MP expenses and MP selection: the missing link
Phil at A Very Public Sociologist has been asking what we should do about MP’s expenses, and Neil at Liberal Conspiracy (and Bleeding Heart Show) has been saying Labour in Liverpool might be in for a right good kicking for not selecting a local candidate.
There’s a connection here, and I’m damn well going to find it if you bear with me.
Phil first. Quite rightly, he says:
But for any improved system to work, it’s not enough to engineer better constitutional arrangements. Politics needs to re-engage the millions of people who’ve been alienated from it these last 20 years. It’s not a matter of educating the electorate or forcing citizenship classes on school kids. Parties need to eat humble pie and listen to the real problems of ‘real’ people, and pay big business and the mythological ‘Middle England’ less mind.
Yup, there’s the connection with Neil. Getting the expenses issues sorted is all about parties, and what they do in selecting candidates and then holding them to account as their local representatives and delegates to parliament.
The radical constitutional answer to the whole question of MP’s remuneration (salary and expenses) is, as simply as I can put it, to gather up all the money currently spent – salaries, expenses, constituency costs, the lot – into one big pot. Then dole it all out to local parties represented in parliament on the basis of the more members a local party has, the greater the percentage of the total pot that local party gets.
There are two big wins here. First local parties get a greater say in their MP’s programme. Second, the incentive for the party to recruit is matched directly to an increased reason for individuals to join the party.
That’s the simple version. It’s written up in more detail here at Left Foot Forward’s Progressive Manifesto slot, and if you really want to vote for it as the best progressive idea presented to LFF, which it is by miles, you can.
But will this be accepted by parliament, under whichever party’s control, as a radically effective way of both cleaning up parliament by making MP’s more directly accountable to the people who select them to stand, and re-energising local democracy?
Will it buggery.
There’s a near total antipathy to ‘party politics’ such that this solution would be difficult to ‘sell’ to a wider electorate, whatever the assurances about overall spending.
Even more importantly, MPs simply wouldn’t vote for what many of them would find utterly objectionable – answering to their members in any meaningful sense. That’s not a criticism of MPs, merely a statement of the reality that most MPs are treated and expect to be treated like demi-gods by their local parties, with this culture fostered by a wholly compliant national and regional party organisation. There will be no radical constitutional change of this nature until we have enough constitutionally radical MPs who are bound by their local mandates to push it through.
In the case of the Labour party (and I don’t care about other parties), a change to this culture can only be brought about within the party itself.
That’s why I advocate (and will continue to do so through my LRC membership in particular) the strategy of national disaffiliation and local re-affiliation by trade unions; this is the way to shift the culture of PLP domination of the party quickly and effectively (see also Adam at The Day Today on trade union links).
But breaking a culture of unnecessary deference within the Labour party is only the first part of what needs to be done. A new culture of pro-active local policy making and party organisation needs to follow in its wake.
In part, this will come necessarily with the extra resources directed locally. There will need to be plans on how to spend the money and local parties will face a challenge getting their act together. Early on, there will be cock-ups, I have no doubt.
But perhaps the most essential part will come in the development of a new relationship between MP-as-delegate and local party, and this will need to be a key aspect of every selection process.
At the moment, party members involved in selection l0ok for some key things in those they are grilling, and these tend to be focused on their beliefs, but more particularly their oratory and ‘charm level’, linked to the level of personal clout that might be expected on behalf of the local area.
Outside party influences aside, that is often why local candidates can be overlooked in favour of the ‘names’ from the metropolitan, think-tank, professional political elite; looking and sounding good, knowing their lines, knowing which buttons to press, is what they’re trained at. As Neil is keen to point out in the Liverpool Wavertree case, that not a criticism. It’s just the way it is.
Local parties need to select with different things in mind. They need, in many ways, to take on the same role as a board of charity trustees, or a school governing body, takes on when it interviews and appoints a chief executive, a headteacher, or perhaps even more aptly, a project manager.
There needs to be a job description and a person specification focused on what they have identified as the key tasks and challenges for the next four years, both locally and in terms of the national party. The focus needs to be less on charm, more on organisational skills and experience. Oratory should be in the ‘desirable’ column of the person specification; ‘ability to manage resources to time and budget’ should be in the essential column.
This will favour local candidates, who will understand what resources are available, in the context of the task set for them by their ‘trustees’. It will also favour working class organisers.
When I was last involved in a selection process, I had one question for each candidate. It wasn’t about their beliefs – they are important but I felt I should have seen those evidenced on the application form. It was about organisation of the constituency office and how this could be done to maximum effect.
This question totally non-plussed several of the candidates, who waffled. I gave my vote to the one who answered best – the one whom I thought best understood her/his role as senior officer to my party, rather than as my boss.
Neil is right. Local parties need to get their act together, but it must happen in the context of a party-wide realisation of how badly wrong we’ve gone with our idolisation of the PLP.
As part of that, local parties will set their MP’s terms and conditions as part of getting the right person for the job.
Of course, if those MPs want to join a union and bargain collectively, all well and good. We welcome engagement with the real world.
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