Mario Creatura is a Parliamentary researcher
On Monday, Johnny Mercer, the prospective Conservative candidate for Plymouth Moorview, reacted with surprise on Twitter when he learnt that his Labour opponents were “stunned” by his first key election promise:
“Key Promise 1
I will ballot the entire constituency from my own pocket for every possible Parliamentary vote, and vote in line with your choices. This is real democracy and I want to bring it to Plymouth. No more following the Party or Government line to the detriment of Plymouth; you have the power and I will follow your lead. I am here to represent you. This has never been done before in British Politics.”
Could Labour not handle the raw will of the people? Might they fear the unbridled power to be attained through transparent engagement? Perhaps they didn’t have the moral fortitude to carry out the duties of public office?
Johnny claims that “it’s about time” that his electorate gets “real democracy”. But is it?
His intention is noble – to engage the electorate and give them a genuine say over what happens in their Parliament. But this misunderstands the point and purpose of our political system: the public don’t want the hassle of deciding every vote. Forgive me if I’m teaching any readers to suck eggs, but ours is a representative democracy. That means the electorate in each constituency elects an individual to vote on their behalf – to represent them. A Member of Parliament is the decision-maker, in theory, for tens of thousands of people precisely because of the impracticality of getting those people to vote each and every time it’s required.
Our MPs are not delegates. We do not send them to Parliament to do our bidding; we send them to make often difficult decisions based on the manifesto they stood for at the election. We give MPs that power largely so we can get on with living our lives free from the distraction of also having to run the country. We elect MPs to make decisions in the best interests of the majority because, like it or not, most of us tend to look out for ourselves – what sort of “genuine democracy” would we have if each and every division in the Commons was farmed out to us voters?
Johnny obviously means well. Engagement with the political process is at, we’re constantly told, an all time low. Youth participation is not as high as we’d like, and voter turnout is reportedly dismal. Party membership is plummeting and rebellious celebrities abound in the media comforting our growing apathy to lawmaking. I’m all for devolved engagement (I highly recommend Douglas Carswell’s innovate iDemocracy book for starters), but Johnny’s offer to personally pay for his “entire constituency” to be balloted on “every possible Parliamentary vote” is, whilst generous in its largesse, disappointing in its practical naiveté.
Would Johnny “out of his own pocket’ pay to ask his constituents their views on every amendment to Government legislation? With so many being proposed daily, this would certainly be an impossible task. What about his potential support in the various Opposition Day votes? And his position on Private Member’s Bills would surely have to be ascertained from his people before he walks through the ‘aye’ or ‘no’ lobby.
If he runs it through a survey on his website, surely that would disenfranchise the many voters who don’t have access to a computer or the internet? And that’s before we even consider the sheer volume of amendments that MPs have to vote on each day, often on complex topics. Would Johnny have time to update his website with all the relevant paperwork, e-mail his residents, collate the data and then walk through a lobby? With votes often not announced until the day they take place, I find that unlikely. Would they be sent an e-mail for every vote, in which case how would he get those e-mails cleared with data protection? How would he combat spam filters from the multiple messages he would need to send each day? What would happen if the unsubscribe rate gets too high? The sheer volume of votes would make online voting (let alone postal engagement for technologically-isolated residents) simply futile.
One way around a referendum on every vote would be to select which ones go to the good people of Plymouth Moorview. By what criteria would he judge what votes his pledge applies to? Equal marriage and the EU referendum? Certainly. But what about the second amendment on Wednesday’s fixed odds betting terminals or the Tuesday’s new clause in the Mesothelioma Bill?
I wonder what Johnny considers to be an acceptable threshold of feedback for voting. Would he require 25 per cent of the electorate to fill in his web form per division? 30 per cent? If fewer then would he abstain or vote on just his own judgement?
One MP tells me he takes several factors into consideration when deciding his loyalty on a vote. Firstly, he realises that most residents marked a cross next to his name in 2010 because they wanted David Cameron in Downing Street and the Conservative manifesto implemented. He therefore sees it as his duty to follow that manifesto most of the time. He only rebels when a specific manifesto pledge is in direct conflict with what’s best for his constituency or, to a lesser degree, his own conscience. That’s what our MPs are elected and paid to do on our behalf.
Polling tells us that most people support Ed Miliband’s entirely unaffordable and impractical fuel prize freeze policy. So what would happen if the public compelled the Conservative MP for Plymouth Moorview to vote in favour of that, or any other, Labour motion? Didn’t he stand for a manifesto? Does that guide count for nothing when it comes to voting three or more times a day? Will he defy his voters? Is a general election not as important as each referendum he’d have on each vote?
In offering what he calls “genuine democracy”; Johnny is treading a very fine line between devolved voter engagement and being an “Independent” candidate. It’s understandably tempting give the looming spectre of Nigel Farage to find the dynamism of UKIPian populism, but he is a Conservative, first and foremost. He will be standing on a platform with every other Conservative candidate in the country. Once elected on that platform, as I hope he is, he would find his first election pledge debilitating and potentially electorally fatal.
Labour’s stunned silence to his pledge comes not from awe at his populist prowess, but likely from breathtaking euphoria that such a spectacular own goal was scored so early on in a seat that could very well turn blue in 2015.
I hope Johnny finds a way to walk back his pledge, I really do. He is supremely qualified for Westminster and Parliament certainly needs more people like him. I’ve no doubt he would be a passionate advocate for Plymouth, but there’s a reason his ‘genuine democracy’ plan has never been done before: it just cannot work in reality.