if politics could carry on as normal; the problem is that this actually hinders the process of governance. Because parties form governments and oppositions, the needs of the party are at variance with holding to an individual set of aims and beliefs. Politics is a pragmatic business, but, if a party policy has to be decided on any issue as it arises (and if an opposing policy has to be decided likewise) time and effort are wasted. To take immigration, for example – the parties are shuffling around trying to find a policy that suits both their ideologies and what they see as the popular will (which may well be impossible) rather than what they should be doing, which is simply managing the process. And the adversarial nature of Parliament means that members are loth to give a view on anything for fear of it being a hostage to party  fortune – our new PM is only the worst example of this fearful attitude.

The present system militates against the taking of responsibility, as any action is subsumed into a party-based defence, backed by any number of facts which may or may not be relevant; if ministers/members were obliged to take personal responsibility it would be much more difficult to be evasive, and may encourage joint approaches to intractable issues. At the same time, the party system enables governing and opposing parties to apportion blame with impunity to each other, rather than at an individual level where it might be more effective. PMQs are a waste of time designed merely to appeal to one’s own party rather than to extract information or hold government to account.   Bi/multipartisan policies can be achieved if they have to be (as in Northern Ireland), so why not bring the best approaches together and work on them? It’s worth noting that a lot of the best work of Parliament is done in committees where party lines are not encouraged.

Further, there has been a problem in the Labour Party, to my personal knowledge, for a good 50 years about the degree to which MPs are mandated or free to use their Burkean  judgement, and it will, I fear, never be resolved. Other parties have the same problem, albeit to a lesser extent. A non-party electee would perforce be unmandatable, having been elected on the basis of being presumably  the closest to the views of the electorate, rather than a representative of London top-downism.

Rafael Behr’s piece in the Guardian last month (22nd) chimes with much of this: both major parties have interpreted Brexit as a cry from the “left behind”, and will take up the cudgels on their behalf. Only they won’t because they don’t know what it signifies. Behr must be right in saying that parroting these terms is an excuse for not listening. My putative non-party MPs might not listen either, but they would be in a position to respond to the popular will in a nuanced manner.

I concede there are big risks (and I would fear a big rise in single issue politics), but a party-free parliament might glean more public support as representatives could be more honest about their views, and debate less stratified.  And it would render the emphasis on marginal seats and the case for PR meaningless!

Just a thought. Views welcome.

 

 

 

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