Wednesday, March 30, 2005


Of course, election means to choose - hence Pound's poem Ode Pour L'election De Son Sepulchre - unless he really meant a tomb being appointed to political office.

Way back when in the eighties there was a huge row in the Labour party over selection of Parliamentary candidates, specifically, the right of constituency activists to deselect - or refuse to select - sitting MP's whom they found politically unacceptable. This was Bennism, grassroots control of the party by it's activists.

I've found a surviving Tory criticism of this sort of policy here:
[Labour] must acknowledge that the correct role of MPs in a representative democracy is to be responsible to their electorates and to no group of organisations or volunteers in, or connected with, their party's organisation outside Parliament.
All very Burkean, and principled, I must say. Burke's position was clear: parliamentarians are there to act on their own judgement appointed by the constituents to do so. According to such a formula, only the constituents of an elective division should have the choice of appointing or removing an MP.

Such a position, though, doesn't reckon on Party politics and thumping unassailable party majorities, where the party can approve or disapprove a candidate. Hence the situation now with Flight, Hilton and Howard (No, not a Law Firm) - Conservative Central Office has been pulling its weight and deselecting candidates in a way even the starriest eyed Bennite could not have imagiend possible. At a moments notice.

Although good Doctor Lewis (cited above) talks about agencies outside parliament not having that power, surely Howard, despite being a parliamentary leader, is using extra-parliamentary means to remove candidates, is using his control of the party bureaucracy and his media profile in the country which makes it ruinous to the party to defy him to do just that. A centralisation imicable to traditional Tory values, surely. (I know, I know, don't call you Shirley...)

Of course, the real power that has given Howard such control, was given by the Labour Government with their Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000 which specifically states a cnandidate may not stand in the name of the party unless approved by the Party Nominating Officer, i.e. a centralised Party apparatchik.

Increasingly, we are seeing centralised control of candidacies - more an more power of patronage and appointment acruing to the top, and thus robbing the system of possibilities of dissent - populist, managed electoral processes, rather than real challenges and debate.

Update It seems my linking this story to Bennism occured to someone else today.


Blogger Phil said...

"Burke's position was clear: parliamentarians are there to act on their own judgement appointed by the constituents to do so."

And not just Burke's - John Stuart Mill's election address consisted of a printed statement that, if elected, he would vote exactly as he saw fit. To some extent this was just a matter of "Vote for me - no other candidate is John Stuart Mill", but I think the fact that he felt able to approach his constituents in those terms does suggest that the Burkean model was Victorian common sense.

On the broader question, I'm with Benn (for once). "Accountable to party members" (Benn) and "accountable to party leaders" (Blair/Howard) are both very different from "accountable to electors" (Burke/Mill), but they're also very different from each other - and there are definite continuities between Blair/Howard and a debased form of Burke/Mill. The Blair/Howard argument is that party leaders have a privileged understanding of what the voters will accept - which finds expression in the party programme - and hence are entitled to rule that certain candidates are Not the Thing. In the Bennite model, the job of the party is not to second-guess the voters but to win them over to a programme which is developed by the members.

10:07 PM  

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