Lord Tyler

The public, egged on by the media, think that MPs – and Peers too perhaps – are just mindless robots. They accuse Parliamentarians of being the creatures of the Party Whips, voting as they are told rather than as they believe. The common perception is of a herd of sheep, rather than a collection of individuals, thinking for themselves.

And there is also the regular suggestion that Westminster has got worse, with more full-time politicians and tighter party discipline.

Last night Professor Philip Cowley told us that this is all nonsense. His careful research shows that MPs have become more revolting (I mean that in the technical sense, rather in relation to personal hygiene). There was no golden age of independence on the backbenches. The House of Commons has become less and less prone to accept party discipline. Steadily through the 1980s, 1990s and into the new century there have been increasingly frequent rebellions.

What of the House of Lords? Professor Cowley has less evidence about the behaviour of Peers, but the House shows signs of being increasingly unpredictable and less managed by Whips. This is assisted by the lack of a Government majority. The discussion brought out some interesting issues. For example, it is obviously desirable that the reformed Second Chamber – when it comes – should be less rather than more firmly under the thumb of the political parties than the Commons. We have an independent reputation to live up to. To that end the electoral system must be designed to give maximum choice to the elector, within parties and across parties. No regional lists for the party bosses to fix.

Professor Cowley cheered us up. The trend is towards more independent thinking in the Palace of Westminster. The Senate (if that is what it is to be called) should be part of that change.

1 comment for “Sheep

  1. Matin Callan
    28/03/2008 at 12:38 pm

    May I first thank you for the time you gave me during some of the recent Hansard Society events to discuss a variety of issues “off the cuff”. This was very much appreciated and I certainly think the axiom “words of wisdom” would apply to the points you made!

    In relation to Sheep, I believe that there are two overriding issues which affect perception. Firstly, there is the public perception of politicians, not just in Westminster, but at all levels of government. Secondly, there is the perception of the public by politicians. These two perceptions appear to be in direct conflict with each other, because of a lack of direct communication, apathy, media interference and dramatisation and quite simply the age of our democracy.

    If I may elaborate on this a little more (for context)… Public Perception of politicians can generally be defined in the context of the media. Newspapers, television new, television drama’s or satire present a murky, double standard-focused, gravy train picture. I am sure I don’t need to give examples (there are just too many!). This perception has helped encourage an age of apathy, not just to politics and politicians, but also to democracy. However, I believe the contributing factors are somewhat deeper. If we look back to the 19th century when the vote was first extended and there was a need to “educate our masters”, there was a greater sense of value attached to voting, and again in the early 20th century when the vote was extended further. This sense of value also appears to be prevalent in newer democracies and we often see images of quest of voters in countries where there has been a great struggle, sacrifice, suffering and a real and immediate memory of events. This appears to generate a wave of positive energy, a focus, a meaning which, as our democracy ages, and those who have the memories of such struggles are fewer and fewer, appears to be lacking considerably in our own country. We are taking it for granted. We have not earned our freedoms in the way our predecessors did and so have different attitudes and expectations. This can only be a natural consequence, however. This coupled with a liberal free press who can mock, criticise, scrutinise and make or break politicians only serves to further feed the apathy, and this has been evident for many years now.

    In relation to perception of the public by politicians, because of the apathy, politicians do not necessarily have as much direct access to as many ordinary people as would be required for them to formulate a perception of the public. Again, there is a reliance on studies and statistics, the media and as was pointed out on Thursday, politicians may only have the opportunity to properly engage with those dwindling numbers of interested people – making their exposure to the public considerably narrow. I believe that this leads to assumptions about the public by politicians, and I am sure you know how dangerous assumptions can be!

    These two factors are very important when discussing whether the role of the Westminster politician is that of a sheep – a weather cock or a signpost, as Tony Ben once put it. However, because the public perception as a politician would understand it is not an accurate one (for reasons outlined above) and because politicians are publicly perceived in a murky light there is little room for manoeuvre. I am sure Marx would call this a new class struggle between the political elite and those able to influence them versus the weak and apathetic electorate who feel disempowered, ignored and let down, time and time again (the masses! – somehow Marx was able to apply his philosophical formula to everything!!).

    I certainly don’t dispute that the number of rebellions against the party line for all parties appears to be more prevalent and there are many examples over the last 15-20 years. However, this has not led to a government being “defeated” in the sense that it led to a vote of confidence. There is a degree of party political apathy also to be considered. Once upon a time the man in the street would have a very clear idea of what a Liberal stood for, what a Tory stood for and what Labour stood for. The battle for the centre ground appears to have resulted in party principles being scarified in favour of “power”. This trend suggests that politicians have become apathetic to the core principles for which their own parties once stood for. A Labour government privatising everything they can!! A Tory party complaining about social justice for the weak and impoverished!! Perhaps this age of revolting politicians is as natural a consequence of an ageing democracy as electorate apathy.

    I would however suggest that there is another significant factor which often tends to get overlooked. Parliament does not do the same job today as it did a few years ago because of the shift of legislative powers to Europe. Perhaps it is the case that as Parliament assumes a role in the EU akin to a Local Authority in the UK, there is a shift in the underlying nature of politics itself and this shift has given rise to the revolting politician, not because of a genuine grievance with the party line, but because the type of issues being dealt with are more specific to individual constituencies than they necessarily would have been in the past combined with a centre-ground battle which has moved the parties themselves away from a set of principles per se, towards a competition to achieve power – it is very understandable why so many people say “they are all the same”, and why politicians try so often to focus attention on “clear blue water” – but it only ever seems to be in relation to a small and dwindling number of issues.

    Indeed, the revolting politician may just be the next evolution of the sheep! Hopefully see you again at the next event.


    Martin Callan

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