Political patronage and a scaled down Parliament

Yesterday’s Guardian carried an article by Sarah Wollaston that raised an issue of profound significance for British democracy. The issue is the Government “payroll vote”. Some 150 of the coalition’s MPs are on the payroll. That means that they are bound by collective responsibility to vote with the Government. They cannot depart from the Government line, at least in public. Nearly a quarter of these votes are held by Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPS). The PPSs have no real independent influence on Government policy. They are simply lobby fodder which can be used to make it a bit less challenging to secure support in the chamber for Government proposals.

This raises at least two important questions for democratic practice – one old, one new.

The old question is how can an MP square the role of PPS with the obligation to represent their constituents and press the platform on which they were elected? If local voters are exercised, for example, by the threat to their local health facilities and wish their Parliamentary representative to take up the case, then how can their representative in conscience take on the role of PPS and as a consequence be silenced. This is a dilemma that Dr Wollaston has been presented with. She has apparently settled the matter in her own mind by concluding that it is impossible. To do a good job as a constituency MP one has to stay off the payroll. That will also mean at least the possibility of participating in Select Committee activity in a more independent capacity.

Of course it is implausible to suggest that a Member elected under the auspices of a particular political party could seek or expect complete independence. But where is the boundary to be struck between party discipline and independence? If discipline is too great and the payroll too extensive then a large proportion of MPs just become warm bodies to be herded in the required direction by the party machinery. Barely representatives at all.

This is significant. Why? Because it is clear that the political system is evolving in a way that means that the PPS role is viewed as a pre-requisite for entry into higher office in Government. So refusing to take on such a role – and consequently be silenced – can effectively represent the end to one’s political advancement. Any MP with political ambitions – however implausible – will need to fall into line.

This isn’t a new issue. And it isn’t a party political issue. I am in the middle of reading the first volume of Chris Mullin’s diaries A view from the foothills. Mullin faced the same dilemma. As a backbencher he had considerable influence as the chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee. This was traded for the most junior position in the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions. His diaries are permeated with angst. He is candid in feeling that in more than a year at DETR he achieved almost nothing of substance – apart from toeing the party line, reluctantly at times, and getting a new maximum speed limit on Lake Windermere.

But, as Dr Wollaston comments indicate, it is also an issue of increased urgency in the light of current proposals to reduce the total number of MPs. This is the new issue. If this change carries through then, unless the extent of the payroll vote is curtailed, it is going to mean an even greater in-built bias in favour of the incumbent Government securing its wishes through Parliament. This cannot be good for democracy. We need a clearer separation between the Executive and the Legislature.

The system has evolved into one where political patronage is vital. This is a recipe for the stifling of dissent, for conformity and for group-think. Any suggestion that Government policy proposals cannot benefit from robust scrutiny by those of the same political persuasion, as well as the Opposition, is absurd.

As well as Chris Mullin’s diaries, I am also reading Syndromes of Corruption by Michael Johnstone. The book offers a cross-national analysis of the complex and contextual phenomenon of corruption at the interface between public and private sectors. Johnstone is resolute in arguing that while much analysis of corruption focuses on developing and transition countries, advanced western democracies are by no means immune. Corruption takes varied forms. Inappropriate use of patronage features in the discussion. It is a problem because it impedes effective democratic practice. While I wouldn’t wish to level the charge of corruption at the current Westminster system, I would wish to argue that there are no grounds for complacency. We need to think hard about whether the way the system has evolved serves the interests of democracy, rather than those of individual political parties.

Dr Wollaston is rapidly emerging as my favourite Tory MP. Yesterday’s article follows her previous informed and sensible intervention in the debate over the reform of the NHS (discussed here). It has to be recognised, of course, that she doesn’t have a lot of competition. I also wonder how long she will be allowed to act independently and voice her concerns. I hope the answer is that Dr Wollaston – and others like her – can critically engage with the Government agenda for as long as she feels it necessary. That is the answer that is good for democracy. My suspicion is that the Conservative party machine might have different views. One only has to think of the recent defenestration of Michael Oakeshott – by the far less ruthless LibDem party machine – to recognise that someone is likely to be leaning even more heavily on Dr Wollaston some time soon.

Update:

The story continues in the Observer here. Good to see that the issue is generating concern at different points the political spectrum (although I’m not sure an endorsement from Bill Cash would help anyone’s case).

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