In January I was told that James Murdoch was favourable to supporting the Alternative Vote in the referendum. Subsequently Jeremy Hunt gave permission to News International to proceed with their bid for BSkyB. Subsequently The Sun launched a strong campaign against the Alternative Vote. The Prime Minister launched his campaign against the Alternative Vote. Were all these connected? I think we should be told.
Zac Goldsmith - an article written by Zac
Before I became a member of parliament in May last year, my limited experience told me that British democracy was flawed. After just over a year as an MP, I now know that it is utterly dysfunctional. Politicians are already deeply disliked, and the expenses scandal didn't help. But, despite the horror stories, the real scandal has absolutely nothing to do with expenses. It is that parliament routinely fails in its most basic duties.
A backbench MP is paid to do two things - hold the government to account and vote in a way that is good for the people they represent. The present structures ensure they do neither, and the effect is that decisions taken by a very small number of politicians are subjected to virtually no scrutiny at all.
You have only to look at the maths. Nearly a third of MPs are on the "payroll". That includes ministers, shadow ministers and also parliamentary private secretaries, who are not paid, but who are bound by the code of loyalty that requires them always to vote with the government. Of the remaining two-thirds of MPs, most want to join the payroll. That requires a political lobotomy, and unthinking submission to the party line.
Loyalty is one thing, but we have reached an extreme. If a backbench MP speaks out against a government decision, it is seen as an act of aggression. If he tables a minor amendment, it's worse still. And if he votes against his party, it's an act of career suicide.
Consider the vote at the start of the year on the proposed forest sell-off. Many coalition MPs were bitterly opposed. And yet, when the division bell sounded, just seven voted against. Had all those who opposed it used their vote accordingly, the policy would have been buried instantly and the government would have been reminded that parliament exists.
It is tempting to blame the whip system, but that misses the point. The whips have a crucial job to do. They are there to help push through the government's agenda. It is the job of backbenchers to resist that pressure.
That doesn't mean endless gridlock and rebellion. It means creating a healthy tension, so that the executive is required to think before acting and to take on board the advice of the legislature. I do not believe we will have a vibrant and functioning democracy without a more independent legislature. Unfortunately, none of the reforms on offer today is designed to address that core issue.
There are, however, some simple reforms that would help improve British democracy. For example, we should end the ludicrous situation whereby a handful of MPs can kill off a bill by "talking it out" and pushing it off the agenda. We should ensure that, as the number of MPs is reduced as planned, so too is the number of MPs on the payroll. If not, the balance will become still more skewed. The language used in parliament could be much clearer. It's an embarrassing secret that if you were to stand outside the lobby after a division and ask MPs what they had just voted for, only a handful would be able to tell you. Why not accompany every bill, motion and amendment with a plain English explanation before asking MPs to vote on it?
Overall, though, if we want to counter the inability (or unwillingness) of parliament to scrutinise the executive, we need something bolder. A very significant start would be for the coalition partners to honour a pre-election promise made by all of the then party leaders. Following the expenses scandal, each of the leaders made a promise to allow constituents to "recall" their representative between elections. That pledge has, in effect, been scrapped.
True recall, indeed true democracy, allows people to remove their representative if most constituents have lost confidence in him or her, for whatever reason. It is a right that should exist for voters at every level, from councillor to MP. This is not a new idea. There have been failed recall attempts in California, including one against Ronald Reagan in 1968. However, in 2003, voters successfully recalled the sitting governor, Gray Davis, and replaced him at a new election with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
That couldn't be further from where we are today in Britain. Under the current rules, a new MP could theoretically move to another country for five years and leave constituency work to a caseworker. Local voters would be lumbered with a useless representative until the next general election.
Most MPs occupy "safe" seats and are hard, if not impossible, to shift. The pressure they feel is from their party, not from the voters. Recall would keep even these MPs on their toes, because a member of one party could be replaced by another from the same party.
The coalition insists that it will still introduce a version of recall, but the small print makes it worse than useless. Instead of handing the decision to the voters, the government will pass it up to MPs on a parliamentary committee. Its members alone will decide if a member has behaved badly enough to be "recalled".
I have tabled an Early Day Motion calling for true Recall, and so far, nearly 50 MPs from all parties have endorsed it. I hope many more will join them. With enough support, we will be able to facilitate a debate on the Chamber followed by a vote. And if it goes the right way, I have no doubt Parliament, and indeed democracy will benefit.
Zac Goldsmith is the MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston
Conservative Associations in Aylesbury, Chesham and Amersham and Buckingham have decided to withhold quota money from Central Office because of the Party's support for HS2. This is all perfectly legitimate. However we are told by conservativehome that the Beaconsfield association have decided to donate a £1,000 to the Anti HS2 campaign. Think again Beaconsfield. The Objects of the Beaconsfield constituency are as follow:
The Objects of the Association shall be to sustain and promote the objects and values of the Party in the Parliamentary constituency of Beaconsfield("the Constituency"); to provide an effective campaigning organisation in the Constituency; to secure the return of Conservative candidates at elections; and to raise the necessary funds to achieve these objectives; to contribute to the central funds of the Party.
By no stretch of the imagination can you say that a donation to a campaigning group which is opposed to Conservative Party policy is promoting the objects and values of the Party in the constituency. In other words the Association is acting "Ultra Vires". If I were an officer of the Constituency I would be a bit worried that I became financially liable for £1,000. You can be sure of one thing. With the amount of money involved in the HS2 project there will be some highly paid lawyers looking at the funding of the HS2 campaign just to make sure that its funding is legitimate.
Every time there are local elections you will find that somewhere in the country a long standing Party member has decided for one reason or another to stand against the official Party candidate. They nearly always lose. There is then a debate about what should happen to the membership of the long standing member, who is a good old soul really and has worked so hard for the Party in the past. Let me tell you.
Under the Party Constitution Schedule 6. 13 it states the following
Any Party Member who stands in an election against an official party Candidate will have his name removed from the National Membership List and be expelled from the Party forthwith.
There we are, no debate required. In the act of standing the member has excluded themselves from the Party. They are no longer a member.
Liberal Democrat Influence
Many Conservatives complain about the disproportionate influence that the Liberal Democrats have on Coalition policies. Part of the remedy lies with themselves. Look what has happened on reform of the National Health Service. The Lib-Dems signed up to the reforms, Nick Clegge signed them off. Then suddenly they had to be changed. The reason is that the Liberal Democrats are a democratic party and they are beginning to see the value of using democracy to get their way. Unlike the Conservative Party, the Lib-Dems actually debate issues at their conferences, so at their Spring Conference it was natural that the subject of NHS Reform should come up. It did and the conference passed thirteen changes they wanted to see in the Health Service reform package. This now became Party policy. The Lib-Dem MPs were given the backbone to stand up and demand that the changes be made regardless of what had been agreed beforehand. This strengthened Nick Clegge's hand. The end result was that the Tories had to give way on no less than eleven of the thirteen demands. The Conservative Party cannot use this tool of pressure because it does not allow motions at their conferences let alone any debate on policy.
We will shortly be approaching the Autumn Party conferences. Expect to see another issue chosen by the Lib-Dems used to pressurise changes to Coalition policy. What will it be this time? Trident, Green policies, who knows, but what we do know is that the Coalition will make another "U" turn, just to keep the Lib-Dem members happy. A triumph for democracy!
The Lords is much overrated as an assembly of the wise and the independent. Most non-party peers make little if any contribution to the house, while most party appointees are long-retired former MPs, councillors or failed Commons candidates. Almost all are very old and very "ex". And they are fairly random in their activities. The Lords has no committees whatever that scrutinise large areas of government activity, including foreign affairs, defence, welfare or the public services.