Anatole was a Conservative council candidate in 2006, and
continues to actively support the cause. He currently works in
political PR and is based in Beijing.
The recent debate which has emerged as to the relative merits and demerits of the 55% rule appears to indicate an early stumbling block for David Cameron. But are David Davis et al right? Having read the various critiques, I feel stronger than ever that many politicians who are objecting in good faith are misreading the electorate on certain key things.
First and foremost is this idea of “wanting more democracy”, which I think is a very typical example of a concept which has its roots in popular sentiment, but which is twisted by those in the Westminster village into something which suits their own agenda. Simply put, I don’t think any member of the public has any desire whatsoever to spend more time at the ballot box under any form. I certainly experienced no enthusiasm for more contact with the electoral process on the doorstep this year. This includes general and local elections of course; but I think also applies to referendums, recalls, primaries or any other form of choice which involves going to cast a piece of paper for one side or another.
The Great British public are cynical, caustic and somewhat lazy. They see elections as little other than a chance for politicians to preen and self-publicise. Of course, once in a while they enjoy the chance to throw out a government and change it for another that might offer something different; but overall, even most of the “in-between” elections are considered totally unnecessary and a waste of time and money – witness 2001, 1987 and so on. Of course I am not arguing for ending the five-year term limits, but what I am saying is that the starting point for considering this issue is that the public regard electioneering as an appalling spectacle, and increasingly with the demise of partisan allegiances, mark down all overt partisanship or tribalism. This, for better or worse, is the world we live in.
What the public want is two things: firstly, an “adult” attitude where MPs examine with the hand they are dealt, and go away and just “get on with it”. After an election, no-one wants to hear any more from politicians for a long, long time about what they are doing, what they have done, what the other lot are doing or anything else – unless a crisis happens. Secondly, what they would like (and this is one offshoot of the expenses scandal but actually started long before that) is transparency and clarity, if not ‘accountability’; to be able to access information about what is happening if they want, even if they know they will never want to do so themselves. They want to be blindly happy in the knowledge that someone else – perhaps the press whose papers they don’t buy anymore – is keeping the government ‘accountable’. But they do not want to be involved in this process themselves.
Yet hilariously the political classes seem to have interpreted this anti-politics in an entirely different way, and some are putting forward the idea that what people what is more time spent at the ballot box; more time listening to politicians talk about themselves or irrelevant issues (eg the constitution or indeed parliamentary reform); more time in the media attacking each other – as though somehow talking is the kind of accountability that people want from MPs who are paid to consider and pass legislation.
People do not want politics, that is the sad fact of today. I agree with some who retort that politicians are considered irrelevant due to the lack of major achievements in recent years but having said that, the answer is not to try and flog a dead horse and get ‘the People’ more directly involved. It is to win on a manifesto which promises change and delivers it in a real, tangible manner. The answer to irrelevance is not more frequent elections, given that half of the ones we have already fought are extraneous. The idea that people should consider the system being proposed as negative, due to the fact that it would have led to a reduction in the number of elections historically, is completely detached to what people were saying on the doorstep. I did not meet a single person while out canvassing who wanted more of all this – people want less ‘democracy’.
Coming back then to the proposed parliamentary reforms, I totally support supermajorities for dissolution of Parliament and indeed feel that at 55%, it just does not go far enough. A good two-thirds should be required because what you want is a situation where MPs thinking they need an early election go away, take a couple of aspirin and really ask themselves what the devil they think they are doing. This was the theory of the Polish Liberum Veto and elements of the US constitution – that sometimes, just sometimes, you really should proceed on consensus.
Hung parliaments may or may not be here to stay; but the fact is that the public will have no sympathy whatsoever for a group of parliamentarians who seem not to be able to progress government simply because they cannot get on and are too tribal to work together to pass legislation or get a budget through. They certainly do not want to have the huge and useless imposition of another general election thrust upon them just because politicians cannot be bothered to find the compromise necessary to make government work in the meantime.
In some cases of course it might really be necessary to call an early election: but in those cases you really need a consensus from the whole of Parliament, and not just a bare slender majority, to have the moral authority and credibility to make such a demand. Parliament should ask the public for their forgiveness and display a humility that many opponents of these reforms are not doing; an evenly split house is really not good enough and the electorate will be very angry – justifiably – at an election occurring when just over one half of the House want it.
Both the fixed term Parliament as well as supermajorities for its dissolution are necessary for attempting to re-establish credibility with the public, and just give a nod to the fact that the political parties are not out for the insulated self-aggrandisement which it has so often displayed before. People want politicians to keep their heads down and make it work if at all possible – this is truly the New Politics.