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The role of dissent in good government

In the new Labour years, being permanently on-message was the key to MPs’ promotion and Ministers’ survival. In the name of good media management, collective responsibility to support “the government” (i.e. Leader) was an absolute requirement to avoid internal exile alongside the usual suspects.  Participation in decision making was not on offer, even for most cabinet ministers. Naturally, undemocratic centralism did not stifle dissent — it just drove it underground and off-the-record.

Now, the desire for more open expression and debate has broken out. All the leadership candidates support it. David M, for example, says:

The voice and power of members has been eroded in recent years. We can only reconnect with our values and our voters if we have an authentic voice – that means more democracy.”

That desire for greater democracy as reflected by David Lammy, on the fringe at the Lib Dems’ conference in Liverpool, goes even further:

We need to get used to ministers being able to publicly disagree within government.”

And, by the nature of the Coalition, that is  what we are seeing from Lib Dem ministers — Vince Cable, for example, being outspoken on a graduate tax — and senior Tories like Michael Howard and David Davis on prisons policy. The fiction that a government is united in opinion on everything it does convinces no-one of anything except that politicians don’t tell the truth.

It is far better that debates are had and seen to be had, in Cabinet, in parliamentary parties and in the chamber of the House. Ministers and MPs would need to conduct themselves such that their party made better decisions rather than by damaging their party’s reputation or electoral prospects. They would normally need to support whatever decision was ultimately made. In exchange, the party should ensure that all its representatives are able to express their views freely and that decisions are made democratically.

The public will engage more with a political system that draws its strength from an ability to debate its disagreements than its leaders’ power to impose their decisions through the Whips.

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