Monday, July 03, 2006

Nick Cohen - what is he on?

You may or may not have seen this in yesterday's Observer (I know, two posts about the Observer in as many days, it's not healthy):

How the Lib Dems devalue politics

To the people who fight elections rather than the people who vote in them, the Lib Dems have a reputation for dirty politics second only to the BNP. Last week, Bob Neill, the stunned Tory candidate in Bromley, condemned their 'cynical personal abuse', but I think he missed the impact of the Liberals on British politics over the past 30 years. The venom they inject matters less than their successful insistence that candidates be 'local'.

When Churchill was an MP, he barely visited his constituency. He would have regarded the idea that he had to live among his constituents as absurd. His job was to discuss the great affairs of state.

The 'pavement politics' revolution the Liberals began in the Sixties now means we have MPs who know nothing about foreign or domestic politics, but their ignorance doesn't matter. What matters is that they're 'local'.

Now, on the face of things, he might have a point about the whole "local" thing not actually producing the best candidate. But is this actually anything to do with the Lib Dems? Obviously I'm not going to deny that occasionally we might campaign on such grounds, but equally there are plenty of examples of other parties doing so. If your candidate is a well known local face and theirs isn't, then regardless of party, you're likely to try to take advantage of it.

Surely this is more a symptom of the way our democracy is set up? I mean, if you're meant to be electing a *constituency* MP, then people are going to get the impression they ought to be from their *constituency*, no? At the end of the day, these are elections. You know, where we the public express a view? If nobody saw things that way, nobody would bother trying the whole "he's not from round here" line. It wouldn't work.

If people just said "I don't care, he/she's an intelligent man/woman who I believe will make the arguments I want to see made in parliament", then the tactic wouldn't have ever achieved much traction. Clearly, then, this is something that is as much the fault of the system and how it makes people vote. In that climate, you can't blame any party, Lib Dem or otherwise, for going for the local ticket if they think it will help.

Now, should candidates be local? I'm genuinely not sure which way I feel about that question. On the one hand, it's often occurred to me that I don't feel as represented by my own MP as I do by any Lib Dem (one day, of course, I hope that problem will disappear). If we introduce a true system of PR, then the idea of a constituency MP of any sort is inevitably going to get watered down. But I don't like the idea that parliament could be made up largely of party insiders who spend even more of their time in the Westminster bubble; in some ways that would be even less representative of the country that elects them. I'll think about it. Meanwhile:

So why does Cohen target the Lib Dems for this abuse? I can't say, but to me it looks like another lazy smear from the traditional book of vague, unfounded "ooh, they play dirty in local campaigns" type statements. I've never seen any evidence to convince me that Lib Dem campaigns are typically any dirtier than those of other parties. Often quite the reverse. People like Cohen just don't seem to be able to cope with the idea that those who they disagree with are actually just regular people who disagree with them too.

He dedicates column inches, week after week, to trying to convince his readers that anyone he dislikes are hypocrites, cheats, liars, immoral, frauds, etc. Frankly, he's one of the least appealing things about the Observer. And there haven't been many things about it that I've found appealing lately.

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