Monday, November 01, 2010

Hi, I'm John Doe And I'm A Politician

Regular readers of this occasional missive (hello Sid, hello Doris) will be aware of my tendency to draw somewhat left field conclusions from events. So you'll unsurprised to discover that my main thought on the comprehensive spending review, and particularly on tuition fees, is that we really didn't deal with MPs expenses very well...

One of the stranger suggestions amongst the litany of Lib Dem psychoanalyses that have emerged of late is the idea that our policies existed because we never expected to be in government (Andrew Rawnsley's crack at this theme being one of the best). On the one hand, it's fairly easy to point out that unless you're the kind of psephological illiterate who believes that the outcomes "Labour Win" and "Conservative Win" are appointed by God as the only possible results of an election (or as we call them, journalists) it should have been blindingly obvious that this election would result in a hung parliament (even if my guess would have had rather more Lib Dems and correspondingly fewer Labour...)

More importantly, however, while clearly there were many in the party who were bathing in the warm glow of their ideological purity, there were plenty of people wondering about how any coalition would work and how it would fit with our policy process. Unsurprisingly, as an amateur constitutional wonk who wrote the current Liberal Youth policy process, I was one of these and my general conclusion on the checks and balances was that there weren't any.

Okay, maybe that's not entirely fair. There is the not-quite-a-triple-lock (which, as we found in Wales three years ago, is true right up to the point when conference decides to exercise its power to overrule FEC) but that essentially only endorses or fails to endorse the coalition document. Once you're in though, your only recourse is to try to mount the reverse vote, but that would be quite some feat.

Of course, I suppose if we were particularly unhappy we could deselect any misbehaving ministers, though as that's a power for local parties it would rather depend on them and heaven knows there are some local parties I wouldn't trust to pick parish councillors (although let's be clear, the selection of diabolically awful candidates is a cross-party predilection...)

But then, this is the greater philosophical point. For all that our media narrative and indeed our voting patterns tend to fixate on the identity of the next government, the only thing we get to vote on is the identity of our representative. What's more, the same thing is true for every political party; we get to select our candidate, not everyone else's.

The trouble is, this isn't the question we generally ask of our candidates, at either level. What we actually ask is "What would you do if you were Prime Minister?" Partly this is because it's the only way we can formulate the question; we can't ask them what they would do in every possible combination of x Labour, y Conservative, z Lib Dem and (t-x-y-z) others. Mainly, however, it's because the years of oligarchy have lulled us into the idea that manifestos are non-fiction rather than science fiction.

Labour's manifesto in June 2001 contained very little, in retrospect, about the issue that would define their term in office; its authors were not expecting to see airliners flying into skyscrapers just three months later. Neither did the Tory manifesto of 1992 discuss what they would do if, five months later, David Cameron would have to scurry out of the Treasury behind the chancellor's back as he announced that the sky had fallen down on sterling's head. Think Margaret Thatcher's manifesto of 1979 contained any specific pledges about responses to an invasion of the Falkland Islands? Think again.

All the complaints about the coalition breaking manifesto promises ignore that it was ever thus, and not merely because politicians are politicians. In a quantum universe, the only accurate prediction you can make is that the value of your investments may go down as well as up...

What matters, therefore, is who is in the room. "Decisions are made by those who show up, so are we failing you or are you failing us?" Quoth Saint Jed of Bartlet, and he wasn't wrong. This coalition will be tested by something unexpected, not least because, as Alan Bennett so wonderfully put it, history is just one effing thing after another. Am I happy with every decision they've made? Of course not. But do I have confidence in the people we've put in the room for when things come to pass? I absolutely do.

What does all this have to do with MPs expenses? Well of all the many responses there were to that episode, the one that was missing was a defence of the idea of representative democracy itself. Instead, the cumulative effect was to reinforce the idea that politicians are by definition incompetent. After that, it's quite difficult to argue that the identities of the people in the room matter when you've already established that they're all the same anyway.

The difficulty going forward, then, is that the same applies to the AV referendum; how do you convince people that politicians can be better if you improve the method for holding them to account if you've already convinced them that there's no such thing as a better politician? Either way, we shouldn't be under any illusions that the referendum is just about everyone's first preference between FPTP and AV; it goes to the heart of how our political systems work. Indeed, our biggest advantage will be that the present system doesn't...

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