Why do MPs vote for things they do not really believe in? Many of us have just done so and I think it is important to explain why. I do not have a problem with the idea of voting against the government. Indeed, a very important reason why I wanted to represent Slough was that its previous Labour MPs, Fenner Brockway and Joan Lestor, had done just that on the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968. I am proud to have secured measures in the most recent Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill which reverse the effect of the 1968 act for people who ended up with only second-class British overseas citizenship.
But I believe the presumption should always be against rebellion and I have never opposed the Labour government in the division lobbies in six years as an MP. Why? Is it because I am a supine Blair babe? Or am I so fiercely ambitious that I will sacrifice the interests of my constituents to please the government?
No, it is because I think that those who are elected on a party ticket should try not to damage our party-based system of democratic politics. A political party provides a framework to help people come to a view on complex issues, it keeps politicians straight and it generally delivers politics based on values rather than murky deals. Good politics needs real divisions between candidates based on differences in ideology. If it’s just a contest between two nice guys the voter has little influence over the direction of travel.
In countries like the US, where parties are weak, you get pork-barrel politics. Elected representatives have little influence on the overall government programme; they barter their votes for concessions to reward voting blocs in their constituencies. Voters who are not well organised or wealthy have little impact.
And to sustain a political party with an agreed programme you need discipline. The party system needs MPs to believe in it enough overall to overcome individual problems on a case-by-case basis. Faced with a proposal I do not wholly support, I seek concessions and get amendments which enable me to vote for legislation which is not what I would have preferred but is better than it would have been. That process usually happens invisibly within private party meetings. Yet it is the visible rebel who becomes the hero, and the story, even though he rarely wins change.
It is bad for politics if MPs are constantly rebelling – but it is also bad for MPs if they constantly judge that, on balance, they should not. In Labour’s first term we had well-researched policies – on education, for example – that had been thrashed out at all levels of the party. They have served the country well.
That is not the case with foundation hospitals. They were not in the manifesto, have not been considered by our policy forums and do not seem to be underpinned by research. They are a reaction to delivery difficulties rather than part of a carefully developed strategy.
Any half-decent management textbook reveals that, to transform a service, you need the people who deliver it to buy into the vision. That has not happened on foundation hospitals. Getting commitment to a vision takes time; it involves building alliances and winning understanding. The best people to do that are Labour MPs. We showed that at the start of this government when we played a crucial role in getting companies to commit to the New Deal for the unemployed.
The goodwill which fuelled that effort has worn thin. The contract that underpins party loyalty can feel like a one-way street. There was little parliamentary or party contribution to what ministers claim is our most important policy on the delivery of the NHS – itself one of our top two issues. That not only diminishes our self-respect, it also reduces our ability and willingness to advocate the policy.
And because there really is only one pay-off – office as a minister – staying on board at difficult times does not even seem to bring any reward. It should at least give us the edge in securing changes to policy, but it does not. The danger now is that people are pushed into chronic rebellion, thus putting the whole values-based system of politics at risk.
We need to reduce the mystery of how political parties work. Years of opposition, when every disagreement was portrayed as a hopeless split, have given us a deep fear of allowing our differences to be visible. But we need to find ways of making them more visible if we are to rebuild respect for the political parties. It is all the more important at a time when our political system lacks a competent opposition, making politics seem either unbearably dull or just a process of endless wrangling.
People need to see how disagreement is dealt with so that participating through a political party becomes a more attractive option where members can trace how their views have influenced party and government policy. The Labour Party claimed to have done that when we established “partnership in power”. But we short-circuited it on foundation hospitals. As it happens, I suspect that foundation hospitals won’t make as much difference either way as people claim – but that, too, will only feed cynicism about politics.
If we can involve people in making policy the policies will be slower to develop, but they will be more robust. We have learnt well how to manage the party and parliament, and how to manipulate language to make it seem appealing to the widest audience. But we have not paid enough attention to making explicit our core values or to nurturing our members, MPs and activists. That task is urgent now. If we don’t face up to it I predict that political participation of any kind will be a minority sport by the time of the next general election.