Britain’s vicious circle of political failure
Parliament needs more than a five-year refurbishment to fix Britain's politics. We need to strip back Britain's politics and start again.
Just as the economy continues to drag along, failing to recover from the aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis, so Britain's politics does too. Three years have passed since the 2009 expenses scandal, but public confidence in our elected leaders remains at rock bottom.
This was an opportunity for parliament to reform itself. There have been some positive steps forward – the select committees MPs use to scrutinise suspect figures from elsewhere in public life (Rupert Murdoch, Bob Diamond etc) have been improved, for example – but other measures have proved disappointing. They may even prove to have backfired.
The introduction of epetitions was supposed to spark a great revival of direct democracy. Voters assumed 100,000 signatures would lead to an instant change in direction from ministers. They are now discovering what MPs have known for a long time: that the debate in parliament they get as a result of a six-figure petition is a very different proposition from an actual policy shift. Voters feel less empowered, not more. Hardly a positive step.
Another great hope was the opportunity to recall misbehaving MPs. Such a move would strengthen democratic accountability because it would mean that, if enough constituents felt strongly enough, a member of parliament would be held up to answer for their actions long before the next general election (the next one is still nearly three years away, remember).
What the coalition eventually came up with was deeply disappointing to radical reformers. Oh no, Nick Clegg explained to MPs, the idea wasn't to actually give voters real power. This punitive measure could only be employed if an MP was jailed for a period of less than one year (they get kicked out anyway if they're jailed for over 12 months). Anything less than a custodial sentence and it would be up to the Commons' standards and privileges committee to set up the possibility of a by-election.
Advocates argue this is not something to be afraid of. The public can be trusted, they insist. Of course there will be instances when partisan-motivated recall attempts are mounted – the 'vexatious' kind so feared by Clegg and co – but these can either be rejected or accepted by the electorate. There is nothing to fear but fear itself.
For ministerial fear of the no-holds-barred recall proposal is actually damaging Britain's democracy. The message this whole sorry saga sends out is that the voters cannot be trusted: the fate of misbehaving politicians is better left to the judgement of a secretive committee of MPs rather than the disinfectant of public scrutiny. I've spoken to members of the standards and privileges committee who insist that the punishments they impose are fair and just – and certainly not lenient towards those of their parliamentary colleagues who have broken the Commons' rules. Put simply, that is not the point: from the public's perspective any such work conducted behind closed doors is inherently suspicious.
Now a Sunday newspaper has reported that the coalition is considering abandoning its recall bill altogether. This has dismayed Zac Goldsmith, one of the radical Tory reformers who hasn't been particularly impressed by the government's proposals. Still, better this than nothing, he believes. "This was a key promise after the endless scandals around expenses. It is also the one promised reform that will directly empower people and keep politicians on their toes," he told the Mail on Sunday. "If it is dropped now, voters will rightly wonder if they can believe anything they are promised by political parties."
The electoral reform referendum was defeated, Lords reform has been abandoned and boundary changes are being fought by an impromptu coalition of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Recall was all the coalition's constitutional reform agenda had left, but now even this proposal appears endangered. The result is a sorry mess which has failed to provide any answers to the great British political malaise. Just as the double-dip recession continues to blight the UK, so the political process continues to stagnate.
The coalition may have started off brightly with a real injection of optimism, but it has proved singularly ineffective in achieving really significant changes to the way Britain does its politics. Our hung parliament, arguably the result of voter disaffection, has made meaningful changes impossible. As the recall farrago shows, it is probably making things worse. What are the chances that a second hung parliament will follow in 2015? How can Britain's politicians get themselves out of this mess?
As the recall saga shows, a better question might be to ask how willing they collectively are to even try.