Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, January 05, 2015

Informal requirements

There are times when the political culture changes when the regime doesn't. It appears that is what's going on in the UK. Will this also change party politics? Will it affect the Parliamentary system?

No more parachuting in: Ever more MPs have deep roots in the places they represent. That presents the political system with a challenge
ON CHILLY winter evenings Sarah Sackman and her supporters push leaflets through letterboxes informing residents that she grew up “playing in Golders Hill Park and watching films at the Phoenix”. The Labour Party candidate for Finchley and Golders Green also describes this slice of north London, which she hopes to represent in Parliament after next year’s general election, in one word: “home”. The emphasis is deliberate, she explains: being local helps to break down the suspicion with which voters can view politicians…

Voters increasingly want MPs with deep local roots, who were born and raised in their constituency or have lived there for many years. This might sound unremarkable, yet it signifies an important shift in the way that Britons view representation and the responsibilities of government. The shift is putting great strain on the Westminster system, which rests on an assumption that, while it is important that MPs be somewhat responsive to the needs of their constituents, their overriding duty is obedience to party bosses. As these allegiances switch places, the prospects of stable, decisive government shrink—and those of political deadlock grow.

The old ways lasted for many decades. Margaret Thatcher represented Finchley despite coming from Lincolnshire and living in Chelsea, on the other side of London…

But according to Michael Rush of the University of Exeter the proportion of MPs with pre-existing connections to their seats rose from 25% in 1979 to 45% in 1997. Using similar criteria, Ralph Scott of Demos, a think-tank, calculates that 63% are now local. The trend is cross-party, he adds: up from 30% in the Conservative Party intake of 1997 to 65% in 2010, and from 69% to 75% in Labour…

Why? According to pollsters at Ipsos MORI trust in “MPs in general” has declined (partly because of Westminster scandals like revelations of expenses abuses) but trust in “my local MP” has risen over the past decade…

The rise of local and faux-local candidacies appears to be shifting politicians’ loyalties from party to constituency. It is now common for leaflets to make few references to a candidate’s political hue or party leader: in a letter to voters before the Rochester and Strood by-election last month, the Tory contender used green (rather than Conservative blue) borders and made no mention of her party’s name…

There is cause to welcome this development. It produces MPs who are independent-minded and loyal to their constituents…

But the trend has a bigger downside for Britain than it does for other countries. Its first-past-the-post elections are designed to create big parliamentary parties encompassing wide ranges of views… As that slips, the machine is creaking. The current cohort of MPs has rebelled more than any before. Polls suggest that the next government may have a tiny majority; to achieve much it will need discipline. In a parliament of local champions… it is unlikely to get it.

Britain can have stable, traditional government from Westminster, or it can have independent-minded local MPs who are loyal to their constituencies above all else. It cannot have both. Two reforms could help bridge the gap: the introduction of proportional representation (PR) and the devolution of power from Westminster to local regions. But although Britons like local candidates, in referendums they have rejected PR, regional assemblies and elected mayoralties. Eventually, something will have to give.

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What You Need to Know, 6th edition

Table of Contents

Just The Facts! is a concise guide to concepts, terminology, and examples that will appear on May's exam.

What You Need to Know: Teaching Tools, the original version and v2.0 are available to help curriculum planning.

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