Monday, 3 May 2010

Keeping Tabs on Politicians

A recent post over on Left Foot Forward got me thinking a bit on how we, the general public, ensure that our politicians are serving our interests. Of course, we have elections once every few years where we can vote out the corrupt and incompetent, but that will only happen when a politician is obviously corrupt or incompetent, expenses scandal aside it may not often be that apparent.

Websites do exist to help us keep tabs on our representatives in Parliament: and allow you to see when each MP attended Parliament, what debates they participated in, what they said and how they voted. You can also read all of the acts and bills passed (and rejected) by Parliament online, if you have the inclination for deciphering the lawyer-speak they’re written in.

However, there is one noticeable shortcoming in this process – we cannot tell from this information alone why a politician has voted a certain way, we do not know the intent behind any politician’s actions. Sadiq Khan’s post illustrates this when he says “The Liberal Democrats voted against our original proposals and have diluted the provisions of this Act (as did the Conservatives).” in relation to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill.

His depiction here is of Labour struggling to pass a piece of benign legislation, which would only benefit the British public, in the face of unjustified opposition from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. There can be many reasons for voting against a piece of legislation: bear in mind that these bills can be of considerable length and that the specific wording of the bill is what matters, not the intent behind it; because it is what the bill says, not what it intends, that becomes law. In the right circumstances then, a politician can be entirely justified in voting against a piece of legislation due to disagreement with the precise wording of just a single clause or sub-clause.

Khan does not provide us with any clues as to which parts of the bill have been ‘diluted’, or what the original wording of the bill was and whether there is any substantive difference between what was first proposed and what is now enshrined in law. Without these details voters are unable to decide for themselves how to side on the Government’s original proposals.

But then again, Khan's intention is not merely to furnish voters with information; he is after all a Labour MP, standing for re-election this week. The purpose of his article is to convince wavering voters (in this specific case - Muslim voters) that Labour is their best option at the forthcoming general election. This may or may not be true - from the limited information provided it's impossible to tell.

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