Sunday, 27 September 2015

Why do we talk about prime ministers winning power?

I half-heard an item on the Today programme this morning about Jeremy Corbyn needing to "appeal to older voters if he is to win power in 2020," and all of a sudden it was that last phrase that struck me. It is pretty much the universal formulation to describe the process of appointing a prime minister, to the point where I at least have never before questioned it. Why would I? Elections are competitive processes and the office of prime minister carries a great deal of power, so the leader of the successful party has clearly won power.

Except that, if you transpose the phrase to another context it suddenly sounds very strange indeed. Imagine if the newly-appointed head teacher of your child's primary school wrote to parents to announce that she had won power over the school. Even in the private sector chief executives do not win power over multinational corporations: they are appointed by the board (usually these days to rescue the company from whatever scandal its recent actions have embroiled it in).

The point is that both words in the formulation are problematic, and both transfer an inordinate amount of agency in the wrong direction. When a board 'appoints a new chief executive' or governors 'appoint a new head' the successful candidate has clearly won, but the linguistic formulation gives agency in the process to those who have appointed him or her. Not so, it seems, in general elections, where the electorate become not merely passive but absent from the phrase used.

And then there is the word 'power' itself. Yes, anyone heading a large organisation (such as a national government) has power, but is it not hugely more important that he or she has responsibility too? Yet there is nothing in the phrase 'winning power' even to hint at such responsibility. And with the current government in particular that is a massive problem. I have written before about the extraordinary way in which ministers in this government and the last have ceased to take responsibility for the areas under their charge. Time was that if a scandal broke in say, the NHS the relevant minister would take responsibility and resign, even if the scandal related to events that happened before they took office. Now it is as likely to be the minister who breaks (or even engineers) the crisis, to empower them to bring in more and more sweeping changes.

The current government like power, it is clear (which governments don't, once they get it?) and do not have a great deal of time for responsibility. How else could they preside over benefit changes that drive large numbers of their citizens to suicide? The thing is, while we persist in talking about David Cameron "remaining in power" until 2020 then we are, in a small but crucial way, gifting them more of that power and relieving them of more of the responsibility.

So what should we be saying? Pretty simple, in my view. In the early hours of the morning of the 8th of May 2020 I want to hear David Dimbleby say that "The British electorate has given Jeremy Corbyn responsibility for leading the country."

Well it could happen...

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