Democracy is priceless asset. Throughout the world, over the centuries, ordinary people have fought for the right to elect the people who represent them. It is a battle that has been going on in more recent times; and is even going on today.
From the suffragette movement in the UK in the early 20th Century; through to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa (which was about more than the right to vote – but who can forget the site of thousands of black South Africans queueing at polling stations when the right to vote was first opened up?); from the Arab Spring to the on-going protests today in Hong Kong; people want a say in how they are governed.
Democracy costs. And it is right that part of our national budget is spent on the machinery of democracy.
But there are times when this basic freedom is abused. A by-election will take place in Clacton, Essex, on 9th October. This has been caused by the sitting Conservative MP, Douglas Carswell, switching to UKIP, resigning his seat and seeking re-election in his new colours.
On Friday, another sitting Conservative MP announced that he, too, would be doing the same thing: Mark Reckless told the UKIP party conference that he had left the Conservatives to join UKIP and that he, too, would resign his seat and seek re-election.
In British electoral law, it is a fact – often misunderstood – that we do not elect parties but individual MPs. There is nothing to prevent anybody from being elected as a member of one party and then switching to another party during the Parliament.
In the course of the present Parliament a number of MPs have relinquished their party whip while remaining MPs. Most for disciplinary – or alleged disciplinary – issues. Eric Illsley went from Labour to Independent; Denis MacShane ping-ponged from Labour to Independent to Labour to Independent; Eric Joyce went from Labour to Independent; Nadine Dorries went from Conservative to Independent to Conservative; Patrick Mercer went from Conservative to Independent; Mike Hancock went from Liberal Democrat to Independent; as did David Ward; and Nigel Evans went from Conservative to Independent to Conservative.
But while MPs haven’t, in this parliament, switched parties, it isn’t unknown. Since the start of the 1990s a good number of MPs have switched party allegiance while remaining in Parliament, including (excluding switches to “independent”): Dick Douglas who went from Labour to SNP; Alan Howarth who moved from Conservative to Labour. Emma Nicholson went from Conservative to Liberal Democrat; as did Peter Thurnham. Sir George Gardiner went from Conservative to Referendum Party. Peter Temple-Morris switched from Conservative to Labour; as did Shaun Woodward. Paul Marsden went from Labour to Liberal Democrat; Jeffrey Donaldson went from the Ulster Unionist Party to the Democratic Unionist Party; Andrew Hunter went from the Conservatives to the Democratic Unionist Party; Robert Jackson moved from Conservative to Labour; Quentin Davies went from Conservative to Labour; and Bob Spink went from Conservative to UKIP.
So there is nothing – nothing at all, whether constitutionally, legally or morally – to stop Douglas Carswell or Mark Reckless from changing parties and remaining in Parliament. They both want to be the UKIP MP for their constituencies. They could be. All they had to do was resign the Conservative whip and sit as UKIP MPs.
But that’s not, actually, what they want. What they want is to score political points and make a name for themselves (and who remembers Bob Spink?). They want to make a splash for UKIP and – if they win the forthcoming by-elections – cause significant damage for the Conservative party and create a massive publicity splurge for UKIP.
There’s nothing wrong with politicians doing that – so long as politicians are prepared to pay for it. But a by-election costs money. For a start, all of the candidates are entitled to a free-of-charge postal mailing to every house in the constituency (un-addressed) or to every voter in the constituency (addressed). I don’t know whether the Royal Mail are able to pass the cost of this on to the Government or whether the costs are subsumed into the cost of us ordinary people sending our ordinary mail.
But the real cost is for the local authority – refunded by the Ministry of Justice – who have to publish official notices, print and post polling cards and ballot papers, hire venues for polling stations and the count; hire staff to act as polling clerks and counters.
The last MP to resign and stand again in a by-election (bizarrely and without adequate explanation) is David Davis in Haltemprice and Howden in 2008. I say bizarrely and without explanation because he resigned as a Conservative MP and sought re-election as a Conservative MP in protest at Labour’s anti-terror legislation. The cost to the public purse of that by-election has cost been reported at anything from £60,000 to £80,000 to £100,000+.
Why should the British public have to pay for an MPs party political campaigning and protest activity? Are MPs prepared to fund our campaigns?
There are a number of legitimate reasons why a by-election should be called – even now, with less-than eight months to go until the next General Election. And it is right that the public should fund this exercise in democracy. But when politicians abuse the process and turn them from exercises in democracy into platforms for self-publicity and party aggrandisement, then they – and their parties – should be forced to foot the bill.
If an MP resigns from Parliament during a Parliamentary term, he should be banned from standing in the resulting by-election. But if Parliament is going to permit this charade of democracy to continue, they should ensure that those responsible foot the bill.