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Now what?

13 December 2019

BY THE time this is being read, the one day on which political leaders are forced to attend to the views of the electorate will have drawn to a close, and the UK will have a new Government. The temptation, for voters and those whom they choose, is to expect a return to business as usual. This is not to be countenanced. We are reminded of the resignation letter written at the end of October by Heidi Allen, now the former MP for South Cambridgeshire, from which we have already quoted (Comment, 1 November): “We have legislated for almost nothing, changed almost nothing and improved almost nothing.” We trust that the new intake will match Ms Allen in honesty, and show a new determination to work together to solve the long list of issues that need tackling and were identified during the election campaign by the parties.

The chief hindrance to joint working is the innate majoritarianism in the present system. The larger the majority in a constituency, the less attentive the winning candidate needs to be to contrary opinions. It is only in marginal areas that we have seen candidates respond positively to a range of views, suggest compromises, mute opinions, adapt policies. . . The day after the election, what happens? MPs with the tiniest margins are expected to put all doubt aside and pledge loyalty to their party’s whips.

Two distinct and opposing lessons can be drawn from the past three years in Westminster. The one that has been paraded most consistently and volubly is that a finely balanced Parliament cannot function effectively, and that an uncompromising Government with a large majority is the only way to “get things done”. This morning’s results will show whether the electorate was so persuaded by this display of decisiveness that it paid little attention to the details of the decision.

The other lesson, however, accords more closely with the message given by various churchpeople during the campaigning. Slim or non-existent majorities force parties into alliances around particular issues or “confidence and supply” agreements. These make governing more difficult, but might just remind MPs that politics is more than what goes on in the Commons. Westminster still has two legislative chambers. Devolved government in Scotland, Wales, and, it is to be hoped, soon again in Northern Ireland has to be considered. Global concerns and partnerships must be addressed. Local and regional government need to be strengthened. And individual constituents still have the power to influence their MPs in person and through correspondence. Whichever party is now in power, politics is far bigger than Westminster. The answer to this nation’s ills is for people to recognise their democratic power — and, we would say, responsibility — to act.

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