Democracy is made up of an informed electorate.
It sounds simple but let me deconstruct this. We need information to be informed and we need the ability to exercise our vote in a meaningful way to be a valid electorate. In the current set up we get neither and thus we cannot honestly call the UK a democracy.
Our public servants hoard information with a stubbornness last seen when Charlton Heston addressed the National Rifle Association saying the day he’d give up his gun was the day it was prised from his cold, dead hands. It was about that difficult prising from MPs their expense receipts.
Part of the reason I battled for the release of MPs’ expense claims was that I believed the public had every right to be informed about how their elected officials were spending public money in the course of their public duties. I wasn’t seeking state secrets, just expenses which can only be claimed “wholly, necessarily and exclusively in discharging their duties as Members”. However, MPs and their civil servants thought such transparency was beyond the pale and they spent even more public money fighting for four years to stop me.
I remember sitting in an Information Tribunal hearing back in February 2008 listening to Andrew Walker the head of the Fees Office trying to explain to my lawyer how he thought constituents could in any way be making an informed voting decision about their MP when they lacked the most basic information about their MPs accountability.
“MPs should be allowed to carry on their duties free from interference,” he told us. There you have it – you pesky constituents – in the world of Parliament you are an annoying interference getting in the way of the important business of being an MP. He honestly seemed to think that voting once every five years for someone pre-selected and without even the most basic information was enough.
It’s not. Not by a long shot. We need public bodies to understand they work for us and the information they collect in our name and at our expense belongs to us not them. Only then can we make any kind of informed decision.
Now that we’ve seen what lay behind MPs’ cries of ‘privacy’ and ‘security’ we are in a much better position when it comes time to casting our votes. That so many MPs have chosen to stand down reveals that what they’ve done will not stand up to public scrutiny.
But will we get the new kind of MPs we want to see: A new generation of technically savvy candidates committed to the people and not a political party? That’s unclear because unless the system of choosing political candidates is changed it’s just the same old favouritism and patronage that parachutes people from the strategy unit to a safe seat.
Currently candidates are selected not because they’ve built up a reputation as leaders in particular constituencies or proven themselves as sound leaders of merit, but because they’ve sucked up to the right politically powerful people. These people then give them the nod and the MP is put forward to be voted on by a tiny, totally unrepresentative party elite. As it was the party that put the MP in position, it is to the party to whom the MP is ultimately loyal. If we want MPs to work for us then it must be us who selects them. We need a role in the selection of candidates. That’s why I’m supporting the campaign to hold open primaries for all MPs.
I have one final suggestion for reform. Publish all party whips. These are the party’s instructions to all their MPs telling them how to vote. A one-line whip offers a suggestion on how to vote but a three-line whip is an outright threat and if the MP rebels his career will effectively be over.
Reform in a nutshell: freedom of information, open primaries and publishing the party whip. If we get that right then we might actually get MPs working for us and not political party bosses.