Published by Daily Mail
Back in 2009, in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal and a profound crisis in the British political system, David Cameron made a speech that electrified the Conservative Party and promised to usher in a revival of democracy. With great rhetorical flourish, he expounded his core conviction like an article of faith:
“I believe the central objective of the new politics we need should be a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power: from the state to citizens; from the government to parliament; from Whitehall to communities; from the EU to Britain; from judges to the people; from bureaucracy to democracy. Through decentralisation, transparency and accountability we must take power from the elite and hand it to the man and woman in the street.”
It was wonderful Whiggish stuff, which is no real surprise as it echoed (indeed, lifted almost verbatim) the words of self-professed Whig Daniel Hannan MEP and his Roundhead compatriot Douglas Carswell MP, who had co-written just months before:
“We need a radical shift of power… to redistribute power back, from Brussels to Westminster, from Whitehall to town halls, from the state to the citizens… to disperse power among communities, through localism and through referendums.”
I don’t know if the Prime Minister had read the Hannan/Carswell thesis The Plan: Twelve Months to renew Britain, but with this speech came a genuine hope of the decentralisation of government to lower tiers of administration, and the devolution of power to the people. It was a promise of political subsidiarity and procedural diversity which inspired many to vote Conservative who may not have otherwise done so. It promised the incremental eradication of the political class and self-perpetuating elite. It was about sharing and trust; openness and participation. It was a model of democratic engagement for the Twitter and Facebook age.
Perhaps I should have heeded the wise words of Charles Moore, who warned at the time: “But no one should forget that, however genuine Mr Cameron’s desire for reform, his fundamental interest, once he becomes prime minister, will be that government should retain power over Parliament. He will want his Bills through quickly, his word, almost literally, to be law.”
In fact, since becoming leader in 2005, David Cameron has done more to centralise power within the Conservative Party than any Tory leader since the nineteenth century. Many of the powers which used to be held by local associations are now exercised by an aloof and arrogant elite at CCHQ. Whatever the public mantra of ‘Big Society’ localism and laissez-faire devolution, the instinct has been to centralise and concentrate; to micro-manage and intervene.
The Prime Minister’s anti-democratic style mirrors precisely that other great self-perpetuating oligarchy – the EU Commission. While the people are groaning beneath layers of cynicism, disengagement and disillusionment, David Cameron sustains the dying models of corporatism and statist bureaucracy, even while the old politics is organically fragmenting into vibrant, free and transformative interest groups.
One of the Conservative Party’s most creative manifesto commitments was to legislate for Recall – to make it possible for voters to get rid of underperforming MPs in between elections. The provision exists in many democracies, usually triggered by popular petition once a proportional threshold of the electorate is reached. If, say, 20 per cent of voters in a constituency aren’t happy that their MP has abused his wife, been involved in a drunken brawl or defected to the BNP, a local referendum would be held as a de facto vote of confidence. If a majority then votes to recall their MP, a parliamentary by-election would follow.
This is a much-needed reform of the political system, not least because the ‘rotten-borough’ safe seats would instantly become unsafe as voters would be empowered to challenge and deselect their representatives, and wouldn’t have to wait for a general election to do so. MPs would be compelled to be more responsive and respectful of majority concerns, and impeccable in their conduct and behaviour. It would be a constant reminder to them that Parliament does not belong to superior politicians who then appoint oligarchical guardians of privilege: it belongs to ordinary people.
Over the past year Zac Goldsmith MP has consistently reminded us of what the Conservative Party promised in its manifesto. It also happened to be a pledge made by the Liberal Democrats, so joint plans sailed into the Coalition Agreement, to ‘bring forward early legislation to introduce a power of recall, allowing voters to force a by-election where an MP was found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing and having had a petition calling for a by-election signed by 10% of his or her constituents’.
Agitating from his backbench soapbox, Goldsmith has made speeches, written numerous articles, toured TV studios, lobbied ministers, circulated EDMs and introduced a Bill. He clearly shares his father’s instinctive distrust of the remote, unresponsive, unaccountable, self-serving elite. There must be something in the Goldsmith DNA which is attuned to matters of democratic justice and to telling unpalatable truths.
The Government eventually came up with a Bill, which then conveniently ran out of parliamentary time. But it was a sham in any case. I contacted Zac Goldsmith directly about this, and he said: “Under the Government’s version of Recall, an MP could stop doing surgeries, abandon Parliament altogether, switch to an extreme party, break every promise he made before being elected and even go on a two-year holiday, all without qualifying for Recall. It is nothing more than a pretence at democracy. People may believe they have been empowered, but they will soon discover that they have been hoodwinked, and the backlash will be deservedly unpleasant.”
Astonishing, isn’t it?
Instead of handing the power of Recall down to the voters, the Government’s measure would pass it up to MPs on the Standards and Privileges Committee. This group alone would then determine whether an MP had behaved badly enough to warrant being ‘recalled’. This isn’t the people’s power of Recall: it is one unaccountable elite sitting in judgment upon another. And the elite definition of ‘serious wrongdoing’ is unlikely to coincide with that of the people.
A local association and an entire constituency of voters might be thoroughly sick of a disreputable MP who rarely holds surgeries, never answers letters and can’t be bothered to attend debates in the House of Commons. But if he/she happens to be a mate of the Prime Minister’s, you can be sure that the Standards and Privileges Committee will be made fully aware of this. You only have to see the sorts of offenders to whom David Cameron showed no mercy in the expenses ‘Court of Star Chamber’ (Sir Peter Viggers, Sir Anthony Steen, Douglas Hogg), while some others – whose offence was arguably far greater – were treated more agreeably, even generously (Alan Duncan, Francis Maude, Andrew Lansley, Ed Vaizey).
The has-been, bed-blocking Tory grandee who causes a modicum of embarrassment is swiftly terminated; the inner circle of vibrant modernisers and pretty-young-things are protected under prime-ministerial patronage. It stands to reason, in cases of misdemeanour, that more of the former would be subject to Recall, simply because their faces don’t quite fit the latest Tory rebranding or they have become a thorn in the Prime Minister’s side.
Goldsmith confirms the cynicism: “The Government’s version hands power to a group of MPs to decide if an MP qualifies for recall. Power is handed up to a committee controlled by the Party whips, not to voters. It is virtually the opposite of true recall.
“Nick Clegg and the PM have both talked about so-called Kangaroo courts, but given an MP can only be recalled if a majority of constituents want them recalled, the court they are referring to is made up of their own constituents. If that’s what they fear, then perhaps they are in the wrong line of work. I will use every lever available to me in Parliament to oppose this stitch up and push for true recall, and I hope enough colleagues will support that endeavour.”
We need a genuine Recall mechanism which hands power back to the people; not a hollow pretence which somehow shares it between a self-selecting jury of party whips and a tiny privileges committee which deliberates in secret. It shouldn’t be left to the elite to stitch together a mates’ code of conduct and then to judge in their own cause.