Siobhain McDonagh and the Social Contract

Silly season arrived early in the Commons yesterday. No, I’m not talking about the weekly farce that is Prime Minister’s Questions but rather Siobhain McDonagh’s Bill introduced under the 10 Minute Rule. You see, what the member for Mitcham and Morden would like to do is make access to social security dependent on being on the electoral register. The reasoning is simple. The right to mine, yours or anyone else’s access to support in hard times is conditional on your fulfilment of social obligations. In Siobhain’s case, this should include being registered to vote. She argued a reform of this character would

“draw an explicit connection between democracy and the benefits we enjoy because we live in a democracy … If you don’t like living in a democracy, fine, but don’t expect all the good things that democracy offers in return.”

Alrighty then.

As it happens, I do think the social contract is vitally important to socialist and labour movement thinking. A society based around the primacy of democratic planning and freedom from necessity, after all, cannot exist without high degrees of social solidarity and mutual obligation. Trade unions provide protections and services in the workplace in exchange for subs and activity – the more active its members are, generally speaking, the greater the rights and freedoms enjoyed by members of that union can be. Even on the revolutionary left, who would dismiss social contract thinking as class collaborationism or bourgeois hocum, rests on the right of criticism being balanced by a duty to be active under the direction of the party. That’s how Lenin would have seen it, anyhow.

That’s why I have more time for those who vent their spleens and have a record of activity than those for whom the keyboard is a substitute for “real world” politics.

I digress. Depending on the content obviously, new policies that claim to promote social contracts are certainly worth looking at. But, as it stands, I think McDonagh’s bill is mistaken.

In the first place her bill reinforces the view that social security recipients are feckless ingrates. Not only are they work shy, if they’re too lazy to register to vote then they deserve everything coming to them. It’s the deserving vs the undeserving poor all over again.

Second, people in receipt of social security already have to fulfil a number of obligations to qualify for and continue receiving what is theirs ‘by right’. As a Labour MP she will have dealt with dozens of people who have not passed a Work Capability Assessment, or have fallen foul of the JSA sanctions regime. Whatever one may think of these tests, they are pretty tough so the question has to be – are recipients already fulfilling their obligation to society in return for support they get? I think the answer is an unequivocal yes.

Third, there is a small matter that by law people are supposed to be on the electoral register on pain of a £1,000 fine. The law exists, so why is it not enforced?

And lastly, McDonagh’s Bill short circuits politics. If there are six million unregistered voting age people in Britain, you need to ask *why* they aren’t on the electoral roll. You see, politics also rests on the social contract. Members of Parliament enjoy the privilege of a fine salary, great working conditions, prestige (some of the time) and power. But the problem remains that Westminster bubble issues – such as Europe, or Labour’s trade union funding – do not resonate with the wider public. People are worried about the economy – the government throws up smokescreen after smokescreen to avoid talking about it. People want security and stability in their lives, but few talk about the hire and fire culture that dominates Britain’s workplaces. Reliable and affordable fuel/energy is a concern as prices spiral, but the government dithers and tinkers with energy markets. And no one wants to see Royal Mail privatised, but it’s going ahead anyway.

If mainstream politics appears uncaring and remote from everyday concerns, then it is not fulfilling its side of the social contract with the electorate. Perhaps it would be more productive if McDonagh and other honourable members attended, in greater numbers, to the difficult task of making politics relevant to people and not waste parliamentary time with populist-sounding technocratic measures aimed at boosting turnout.

  1. i wonder if this is more to do with postal voting than anything else especially as she apparently opposes the 2014 changes where individual registration comes in–or am i a cynic?

  2. Get real. There are six million people who are not registered to vote. These people are most likely to be ethnic minorities, disabled, in receipt of benefits and people on low incomes. Think strategically, the reasoning behind this Bill is to get six million extra votes for Labour. If we don’t have compulsory registration, we will see a situation whereby we will have larger urban constituencies and much smaller rural communities – i.e. greater chance of the Tories getting in. Therefore, this Bill is actually very good for Labour.
    Also, electoral register is about being part of society and our democracy. Benefits and public services are not really the product of governments but the product of democracy. People died in order for us to have an NHS, a state pension, a benefits system etc. Not asking much to ask to people to at least register to vote!