What are political parties for?

I am writing this on a train in my way to Morocco via London Gatwick where I am going to a meeting to initiate a major training programme for local government across Africa. One of the benefits of working in firing countries is that it challenges you to think afresh about what you do and why you do it in your own country and circumstances.

One of the things that make us different from many other countries is the longevity of our political parties. Basically in England we have three Parties which have existed for at least 100 years which represent the three key political strands of conservatism, liberalism and socialism. Of course it is much more complicated than that. Corbyn, for example, represents a very conservative strand of socialism. I have always been able to use that longevity in overseas work to explain the relationship between political parties and elected representatives.

In short political parties were established to bring together initially men but now men and women of like mind. People recognised that the best way to get their ideas implemented was to join with others with similar ideas. Similar but not identical! If I wanted to join a Party in which I believed every policy I would have to establish the Kemp Party and even then Erica would not be a member! The job of those political parties was to help get those people led ted and then provide a framework within which they could govern or oppose in the chambers to which they had been elected.

In this context the letter representative is very clearly NOT a delegate of the Party to their Chamber but a repreantiave of a Ward, Division or Constituency. Their job is firstly to represent and support all the people of their areas and secondly to fight for that area and see that it gets its fair share of resources and policy implementation. A key element of that is to use their own judgement to look at the proposals legislative or others wise before them and interpret them around their beliefs and the needs of their electorate.

Lib Dems take this to extreme. In my 33 years as an elected member I have never been told how by my Party how to vote. Yet I doubt that I have voted against my Group more than a dozen times in all those years. Our rules are simple. If we are to vote against our colleagues we have to explain why in advance and preferably to abstain rather than vote. But the choice is ours. clearly there would be some things where a vote against the Group would have pre-emptied a decision to exclude me from membership of the Group or Party. If I said or voted against something which so offended against the basic beliefs of my Party then my Party has a right and indeed a duty to exclude me from its counsels and ensure that I am not re-elected.

I reflect on this because of the storm which has been created in the Labour Party by people who voted ‘ten wrong way’ in the Syrian vote two weeks ago. I travelled to London on Monday with Sreve Roterham the Labour MP for Walton who I think is a good bloke. He voted against the bombing extension but told me how he had listened to very speaker in the debate and that he had the certainty about the course of action that others had expressed. In this he was absolutely right. In this case there were no clear answers. Innocent civilians would die no matter what the vote was.The  UK would be targeted no matter what the vote was. Only the most bigoted would believe that there was a simple answer to the problems faced by Daesh.

My view was that I respected how any MP had voted providing they had thought long and hard about their vote given the complexity of the arguments. If they had done that they would be doing what I suggested earlier. Applying their principles, on which they had been elected in the best interests of their constituents and their country. I know all our MPs tight carefully about vote and 6 voted one way and two the other. I respect the judgement of all if them although I suspected I would have sided with the 6.

When the Corbynistas talk about deselection (and some Lib Dems too)they deny the purpose of parliamentary democracy which is to get people elected who can then look at the arguments and make up their mind in the face of the information that they have obtained.

Parliament and council chambers are not the Central Committee of a soviet or chine republic but a place for thought reflection and judgement . I hope that people in all Parties will reflect on this because it is at the heart of a democratic system. MPs and councillor snare not delegates of the Party but representatives of the people. At all levels should should exercise their judgement or we will truly end up in the world of Gilbert and Sullivan where,  “they always voted at their Party’s call, they never thought of thinking for themselves at all. is that what the really wan a Zomby Parliament and  Zomby Council chambers.

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About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. UK representative on UCLG Finance Committee, Executive Bureau and World Council. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperon on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and three grandchildren.
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