By Allrik Birch
You might have noticed that the two MPs recently at the centre of “lobbying scandals”, Tim Yeo and Patrick Mercer, are two with the privilege of having safe seats. Yeo has held his South Suffolk seat since it was formed in 1983, and won 47.7% at the last general election, whilst Mercer won 48% this time around, having gained the seat in the 2001 general election (it having been lost to Labour in the landslide election of 1997). Had these MPs not been caught by our free press and short of a remarkable outcome in the 2015 general election, these MPs would likely have romped home with a safe majority. Safe to sit troughing for at least another five years at the expense of the public purse then.
One proposed solution (favoured by the government and many MPs) is to install a lobbying register, to track meetings between lobbyists and MPs. However, this will not solve the problem as far as I see it. For one, the people here (allegedly) committing offences are the MPs, not lobbyists. Second, a register just provides a list, it does not stop meetings going unrecorded, nor does it stop wrongdoing happening off the record at meetings that are registered. Third, those that might bribe an MP will stand a good chance of not being on a register if it did come to fruition. A company determined to bribe an MP to do its bidding might simply invite them to visit them abroad, completely off the radar. The way to fix this is to reduce the “demand” for bribes (or “paid advocacy”) itself, by making taking such too high a risk. Currently it takes dedicated work from investigative journalists to uncover the malpractices of MPs, and any with more tact than Yeo and Mercer might be more cautious, and get away with it on behalf of one or two clients. It would not surprise me if this scandal continued to grow in scale, just like the expenses scandal.
If we are to make it too costly for MPs to abuse their position, we must shake the idea of an MP being safe from the system. Individual parties must act to ensure that poor MPs can be removed internally, and we should fight for a true recall mechanism, so that MPs cannot be exposed for abuses and still win the next election, as happened with Denis MacShane and his expenses. If members of the local party automatically get to vote out their MP between elections, it will train the minds of those susceptible to wrongdoing. The worst of the MPs in the expenses scandal came from safe seats – they expected, if caught, to get a slap on the wrist, pay back a small amount of the total claimed, and romp home at the next election. Most of them, I dare-say, were right in this view.
Short of getting rid of politicians and privatising everything government does altogether, there are a few ways to help get rid of corrupt MPs. First, and this is something parties can do individually, without having to pass any laws, is to ensure that all their sitting MPs have to face a caucus of their local members to stand for re-election. This will not only ensure that grassroots gain real power over who represents them, but it may also help revive dwindling membership numbers. If local members gain a real say over who represents them, they might see more value in their annual membership fee. Dodgy MPs, or MPs who simply forget who they represent, stand the chance of being forced out. If the mood of the party changes, say in a more Eurosceptic direction, then the representatives can change with it.
Second: open primaries for new MPs. Open primaries allow the public to gain a real say over who their MP is likely to be, and actually gives the party holding them a big boost come election time – the winner has already gained support of the local constituency, so why throw away this gain in favour of a party insider, who might not even be representative of the local party membership as a whole? Like with local caucuses, this is something that requires no law to implement, and has been successfully trialled in this country already, with two current MPs having been elected through this, and a number of others having won through some kind of primary/caucus election.
Finally: a proper recall mechanism. Sometimes an MP will be selected by a local association, or local people, not knowing of the improper conduct they have committed, might intend to commit or simply gives in to. If they find themselves years from an election, why must local people wait, whilst the MP sits as an independent, still taking their hard-earned money through taxes? Why not let people recall their MP? Zac Goldsmith, Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan have been banging the drum of this of late, and so they should. They can, and have explained better than I, why this system will not lead to a string of by-elections. A real recall mechanism, where local people get to vote to remove MPs they do not like, will strengthen democracy and trust in politicians.
What is certain is that trust in our political system is low and has been for some time. Turnout across the country is appallingly reduced in decades past, and scandals such as those of recent days only increase the problem – politicians are seen as corrupt, any many are able to be with little to fear from the people. It is time to make serious changes to how MPs are elected, and I hope to see bad representatives booted out, and the strength of the political elite curbed. A party, or coalition of parties, that delivers real powers of recall, open primaries and caucuses, might do well in regaining the trust of both wavering party members and the public as a whole.