You might forgive parties, as 7th May looms, for squirming under the ever glaring spotlight cast upon their day-to-day practices. You might even forgive them for their inevitably imperfect candidate selection processes. But even with the best will in the world, you could also be forgiven, when your pen hovers over your ballot paper several weeks from now, for picturing faces before you picture policies: for thinking of Janice Atkinson or Afzal Amin before you think of pensions or Trident.
Party scandals matter. Their media coverage is wide and growing, mainly because they are sensational and accessible. This makes them a big concern for parties. What turns that big concern into a big problem is their abundance.
In the last 18 months, UKIP has suspended 14 parliamentary candidates, 19 counsellors, three MEPs, one national secretary, one spokesperson, its youth leader, its Scotland Chair, one local branch and one local committee. It is an unusually bad case of a nevertheless rife disease; Labour, the Tories, the Lib Dems and the SNP are enduring much the same and under just as much public heat.
Scandal hurts insurgent parties most. First, it has a greater impact on their image: Afzal Amin may have colluded with the English Defence League, but the Tories’ long-standing and generally reasonable presence in Westminster makes damage-control easier. It is much harder to distance the likes of UKIP from their shenanigans in what is currently the defining period for the party.
Second, insurgent parties are more susceptible: they lack the battle-hardened selection experience of the mainstream, and they depend for a larger share of their support on marginal seats – seats in which gossip about fraud and conspiracy has a greater chance of making all the difference.
Party scandals matter. But they shouldn’t, at least not nearly as much as they do. Their inflated significance is a symptom of the public’s engrossment with them, not a cause. They divert attention from policy to people, a diversion most would consider detrimental to effective government even if those “people” were to play a significant role. Rosie Winterton MP is the Labour Chief Whip. If her party does well, she will become one of the most influential people in Westminster. If you read the news, you may know nothing about her views or pledges. Instead, you will know all about the overcharging of a bill by about £2,000 by an MEP who will never be an MEP again.
Admittedly, we should care about scandals which are systematic rather than one-off. Labour has stomached a number of them in connection with the party’s close ties to the unions, who heavy-handedly influence the candidate selection process. The resulting disrepute is indicative of an underlying and inherent problem which everyone, including Labour, wants to fix.
But when a scandal is both an unavoidable malfunction of a broadly reasonable but imperfect selection process, and utterly detached in its roots from the important workings of the party, they deserve little of the national attention they receive. Speaking on the Afzal Amin-EDL affair, the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan hoped “members of the public are sensible enough to distinguish between the actions of one person” and the performance of the party. Politicians and the press alike, in the months where clear and accurate public perception is crucial to strong democratic governance, seem to be doing their best to cloud it.
Fixing the problem is of course trickier than raising it. While scandal still sways the polls, no party wants to risk being the first to stop throwing stones. Perhaps, though, it is a risk worth taking if the public too can be convinced to shift their gaze to the things that really matter. A leader who then does away with the significance of scandal loses ammunition against their opponents, but may gain the public respect whose absence made such ammunition necessary in the first place. But more importantly, the public spotlight returns onto proposals, pledges and policies. And this is good for everyone.