Carswell and co: Parliament’s liberated revolutionaries
We've been on a mission over the last few months at Politics.co.uk, trying to find out who are parliament's most liberated MPs. Not liberated like that, you disgusting pervert. No, we mean liberated in the sense of breaking free of the shackles of the party political system. Because of the changing nature of the way we 'do' politics in Britain, the identikit on-message politicians of the New Labour era have become firmly old hat these days. A new breed of independent-minded MPs are emerging to challenge the status quo. With the help of our jury of academics, journalists, campaigners and lobbyists, we've been busy working out which of our MPs are best at breaking the mould of British politics.
Without further ado, then, let's jump straight to our winner: the member of parliament who came top of the voting. You've probably come across Douglas Carswell before. He's the man who broke centuries of tradition and called (successfully, of course) for the Speaker to resign. He's embraced Twitter and the blogosphere to give himself a platform which has helped set himself free from the constraints of reliance on the Tory party press office. He is so independent the Tory whips barely regard him as being a Conservative any more.
"I'm enormously flattered. In fact I'm as pleased as Punch," he says in response to the news that, of parliament's 650 MPs, he is the one who has topped our poll. One jury member described Carswell as a "one-man conservative/libertarian opposition". Another highlighted his achievement in having "turned the internet into a platform the whips would never have granted him". The man himself, ever the incorrigible reformer, now believes a "revolution" is in the air.
"I think the internet allows us to aggregate opinion and a whole range of complicated systems without top-down direction," he explains.
"We've got a two-and-a-half party system that's dying, they're losing market share. The internet favours upstarts. So I think there's an existential question that the two-and-a-half parties have to ask themselves. Are they going to adapt, and recognise the internet is here to stay? Are they going to allow people to aggregate opinion within the party structure, or are they going to carry on retaining central control but losing market share?"
Carswell's approach is not shared by the other two MPs in the top three. Stella Creasy, who came third, won praise for the single-minded approach of her campaign on payday loans. She's now a frontbencher, but that hasn't stopped her being singled out as someone who gets her way despite the overbearing impact the party system has on parliament.
Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow, is our runner-up. His temperament couldn't be more different from Carswell if he tried. And his modus operandi is much more subtle.
"You may not believe this but I'm not naturally a confrontational person," he says. "I genuinely don't like rebelling. I'm a Conservative through and through, and I'm sure it will be carved on my tombstone. I do feel a sense of loyalty but I call myself an independent-minded loyalist. I'm there to help bash the opposition, but when there are one or two issues I really do believe you have to stand up and be counted."
Halfon has not held back since entering parliament in 2010. His biggest hit has been persuading the chancellor to ditch a planned rise in fuel duty altogether. But he has been a tireless campaigner on a range of issues he says he's picked because they're the ones his constituents care about most: restoring the 10p rate of income tax, apprenticeships, and even keeping parliamentary tours of Big Ben free.
"The difference I have with Douglas is I don't always believe you need to be confrontational," he adds. "You can do it in a way that is calm." Halfon has been known to talk behind closed doors with those in power and step down from his pulpit, if it means he'll get his way.
These are two impressively liberated MPs, neither afraid to challenge the dominance of their political masters back at party HQ. What so many of our experts noted is how differently they go about doing the job. That gulf of style reflects an even greater diversity among the MPs our jury picked out. Some, like Graham Allen, have proved very effective in abandoning partisan politics altogether to get things done. Margaret Hodge, the chair of the public accounts committee, was picked out for the singularly effective way she goes about using one of parliament's most effective scrutinising instruments. Even Ken Clarke has got a nod, for being independent-minded within the constraints of Cabinet collective responsibility.
"What we have is a range of people that fill different niches, that show you can be your own person and be part of a party," jury member Peter Facey, director of Unlock Democracy, says. It doesn't matter what style they adopt – they're all valuable in their own way. "They all fill a need," he adds. "Some people might argue we're at the beginning of a golden age, in terms of more rebellions and more independence."
Phil Cowley, the country's leading expert on parliamentary rebellions, says he too has been struck by the "mixture" of approaches on offer. The University of Nottingham professor is not so sure that being a serial rebel really results in a politician being judged effective. So he's written an analysis piece for us examining the relationship between rebelliousness and (according to our jury) effectiveness. "Whilst being willing to vote against the party line isn't a requirement to be seen as effective, it does help," he writes.
The picture is a complex one, though. It's about much more than how many times an MP decides to defy their party's whips, as the difference between Carswell (confirmed rebelholic) and Halfon (only ever rebelled twice) shows.
What matters is what really unites them: a recognition that, in order to cling on to their seats in parliament, they need to do much more than just "put on a Tory-boy smile", as Carswell puts it. "I do think politics is changing," Halfon says. "I do think there are going to be fewer and fewer safe seats. I do think the public are fed up with all political parties. And I think they're going to look to people they like as individuals much more. If they find it hard to decide between the three parties, they will look for the non-Westminster politicians."
This is what Carswell calls the "anti-politics vote". "People talk about the middle ground – no, it's the anti-politics vote that is the decisive vote in this country," he insists. "It matters."
The experts are not so sure. Stuart Wilks-Heeg, executive director of the Democratic Audit organisation, wonders where all this might lead to. "A parliament entirely comprised of Douglas Carswells would be entertaining, but it certainly wouldn't be a recipe for strong and stable government and an effective opposition," he argues. "I think people would wonder why they're voting for representatives who've stood on a manifesto if they're all expressing quite different ideas about what they really believe in."
Cowley says that all this independent-mindedness is all very well, but it has its limits. "Whilst incumbency's becoming important, you've got to get in in the first place. And you only get in by being part of a party," he points out. "Carswell wouldn't be the MP [for Clacton] were it not for the party label."
There are logical limits, then, to how independent of the party system any MP can truly be. That's always going to be the case in a constitution where the executive is determined by who controls the Commons. But it doesn't mean there isn't a change underway which enables parliamentarians to become far more liberated than before.
Look at the 2010 election night, which saw a series of choppy, unpredictable results come in. Many of the biggest surprises featured incumbents defying the national swing by managing to cling on.
The coalition politics that election produced is only serving to weaken the party's hold even further. The two main parties, having dominated British politics for much of the 20th century, can now barely manage an overall majority of the votes cast. The rise of the Liberal Democrats, of Ukip, of the SNP, has made us a much more pluralist bunch. That only serves to fuel the trend towards personalities – a shift being led by the MPs picked out by our jury.
"The days when you vote for a person because they're the local tribal leader have gone," Facey says. MPs can't just rely on their political affiliation to get them elected any more. They need to build coalitions of voters instead. So this is the future? "It's the present," he replies. "It's already happening."
Carswell, Halfon, Creasy, Field, Hodge: these political escapologists have broken free of the shackles of the party system and liberated themselves from the tyranny of party HQ. Some are mavericks, others rebel. Some operate via a megaphone, others prefer a quiet word around the corner to get their way. They're hard to define as a collective breed, but then that's what defines them: the differences of their personalities, reflected in the way they operate, is what we're celebrating.
These are individuals who are allowing their personalities to shine through. Though their approach to public life is often shaped by the right or the left, they are far from being just a face behind a red or a blue rosette. After decades of domination by the party system, these politicians are at the vanguard of a political class slowly learning to be themselves again.