Tuesday 17 April 2012

How much do we need to know about our politicians?

The London Mayoral contest has brought us some novelties in the way candidates present themselves. The most significant change is probably the disclosure of the candidates' income  statements. Although the Labour candidate Ken Livingstone has been less than forthcoming about his income, the leader of the Labour Party Ed Miliband has argued that income tax submissions should be made public by all prospective candidates in UK elections. Miliband's intervention in the Mayoral election has form. It was the Labour leader who started this wave of revelations by asking the frontbench of the coalition government in his response to the budget whether they would personally benefit from the reduction in income tax. 
If all candidates for public office are in future required to reveal their income and the tax they pay, the UK would only follow in the footsteps of the US where income tax disclosure is common practice in elections. 
However, the argument put forward so far to support income tax disclosure strikes me as odd. Ed Miliband once again articulated the rationale behind this on the Andrew Marr Show last Sunday. Voters, he said, should know if legislators would benefit from the laws they vote on. Asked by Marr whether this should include their medical history, Miliband tried to backpaddle, suggesting that medical history was an entirely different matter. 
But it seems to me that this position lacks coherence as well as plausibility. Such a policy can only be coherent if all aspects of the personal lives of legislators are revealed so that voters can see whether or not they benefit from legal changes they enact. Hence Miliband would be wrong to arbitrarily limiting disclosure to income and taxation. Clearly the rule of transparency would apply to all aspects of legislators' lives. 
Yet, the proposal also lacks plausibility in the first place. Legislators are human beings, living in the society on which they impose legal rules as part of their daily routine. The disclosure of whether or not a parliamentarian could potentially benefit from legislation applies to all domains of her or his personal life, and, according to Miliband, complete transparency is taken to be critical for public debate of proposed legislation. 

But why should that be the case? What does it add to our understanding of the proposals for, say gay marriage, whether or not a particular legislator is straight, married, single, gay, or divorced? Legislation is enacted on the merits of laws for the whole of society, not whether or not a specific individual benefits from it. 
The point becomes clear when we examine more closely how we discuss legislation in public debate. A particular focus of deliberating on the merits of proposed legislation is whether or not particular groups of people are being disadvantaged or disproportionately advantaged. But we do not inquire whether any specific individual is set to gain from it. The latter would be a clear indication that we believe the legislative process is corrupted, say by passing laws that only benefit one individual rather than society. Clearly Miliband does not want to suggest that legislators on the government benches are corrupt? 
So, focussing on personal gain or loss is  either indicative of a notion of a corrupted legislative process or it is simply a fishing exercise for party political gain. As the latter, it lacks plausibility. Needless to say, it may deter people from entering politics and shift the focus from assessing the effect of legislation for the whole of society to individuals. 

Watching Miliband's budget response, the main intention of this move becomes clearer. It is a piece of political theatre which remains one of the few avenues open to him as he is struggling to win arguments. Personalising politics is always a poor choice for any politician but with a leader who regularly fails to put in convincing performances, the Labour Party may have few other options than muck-racking. 

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