Dr Bryn Jones is from our Department of Social & Policy Sciences
Voter apathy, Scottish Nationalism, UKIP, the Green surge are all, in some respects, symptoms of mistrust in the political establishment and its main parties.
Common threads are perceived corruption, MPs’ social remoteness, an unrepresentative voting system and a lack of responsiveness to ‘ordinary voters’ concerns. In political language this signifies inadequate accountability - and there is considerable substance to these assumptions.
The recent, and possible next, coalition government accentuates this trait. For when coalition programmes deviate from the parties’ manifesto promises, voters can complain, with some legitimacy, that there is no electoral mandate for key policies.
Coalitions seem to be another proof that MPs’ decisions are completely controlled by party rulers and the vested interests which influence the political elite.
The role of the voter
Paradoxically, for an allegedly ‘democratic’ system, there is no injunction on MPs to listen to their constituents’ opinions on such manoeuvres. The voters’ role is seen as limited to endorsement or rejection of parties and candidates every five years at General Elections.
These flaws can co-exist within a notional democracy because the movable feast of the UK’s constitution has no consistent definition of MPs’ prime responsibility. Is it to that murky constitution, to the monarch, to their party, or to the electorate? Yet there is a way to shift this anti-democratic bias.
What if MPs had not only to make absolutely plain their priorities and aims before election but also to explain progress or failure with these during the course of a Parliament? Then MPs might need to take more notice of their constituents’ preferences and voters could feel more ‘ownership’ of their MP’s efforts.
Democratic Accountability Bath
For the last 12 months a few University members have been working on a pilot project to achieve more ‘bottom up’ accountability here in Bath. This action research has been done in collaboration with some of the most active civil society groups in the constituency and with the cooperation of the candidates competing to be Bath’s next MP.
Democratic Accountability Bath (DAB) has video and audio recordings of the main hustings held in the last four months. Via online access any voter can find a candidate’s position, or promise on a particular policy or issue. The web site also contains more general election information and links to related sources.
After the election DAB plans to organise review forums with Bath’s new MP, at regular intervals. These will take the form of actual meetings and online versions open to voters. The idea is that the new MP may still deviate from pre-election promises, but he or she will have to do so in the knowledge that will be ‘grilled’ by constituents on their performance. Nor can the MP take it for granted that she or he can postpone justification of their decisions for five years till the next election.
Returning to democracy’s roots
Of course, there are several other reforms which could improve the accountability of political representatives to their electorates. A more ‘proportional’ electoral system, a constituency right to recall the MP, or changes to the constitutional powers of both houses of Parliament are obvious examples. But until such top down changes become politically feasible it looks as though grass roots activity will have to force the pace; and there are historical precedents.
At the dawn of Britain’s democratic era, when Parliamentarians were beginning to challenge monarchic privilege, local constituencies had significant influence over their MPs. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was common for MPs to be sent off to Westminster with specific mandates on what issues and policies to pursue. In many cases MPs would also report back on progress and on new legislation being prepared for their deliberation. Sometimes an MP and the urban corporations, who made up most of the electorate, would even jointly confer on tactics and positions to be taken in Parliament.
Of course, electorates in that period were much smaller and cohesive than today. However, these are important precedents of principle, if not precise practice, which ought to be recalled in a modern form. With mass communication through internet and social media, much wider ranges of electors can participate more closely in the process of political representation.
If this local experiment in grass roots accountability succeeds, it could be spread to other constituencies and be one part of a shift towards reclaiming a democracy which seems to have badly lost its way.
To find out more about Democratic Accountability and/or participate see http://democratic-accountability.org.uk/.