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What makes politics exciting?

 

What do MPs do in their work, how and why? At a workshop last Friday hosted by The History of Parliament I tried to address these questions in front of anthropologists, politics scholars and parliamentary officials. Do I have enough here for a book, I asked? “Three books,” replied one. The first may demolish some clichés about MPs. For starters, self-interest on its own is an unconvincing explanation of their behaviour. Like any other group, MPs are motivated by multiple aspirations, interwoven and in flux. Picking only one is a lazy and formulaic approach. MPs work hard in constituencies partly because they aim to get re-elected but since many of those in safe seats work up to 70 hours a week on behalf of those they represent, other motives are clearly at work as well. Solving constituents’ problems is satisfying – it leads to visible, sometimes life or sanity-saving results and forges close relationships between representative and represented. It also informs MPs about the impact of laws, policy and societal change on real people in their everyday lives.

Social politics and political social work

 

Richard Axelby and I have a book out today about international aid and development. We try to put across how aid looks from the viewpoint of those receiving it in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The choices made about who gets aid and how it is given are political, but bureaucracies tend to present them as if they are guided by social problems and economic and technological solutions. The politics is kept hidden. Greater honesty about the politics of aid would increase effectiveness, we argue. For more.

 

Conversely, the representation of politics at Westminster obscures the social aspects. The work of British MPs is seen as all political – about interest, conflict, division, and coalition – while the emotion, theatre and relationships that give politics its form and substance are taken for granted or deemed insignificant.  Take the example of keeping people on side. Party loyalty is influenced but not sustained by self-interest; it takes the social bonanza of party conferences, informal chats with the leader or a double scotch from a whip to keep MPs on side. Such conversations bind people. The Lib Dems manage to make a surprisingly cohesive party, despite the compromises of being the smaller coalition partner, partly because they are  small enough to consult all MPs on important issues, which makes people feel included and maintains the kind of relationships that inspire loyalty.

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