Good Parliamentarians

by Elias Blum

In a democracy we need our parliamentarians to be both leaders (people with vision, principles, wisdom, and a genuine passion for the common good) and representatives (people who share our way of live, our values, our hopes, our fears, and our experiences). These should be the criteria by which parliamentary candidates are selected. Parties will rightly differ on the sorts of principles they espouse and the sections of society they represent, but they should all be seeking to recruit, and to offer to the people, candidates who are worthy of our suffrage.

There are good candidates in all parties, but sadly they are few – too many, it seems, are selected not for their character or abilities, but for their pliability. The result is a parliament of lobby-fodder, who put partisan politicking above public service and who vote as they are told; and that, in turn, means that laws and policies are not subject to sufficient debate, scrutiny and consideration, and we end up with bad decisions and costly mistakes.

The 2015 Parliament has serious work to do. We are in need of a root and branch reform, the scale of which has probably not been seen in living memory. So whichever party we are inclined towards, we should all demand parliamentarians with brains and backbone – people who will stand up for principles, and who will stand up for parliament as an institution.

Unfortunately, the current first-past-the-post electoral system makes it difficult to insist on good candidates, because we cannot vote against a weak candidate of the party we support. This, combined with the phenomenon of ‘safe seats’, results in lazy, characterless, insipid, unprincipled candidates who cannot even be bothered, when out canvassing, to explain their policies to voters.

 

There are institutional reforms that might be beneficial in bringing a better quality of candidate to the fore. For example, in any future reform of the electoral system serious consideration should be given to the case for allowing intra-party choice.

There’s a lively debate on the relative merits of AMS (Additional Member System, as used for the Scottish Parliament) and STV (Single Transferable Vote, as used for local Council elections in Scotland), and in the past I’ve usually been more inclined to AMS, but on this point STV seems to have the advantage: in principle, it enables voters to choose between competing candidates of the same party, which forces candidates to distinguish themselves from one another instead of just hiding behind a party label.

Another possibility is to use candidate-selection primaries that would force candidates to engage with the voters, even in safe seats, rather than just being imposed by the party hierarchies. However, there is are very few examples of primaries being used in parliamentary democracies, and there is a legitimate fear that primaries might increase polarisation and populism without necessarily leading to a better quality of candidate.

Whatever changes are made to the electoral system, this is a much deeper issue than one of institutional design. It is a matter for the political ‘flesh’ rather than the legal ‘bones’ of the system of government. What’s needed is not only a constitutional revolution but also a revolution in political values, such that a party would be ashamed and embarrassed to put forward a candidate of mediocre abilities and low ethical standards whose only qualification is that they are safe, reliable, obedient ‘lobby-fodder’.

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