A simple idea to end political alienation and voter mistrust - RSA

A simple idea to end political alienation and voter mistrust.

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  • Institutional reform
  • Leadership
  • Philosophy

I ended my previous post on a downer arguing that the political system would never embrace the deep change required to reduce popular alienation from parliamentary democracy.  But since then an idea[1] has occurred to me which might at least open up a possibility of transformation.

The idea is to establish, in legal or semi-legal form, that an MP’s prime responsibility is to seek out and represent the views of their constituents in Parliament.

Most voters probably think that is already an MP’s primary role but it isn’t at all.

As far as I know, there are only two places where an MP’s responsibilities are codified.  The first is the Oath of Allegiance that MP’s must declare following their election to the House. Here it is:

I, (Insert full name), do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.

The other is the MP’s Code of Conduct most of which deals with the registration of interests and the like but does include the following line on the role of MPs:

Members have a general duty to act in the interests of the nation as a whole; and a special duty to their constituents.

A 2011 review of the Code of Conduct admitted that the phrase “special duty to their constituents” was open to a very wide range of interpretations (although it still decided not to clarify the phrase). So as long as an MP doesn’t actively support a pretender to the throne from outside the House of Windsor, they can pretty much fulfil their role in any way they want.

It’s far from the whole story but this vagueness around the responsibilities of MPs to their constituents’ views allows the flourishing of those ‘intermediaries’, I mentioned in my last post, and which ensure legislative and political agendas are set by party leaders and the press rather than citizens. A fact which, I think, adds to popular alienation at a time when people more than ever expect a direct and influential say over the decisions that affect their lives.

If an MP had a legal or semi-legal duty to represent the views of their constituents in any parliamentary debate or vote then the power of the party whips would be hugely reduced (and possibly eliminated) and the media could only exert power by influencing popular opinion rather than directly influencing the views of MPs.

It would also place a very great obligation on MPs to get far better at aggregating the views of their constituents into a meaningful position. Doing that properly is by no means cheap or easy but as I pointed out initiatives like NHS Citizen are developing ways to use new technology to aggregate diverse views on complex issues in as neutral a fashion as possible. Significantly enhancing the budgets of MPs so they can employ sophisticated ways to discover and develop the views of their constituents seems to me one of the rare occasions when the public might actually support more taxpayers’ money being spent on their parliamentary representatives.

If enacted seriously such a shift could transform Parliament. The Commons would cease to be dominated by the phoney battle between two big, widely disliked parties and would instead be a place where MPs navigated their way through to a consensus built around the considered views of citizens (as I put it in my last post).

Much would depend on how seriously any such codified responsibility was taken or enforced. It may be that the MP’s Code of Conduct is not strong enough to generate real change and another approach would be required but, nevertheless, it is interesting to note that a new review of the Code will probably be held at some point in the next Parliament.

Of course just as with the Recall legislation, establishing a prime responsibility principle would be very difficult.  It’s the old ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’ problem.  But at the very least it would provide a simple rallying cry for all those who recognise how much the system needs to change if it is to meet the aspirations and expectations of a 21st Century electorate.

[1] I’m sure someone else must have thought of the idea already, so I’m making no claims to originality.


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  • An appropriately Bennite blog this week! Interestingly, here's a short video of a former Bennite MP answering a couple of questions on the subject, and coming close to an argument for greater autonomy for MPs from their - constituents https://www.youtube.com/watch?...

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