As debate surrounding an e-petition to restore capital punishment rages, Fern Tomlinson comes to the defence of political parties.
These topics are all outside the mainstream rhetoric of politics in modern day Britain; no serious political party in its right mind would stand for election on a manifesto of capital punishment and bread and water for prisoners. Yet, according to the vocal minority, these are policies that they would support. Freedom of speech ensures that every person in the UK has the right to express their views (within reason) in whatever way they wish, yet the use of e-petitions can arguably be seen as taking this concept too far.
Political parties exist to provide a package of policies to voters encased within an easily identifiable ideology, allowing voters to express a preference for how they wish government to conduct itself. The MP/constituency link provided by the First Past the Post electoral system means that outside of this generic package the public can further express their views on an individual basis to an elected representative. What the e-petitions allow voters to do is bypass this system of preference indication in favour of a ‘pick and mix’ style of politics, where minority or more extreme views can be expressed in a public domain and portrayed as mainstream by the media or on social network sites. The danger inherent with this system of individual policy proposal is that political parties will gain a false indicator of the salience among the public of a particular issue. The publicity surrounding a petition could be enough to prompt a policy rethink, as well as the potential support in terms of people signing the petition.
In order to prevent false representation of public interest therefore it is essential to maintain the formal system of preference aggregation through political parties. The current system ensures that political parties present a balanced and centrist manifesto at election time in order to have the best possible chance of being elected. Once in power they can use referendums if an issue is deemed important enough to require a specific response from the electorate, and each MP acts to represent their constituents’ interests. Through the further actions of pressure groups, think tanks and the media there are more than enough ways that views and opinions can be expressed in appropriate measures with appropriate safeguards. E-petitions, as proved this week, are unnecessary and threaten the stability of the political system.