Archive for November, 2009

Open Up, round II

Open Up has a new post:

The Chief Whips send out weekly circulars to “their” MPs notifying them of parliamentary business. The circulars use a code involving underlining. If a vote is underlined once, the Whip considers it routine, and attendance is “optional”. Items underlined twice are more important: attendance is required, unless that MP can organise someone from the opposing party to be absent as well, (a bit more like musical chairs than democracy). Any vote underlined three times means that failure to attend, and vote with the party, will result in disciplinary action. What disciplinary action usually means is expulsion from the party, at least temporarily.

…Open Up dearly need to speak to some MPs who have defied a three-line whip — such as, say, Tom Harris. To claim that the immediate response to a defiance of a three-line whip is temporary expulsion from the party is nonsense. It can happen, but it’s dependent on many other factors — only when party leaders are at the end of their tether, such as in John Major’s case over Maastricht, will they even want to consider it, as it could breed some pretty dangerous rebels.

Open Up go on to state:

Because parties, not constituents, choose who gets to stand in elections, this effectively puts that MP on notice that he or she may well lose their job at the next General Election.

…which leads on, as you might have guessed, to their favourite hobby horse, Open Primaries:

What has this got to do with Open Primaries? Well, right now party Whips can dominate MPs, because it is political parties who chose whether an MP gets selected or not. If voters got to choose who got selected, the Whips’ power would be substantially diminished.

…except, as you might have guessed, there is more to it than this. Parties generally tend to treat their MPs from marginal constituencies a little more better, as they’re aware of the damage that could potentially be caused to their standing in the constituency by a row between party leadership and their representative. Parties also tend to treat established names (a long-standing representative) better, so they in practice get away with more (I seriously doubt CCHQ thought of seriously disciplining Ken Clarke when he rebelled over their Lisbon policy prior to entering the Shadow Cabinet, because of his long-standing status within the party). So the problem is, in fact, mainly disparity between the way different MPs are treated as mcuh as it is anything to do with party selection.

Even if primaries were introduced, the chances are that it wouldn’t fix this. As an early episode of The West Wing showed, primaries mean that candidates are just as likely, if not more, to need publicity support in their campaigns from the leadership. Primaries also undeniably mean, for the United States, the campaigns have to be longer, more exensive and more time-consuming. This means that, actually, candidates are not actually less reliant upon campaign support, but more. The difference is merely that instead of being reliant upon the local party, they are reliant upon big funding, and have no way around that, even if the party might wish to sponser candidates unable to attract this sort of investment. I’ll leave you to decide which is the better scenario.

Open Up are quite right that party selection, and whipping, are a problem. But they’re a problem primarily because of the existence of many safe seats, and the difficulty of swings against an incumbent achieving meaningful status because of the risk of splitting the vote. If Open Up wish to achieve long-term improvement, they should target the existing inequities in the electoral system, not strive to add new ones.