I was somewhat surprised to find myself last weekend among six MPs listed by the Power 2010 group as being an enemy of democracy. The list of three Labour and three Conservative MPs seemed to be chosen at random as the reasons given apply in equal measure many more of my Parliamentary colleagues on both sides of the House. Why they chose to single me out is neither here nor there. I am happy to debate with anyone, particularly when they seem to have little understanding of what democracy actually means.
Power 2010 uses expensive newspaper advertisements to make outlandish claims and while it claims to want to stimulate discussion, it seeks to attack and demonise those who take a contrary position. It lists a number of disparate partners, but it is unclear who funds this mysterious organisation. It claims to speak for the people and uses the general discontent towards elected politicians to promote its partial and almost partisan agenda. Since being elected in 2005 I have always put the interests of my constituents first and will continue to do so. I have been honest and upfront with my electors about what I believe in and will continue to do so here by addressing those issues which Power 2010 believes makes me an opponent of democracy. Indeed I believe it is they who show the greater contempt for democracy, by seeking to ride roughshod over the opinions of the people and the liberties upon which our democracy is based.
Apparently I am an enemy of democracy because I oppose changing the voting system to one of proportional representation, which I might add is Conservative Party policy (and indeed the stated policy of the Labour Party); that I have contempt for civil liberties, whatever that means, and that I favour an appointed second chamber.
I support the first past the post electoral system because I believe it is without question the most democratic. Proportional representation, which Power 2010 would seem to prefer given its connections with Charter 88, would effectively remove the power of the people to determine who governs our country. It would in effect end the notion of government by the people, for the people and give us a government based on the cosy deals of a few through inefficient coalition government.
Under our current voting system you essentially get a clear choice over whether you prefer a Labour or a Conservative government. All but one election in the past 60 years has returned a majority for one party or another. When first past the post does not return a clear result, the chaos and uncertainty of the hung Parliament which follows is usually short lived as the largest party seeks a clear mandate. Coalition Governments are usually chaotic and are determined entirely by back room deals.
Under proportional representation, coalition government would become the norm. If the UK were to switch to PR system, the public would cease to decide who forms the government of our country. Instead that privilege would pass to a handful of politicians behind closed doors in Westminster. As the third party, the Liberal Democrats would hold the balance of power and would be free to enter government with whichever party gives them the best deal. This decision would be taken not on what is best for the country, but on which party gives them the most seats in Cabinet. Does that sound like democracy? I think not. But perhaps the least democratic aspect about PR is that no one gets a chance to vote on the agenda of the government which they end up with. Currently we vote on a party’s manifesto. Whether you vote Labour or Conservative, you get something along the lines of the pledges set in the manifesto. But under PR the two party machines work out the government’s agenda and this agenda is never voted on by the British people. Does that sound like democracy? I think not.
The current rumblings over a hung Parliament and Nick Clegg’s evasion over whether he would prefer to support a Labour or Conservative Government demonstrates that in a system which favours coalitions you simply don’t know what you are voting for. If you vote Lib Dem at the General Election you don’t know if you are voting Lib-Con or perhaps more likely Lib-Lab. In short it doesn’t do what it says on the tin.
It is perhaps no coincidence that most supporters of PR are from the left. The reason they favour this flawed system is not because they believe it hands power to the people, because they believe it hands power to them. PR’s supporters on the left believe that the combination of the Lib Dems' and Labour’s share of the vote mean that a left wing coalition of these two parties will be near impossible to vote out of power. To them the overriding of democracy is a small price to pay for power. It is no accident that Labour only flirts with voting reform when it looks like it might be voted out of power, although I happen to think that the public is more intelligent than they give them credit. I think that given the situation of a Lib-Lab Government which they never elected, the public would soon turn away from both parties. This goes to show the fundamental democratic nature of the first past the post electoral system: when you don’t like the Government, you can show them the door. It rewards and punishes both the right and the left in equal measure.
In truth, PR is a fundamentally undemocratic system. Supporters of PR like to claim that every vote counts, but in truth no vote counts as we are left with an unelected government determined by politicians.
The second charge against me is that I have contempt for civil liberties. I would question what a civil liberty is and how they relate to liberty. I know what liberty is, but it seems to me that civil liberties are something different. As Conservative I believe in liberty. It is from this belief in liberty which my support for a smaller state derives. I do not believe that the state should interfere unnecessarily in the lives of individuals. Individuals should be allowed to spend more of their own money than they currently do and the state should primarily be tasked with protecting individuals. The role of the state is one of security. The state should provide for national security and punish individuals who infringe the liberties of others.
Power 2010 in its literature speaks about ID Cards, the ‘database’ state and CCTV as being examples of how civil liberties are being infringed. Let me deal with each of those points.
I agree with them on ID Cards. ID cards are not only an infringement on civil liberties, but actual liberty, as if they were to work they would have to be compulsory, so the State would have to force people to take them up and eventually carry them.
On the issue of the ‘database’ state things are not nearly so clear cut. The super-database which Labour proposed, whereby they would store all electronic communications has the clear potential for abuse. It goes well beyond what the state needs and in cases where such data is required for law enforcement purposes there is a clear legal route for the police and other agencies to gain access to them. The State does not need such a database, particularly when the Government has proved so inept at keeping out data safe. However, I would argue that the DNA Database, which I support, is something quite different.
The State already keeps a large amount of information on us, much of which is taken at birth; I don’t see why DNA is dramatically different from this information. If our DNA is stored on a database, what liberty does it actually infringe upon? It does not prevent us from going about our daily business as we see fit, the only thing it would seem to prevent us from doing is committing a crime. So the DNA database might actually protect our liberty. A crime committed against us is an infringement of our liberty, possibly with devastating consequences. So if the DNA database makes it easier to catch and punish those responsible then surely that enhances our liberty.
CCTV too is something of a grey area. Many of the arguments set out with regard to the DNA Database apply to CCTV. There is little doubt of the importance of CCTV for law enforcement purposes. This enhances our liberty by increasing the chances that those who break the law will be punished. However, it is more a question of the uses of CCTV which has the potential to infringe an individual’s liberty. Council snooping to enforce petty regulations is wrong, but using it to help us punish those to break the law enhances our liberty. If someone suggested an Orwellian scenario where the Government has cameras in people’s homes or on their private property then I would be the first to condemn it.
But the arguments of those who oppose CCTV are usually simplistic and fail to make distinctions between its uses or whether it is in public or private hands and because of this the opponents of CCTV are actually calling for liberty to be restricted. By making little distinction between public and private they are in effect saying to individuals and private organisations that they should not protect their property with CCTV. Would they really want to tell a small businessman in my constituency that they cannot protect their shop or business with a CCTV camera because of some abstract notion of civil liberties? I would like to see them try. Presumably the state would have to enforce these cutbacks to CCTV, which would perversely increase their power and not to mention make it easier for wrong doers to infringe our liberties. Perhaps they would like to come to Bradford and tell people how the use of Automatic Number Plate Recognition to catch the murders of PC Sharon Beshenivsky was an infringement of our freedoms.
Power 2010 make such a big noise about civil liberties, but in a way which is typical with left wingers who seek to defend civil liberties, they remain silent when the state actually infringes upon individua
Take the example of the smoking ban, which is a clear affront to an individual’s liberty. If an individual wants to smoke, an activity which is perfectly legal, in a private establishment where those who attend do so of their own free will then they should be free to do so. Yet the state tells individuals that they are not allow to partake of this legal activity. The state tells proprietors of pubs, clubs, restaurants, cafes or employers who provide designated smoking rooms that they are not allowed to carry out a legal activity on their private property. Those who do not like smoking have the choice whether or not to attend a smoking establishment, so their liberty is not infringed. The ban on smoking in public places is a clear restriction of liberty by an over intrusive state. Yet I do not recall Power 2010 chastising those who support the ban as enemies of liberty and democracy. So it is clear that those who behind Power 2010 have a somewhat selective view of liberty.
The final charge is that I do not favour a shift to an elected House of Lords. Power 2010 rather spuriously claims that this means I favour stuffing the chamber with ‘cronies’ and ‘wealthy donors’. Well, I challenge them to show where I have called for such individuals to be given a seat. They falsely suggest that the choice is between an elected upper chamber or an appointed chamber of cronies. Now I don’t deny that the alleged loans for peerages scandal which crippled the Labour Government adversely affected the image of the House of Lords, but the choice they offer is a false one. The truth is that the majority of the House of Lords are dedicated public servants.
The House of Lords as it currently stands brings together some of the most senior people from business, science, education, the arts, the Armed Forces, charities and I could go on. The House of Lords is a chamber of expertise and the truth is that it is where a lot of the more detailed examination of legislation takes place, certainly more than in the House of Commons. The House of Lords is less adversarial and the involvement of the cross benches means there is the involvement of those who hold no party allegiances. Political appointees are of course part of this mix and they take the government business through the chamber and for the Opposition lead the scrutiny, but Ministers there are generally more willing to listen to other sides and our legislation is better for it.
It is worth considering what an elected chamber would look like. It would presumably be smaller than the House of Commons, as it would be elected entirely on party lines and therefore in danger or mirroring the lower house. Indeed if it was elected at the same time it would probably closely mirror the Commons in make up. Currently the Government is drawn predominantly from the House of Commons, but if the House of Lords had the same democratic legitimacy, it could challenge the Government if it was led by the other party, which could lead to a constitutional crisis. If it were elected on the same basis as the US Senate, with one third elected every two years then we would soon move to a system of constant campaigning which would affect the work of Government as everything would be geared towards these ‘mid-term’ elections. However, the biggest change would be the loss of expertise and the fall in the quality of scrutiny. If the Lords was an extension of the Commons with politicians using it as little more than a spring board to a Commons career then the quality of the legislation would suffer. How would that serve democracy?
I would also pose the side question as to whether the selection of elected candidates is much more transparent than appointments to the House of Lords. Take the recent selection for Birmingham Erdington, where Labour’s obsession with All Women Shortlists was neatly put to one side to usher the husband of the Leader of the House, Harriet Harman and Union Leader Jack Dromey into a safe seat. Harriet Harman is the normally the champion of All Women Shortlists, but not apparently when her husband is seeking selection. Even in the so called open primaries it is not difficult for a party machine to push its favoured candidates. Indeed if we went to a regional list system of PR for the House of Lords the party machines would have complete control over the process. Again I would ask how this would enhance our democracy.
I am not yet convinced about the case for an elected House of Lords. The House of Commons is the democratic part of our system. The Government is formed from it and it has primacy over the House of Lords. The House of Lords adds value to our democratic process and rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water through narrow partisan concerns, we should look to enhance its role as a chamber of expertise.
There are so many other issues which infringe upon our democracy, but on these Power 2010 is silent. Take the fact that around 70% of our laws emanate from Brussels. Surely that is a bigger subversion of our democracy? Unelected Commissioners riding roughshod over our elected representatives, are they suggesting that is democratic? Not to mention the fact that we haven’t had a vote on our membership of the EU since 1975 meaning that no one born after 1957 has had a chance to vote on our membership. Indeed those who did vote for it were voting for a substantially different union than the political union we have today. What about those people who promised at the last election to support a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and then reneged on that promise? Is that not an affront to democracy? Why have Power 2010 not filled the pages of the Guardian with the photos of those MPs?
I take these positions because I believe in democracy. Unlike Power 2010 I do not believe that democracy should be subverted to suit any sectionalist aims. I will soon be seeking election and it will be up to my constituents to judge me on my record and determine whether or not I will have the privilege of representing them for another Parliament. I will debate my record in open forum with my opponents and whatever groups may be supporting them. So rather than hiding behind sensationalist and misleading newspaper advertisements I would invite Power 2010 to come to Shipley and debate me on these issues. I will even leave the time and the venue to them, to make it as convenient for them as possible. I will make myself available to debate with them to debate these issues in front of my constituents, who are the people who elected me and who will determine whether or not I continue in my current role.