Yes, MPs work hard. But who for? Themselves.

by Alex Hilton

It’s truly challenging to express incandescent rage in the form of dry, political writing but let me have a go. I am stomach-wrenchingly sick of MPs defending the nobility of MPs in the process of backing the first past the post electoral system.

I’m sorry, Jim Murphy, but I’m talking about you.

Murphy is one of the better MPs. By all accounts he’s intelligent, hard working, serious and responsive to his constituents. But because he is good, does that really mean the rest of them are?

He is the latest in a long list of MPs telling us how hard-working and selfless MPs are. Please listen to me: this is utter tripe. Many MPs really are hard working, some are even obsessive and monomaniacal. But you have to ask who they are hard working for, and it’s usually themselves. It’s not their fault, it’s just how the systems works.

Under FPTP, about 400 seats in any given election are “safe” – not expected to change hands. So in 400 seats an MP actually has to get caught doing something awful before there’s a chance of losing the seat, and in most cases of scandal, a party would replace their candidate with someone anonymous rather than lose the seat to another party.

In 400 seats, the relative merit of the candidates is an irrelevance. But once they are in parliament, FPTP continues to influence MPs through the whips.

When an MP suggests they might not vote with the whip, they come under a huge amount of pressure. Whips will threaten to put people on boring bill committees; they will refuse time off; and they have a ready-made opening gambit.

Who do you think you are? You not here because of your surname, you’re here because you had [insert party here] after your name on the ballot paper.

And in 400 seats they are right.

And when an MP in a marginal seat threatens to rebel, this can be deflected with promises of extra help in the constituency, more time off to campaign, or most cynically, they can be put on a list of people “allowed” to rebel once the whips know how the numbers are OK and in return for other forms of support.

The point of this is that MPs advance on the basis of patronage from above rather than any sense of merit. And I really don’t want to illustrate this by listing all the crap MPs who achieved high office through career long sycophancy, but they crop up pretty regularly on shows like Question Time, so you know who they are.

Imagine a parliament where a critical mass of MPs could turn to the whips and say, No, I’m here because I’m better than the other candidates I stood against.

Imagine a critical mass of MPs who had to be excellent rather than just mediocre in order to get elected. I’m not saying this would result in an ungovernable parliament where rebellion is the norm. But it would result in a leadership that would have to be more responsive to its MPs.

Last year we had a leadership election and nearly all the candidates opposed the Iraq war, opposed the privatisation of the post office, opposed 90 and 42 day detention without trial, thought we had become too illiberal on issues like ASBOs and control orders and were failing to deliver for the poorer end of society.

Where the hell were these people when we were in government? In the main, they were in the cabinet. And they got into the cabinet by sucking up and never raising an objection. In the main they got into Parliament by being special advisers who sucked up and never raised an objection.

So if you want to know who an MP works hard for, they generally work for themselves and for those above them. And when they achieve high office, the expect those below them to conform as they did.

Occasionally, when there’s a leadership election brewing, putative leaders do “listen” to MPs. But MPs are generally more easily swayed by self-interest than by policy positions. And there’s nothing more self-interesting to an MP than their job security.

Jim Murphy says that AV isn’t the answer and that transparency and an MP recall system might be the answer. Well where was his amendment to the bill demanding these answers? Where was his amendment to the bill demanding that the perfect system be placed in front of the public for decision by referendum? Is he in Parliament demanding that every time an MP speaks, Hansard should indicate how much that MP “gave back” to the fees office and HMRC during the expenses scandal? Is that what he means by transparency?

Murphy says that AV is not the answer to the expenses scandal, but it is the only answer a Parliament of self-serving elitists has allowed us. For Murphy it’s too incremental a change and won’t achieve the desired result, but incrementalism was good enough for him in all other policy arenas when Labour was in government.

We are becoming a nation run by characterless, visionless, passionless, rudderless, calculating former special advisers. So is it any wonder that there is a huge gulf between the public and their masters? The patronage-ridden and anti-pluralistic nature of FPTP got us here and it allows little room for advancement on the basis of merit.

AV is an incremental change. AV is only a little bit better than first past the post. But it is the only thing they will let us have that is even a tiny improvement over what we have.

It really adds up to only about 80 more marginal seats. That’s 80 more seats where an MP has a motive to be more than just mediocre in order to get re-elected.

It’s not much, but I’ll take it.

Alex Hilton is a former councillor and Parliamentary candidate and was the original Labour blogger.


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23 Responses to “Yes, MPs work hard. But who for? Themselves.”

  1. Auntie Edna says:

    Spot on Alex.

  2. Julian says:

    Even if AV creates 80 more marginal seats (doubtful), most of those seats will still return the same MPs they would have returned under FPTP. Do you really think those MPs won’t be there just because of they “had [insert party here] after your name on the ballot paper”?

    As you say, AV is “not much”.

    Also, the reason we are voting on AV is because Gordon Brown, the Labour Leader, decided that’s what he would offer the Lib Dems.

  3. Jaunty Fellow says:

    Crikey Alex, even by your bewildering standards this is an astonishingly daft article. Political patronage in inherent in any system of government. Australian politicians are elected under AV but do you seriously believe that they are less subservient to their party than British MPs?

    You sound like a man bitter because the electorate has already rejected you twice and your chances of securing a safe seat have all but vanished. Hopefully this divisive and idiotic article will be the last nail in the coffin.

  4. paul barker says:

    Totally agree, there seem to be about 420 MPs supporting No & 140 backing Yes, they know where their interests lie.

  5. AV turns my seat from a marginal into a safe Lib Dem seat, and means that when my Lib Dem MP threatens to rebel against his Tory masters, they can say “Hey, it’s only our second and third preferences that are going to keep you in – behave yourself”.

    The assumption that MPs would mainly win lower preferences by differentiating themselves from their party on policies sounds wildly optimistic to me. Personally, I’d do it by increasing my direct contact with the known voters of parties likely to be eliminated before the final round.

    i.e. more time in the constituency gladhanding right-wingers, less time in Parliament challenging the Government, raising policy issues, and scrutinising legislation. Possibly the opposite of what you want.

  6. M says:

    This is a really excellent article, Alex. The first article I have read in this wretched non-debate that finally makes sense. You have helped pushed me from an undecided into a Yes. I hope others will be similarly influenced the real sense you have written.

  7. Alex Hilton says:

    Oldpolitics. If you want the country run by an unaccountable elite, that’s a legitimate view to have. “The voters are not qualified to choose their masters” is not an official #no2av position but it may as well be

    Julian, Yes not much. but it’s all the national rage over the expenses scandal could eke out of a self serving elite.

    Jaunty – abuse from someone unwilling to be identified with their opinion? Not worth a substantive response I’m afraid.

  8. hobson says:

    Safe seats are not a fact of nature. They are safe because the human beings in those seats, who have minds of their own, choose to go out and vote a certain way. They’re not idiots. If you pin a red/blue/yellow (delete as appropriate) rosette to a donkey then no, the donkey will not win.

    In fact, so-called safe seats can change hands when local voters decide they want change. Look at true-blue Solihull, now represented by a Lib Dem. Ask Portillo about safe seats.

    You may disapprove of the way people choose to vote in some seats – and specifically of their choice to vote the same way consistently – but that’s not an argument for changing the voting system.

    You also seem to believe that AV will create more marginal seats (otherwise your argument makes no sense at all). Nothing in your article justifies this claim. What happens in a Tory/Labour marginal when the second preferences of Lib Dem voters are taken into account? Isn’t such a seat likely to stop being a marginal and actually become a safe seat? There’s no reason to assume those Lib Dem second preferences are going to be “floating preferences”.

  9. Alex Hilton says:

    …and M – very kind of you to say so

  10. Graham Day says:

    Great to hear some intensity and passion. Yeah.

  11. Pete says:

    Oh for crying out loud. Just when I thought I’d made my mind up, I come across this.

    Great piece.

  12. Andrew Old says:

    Are we really meant to believe that FPTP gives less power to backbenchers than other systems? How absurd.

    It doesn’t take more than basic general knowledge about politics and electoral systems in other countries to know that this is just utterly wrong. Our backbenchers are more independent than in most countries where backbench rebellions are unheard of. In fact the only country that springs to mind as having significantly weaker party discipline than the UK is the US, which also has FPTP.

  13. Dan Hodges says:

    “We are becoming a nation run by characterless, visionless, passionless, rudderless, calculating former special advisers”

    Bloggers, however, are fine…

  14. Alex Hilton says:

    Hobson, firstly yes, safe seats exist and I’m not just talking about the ones where a candidate gets more than 50% of the vote. If they didn’t then the parties would spend their money and effort in all seats relatively equally rather than in the marginals.

    It’s also highly inconsistent to tell me all voters start with a blank slate, but then to insist that LibDems are more likely to second preference Labour. According to current polling, left-inclined LibDems are likely to give their first preferences to Labour, meaning the remaining LibDem vote is more likely to go Conservative in the 2nd preference.

    Safe seat exist because, to a voter, an election is not a snapshot of opinion. Voters broadly change their minds over the course of many years or even decades. This predictability of outcome in about 400 seats means that all the efforts of the political parties go into the marginals and it suppresses the point of voting at all in the remaining seats. Therefore safeness perpetuates safeness.

    Which is handy for elitists who like power to perpetuate power.

  15. iain ker says:

    Spot off, Alex.

    Couldn’t agree more about how easily MPs manage to convince themselves that they’re robust Stakhanovites selflessly grinding their fingers to the bones as they toil endlessly for their constituents and the country.

    You then completely non sequitured with a load of blather about how AV would change anything whatsoever.

    Style guide – which I’ll provide selflessly and nobly – lose this cliched ‘incandescent with rage’ line. It’s been done to death already, and in any case the thought of some overweight, middle-aged, desk-bound chatterer on statins being ‘angry’ frightens exactly no-one.

    If you really do get ‘incandescent with rage’ – seek help.

  16. william says:

    AV is not the answer to the question,’why did Labour lose 5 million votes?’80 more marginals?Big deal. No political party has even a sniff of power with 29 percent of the vote,and oblivion in non urban England.Changing the electoral system would not, per se,make Brown’ s cabal an attractive proposition to the uncommitted voter.

  17. Mickey Smith says:

    Anyone voting no has no right to call themselves a believer in progressive politics. As wedded to the old self-serving elitism of British non-democracy as any Tory. Oh and while we are at it the Labour Party better get used to permanent opposition and the country to eternal Tory hegemony if FPTP is retained, because by the time the Tory boundary review and reduction of seats (that will happen regardless of the outcome of the referendum) is finished in 2013 none of us will ever see a Labour majority again. Labour members voting no = Tory stooge.

  18. Hobson says:

    You either didn’t read my post or you’re deliberately throwing up straw men to hide the flaws in your logic.

    I stated: “They are safe because the human beings in those seats, who have minds of their own, choose to go out and vote a certain way.”

    You respond by insisting safe seats exist. Who said they didn’t?

    You claim: “It’s also highly inconsistent to tell me all voters start with a blank slate, but then to insist that LibDems are more likely to second preference Labour.”

    However, nowhere did I insist, or mildly suggest, anything of the kind.

    You end by suggesting people who disagree with you about AV are elitists who like to perpetuate power. Is it not possible that your arguments have simply failed to convince?

  19. Richard says:

    Hobson, you can probably count the number of times a safe seat has changed hands in the past fifty years on the fingers of one hand.

    Alex is entirely correct, the current system just perpetuates sickening sycophancy and towing the party line. I’m not saying AV will put an end to that, but MPs will have to think a lot more carefully about it under AV if they are obliged to reach out to a wider electorate than their core vote.

  20. Alex Hilton says:

    Hobson, v sorry, definitely not calling #NO2AV supporters elitists (not the Labour ones anyway). However, they are the unwitting tools of elitists.

    400 or so MPs oppose AV. It doesn’t matter how they dress up their justifications, it directly impedes their job security – and not nearly enough.

    For nearly my whole life governments have been saying that market reforms drive up standards, but democracy is the one arena where they don’t don’t want competition.

    AV isn’t a democratic nirvana, it’s just a little baby step in the right direction, the prospect of which has been twisted out of an elite in an all too brief moment of embarrassment over a historic scandal.

    Hodges, Yes I’m ambitious politically. I wish I cold say the same for more MPs. I wish more of the voters would put their name on a ballot paper if they’re dissatisfied with what they are being offered. Is that a bad thing?

    Iain K, yes, cliché – I know – I normally check for such things before sending them off. That said, my argument (blather) is not that AV will change a lot, only that it my nudge an unwholesome culture of unaccountability very slightly closer to the people.

    Let’s get this straight. AV is crap, but not quite as crap as FPTP. An honest government (and I’m not saying Labour had plans to do so) would have had a public debate about what people want on a referendum ballot paper before deciding what to offer us. Instead, the government has given us the least attractive possible reform as our only option.

    With one exception. AV does protect the constituency link better than most other reforms.

    Vote for AV – If you don’t like it, the political class will be much less resistant to rolling it back than they are to reform.

  21. Dan Hodges says:

    Alex,

    Just trying to work out the difference between an ambitious former Labour blogger and an ambitious former Labour SPAD.

  22. Alex Hilton says:

    Dan, the difference is the debt to elitism and the submission of independent thought in favour of the opinions of someone more senior

    All very useful in a spad – less useful in an MP, particularly one aspiring to lead

    some former spads manage to shake this off to be fair

  23. Ted says:

    Alex,

    An interesting article, and you raise some valid points about the problems with the current political system. However, you havent really addressed the question of how AV would rectify this? Unfortunately AV is a half way house, that pleases nobody. Personally I favour the second ballot system, under which in seats where the candidate has won over 50% of the vote, that candidate is elected. In those seats where no single candidate won over 50%, another election will be held in the seat the following week, where the only the top two candidates from the previous election go through, and then whoever gets the most votes is elected. I think that is a fair system, that maintains the constituency link, but also has the added bonus in that every MP elected, would have done so with over 50% of the vote.

    One final thing Alex, your attack on the current set of MPs, and people who want to be MPs as “characterless, visionless, passionless, rudderless, calculating former special advisers” is correct (apart from the legend that is Geraint Davies) You also attack MPs for being sycophantic, again this correct for so many. Unfortunately, having known you since 2003, I would label all those charges again you too. This isn’t ment to be personal, I just want to be honest and straight with you, but whenever I have met you, I always get the impression that you are only in it for youself too. I’ve also known you to be sycophantic to people higher up in the party. I may be wrong, but whenever I have spoken to you, I don’t sense you have what Bevan called ‘the fire in the belly.

    Yours,

    Ted

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