Magazine article The Spectator

Elected Social Workers

Magazine article The Spectator

Elected Social Workers

Article excerpt

Tony Blair is a generous fellow. This week he is reported to be about to increase the amount of taxpayers' money that goes to opposition parties, helping them to attack Labour more effectively. The Conservatives are suspicious; they believe that most of the cash will go to the Liberal Democrats, cementing the Prime Minister's increasingly intimate relationship with Paddy Ashdown.

Before handing over the money, however, Mr Blair should consider that Mr Hague and Mr Ashdown would make very different use of it, reflecting the contrasting approaches taken by their parties. Conservative Central Office would spend the money on more research support for its front-bench spokesmen, helping them to develop alternative policy proposals. The Liberals, after beefing up the presidential team surrounding Mr Ashdown, might well hand the balance over to its MPs.

Britain's third party makes only a cursory attempt to develop a national political programme. They rely on their local appeal, and their MPs respond to local issues, adapting flexible central policies to the concerns of their constituencies. They act as glorified social workers, reflecting in Westminster the worries of individuals or small groups. The Conservatives, by contrast, offer to represent in the great councils of the nation the views of their electors on the crucial issues of the day.

The contrast between these two tactics was recently on view at the Winchester byelection. Gerry Malone, the Conservative candidate, portrayed himself as an experienced politician, tough and clever enough to put across the views of the population of Winchester in the bear-pit of national politics. Mark Oaten, the Liberal candidate, made a virtue out of his poor attendance record at Westminster, explaining that he had been too busy answering constituency letters and dealing with the problems raised at his weekly surgeries.

Although the significance of the result was distorted by the personalities of those involved, the huge vote for Mr Oaten was an endorsement, from this particular part of Britain at least, for the Liberal Democratic brand of local politics. It is a development that would have horrified Edmund Burke, who insisted that MPs were delegates and not mere representatives.

This new voter vision of the member of parliament as a Citizens Advice Bureau of the last resort has its roots in social and political change. MPs have been forced to step into the void left by the decline of local councils, whose councillors often see themselves as representing the municipality rather than their electors. …

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