10 July

Political Parties, Manifestos and Governmental Accountability

As Labour’s poll ratings plummet following the Unite scandal we have a suitable occasion to ask how some integrity may be injected back into politics. After David Cameron’s evisceration of his own party’s grass-roots there is perhaps an element of balance in watching poor Ed do much the same to Labour’s political base though none of this is likely to do much to meet a popular desire for justice to be seen to be done, and for moral accountability from politicians.

In an age in which ‘morality’ has become a problematic term for politicians it has been much more straightforward for them to talk of ‘democracy’ and rights granted by the state. But even as British public life becomes increasingly secularised, private moral concerns are still allowed to make themselves felt at election time through the people’s free choice of candidates to represent them in the House of Commons. In theory ‘morality’ can make itself felt not by explicit voicing, but by proxy when voting habits are informed by voters’ moral formation (or lack thereof).

Such a solution is plainly far from ideal since MPs can easily have no idea at all if it is their stance on particular moral issues that has got them elected. Instead, the busiest politicians (often the most influential), unable to meet constituents face-to-face, must pick their way through pre-election pledges and national surveys to divine what the public voted in favour of. That is unless they are in coalition.

When pressed about university tuition fees and why the Liberal Democrats voted in favour of them being raised in 2010 Nick Clegg replied that his party did not win the election and so could not be held to account for their manifesto promise. Education clearly encompasses a number of moral concerns quite independent of the need to form a productive work-force. But despite being in power the Liberal Democrats have been in coalition with a party set on increasing tuition fees, and, disregarding their manifesto commitment on the matter Nick Clegg and his party voted in favour of an increase. Much the same has happened in Ireland recently with Fine Gael claiming that, because they are in coalition with the pro-abortion Irish Labour Party they can renege on their election promise not to legislate on abortion. Yet again the British Conservative party made no mention of same-sex marriage in its manifesto but still pushed the ‘dog’s breakfast’ of a piece of legislation through Parliament. Meanwhile serious tax breaks for married couples (a manifesto promise of the Conservatives) seem to have been put on a very long finger.

In spite of the manifest importance of all three issues not once has any party leader opted to take the blame for the about-turn on policy. Whatever the moral considerations, no elected politician has so far felt it necessary to step down from his or her post in protest. But when politicians have the combined get-out clauses of being in coalition with another party and the secularist contention that ‘morality is divisive’, what minister could possibly have the incentive to resign for integrity’s sake?

This is deeply worrying. Polling data points to coalition governments becoming more, and not less, likely in the UK in years to come. As Nigel Farage’s UKIP and the Owen Jones’ The People’s Assembly look set to split the votes of Left and Right, the main parties (currently kicking dirt into the faces of their grass-roots supporters) have been weakened further by mad dashes for the centre-ground under Messrs Blair and Cameron.

A tidy solution would be for the main political parties to campaign in elections with coalition agreements already signed so that the electorate might have some idea of what to expect from their rulers. In this way manifestos would necessarily have more binding moral force on elected governments. How might we provide the parties with incentives to provide them?

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