Saturday 15 June 2013

The rise of the independent politician

Steve Richards recently observed in the Guardian that politicians from both sides of the chamber are making increasingly mischief for their leaders. Interestingly, one party is largely exempt from this: the LibDems.

Previously, the LibDems enjoyed an at times rowdy annual conferences, but since they are in government, their discipline (with few exceptions) is exemplary. The leaders of the other two parties however struggle to keep their troops in line. David Cameron repeatedly faced rebellions of his backbenchers over Europe and Ed Milliband is regarded by many of his own shadow cabinet members as an ineffectual and weak leader. The overall effect is gloom on all sides when politicians consider their chances to win the next election.

Partly this constellation is a result of a resurgent house under a new and effective speaker. Bercow was not liked on the Conservative benches but once in place he has transformed the house to a better place, allowing more time to backbenchers to hold the government to account.

Less than compliant with their leaders' wishes?

A similar thing has happened in the Lords where there have been more rebellions against government than ever before. In a way this may simply be the delayed effect of the removal of the hereditary peers. Although Lord's reform is still incomplete (and recently failed again) the members of the upper house do seem to have a better sense of their role: scrutenising legislation and holding the government to account.

But there are other factors at play as well. One is that Cameron, in good Blairite fashion, always steered a moderate and pragmatic course which does not fare well with many of his more dogmatic backbenchers. Being in a coalition has its own problems, but I doubt whether Cameron really would swing wildly to the right if he was unfettered by his coalition partners.

Should we be worried about this increased inability of the party leaders to call their troops to account? I don't think so. In a sense, this is what we always wanted. One often heard complaint during Blair's leadership was that everybody crowds in the centre and that political party machines whip party members into submission. Now, we have the first inklings of independence amongst politicians, and perhaps we should celebrate it. It makes for more difficult governing but also for more exciting politics.

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