On the recent resignation of an elected politician from the Labour Party, a number of aggrieved party members raised the point that before becoming a Labour candidate an aspirant must sign a pledge to resign the seat should they decide to leave the Party. Now, I’ve never known this to happen.
Usually the politician leaving the Party claims to have moved to a position on higher moral ground than that occupied by the party or claims that he or she has not changed but that the Party has fallen away from previous or traditional standards. Another approach is to say that the decision of the public at the election carries greater democratic weight and neutralises any mere personal or party pledge. A variation on this is to look forward to the next election and say that success will legitimate all.
The truth is that the Party pledge has become meaningless. It cannot be enforced and hardly anyone grants it a moral force. I even recall the chair of a selection convention joking about the pointlessness of the pledge as a candidate was singing. We too readily accept the term, “empty gesture”, as if no harm is done when the truth is that all these false pledges and signatures amount to a nasty tangle of cynicism.
I have argued for taking seriously again the notion of integrity.* Now, candidates signing pledges for a laugh in front of knowing members is hardly an important issue today but it may be a significant cut as integrity in public life is whittled away. Moreover, many will dismiss the very notion of integrity as unimportant either because their view of politics is cynical or because we face far greater issues.
Let’s set down some testing points in relation to pledges and personal integrity. Firstly, I doubt that many citizens would want as a public representative someone for whom a formal pledge freely given is meaningless. Secondly, I doubt that many citizens would be impressed if told that at a party’s selection conferences a cynical charade is played out time after time as election candidates pretend to enter into a pledge. Thirdly, I regret the number of times I’ve been present and bitten my tongue rather than speaking up while the demeaning charade went ahead. I accept that this is entrenched, unenforceable and that there’s little an individual can do but I’ve resolved that if present in future I will try to force at least a discussion when a candidate is “invited” to sign the party pledge.
In short, when it comes to resignation pledges, election candidates should not make fools of themselves, their party colleagues and citizens generally by acting falsely.