The bad news is that MPs are gradually being transformed into professional politicians, dependent on the taxpayer, rather than citizen representatives, who are not. However, the good news is that rising consumer demand is turning them from remote figures into constituency champions. Rebellion isn’t the best, let alone the only, way of measuring the change. But the figures are unambiguous: each recent Commons has been more rebellious than the last, and this one is on course to be most revolt-prone since the war. Increasingly, constituents want MPs who will represent their views and defy the whips (which is why it has never been harder to be one).
A secure majority for a government would be unlikely to change this trend, as some MPs have grasped. Consider this recent ConservativeHome piece by Mark Prisk, which argued that government should treat the Commons in a different way – more like the manner in which American administrations treat Congress, recognising that majorities are not guaranteed and that negotiation is essential.
Downing Street is fighting against the flow of the tide by quietly expanding the size of the payroll vote. But simply making the vessel bigger isn’t going to take it upstream against the current. Number 10 and CCHQ should instead adapt to the tide – in other words, recognise that local voters like their MPs to have an independent streak, and find ways of allowing them to show it.
So instead of trying to fight the next election as a single on-message machine, the powers-that-be should encourage candidates to display more local variety – especially when it comes to branding, messaging and election addresses. To some degree, this is already happening: CCHQ recognises that candidates in the varied 40/40 seats won’t win by using a single template.
A natural extension of this approach would allow candidates to band together in an area if they wish to issue a common election address, wholly or partly. I appreciate that most voters don’t read election addresses, but effective candidates repeat their election address pledges and messages online, on paper, on Facebook, through Twitter and so on – and through the way their brand their campaigns.
These addresses would make it clear a) that the candidates were fighting on the Conservative manifesto and would take the Tory whip if elected, but that b) their local area will always came first, which could mean voting against the whip. Candidates in some northern seats might be resistant to varying rates for public sector pay. Candidates in some southern ones might want to oppose HS2.
I appreciate that many MPs and candidates take this approach already. (Who doesn’t make a point of putting their constituency first?) But banding together to project a local or county or area message is relatively unusual – as are open commitments not to follow the whip. This should change if that’s what candidates want. If Birmingham Tories want to brand themselves as Birmingham Tories, with pledges and a programme to match, or West Yorkshire Conservatives want to brand themselves as West Yorkshire Conservatives, that should be their decision.
In short, the Tory Party of the future ought to be more like a network of local campaigning alliances than a top-down Government department. Such a localist move might begin to solve the problems with the Conservative brand, especially outside the greater south-east.