Sexism! That seems to be the biggest annoyance people have with David Cameron for telling Labour MP Angela Eagle to ‘calm down, dear.’ The blogosphere (well, the Guardian online, anyway) has exploded with accusations, feminist rants, anti-feminist rants, and totally indiscriminate rants.
I don’t say this often, but well done Cameron: lo and behold, the material points (which were: the rather important business of the government’s controversial Health and Social Care Bill, and the fact that David Cameron was stating a falsehood to the House. Let’s be generous and assume he was wrong, rather than deliberately lying to the House), seem to have been all but forgotten.
David Cameron’s motivation for his patronising attitude towards Angela Eagle – whether sexism, snobbery, or just plain old-fashioned arrogance – isn’t really the crux of the issue. What matters more is that we have a Prime Minister who stated a falsehood in Parliament (the falsehood, not that it particularly matters, was that Howard Stoat MP lost his seat to a Conservative, when in actual fact, Mr Stoat retired), to back up a point he was making on a deadly serious issue (reforming the NHS), yet when he was called to account by an opposition MP – whose job it is to hold the government to account – rather than apologise for his probably quite innocent mistake, our Prime Minister chose to quote a rather annoying television ad, and rudely dismiss the Member of Parliament who corrected him.
We perhaps shouldn’t be surprised at David Cameron’s patronising reaction to Angela Eagle’s heckling. After all, the very bill under discussion in itself ignores the criticisms of all sorts of experts, including the British Medical Association, 96% of nurses, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists, conservative-minded think tanks like Civitas and Policy Exchange, the majority of GPs, including Dr Sarah Woollaston who is a Conservative party MP, and a rather sizeable chunk of the public. It doesn’t actually matter very much to me whether he thinks he’s above listening to Angela Eagle because she happens to be a woman, because she’s a Labour party member, because she is a blonde, or because he didn’t like the shirt she was wearing. What matters a whole lot more to me is that our Prime Minister has such a shamelessly disdainful attitude to facts and – crucially – other people’s informed opinions. Did it not occur to Cameron to say something like: “Oh, I was under the impression Mr Howard Stoat had been defeated. My mistake. The point I was making, however, was… ” and proceed to discuss the important the business of running the country and our public services; the work he is paid £142,500 every year of our money to do? Anyone would think David Cameron felt that getting a cheap (and probably forced) laugh was more important than accurately explaining and debating his policies with our democratic representatives.
David Cameron is hardly the first PM ever to show distain for Parliament. In fact I doubt we’ve ever had one who didn’t. Winston Churchill was always doing it. (He called women much worse than ‘dear,’ too.) And it’s certainly not a partisan issue: Tony Blair was always pummeling his way through parliament no matter the wishes of his own backbenchers – and, more importantly, their constituents. But at least Tony Blair did have a fairly indisputable democratic mandate from the electorate: let’s be honest, most of those unhappy backbench Labour MPs were winning seats between 1997 and 2005 that they almost certainly never could have won without Blair’s immense popularity, centrist vision, and electability.
But the presidential leadership style that Blair always embraced comes off as plain insidious arrogance when David Cameron does it. Why? Because he doesn’t have anything like the same democratic mandate that Blair enjoyed. David Cameron seems to have forgotten that he is only entitled to form a government in the first place thanks to those Liberal Democrat MPs his party and supporters mocked so disdainfully during the 2010 general election campaign, who are graciously doing him an enormous favour – often at the expense of their own careers – and supporting his unpopular minority government. His personal approval rating is only a grapple and grasp above where Gordon Brown’s was for the bulk of his premiership. He has absolutely no right – even less than Blair or Brown had – to be disdainful of Parliament. And yet he can. Because once you form an executive, that’s it: all power to your elbow. So here’s my question: could a change in our electoral system help shift that balance of power back towards Parliamentary sovereignty?
Although it is clearly driven by naked self-interest – and I mean the butt-naked, shivering in a rainy street when your girlfriend has chucked all your clothes out of the window kind of naked – that the Lib Dems are making more fuss about electoral reform than any other policy pledge of theirs, the issue isn’t an entirely trivial one, and shouldn’t be seen as something that is to the sole advantage of Nick Clegg.
I personally think we should do a couple of other things too, that the Lib Dems might not be too keen on. For example, since so many Prime Ministers insist on acting like we have a presidential system, why not actually just have one? Perhaps it would help remind everyone of their place if we elected the government separately from the House of Commons. And perhaps we could elect a proper second chamber as well while we’re at it. It is a nonsensical, antiquated notion that the Queen just automatically appoints whoever has the most MPs willing to vote with them in Parliament. Why should a minority government like David Cameron’s have their votes sewn up in Parliament on key issues before they have even officially tabled any bills? We should choose the individual we’d like to run the country – then choose who we’d like to hold him or her to account. I happen to look for rather different qualities in a local representative, or indeed in a legislative body, than I do in the person and/or party I’d like to run the country, represent Britain abroad, make decisions about national security, appoint a cabinet, set a budget, and so on.
Somehow I don’t see any of this happening in the near future, given that we’re not even allowed a chance to vote on Proportional Representation. Consider it: in a referendum about electoral reform, for goodness sake, the most popular alternative method of voting isn’t being given to us as an option. And the No campaign have the cheek to call AV undemocratic!
AV isn’t perfect. But if we all turn up our noses at AV and vote No, well, this is pretty much what we’re stuck with until the Lib Dems are next in government. George Osborne has said so: if the country votes No on May 5th it will “close the question of electoral reform for the foreseeable future,” as he told the Daily Mail. No-one is pretending AV is the best system in the world: it’s not proportional, it’s not infallible, and it’s not even the first choice of its own supporters. But First Past the Post is designed for a two-party system, and it is – by admission of its own advocates – designed to facilitate a strong executive body. By making MPs gain a greater number of votes to win seats, by forcing them to consider the ‘second choice voters’ instead of concentrating on their own political comfort zone, by forcing the electorate to consider the full field of candidates, and forcing MPs to take their consideration into consideration (my apologies), we can perhaps do something small, but significant: we make general elections a little bit less about choosing who we’d like to form a government, and a little bit more about choosing who we’d like to hold that government to account. We could actually make Parliament sovereign again – and in doing so, we can remind our leaders who they all bloody well work for.