The Monday Guest Slot – Nick Palmer MP

The Monday Guest Slot – Nick Palmer MP


“How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?” A: Only one. But the lightbulb has to *want* to change.

It’s my second-favourite light bulb joke (I’ll work the favourite in later), but I wanted to introduce a thread on why political parties change, and how, and why not.

The first thing labour poster strip.JPGto bear in mind is that people generally join political parties because they like them as they are. Sometimes people join because they loathe a rival party, but actually doing all the work involved in helping a party is soul-destroying if you don’t actually agree with it.

Once you join, though, you probably start to think about winning stuff. This applies most to the biggest parties and hardly at all to the smallest. If you’ve joined the Socialist Workers’ Party, you’re probably realistic about the chances of winning an election (zero), but you want to support the cause. Nothing wrong with that – indeed it makes life simpler. (It’s also why ideological disputes are often fiercest in small parties, since getting the ideas right is all the party is really about.)

However, if you’re in one of the larger parties, the wish to have perfect policies is balanced against the desire to win. This changes over time. In 1983, Labour had what many of us at the time felt was the perfect manifesto. You heard people say things like, “We mustn’t compromise with the electorate!” Others thought, correctly as it turned out, that it was electorally a suicide note. In 1987 we cut it back significantly, and still lost big. In 1992, we trimmed further, and lost again, but by a small margin. By the time Tony Blair came along, members were so fed up with losing that we were open to considering almost anything he suggested. End clause 4? OK. Scrap unilateral disarmament? Oh, all right. Promise not to raise income tax? Grrr, if you insist. Slaughter of the second-born? Well, mustn’t rule it out too hastily.

The Conservatives, similarly, have now decided that they’re tired of losing. For the moment, Cameron is able to say almost anything with minimal internal opposition. Oppose selection, question the Royal Prerogative, vote with Labour in the Commons, learn to like immigration, embrace greenery? Mumble, grumble, yes, OK, if it works, say most of the members.

    Note, though, that wanting to win is not the same as wanting to change. Initially, members of a party who joined because it had policies X, Y and Z cannot possibly rejoice at the news that they need to scrap them all.

What happens next? If the changes don’t work electorally, they get largely reversed (and the bloke who suggested them too). But if they do work and you’re swept to power? Then two things happen. First, the members who are initially thrilled at winning gradually realize that very few of the things that made them join are happening. Little by little, they start to drift away. Second, (in smaller numbers) people who actually like the new policies join the party. Gradually, the party changes its basic stance, and the membership actively defend the new policies, instead of merely tolerating them.

This is why Labour constituency delegates consistently disappoint the media by applauding Tony Blair to the echo at the conference – it’s partly to stuff the Daily Mail, but mainly because they genuinely like him. Eventually, the change of stance originally accepted for electoral purposes becomes complete. This is how a new consensus is developed. whether it’s Labour conceding that strike ballots are necessary, or the Tories giving up on new grammar schools.

There is, however, a snag. The body of MPs cannot change in this way. An MP cannot easily drift off to apathy or another party like a disillusioned member. His or her job depends on staying in the party unless they go through the soul-wrenching business of crossing the floor, to derision, debunking and loathing from most of the people you’ve worked with for decades. So MPs who are out of sympathy with party change soldier on grimly, grinding their teeth in frustration and slipping into regular rebellion. This happens mainly to governing parties, since in Opposition the longing to win still holds sway, and the new policies that you dislike are not actually being implemented. (Perhaps when in power it will all be right?)

What, finally, of the electorate? They’re not dim. They are well aware that change is being done primarily to accommodate them, and they watch warily to see whether the MPs who championed different policies have really changed their tune. To convince the electorate, the leadership has to pick a fight and win. Blair did it with Clause 4, and from time to time he’s been doing it ever since, including last week. Cameron has not yet picked a battleground, but I think he will, unless the polls suggest he doesn’t need to. Campbell, too, needs a little drama and a defining moment.

And the other light-bulb joke? I offer it to cheer up the Tory MPs who are starting the teeth-grinding phase.

“How many free-market economists does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

None! Leave it alone and it will screw itself.

Nick Palmer has been Labour MP for Broxtowe since 1997 and has been a long-standing contributor on the site.

The Monday Guest Slot is a new innovation on the site. Several ideas have been put forward already but if anybody would like to take part then please drop me an email – Mike Smithson

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