Thursday, 10 May 2007

Ming Campbell – constitutionally incoherent

The Liberal Democrats have submitted a Parliamentary motion, attempting to trigger a General Election. On his blog, Ming Campbell justifies the move, writing:

Before the last General Election Tony Blair pledged to serve a full third term and the British electorate voted for him on this basis.

Now the Prime Minister is leaving it is only right that the British public have their say on who will be their next Prime Minister.

It’s an odd position to take, because a General Election isn’t an opportunity for the people to elect their Prime Minister. A General Election is a chance for voters to choose a local MP. And as long as the executive remains melted into the legislature under the quirky Westminster system, we’ll never be able to choose our Prime Minister directly.

Ah, reply the Mingers, but each local MP is elected on a pledge to fulfil their manifesto promises. Each Labour MP in the Commons was elected on the understanding that Tony Blair would serve out a whole term as Prime Minister. That’s no longer true, so no Labour MP has a mandate to serve. Bring on the Election!

But hang on. The “full third term” pledge wasn’t made in the Labour Party’s manifesto. Blair may have written in the manifesto that he wouldn’t seek a fourth term – but the promise to serve a “full third term” was made during an Andrew Marr interview. Clearly, politicians should be honest in interviews, but it’s really pushing it to say that an interview answer forms a solemn contract with the electorate. And although MPs should be held to account for the way they vote in Parliament, I fail to see how each individual MP must take personal responsibility for their party leader's career plans.

There have been times when the Government really has broken a manifesto promise – for example, by introducing the tuition fees they had “legislated to prevent” – but we didn’t call for a snap General Election. It would have been far more justifiable then than it is now, so why didn’t we?

Because that’s just not what these motions are for. Despite presumably enjoying Conservative support, Ming’s motion stands no chance of passing. Like all opposition motions, it’s a way for a party to set out its own views, contrast them with those of the Government, and claw its way into the next day’s papers.

So this reaction by the Lib Dems is a criminal waste. We get little enough airtime as it is, and we should use it constructively, in the public interest. With no immediate prospect of forming a majority Government, we don’t need to be scraping around for fractions of a percentage point in the polls. We serve Britain far better by concentrating on political issues – and often, we have the freedom to take a more creative and brave line than either the Government or the Official Opposition. In the present political climate, that job of being an independent and creative voice in Parliament is our most important duty to the country. Instead, Ming has put forward a motion which he must know to be constitutionally incoherent, for the sake of a few populist points in the opinion polls – points which, if they materialise at all, will have been achieved off the back of public ignorance about Britain’s political system!

I’m sad to say that since Ming became leader, my initial support for him has been sorely tested. I deeply respect him for his principled and honest approach to politics, his expertise on foreign affairs, and his persistence in talking about issues like extraordinary rendition. But the more he continues, the more it seems as if he’s bitten off more than he can chew. When I argue with Labour and Conservative friends, I wish I could tell them that Ming is an excellent leader – but in all honestly, I can’t anymore.


Peter Pigeon said...

The incoherence seems mutual: "that’s just not what these motions are for. Despite presumably enjoying Conservative support, Ming’s motion stands no chance of passing. Like all opposition motions, it’s a way for a party to...claw its way into the next day’s papers.

So this reaction by the Lib Dems is a criminal waste. We get little enough airtime as it is"

Your argument would make sense if we had a fixed quota of airtime. If we could use that coverage for (say) the cost of ID cards, I would agree. Better to deal with that.

But in fact we know that the only political story that most people will see tomorrow (or tonight) will be this. So better if there is a paragraph in it that says the Lib Dems are ready and willing to fight a general election.

Anonymous said...

It will look less like the Lib Dems are ready and willing to have a General Election, and more Ming Campbell wanting to silence the critics in the party by producing some electoral gains.

Another Peter said...

Peter has got it in one. Notice how absent David Cameron was from the TV screens yesterday. The only story in town was Blair’s departure - thats why government released the story about the cost of ID cards and mixed sex wards - and this motion got the Liberal Democrats coverage.

If all the spin from Gordon Brown's camp is to be believed, then there should be plenty of time to highlight real policy issues when GB takes over. Brown's team seem to be insisting that they want a regime of substance over style. It will then be that criticism of the Party's media management may be needed, but do give them a break for yesterday's (good) efforts!

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