1990s >> 1998 >> no-1128-august-1998

Greasy Pole: False identities

The job of a Member of Parliament is to represent the interests and the opinions of their constituents. Obvious as that may seem it would not appeal to many New Labour MPs, whose allegiance is principally to the Whips and their directive pagers and their ever-driving ambition. This can—and does— lead to them supporting measures pushed through by the Blair government—like cuts in single parent benefit and tuition fees for students— which their constituents may not support. If they are criticised for this Blair’s MPs have an answer available. They are not lust Members of Parliament, they are New Labour MPs; they were elected because people wanted them to implement the party’s programme and by doing that, whatever the cost, they are in fact representing their constituents.

This raises the question of how many voters actually need and consciously support a party’s election manifesto and whether what actually happens is that they vote for a party because they are fed up with the other bunch or they like the looks of one leader better than those of the other or they just feel like a change of government. For example the voters in May 1997 might have disappointed New Labour because they had a vague idea that Blair would ensure his government would be pure of the kind of sleaze practised by the Tories and would not have any truck with lobbyists like Derek Draper and Roger Liddle earning fat fees organising contacts with ministers Or they may have assumed that a Labour government would not attack the living standards of the poorest and weakest people. It also raises the question of what those ambition-crazed New Labour sycophants think about the bits of their election manifesto—like smaller class sizes and shorter NHS waiting lists—which might well have attracted voters but which remain unfulfilled promises.

The issue of whether MPs go to Westminster to represent their constituents or to be servile party hacks was supposed to be clarified in 1969, when the Representation of the People Act was amended to allow a candidate’s party to appear on the ballot paper Before that elections were conducted on the fictional basis that the candidates were independent of political parties and if elected would look after their electors. The problem with this, the big parties argued, was that it was confusing for the voters to have only a name to go on. What if the names were similar—if Labour’s candidate was called Johnson and the Tories’ Johnston? It was not unknown for people who had a grudge to create problems by standing for elections after changing their name to that of one of the other candidates.

If this was a problem it put in doubt all those confident assumptions about the voter consciously endorsing a party’s programme and sending their Member to the Commons with a mandate to implement it. Could it really happen, that people would conscientiously wade through all those manifestos but then, during the short journey from their home to the polling station, forget the name of the candidate of the party they wanted to support? Or, after all that mental exertion, would they overlook the need to jot down the name on a scrap of paper? In any case if lots of people whose memory was so faulty voted for Johnson when they really supported Johnston, isn’t it reasonable to assume that just as many would have erred in the opposite direction, so that any miscast votes would have pretty well levelled themselves out?

The 1969 Act was supposed to have cleared up that problem, so that never again would anyone vote for a party by mistake and all the candidates could live happily ever after But it has not worked out like that because where before there was created confusion over people’s names there is now the same thing over the parties’ titles. In recent elections there have been candidates winning votes by standing for phantom parties like Real Conservative and Labour Change. Perhaps the most notable example was that of Richard Huggett, who stood as a Literal Democrat and as the Liberal Democrats fumed it cost them a seat in the last European elections because he got some 10,000 votes while their candidate was defeated by 800. (In a later parliamentary by-election Huggett’s cover was blown and he got only 59 votes.)

So angry are the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties at what they say is the frustration of the people’s will that a new Bill is to be rushed through parliament, to do what the 1969 Act failed to do. It will cause no surprise that the minister behind this is none other than the restless jack Straw, who is sure that the parties” . . . will soon be protected from spoiler candidates, who use deliberately confusing descriptions on the ballot paper”. In itself this is a sensible measure in that it is an elementary democratic principle that candidates should not be able to deliberately mislead voters as to who they are. But what about candidates who deliberately mislead voters as to their ability to improve things?

Why politicians like Straw confine themselves to clearing up confusions over misleading names when the big, important, immediate task in politics is to attack the parties’ deliberate misleading of people over the nature of capitalism and the impotence of the political parties to moderate or change it? Why should we get upset at the antics of people like Huggett when there is the massive, relentless, fraud of parties like New Labour assuring us that they can control capitalism so that it becomes something which it cannot be?

And this brings us to the final, essential point. When we consider the record of the Labour and Conservative parties and those like them; when we consider how they have failed, how capitalism remains a repressive, destructive, murdering society; how politicians conceal their failures with more lies, more evasions, more promises—when we consider all this we are brought to an encompassing question: Who, in their right minds, would want to be mistaken for them?


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