When asked to name an MP who believes in independence from the EU and small government, encapsulating the ability of local people to decide how their own society should function, most people with only a passing interest in politics would, I believe, name Douglas Carswell, Conservative MP for Harwich. Consequently it is therefore odd that his political beliefs appear at odds to his public utterances and in this context consider two issues; namely Local Referenda and the Recall of MPs.
Carswell was one of the authors of the Localist Papers, published by the Centre for Policy Studies, serialised by the Daily Telegraph during 2007. In the first of the series, “Open Politics”, on the subject of referenda it is written:
“The country where this idea has been most successful – where direct democracy is a living, breathing, constantly employed part of the constitution is Switzerand. There, towns, cantons and communities poll the people on all manner of things, from the size and composition of budgets to immigration decisions. It is up to each locality to decide its own recipe for democracy. The Swiss have three types of national poll. There are citizen’s initiatives, ideas put forward by a particular group to be voted on by the population as a whole. There are blocking referenda, attempts to veto recently passed legislation if a particular group is unhappy with it. And there are referenda to confirm changes to the constitution; the theory being that politicians elected under one set of rules should not change those rules without a further and specific mandate.”
Interestingly, a recent commenter on another, older post wrote:
“One of the interesting fallouts of Swiss Direct democracy is that the Swiss vote heavily in referenda, but hardly bother to turn out when electing parties for parliament. This has been shown in poll after poll. When one thinks about it, it is obvious why. All policies are in the hands of the people. Politicians are merely appendage, they do what they have been told to do by referendum law – in reality, it is the civil service that implements the law as defined by the people, period. No one gives a hoot for who is to be in “power” as they do not have the power.”
Later, in the same “Localist Paper”, it states:
“…it is crucial that we choose a form of direct democracy that both empowers people and allows them to see the fruits of that empowerment.”
The Localism Bill provides measures whereby the result of any referendum held can be ignored by the local authority; that any tenant of a social landlord who has a complaint can only approach the Ombudsman through an MP or local councillor – hardly what can be termed devolving power to the individual and consequently one has to question Carswell’s unswerving support for the government every time he has been present when a vote on the Localism Bill has been held.
On the subject of recalling MPs, Carswell introduced a Private Members Bill for local primaries to choose those individuals who wished to represent their respective party, come an election. Included within this Bill was a requirement for the recall of MPs found guilty of “serious wrongdoing”. In “The Plan” Carswell wrote:
“..no special rights should attach to being a parliamentarian. An MP is an ordinary citizen, there to represent his fellows. The moment he ceases to look like one, he loses his moral mandate.”
The important words are “an ordinary citizen, there to represent his fellows” – and to do that he/she has to represent the majority view of their constituents. It is unfortunate therefore that Carswell, who believes that an MP is elected to do just that, should also believe that “those who hire, should not be able to fire”. On this point, Carswell is a firm believer that MPs must have the final say on any recall petition:
“At the same time, my Bill would provide for a recall mechanism-that is, a way to trigger a by-election where a Member of this House was guilty of serious wrongdoing. Plainly such a measure would need safeguards. We would need to ensure that it could not be triggered frivolously or on partisan grounds. We would need to guarantee that charges could not be levelled against MPs simply because they had voted with their conscience. A recall vote should be entered into-as the Book of Common Prayer says of matrimony – “reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly “. Triggering a primary would require the backing of a significant number of local people, and it would also require confirmation of serious wrongdoing by the Committee on Standards and Privileges.”
Incidentally Carswell is not alone in his belief that an MP should be able to vote with their conscience as this view was echoed by Sir Peter Tapsell during Deputy Prime Ministers Questions:
“Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Will extreme care be taken in the drafting of the legislation to ensure that in absolutely no circumstances will a recall of a Member of Parliament be possible because of the way in which a Member votes or speaks-however objectionably-or because he changes party, as Winston Churchill did on two occasions?
The Deputy Prime Minister: We certainly would not want a recall mechanism that would have disqualified Winston Churchill. Precisely for the reasons that my hon. Friend has alluded to, we need to ensure that the system contains checks and balances so that it does not impinge on the freedom of Members on both sides of the House to speak out and articulate our views. That will not be the purpose of the recall mechanism. Its purpose will be to bear down on serious wrongdoing and to give people a chance to have their say in their own constituencies without having to wait until the next election for an opportunity to do so.”
If, as Carswell maintains, an MP is but an ordinary person elected to represent his/her constituents, then surely the personal view of the elected representative matters not – it is the majority view of those he represents that should decide his vote.