UK Politics

Viewpoint: What progress on political reform?

David Cameron and Nick Clegg
Image caption David Cameron and Nick Clegg both promised to clean-up politics in the UK

As the Conservative Party heads to Manchester for its annual conference, a leading backbencher and campaigner for the reform of Parliament gives his view on whether the coalition has delivered on its promise to clean up politics and increase accountability.

Seven years ago, a small group of Conservative modernisers began to meet discreetly to set out a radically different programme for political reform.

Whereas Tories had traditionally sought to wield power from Whitehall, we localists wanted to diffuse and democratise power, to have decisions taken as closely as possible to those they affected.

We proposed "a wholesale shift in 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".

In May 2009, David Cameron declared: "We need 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… we must take power from the elite and hand it to the man and woman in the street."

At the height of the MPs' expenses scandal, he took up many of our ideas for change.

He called for a "a new politics" in which government was properly accountable to Parliament and Parliament to the people.

A year-and-a-half into government, how are those "sweeping reforms" coming along?

E-petitions

There have been some changes for the better.

The coalition has introduced a mechanism to allow ordinary people to force MPs to vote on an issue of public concern.

No longer will the Westminster village simply talk among itself - if you can collect over 100,000 signatures in an e-petition, you ought to be able to force MPs to confront an issue.

Contrary to what the doom-mongers predicted, giving people more direct democracy did not result in an outbreak of angry populism, but demands for more open, liberal government.

The e-petition against the death penalty beat demands to restore capital punishment by almost two to one.

Encouragingly, too, select committees in Westminster are no longer full of whips' placemen, but are elected by the House itself.

Unlike ministers, who owe their position to the patronage of one man in Downing Street, when committee chairs now speak they do so with the authority of people elected by the whole Commons.

Committee chairs, such as Keith Vaz and John Whittingdale, have distinguished themselves in this new role, putting both ministers and media moguls on the spot.

Real power?

Yet having given Commons committees greater legitimacy, the executive has shied away from allowing them real power.

Promises to make quango chiefs properly answerable to the Commons for their jobs and annual budgets have been quietly shelved.

Image caption Speaker John Bercow has sought to give backbench MPs more clout

The prime minister specifically ruled out allowing a confirmation hearing before appointing our new chief negotiator to Brussels.

Quietly dropped, too, were plans to make individual MPs answer more directly to the voters.

At the moment, seven out of 10 MPs come from "safe seats" - constituencies that are unlikely to change hands between parties at election time.

This makes many MPs inwardly accountable to party officials in London, rather than outwardly accountable to the voter.

Open primaries

The Conservatives, in the aftermath of the expenses scandal, took up the localists' proposals for more choice and competition in politics.

Open primaries would allow every voter to have a say over who gets to be the next MP.

Two of the most impressive members of the 2010 parliamentary intake, Sarah Wollaston and Caroline Dinenage, came into the Commons that way.

Recall elections would, too, we promised, allow ordinary people to hold their local constituency MP to account.

Slowly, but surely, we have rowed back on much of what we promised.

Open primaries, designed as a tool to allow local people to have a say, instead became a proposal in the coalition agreement to have state-funded candidate selection.

It would be for the party chairman in London to decide when and how open primaries were used, turning the initiative into a potential weapon in the party hierarchy's armoury against outspoken MPs.

Recall elections

A brilliant idea to make politicians more outwardly accountable morphed into being part of the problem it was designed to address.

This half-baked idea of non-local local primaries has been dropped on grounds of public cost - despite the fact that real open primaries would not actually involve any additional public cost.

The government's current position on recall elections, too, is not quite what is ought to be.

Instead of trusting local people to decide by a simply Yes/No ballot if their local MP should face a by-election, it will now be for a committee of Westminster grandees to sitting in judgement.

They will decide when and against whom to trigger the process.

Far from giving power to the people, this bogus system of recall could even allow the political class to, in effect, blackball House of Commons membership.

No doubt the great and the good of Westminster would have found against John Wilkes, too.

What is so frustrating is that being in coalition ought to make many of these reforms so much easier to achieve.

Speaker's reforms

This administration is a historic opportunity to fuse together traditional free-market Conservatism with Liberal Democrat ideas for political reform.

It is not the parliamentary arithmetic that is holding back these changes.

Frustratingly, political reform seems to have boiled down to holding a referendum on the AV electoral system, a reform that not even many advocates of electoral reform seemed to want.

But it is not all bad news.

There has been real pressure for change not from government, but from the Speaker's chair in the Commons.

I don't think I can be accused of excessive deference to House of Commons Speakers, but John Bercow has done much to restore purpose to Parliament.

Forget all the grumbling you might hear about him from those in the Westminster village.

Urgent questions

As Speaker, he favours neither one side of the chamber nor the other.

In party political terms, he is tediously even-handed.

But he does show one bias that I believe every Speaker should have; he favours backbenchers against frontbenches, the legislature over the executive.

This means that even tiddly little backbenchers like me can force ministers to come before the Commons and answer urgent questions.

It means he selects amendments that the whips would rather he ignored. It all makes life rather difficult for those at the top.

I suspect that many of those in Westminster keen to tell the rest of us that Mr Speaker is not doing his job the way he ought to are precisely the sort happy to see political reform put on the backburner.

Douglas Carswell blogs every day at TalkCarswell.com

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