Registers and recall: I support them both. But they’re not going to clean up our democracy

The weekend’s revelations that two Labour peers and an Ulster Unionist were filmed offering to lobby ministers for cash, following hot on the heels of Tory MP Patrick Mercer’s resignation of the Tory whip over similar allegations, has re-ignited the question of how to clean up Parliament.

Two proposals are being pushed, both of them originally pledged in the Coalition Agreement.

Register of lobbyists

First, there’s a register of lobbyists, intended to bring greater transparency to the way in which professional lobbyists seek to influence government decisions. This is one of Unlock Democracy’s top campaigns:

If we don’t know who is pulling the strings, how can we hold our elected politicians to account? The solution is a robust public register of lobbying. Lobbyists should be made to reveal: Who is lobbying whom; What they are lobbying for; How much money is being spent on lobbying?

Nick Clegg has promised it will happen: “As set out in the Coalition Agreement, the Prime Minister and I are both determined that the register should go ahead as part of a broad package of measures to clean up the way politics is done in this country.”

I’ve no objections to such a register. It may do some good and it’s hard to see it doing any harm. But I’m less convinced than Unlock Democracy that it’s the solution to holding elected politicians to account. As the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency points out the register will cover only the bare minimum of lobbying done by third parties — in-house lobbyists will be untouched.

Power of recall

The ability of the voters to force a by-election if a petition is signed by 10% of an MP’s constituents has been long pursued by Tory MPs Douglas Carswell and Zac Goldsmith. However, the Coalition Agreement limited that right to those instances “where an MP is found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing’, which Nick Clegg and David Cameron are defining as having been found guilty of something by the Commons Standards Committee. Messrs Carswell and Goldsmith aren’t happy. The BBC’s Mark D’Arcy explains why:

… what if that committee decided to protect some popular establishment figure, or even protect a vital vote for a beleaguered government? In the 1970s, remember, one of the vital votes which sustained James Callaghan’s minority government belonged to John Stonehouse, who was eventually convicted of fraud after having attempted, Reggie Perrin style, to fake his own death. He would come to the House after spending a day in the dock at the Old Bailey, to vote for the government…. So, they argue, recall is too important to be left to the Westminster establishment.

I side with the Carswell/Goldsmith view here that having an appointed committee of MPs decide whether the public can recall their representative smacks of patrician half-heartedness. Better instead to have a higher threshold and leave it with the voters. Others disagree, though: the House of Commons’ Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and the Independent’s John Rentoul among them, with the latter arguing, ‘I have a better idea, which is to do nothing’.

Let’s not ‘do nothing’

I don’t agree with doing nothing. Politics in this country may not be as tawdry as the media often portrays it and the public often assumes it to be. But it is not as clean as it should be. Money does talk loudly in our democracy. If you’re wealthy, you’re more likely to be able to buy influence, laws and even a place in parliament itself.

Well over a year ago, I argued there were six steps essential to clean up the reputation of British politics. I stick by them and would argue they’d be more effective than either registers or recall.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Daniel Henry 5th Jun '13 - 7:55pm

    I think Unlock Democracy’s position is a bit mis-represented here.

    Not only are they pushing for the register, they’re also pushing fora stronger set of proposals than the government are setting out. One example is how it won’t cover in house lobbyists. Another thing they’re pushing for is for it to contain more information, e.g. logging ministers meeting with lobbyists, including a note of what the lobbyists are arguing for.

    Unlock Democracy also take a similar view to Carswell and Goldsmith on recall, that it needs to be at the hands of voters rather than a government committee.

    Getting signatures from 10% of the electorate will still be an impressive feat.

  • Daniel Henry 5th Jun '13 - 8:16pm

    Speaking of which, if the Lobbyist register is too watered down to make a real difference, then that’s OUR fault rather than Unlock Democracy’s! :p

  • Peter Hayes 5th Jun '13 - 8:29pm

    I am not convinced about recall without a reasonable justification and a decent fraction of the electorate. Otherwise after two years in power all marginal government MPs will be recalled at the peak of government unpopularity all very expensive and just playing party politics.

  • Zac Goldsmith was on TV the other day making a very good case that the actual proposals don’t give greater power to electors but only to party whips. I can imagine why party leaders might like that but it’s not something the rest of us should support. Our whole system rests on the fact that, once elected, MPs represent their constituency for good or ill and must ultimately answer only to their constituents.

    In any case, I’m with Jonathan Calder on this. Recall is a superficially attractive solution to bad behaviour but it has huge hidden risks. Determined minorities, especially where a sitting MP has a small minority, will do their best to dig up – and if necessary to create – some dirt on him. Politicking takes over from substance. And if that MP’s party has a small majority then the party will have to rally round protectively to safeguard that majority so dragging the whole party into the swamp.

    Every Parliament of 650+ folk is bound to have a few bad apples but so what? As we have seen in recent days their exposure leads to an almost immediate freezing out prior to (unless subsequently exonerated) career death. That’s something the system can withstand perfectly well as history shows.

  • There should be a re-examination of the circumstances which will result in MPs being expelled from the House of Commons (a very rare event up to now) including public consultation as to what these criteria might be. Anyone who does not trigger any of those criteria must be entitled to remain as MP until the next general election whether or not he or she has said or done something repugnant to any proportion of the electors.

    Anything else is in my view a dangerous distortion of democracy. Recall at the whim of any proportion of the electorate should never have been contemplated.

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