Tuesday, February 14, 2006
Is the Party System breaking Down?
Anyway, my post today picks up on The Economist's (always excellent) Bagehot column from last Friday entitled 'The Rise of the Untouchable MP'. He argues that indiscipline in the Labour Party is not just a symptom of Blair's fading authority and time limited- thus diminishing- patronage. No, he thinks a group of MPs have ceased to be bullyable by the whips. He cites the lack of major ideological differences over the economy; the non ideological nature of contentious issues like ID Cards which encourage cross party consensus building; and the power of incumbency which enable MPs to use email shots and tap into consituency single issue campaigns to help secure their re-election. Add these characteristics to those Labour MPs who are out of sympathy with Blairism, bitterly disappointed former ministers or passed over promotees and you might just find a critical mass of those 'untouchables'.
Accordingly, it is argued, this means that for 'a substantial number of MPs...the idea of party is an increasingly contingent one'. An interesting argument and one which suggests our system is moving in the direction of the American one where Congressmen raise their own re-election funds and can defend their seats without worrying too much about party discipline. But I wonder if Bagehot has discerned a possible trend and over extrapolated it just a little? In contrast to his argument I would suggest:
1.Disappointed former office holders, both actual and potential, have always been a problem for governments ever since the nineteenth century and a lame duck prime minister like Blair, who has deeply offended his party over foreign policy- was always going to have a hard time.
2.Labour MPs' indiscipline was a habit picked up during the days of large majorities and which- as Philip Cowley's work has shown- is a habit which tends to become absorbed into an MP's mind-set.
3.Emailing constituents is a useful extra vehicle for bolstering core votes but is scarcely revolutionary; I suspect many such communications are given no more attention than spam before being deleted.
4.In my view tribalism is still a strong force in party politics. Labour MPs chafe desperately at the bit but when it matters still save the government from defeat on those key issues like ID cards. Moreover, the public- admittedly often running a bit behind changing reality- still perceives the parties as tribal entitites. This means that perceived disunity is punished and even safe seats made vulnerable.
5. It follows from the above that party is still the most compelling factor in becoming and remaining a member of the legislature and-in the UK system, of the executive.
So I suspect that what we are seeing is not a sea change in MPs' behaviour but merely the logical and familiar consequences of a prime minister approaching the end of his time in power. John Major faced terminal rebellion as he headed towards the inevitable and Tony Blair, though perhaps a more resouceful and resilient politician, is faced by something very similar. But I would love to think Bagehot was right and that a more democratic alternative was emerging to the tyranny of the whips.
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