Andreas Whittam Smith: Back the person, not the party

The electorate feels angry, but these hostile emotions are nothing to be ashamed about; they are the correct response to twenty years of duplicitous and ineffective government
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The Independent Online

There are two ways to defy the political establishment when we go to the polls today. Either vote Liberal Democrat come what may. Or act counter-intuitively and back the person not the party. Tactical voting is something else: not an act of rebellion but a manoeuvre. The aim of the first course of action would be to "overturn the tea table" by forcing the Lib Dems into the lead. The purpose of the second would be to raise the quality of the House of Commons.

Sending plates flying off in every direction has the great merit of administering a shock. There are moments to act intemperately and the General Election of 2010 may well be one of them. Upset the whole system and something better may emerge. Or overturn the table to mark disgust at the Parliamentary expenses scandal or disapproval of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Indeed there are many reasons why the electorate is entitled to feel angry. These hostile emotions are nothing of which we should feel ashamed; they are the correct response to 20 years of duplicitous and ineffective government.

The alternative approach is to support whichever candidate impresses us most in terms of character and achievement, regardless of which party he or she represents. For what we require more than anything else is a higher class of MP. The equation is simple: the more impressive is the House of Commons, the better the Government is likely to be.

A more impressive House of Commons would stand in the way of non-stop electioneering. It would prevent business from being rushed through as fast as possible so as to thwart back-bench criticism and give the public the notion that ministers are restlessly moving on to fresh subjects. A more impressive House of Commons would raise subjects that are off-limits, such as the war in Afghanistan. I can imagine at Prime Minister's Question Time a bold member rising to challenge the party leaders after they had piously read out the names of soldiers who have recently lost their lives. "How many more are to die?"

A more impressive House of Commons would have little patience with the merging and then the dismantling of government departments so as to satisfy ministerial egos.

Since 1980, 25 departments have been created. Of these, 13 no longer exist. It would not let the constant shuffling of ministers from post to post pass without remark. In the past six years there have been five Home Secretaries, four Health Secretaries and four Chief Secretaries of the Treasury. These changes are made for "display" rather than "effect" and are one reason why Government is ineffective and prone to error.

What Parliament absolutely doesn't need is the party hack – the sort of person who started off in the party research department, graduated to the rank of special adviser and then was parachuted into a safe seat at the last moment. We have been governed by such types for 20 years and look at the results!

Of course higher quality in this context doesn't refer just to intelligence. It means independence of mind, a depth of knowledge of how the world works outside politics and the experience that comes from being directly responsible for people's livelihoods. MPs with such qualifications would have the resolve and the ability to discharge their first duty: to hold the government of the day to account.

Party labels can safely be disregarded. After all, what are the great policy debates that are supposed to influence our votes? The dispute about spending cuts to deal with the enormous budget deficit concerns timing not substance. Each of the three wishes to curb immigration. Only the methods vary. They appear to differ on their stances towards the European Union, but events such as the Greek debt crisis make irrelevant the attitudes taken in opposition.

This is why I argue that in placing one's cross on the ballot paper on Thursday, one is left with only character as a criterion.

I prefer that course of action to closing one's eyes and putting one's mark against the Liberal Democrat candidate. I think one should use local knowledge, study the candidates' leaflets, scrutinise their websites and watch their videos with only one end in mind – to choose the person most likely to raise the quality of the House of Commons. That means ruling out Parliamentary expenses cheats as well as timeservers.



However, as a matter of fact, I have found this approach less easy to apply in my own constituency than I had imagined. The candidate who is standing for the Alliance for Green Socialism says nothing about himself on the websites where he appears, though he writes a perfectly coherent policy statement. At a guess he is a far-left or even communist trades union official, but I cannot be sure. So I won't consider him further.

The Green Party candidate gives me three sentences about herself on a badly made video clip. She has worked in social housing for 26 years. In what capacity, I have no idea. Cross her off. The Labour Party candidate is a full-time official at the Trades Union Congress still building a career. Before that he was a union organiser in London. He went to school locally. I have enough to go on. I shall think about him further.

The Lib Dem candidate says nothing about himself at all. What effrontery! We are entitled to know what qualifications he has for representing us effectively in Parliament. He sounds "fly" and is to be avoided.

The UKIP candidate is equally silent about her credentials. Forget her. That leaves the outgoing MP. At least he hasn't been an expenses cheat. He is very experienced and a former lawyer. He must be considered.

Thus as I try to work out who should be sent to this single chamber in the Palace of Westminster where the Commons sit, from which all power for good or for ill flows, I find I have two plausible candidates in terms of character. I expect that later today I shall choose the younger.

a.whittamsmith@independent.co.uk

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