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

by Stephen Tall on June 5, 2013

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 Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.