Why MPs are just lobby fodder

Boris Johnson notes that MPs are just lobby fodder:

We must have a new Parliament, with a new type of MP, and that means looking at what is wrong with our democracy. The real crime is not the expenses system; it takes place at 10pm on weekday evenings, when MPs arrive in the lobbies, taxi receipts in their pockets, lipstick on their collars, purple claret stains on their teeth.

They file through the lobbies to vote – and what are they voting on? Nine times out of 10, they haven’t a clue. All they know, because their BlackBerrys tell them, is whether the whips want them to vote Aye or Nay; and so they shuffle obediently on and then, with a fatuous sense of a job done and a public served, they return to their dinners or the yielding arms of their companions of the evening; and yet another unnecessary and ill-drafted law prepares to enter the statute book; and the put-upon people of this country will be chivvied or taxed or cajoled or coerced in some new way by MPs who have only the vaguest understanding of what they have done.

Johnson’s right, and I might add that if MPs just go through the lobby they’re told to instead of judging each measure on its merits, then not only do they not deserve a pay rise, they deserve pay cut to put them on the minimum wage.

Johnson proposes a solution:

We want a new breed of MPs who will consistently tell the whips to get stuffed; who will smash the brutal and intellectually enervating system of party discipline that turns Westminster into a kind of Seventies Leyland car factory, apathetically turning out badly assembled laws to plague the people of this country.

My advice to constituency parties is not to hire candidates unless they promise two things: to read every line of every Bill they are called upon to pass; and to vote according to their conscience, and not according to the wishes or orders of the whips.

The problem with this solution is that it just won’t work: people respond to incentives, not to exhortations to behave better. (Consider what’s more likely to reduce car theft: the chief police officer appealing to thieves not to steal so many cars, or car manufacturers fitting anti-theft devices.)

MPs do what the party whips want because it’s in their interest to do so. If you want to get them to not obey party whips, make doing so in their interest. Thet’s why electing members by AV instead of FPTP is useful.

Consider if an MP repeatedly votes against their conscious, and is kicked out of the party for it. At the next election, they might stand as an independent, but at the moment they’d probably lose, unless they are particularly well-known.

Part of the reason why they’d lose is that people might be afraid to split the vote and let in a different candidate (e.g. consider an Independent Conservative running against an offical Conservative and a Labour candidate; conservative-minded voters might vote for the official conservative instead of the independent so as not to let the Labour man in). Under an AV election this wouldn’t happen, because the voter could put the independent as their first choice cand the offical Conservative as their second choice.

Or consider a Tory who loses the selection to be the official Tory candidate. He might decide to run as an independent Conservative. Voters who want an independent-minded MP might prefer him over the offical candidate (and are particularly likely to do so under AV). And in this way you get a member elected who isn’t beholden to the party.

To summarise: if you want people to behave differently, it’s no good just exhorting them to do so. Instead you must provide a mechanism which incentivises people to behave the way you want.

Johnson says this about PR:

We don’t need to contemplate proportional representation, since that will only intensify the power of the party machines and create even more lobby fodder.

The problem with this statement is it’s only half right. Some PR systems, such as closed lists, do enhance the power of parties. Others, such as STV or AV+, weaken the power of parties. (The Republic of Ireland uses STV and the parties all hate it, and have tried to remove it; but the voters, knowing what’s in their own interest, won’t let them.)

(via Iain Dale)

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