Friday, 16 April 2010

I didn't watch it

You might not be surprised to know that politics is something that interests me. It interests me very much. When the prospect of televised debates between the main party leaders first arose my reaction was that it would probably be enormously good fun. The first debate has now been held. I didn't see it, I went out for a curry.

I went out for a curry specifically to avoid watching something I feel to be deeply damaging to the structure of politics in this country. I don't mean the debate itself, I mean what the debate represents, I mean the presumption behind it. That presumption is that elections are now about who will be Prime Minister rather than which party, if any, will form a government. More attention is paid to the person at the top of the big party tree than the policy platform. Of course that person has to argue policy and does so from within the confines of a published manifesto but the person is on display more than the policy.

To some extent the party leader has always been a highly significant part of his or her party's fortunes at the ballot box because the leader of the party gaining a majority in the House of Commons becomes Prime Minister, and the British public aren't keen on a patent incompetent holding that position. We last saw that in 1992 when Labour should really have won against a tired Conservative administration that had pretty much run its course. Their choice as leader and prospective Prime Minister was Neil Kinnock. The longer the campaign ran the more his inadequacies were exposed. As usual with those who prove themselves wholly unsuited to high office, he then cashed-in big time with lucrative positions in the EU. Kinnock failed because he was patently unsuited to the job.

Now we have moved to a new era, in which the position of Prime Minister is likened to that of the US President. It is an entirely false comparison. A President runs for election for that office and the people have a chance to vote directly for Presidential candidates. The US President is not a member of either House of Congress. He might find a Congress generally opposed to his position on many issues and there is nothing he can do about it (other than resort to blackmail, bribery and corruption). When he introduces a Bill to Congress he has to take his chance on whether it will be passed, even members of his own party cannot be guaranteed to give support. Over the pond they call it "checks and balances". The substance of it is the understanding that difficult issues require serious consideration and exposure to debate. Even an American President with a nominal party majority in both Houses would struggle to get some measures through Congess because the Representatives and Senators look first to their own prospects of re-election and only secondarily to party loyalty.

There are no checks-and-balances for a Prime Minister with a working majority in the House of Commons other than the occasional rebellion in the House of Lords. Commons business is so heavily whipped by the party machines that all sorts of absurdly bad laws can be forced through, as has been seen numerous times over the last thirteen years. That, more than anything else, is why it is wrong to hold Presidential-style debates between the party leaders. Of course we want our potential Prime Minister to be exposed to scrutiny, for fear that a Kinnock might creep through unnoticed. But giving them the trappings of Presidency without the checks-and-balances necessary to ensure they are leader but not dictator and exposes the country to a dreadful peril.

We are currently in the grips of exactly that peril as a result of less Presidential elections. An economic illiterate was allowed to dictate governmental economic policy for a decade as the price for Mr Blair enjoying the trappings of the highest office. For Mr Blair it was a price worth paying, as his present bank balance shows. Both Blair and Brown were unassailable in Parliament because there were no checks-and-balances to prevent strict party discipline delivering them a majority in every vote that mattered. That deficiency pertains today. It can only be made worse by the general election being promoted as a Presidential race because it will strengthen the power of the Prime Minister without weakening the power of his slavering party machine.

What makes it worse at this election is that everyone knows they are not telling the truth about how they will deal with the government's annual deficit. They are all scared to tell the truth for fear that it will cost votes. So we are being asked to vote for a President and can only guess at their central economic policy for the duration of the next Parliament. To make it worse still, if they did tell the truth the one whose position is most sensible in the long term would probably lose most votes.


Stan said...

I quite agree, FB. People seem to think we elect Prime Ministers - we don't. MP's choose the PM - not the electorate. We elect MPs.

And the House of Lords was a far more effective check and balance before the Labour party embarked on constitutional vandalism. A fully elected Lords will be even worse.

Still, it's a relief to know I'm not the only person who thinks this way.

john miller said...

Well, whoever wins the election will find that it's a poisoned, 10 bevawatt electrified, carcinogenic, radioactive chalice.

I am sad that I'm not surprised that neither Brown nor Cameron appreciate that if they win, they will doom their entire party to political oblivion within a few years.

Either Brown or Cameron will be in the position of the nice man on the Titanic who had to carefully explain to the hysterical mob that whilst there were 1316 passengers there were only 4 lifeboats.