Why MPs don't want power


Being focused on my annual lecture and trying to avoid election commentary in my blog, I have been posting a lot less recently. Mind you, maybe I should stop entirely. This morning someone called Wendy Smith attached this comment to a very old post:

“Many years ago I read a quote from you and it made me so angry at your arrogance that I kept a copy - We have a citizenry which can be caricatured as being increasingly unwilling to be governed but not yet capable of self government.  Well these peasants showed you mate didn't they?  Unfortuntely [sic] I expect your [sic] still around taking tax payers money and treating them with contempt” 

I’m not sure whether to be worried that I have caused a stranger such ire or gratified that Ms Smith has kept my quote pinned on her mental cork board for several months. I have to admit to being unclear why the result on Thursday qualifies as a declaration of self government by the people. To be sure, the result suggests that no party has the confidence of most voters. Then again, Labour in 2005 got exactly the same proportion of votes as the Conservatives last Thursday and achieved a healthy majority. So the result is as much a reflection of the quirks of the voting system as a failure of public decisiveness.

Just to ensure my infamy lives on in the Smith household (after all if there is one thing worse than being talked about cruelly it is not being talked about at all), I will further impugn the electorate’s judgement by remarking on the voters’ tendency to condemn politicians for not being honest about problems (e.g. the deficit, illegal immigration) while at the same time showing no enthusiasm for any credible solution. This is why the one thing all parties have in common is an insufficient mandate for the decisions that will surely soon have to be taken.

As someone who is fascinated by the structural characteristics of membership organisations, I have only one small point to add to pages of speculation in today’s press. The divide at work in these negotiations is not only between parties, ideologies or policy preferences, it is also between putative ministers and MPs.

For the former the incentive to be in power is status, salary and, most of all, access to the levers of power. Whereas for the latter, not only is the difference in day to day life between being a Government MP and an opposition MP not that great but, arguably, it is more comfortable being able to criticise than having to defend the Government. This difference between the personal interests of leaders and followers may help to explain why all the party leaderships are trying to achieve a deal while many MPs and activists would prefer the purity of principled opposition. Part of what is played out in Whitehall and Westminster is simply a reflection of the general problem in organisations of getting rank and file support for reforms that makes leaders’ lives easier.

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