This parliament has had more twists and turns than a dodgy continental melodrama, but the viewers have been hooked not by the central Cameron/Miliband storyline, but by the numerous trials and tribulations of a vast cornucopia of characters whose futures play out in the political background.
The boy-racing antics of Chris Huhne; the girl-racing antics of Harriet Harman; the jailing of Denis MacShane; the swearing of Andrew Mitchell (which turned out not to be swearing at all); Rennard’s women; Werritty’s business cards; and Law’s expenses. We’ve even had drunken punch-ups in the parliamentary bars, worthy of anything the Queen Vic has to offer. And nobody has even tried to get their head around producing an infographic which summarizes the bizarre love triangles of the Coulson/Brooks saga and condenses it into something vaguely comprehensible. If anything, fans of the BBC’s Eldorado (admittedly there weren’t many) should now be fully-fledged political devotees, addicted to the emotional rollercoaster that is UK politics.
If you love drama, you should love politics. Because with the expenses scandal barely cold, the antics of this parliament have brought the issue of accountability into sharp focus with three Conservative de-selection dramas dominating the political pages of late. So should it be easy to boot out your local MP? Is direct accountability really a good thing?
Of course, few can argue with the assertion that lazy MPs should be de-selected. After all, voter and taxpayers deserve bang for their buck don’t they? That was one of the main lessons from the expenses scandal itself.
In fact the Government has already committed itself to introducing legislation which would give the public the right to recall an MP who they have lost faith in, although there are various conditions attached to this including the fact that 10% of an MP’s constituents would have to sign a petition requesting a recall. What’s more this will only apply to cases where the MP is sent to jail for a year or less, or if the House of Commons decide that an MP’s behaviour justifies it.
But conditions aside, this legislation will have to wait for parliamentary time to allow – there is much the Coalition is keen to squeeze in before the spectre of the 2015 General Election appears on the horizon. In addition, it will not of course stop local parties taking proactive steps themselves to try and deselect their own MPs as their own rules allow, as we have seen recently with several Conservative MPs, including Reigate and Banstead MP Crispin Blunt who managed to survive the coup, as well as Tim Yeo and Anne McIntosh who were not quite so lucky.
In the case of the Tory trio, Blunt, Yeo and McIntosh, all sit on healthy majorities. Some would argue that their majorities are so healthy in fact that you could pin a blue rosette on a donkey in their respective seats and it would romp to victory. So there will be plenty of eager Tories eyeing up the opportunity to fill the vacant roles if they feel they can appeal to the local party.
And there in short is part of the problem. The GE victor (the MP) in seats like Reigate and Banstead is decided not on Election Day, but behind closed doors by the members of the dominant local party, in this case the Tories, when they select their candidate. As the Conservative Candidate in Reigate and Banstead, you are a shoe in (majority 13,591).
So the winner is determined not by the electorate at large, but by a small cabal of Conservative Party Members, who are far from representative of the population – 60% of Conservative Members are over 60 years of age for example. The same is of course true in safe Labour and Lib Dem seats, where people with a very particular persuasion (the party members) effectively side-line the electorate, choosing what is in reality the ‘winning’ candidate via an internal selection campaign, far before polling day itself. Safe seats are largely predetermined of course.
As a result, MPs in a huge number of seats are crowned by their party members, not by you and me. Blunt, Yeo and McIntosh all benefited from that situation in the past, with the electorate merely formally rubber-stamping their coronation on polling day. So what right do MPs have to complain if that same small group of party members decide the MP is no longer in favour and should be binned at the next election? In Tim Yeo’s defence (not something you’ll hear me say often), he said as much on Channel 4 earlier this week. McIntosh has been far less willing to accept the reality of her plight, decrying that she will not be ‘thrown aside by a small group’ and suggesting that there is absolutely no chance of her exiting the political stage without a fight.
The fact is that for right or wrong Blunt, Yeo and McIntosh owe their patronage to local Conservative members. When the wind is good, they can sail around like they own the ocean as far as the eye can see, but when the weather turns and the local members become disgruntled, rough water, crashing waves, rocks and wreckage beckons.
The commonly held view in Reigate is that Blunt’s sexuality was the source of local Conservative mirth; for Yeo he spent little time in his constituency, focusing heavily on national politics; and personality clashes are said to be at the heart of McIntosh’s fall from grace.
Their troubles started when a single issue irked the local membership. But regardless of the intricacies and specifics of the problems these MPs faced at a local level, my experience working for a number of MPs tells me that there are plenty of MPs who could just as easily fall out with their local members over a single issue, whether it be their support for a highly unpopular local development; their support (or lack of it) for gay marriage; voting for a particular military conflict or quite frankly, any highly emotive issue where their opinion is out of step with the sometimes niche perspective of the local members of the incumbent political party. Should one issue or a breakdown in personal relationships end a political career? And who should be the final arbiter?
It partly comes down to whether you believe that we elect delegates or representatives? Do we send MPs to Westminster to simply cast our vote or do we elect people we trust and give them the freedom to think for themselves? For me, the latter is surely the case. How many of us agree on every issue, all of the time? And therefore it is simply unrealistic not to expect MPs to fall out with their local parties from time to time.
The real worry is how quickly that can escalate and short circuit the local relationships which helped the MP get to where they are. And for some it is understandable to worry even more when they see the power of local party members bypassing the authority of the electorate. Although of course here we are in effect conflating two very different things: the right to recall, and the right of local parties to select their candidate at the next election. The Government is seeking to involve the electorate (and parliament) in the first, allowing local parties to continue to dominate the latter. And that is the nature of a system which relies on independently minded political parties.
So our best bet for calling MPs to account in safe seats may well be through a Bill introduced giving constituents a say about whether to recall an MP or not (assuming that decision does not again follow a pattern of simple party affiliation). However a note of caution: we must be careful to ensure MPs feel able to think freely, speak their minds, champion what are sometimes unpopular and niche issues and drive debate and progress forward. For me, MPs must challenge their electorate at times. And in challenging the electorate we may well have to face up to the prospect of the electorate daring to challenge them back through a right of recall.