I wrote for Left Foot Forward (12 December 2013) on the launch of RE:SEAT, a new project aiming to elect independent MPs. I argued that is was a misguided attempt to address political problems, and fails to understand the important role played by ideology in achieving change.
This reaction is probably music to the ears of Mic Wright, the formerTelegraph blogger who recently launched RE:SEAT, a campaign seeking to elect more independent MPs at the next election, infused with a particularly fierce strain of anti-politics.
RE:SEAT is not the first attempt to create a ‘party of independents’. Such constructions are fairly common in local government. In Stockport we see the Heald Green Independent Ratepayers, for instance, and in Wyre Forest the Independent Kidderminster Hospital and Health Concern. These groups coordinate the political activity of like-minded councillors, but do not impose a party whip, at least not formally.
Ahead of the 2010 election, the former Conservative Party director-general Paul Judge tried to transfer the model to the national arena, when he created the Jury Team. This initiative generated considerable publicity at its launch, mainly because of its innovative method of candidate selection: candidates were selected in open primaries using a vote-by-text system. The idea was that candidates would stand under the party brand but be free to vote as they pleased in parliament. Unfortunately, none made it that far.
RE:SEAT is eerily similar to the Jury Team. Wright wants to recruit 10 independent candidates for the 2015 election, with their campaigns funded from a single fund. RE:SEAT is not using an X Factor-style selection method – candidates will be selected by an ‘independent board’ – but it has said all candidates must be under 30 years old: by Wright’s own admission, this is purely a gimmick designed to solicit media interest.
The Jury Team was founded in the wake of the expenses scandal, and sought to ride the wave of public anger by describing itself as ’committed to cleaning up British politics’. RE:SEAT shares this outlook: it has picked up the mantle of political cleanliness and taken it to an extreme. It is insisting that all RE:SEAT candidates abide by the following five pledges:
1) to only to sit for a 5-year term
2) to take only the salary and no expenses
3) to stand in their home town or an area where they grew up
4) to accept no donations from lobbyists or external interests
5) to live in accommodation at a fair market rate
Wright has clarified that the ‘no expenses’ rules does not apply to the cost of running a constituency office and employing staff, although RE:SEAT will encourage its MPs “to look at ways of pooling resources, sharing assistants and reducing printing, marketing and staffing costs”. Of course there are valid points within these pledges, but I’m not sure those who wrote them know the difference between a sensible reform and generalised anti-politician rhetoric.
There is already a large imbalance in the power of government and parliament – how can MPs be expected to hold ministers to account if ordinary MPs have restricted access to the resources they need to do the job? They can’t, and parliament will be weaker as a result.
Perhaps even more worrying is RE:SEAT’s ambivalence about political beliefs. We know they don’t think it important because RE:SEAT will place “no restrictions on party or ideological affiliation beyond rejecting hate speech”. Ideology has become a dirty word in politics, but the truth is we all have ideological beliefs even if we don’t want to accept a particular ism as a label.
If RE:SEAT will accept anyone regardless of their ideological beliefs, what’s the point? Are voters supposed to not care about whether election candidates want to privatise the NHS, or put the top rate of tax up to 95 per cent? These are the issues we want and expect our elected representatives to decide on.
Political parties, for all their current faults, are efficient institutions for organising these currents of ideological opinion into programmes for government. There is room for more independents in Parliament, and there is certainly a need for party politicians to think beyond tribal loyalties more often. But RE:SEAT represents an attempt to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and should be resisted.