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8 May 2000

The dangers of Balkanised politics

New Statesman Scotland - If you're a Tory, should you take your problems to a Tory MP? That

By Sandra Osborne

In the debate about electoral reform, the focus has largely been on the issue of proportionality. It is assumed that people will reconnect with politics because representation will more fairly reflect voting. But we should not ignore the importance of the member/constituency link and the value of the tradition that an MP is the elected representative of all the people in his or her constituency.

In the debate about the list system used for the election of some MSPs, we are told that this is all about an extension of democracy – more choice for the elector. Tories can choose to go to a Tory MSP; Labour supporters to a Labour MSP; nationalists to a nationalist. This analysis is about as robust as the view that the Scottish Parliament has delivered a new politics of consensus, eschewing the “ya! boo!” politics of Westminster. The truth is that we have a Scottish Parliament of entrenched party politics, with the Tories and the SNP, while they form the opposition, empowered by the system to “ya” and “boo” in turn.

I believe that democracy is diminished if we lose the tradition of the duly elected constituency member as the representative of all the electors of that constituency. It is an essential component of our democratic process and places a responsibility and discipline on the elected representative.

I’m not suggesting that MPs should all become politically neutered so that they can live out some romantic role of being all things to all people.

There is plenty of scope for pursuing a vigorous party political role, but it is totally unprofessional for MPs to take party politics into their role as representative and advocate on behalf of individual constituents. Some people approach their MP on a matter they feel strongly about – foxhunting, abortion, immigration. In the vast majority of cases, the issues are personal to the individual and have nothing whatsoever to do with party affiliation or personal political views.

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An important part of an MP’s job is to take up people’s concerns and advocate on their behalf as their democratically elected representative. That could mean supporting the case of a lifelong Tory voter who has failed to get fair treatment from a Labour controlled local authority. In reality, you are extremely unlikely to know who your constituent votes for, if he or she votes at all.

The only bias an MP should be allowed is a bias towards those in greatest need and those least able to speak up for themselves. And the only likely area of conflict between an MP’s legitimate political role and the role as representative to his or her constituents is if the MP’s personal and political prejudices on issues such as race, gender, sexual orientation and religion are publicly known. That kind of public image would undermine the MP’s credibility in the eyes of vulnerable constituents who might otherwise have sought sympathetic help or support.

The danger lurking in the “extended choice” argument currently in favour is that we are being asked to abandon a valuable democratic tradition and replace it with an ill-thought-out “Balkanisation” of political representation – Nat constituents go to a Nat representative; Tories to a Tory; Labour to Labour. The logical extension would see Muslims going to a Muslim MP; Catholics to a Catholic; Protestants to a Protestant. When some-one rings my office, my assistant does not ask: “Name, address and political affiliation?”

More important than giving people a choice of party representative to go to is the need to address how we achieve a political representation at Westminster and in the Scottish Parliament that reflects the whole of Scottish society: women and men; ethnic minorities; youth and experience; all social backgrounds. If we could only achieve that, we could greatly enrich politics instead of being encouraged down a separatist road.

I would plead with those who go along with this argument for “extended choice” to think again.

It isn’t just a recipe for inefficiency, waste and duplication. It is dangerous for democracy. I don’t think it romantic or idealistic to affirm that it is a strength of our traditional democratic system that our elected representatives are there to represent all their constituents. Representation and advocacy are among the hardest bits of the job, but there is nothing more satisfying than knowing that you have done your best on someone’s behalf.

The Scottish Executive has now turned its attention to local government. It has set up working groups to consider a modernisation that would include electoral reform and Cabinet-style structures.

But the test of any modernisation agenda, whether at local or national level, will be the extent to which it maintains strong and direct links between elected representatives and all of the people they are elected to represent.

Sandra Osborne is MP for Ayr and the chair of the Scottish Parliamentary Labour Group at Westminster