Holding MPs to account: a Truro experiment

To hold our MPs to account we need to know what they promised to do before they were elected. We also need to have a clearer sense of what we expect them to do. How can we achieve these aims?

Gavin Barker
26 March 2015

I want to share with others one approach to re-imagining democracy which may or may not work. It is small scale, experimental  and with no certainty of success but even its shortcomings and failures  will, I hope, afford some useful learning lessons for all of us.

It attempts to tackle two issues relating to representative democracy. The first is the absence of any clear, independent record of what candidates actually say and commit to. Cast your mind back to the last election and try Googling an issue of concern – can you find anything?  There may be scattered references in local newspapers or on defunct blogs  but the most important content has likely been deleted or removed, probably soon after the 2010 election ended. What your MP said then might be a  source of some embarrassment now – or worse! But it is too late, the information has been deleted.

Nor can you look to manifestos or speeches by our political leaders kept on party websites dating back to 2010; as is all too clear from David Cameron’s early speeches and promises of ‘no top down reform of the NHS’, speeches are taken down if they later  prove to be too contentious and we are then left with quotes and extracts from second hand sources.

In an age of ‘information deluge’ that is an astonishing omission. With no clear independent record of what our local parliamentary candidates say, how can we effectively call our representatives to account?

The answer I suggest, is only if we take on that task ourselves. What we have tried to do in Truro is to create an election website which sets out some key issues and asks all parliamentary candidates for a detailed written response in their own words. That gets round the problem of hustings events where a candidate – now MP –  later claims that they have been misquoted, quoted out of context or that the record of the event is incomplete.

The second is to tackle head on an overcentralised party machine that positions candidates as outposts of Party HQ. Even those with genuine regard for constituents' concerns have little wriggle room to take an independent stance. They are foot soldiers answerable to the party whip, not our elected representatives. It will take time to break this stranglehold but I suggest a first step is for constituents to come together and start to develop their own pledge, set of proposals or even their own manifesto. That is a tall order and one that requires far more time than is available now. Instead, what we have tried to do is avoid open ended questions that invite a speech rather than an answer. We have set out our own manifesto proposal on – in this instance – Climate Change and the NHS. We have then invited candidates to either publicly commit to our pledges. Whether or not they do, they are invited to give  a detailed answer which stands as their definitive position on the issues.

Their answers will then be posted on the election website for  public scrutiny and comment and by doing so, we hope to encourage sustained informed conversations with candidates as well as between members of the public. This goes beyond ephemeral petition initiatives that fail to engage and are often quickly forgotten. We intend to forward comments to candidates on a regular basis and encourage them to reply to constituents concerns directly.

By taking this approach we are  also making the point to candidates that they are there to listen to their constituents, not we them; they are there to represent us, not their party. That may require some head scratching by party apparatchiks who seek to ‘sell’ a message rather than engage in dialogue. Yet the more we, as constituents, start to take charge and re-frame the election on our own terms, the less likely we will be treated as passive consumers of party manifestos written in Westminster by a political class who know little about the lives of those they claim to speak for, and care even less.

Whatever the outcome of this experiment, I firmly believe that  the first step towards  any re-invigorated democracy must be to break the stranglehold of an over-centralised party systems that conduct elections as marketing campaigns; in effect  tightly controlled spectacles, managed by rival teams of PR professionals who select and present a small range of issues deemed ‘safe’. That can only happen if there are thousands of ‘assemblies for democracy’, thousands of conversations happening at the grassroots level where local people start to shape their own manifesto, town charter or pledge campaign. In other words they become active participants in shaping the political agenda and by inference, their own future.

There are risks. If assemblies for democracy are adopted on a wide scale, expect chaos, confusion and much contradiction in the early stages,  not least because we will all have to relearn the political and democratic skills of active listening,  finding common ground, engaging with sometimes complex issues  and forging a consensus with those whose values and outlook we initially reject as ‘not ours’. For if we are to truly win back real democracy, we must first practise among ourselves.

A re-invigorated democracy from the grassroots up will  not replace the party system but it will act as a centrifugal force that pulls power away from Westminster and makes parties much more porous, open and democratic; that process will also mean dispensing with focus groups and marketing  professionals and instead returning to a grassroots party activism which interfaces with Assemblies for Democracy and other related initiatives and in doing so, captures the real voice of the people.

I will end with one other website I created – a mock election website called 'Anytown'. It is roughly the direction I would like to go in although others I am working with are understandably more sceptical;  it  is incomplete and rather simplistic, but it does sketch out some possibilities of how a town, a village, a city or a constituency might approach electioneering in the future, one that  moves beyond restricted party manifestos and widens to include the voice of the voluntary sector, freed from undemocratic gagging laws and bullying government ministers.

This article was first published at Assemblies for Democracy.

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