Ok, let’s start with the obvious: Siobhan Benita is not going to be Mayor of London. Everyone knows this, including Benita herself. Whatever she does next (and my money is on a lucrative career as a pundit) it won’t be the difficult grind of being the Mayor of one of the largest and most complicated cities in the world.
The response to Benita’s candidature has been astonishing though. According to Mary Ann Seighart in The Independent yesterday “Benita and her ilk are the future”. The desirability of this is assumed. For me, I’m not at all sure.
The decline in popularity of the two main parties has many roots. Those on the left will tell you it’s the closeness on the neo-liberal economic settlement, those on the right that it’s the emergence of a consensus over social issues like gay rights. As Labour and the Conservatives have spent so long focused on the shop front, it’s fair to say they worried less about presenting major philosophical differences. They exist, and there is a general acceptance of them, but the emphasis was on presenting a palatable version of what the electorate reflected back. Hence New Labour and the Tory detox plan. Both moved their parties on key issues (Labour on ownership and tax policy and the Conservatives on environmentalism and gay marriage) which to the electorate moved them both closer together.
But voters have not necessarily gone to independents but to smaller, more ideological parties. The Greens, UKIP, Respect and the BNP have been beneficiaries of those voters who don’t belong in the centre-ground of politics and didn’t feel they were being fought over, and it’s rarely independent candidates who benefit. All of whom have the kind of collective policy making that differentiates parties from independents.
Parties make commitments in public. They have stated aims and goals on a myriad of policy areas. Manifestos and policy debates are had publically as well as privately and the process of decision making is clear. Their backroom deals are – relatively – publicly understood and are open to questioning by their membership. Parties have mechanisms for gathering collective wisdom and testing their ideas through debate with their memberships.
Independents have no such mechanisms at their disposal. Were the House of Commons filled with independent MPs, anyone wishing to pass legislation, wishing to get anything done at all, would have to make hundreds of deals. Some would be perfectly fair exchanges of support on other pieces of legislation, or potential alliances. But there would be no compulsion for these deals and alliances to be made public. Taking away the processes of party politics, however frustrating they may be at times, would run a serious risk not of decontaminating politics, but of making it a much more opaque process even that it is now.
Siobhan Benita is an interesting creature. She is presenting herself as an outsider, but it’s hard to imagine anyone much more inside. She was a senior civil servant and is supported by the man who was so senior in government his nickname is GOD. She’s not the average Jo. She has a well-funded and professionally-presented campaign and more press cheerleaders that either Ken or Boris.
Benita is a fresh injection into a race that may well seem stale because the candidates are the same as they were the last time, but she’s not an outsider. And if, as so many of her cheerleaders desire, politics become more about sparky individuals than about parties, I don’t see how it will lead to a diversification of MPs. Look at the independent MPs we have seen over the last 15 years: A white male middle class journalist, a white male middle class doctor and two white working class males standing on anti-all women shortlist platforms in Blaenau Gwent.
The way political parties work will have to change. It isn’t fit for the way we live and understand our lives and our individual power in the twenty-first century. I hope they manage it, because the party system remains the best and – when working well – more transparent and representative way of doing politics.