21 March 2009

Amateur hour

Another week, another party launch. Last Monday it was the turn of Jury Team, Sir Paul Judge's brainchild (though, quite honestly, I am not sure anybody's brain was much engaged in the process). This event took place in Millbank Tower, rather than One Great George Street, which was something of a mistake. The latter is a much more attractive venue and right in the heart of Westminster. The former is a rather ghastly and characterless structure some distance away from the nearest transport points.

Once again, I compared it to Kilroy-Silk's launch of Veritas and once again I had to admit that the buzz was not there. In fact, the media did not seem to be there either, which may have been the fault of the organizers. The time and place of the launch remained something of a mystery till the week-end and this was not a big enough story for journos to drop everything at 24 hours' notice.

Furthermore, it was not clear whether the event was for the media or for potential supporters, members and candidates. The questions certainly came from the group of potentials but there was, as it happens, very little time for questions. Despite assuring us over and over again that this was a new kind of politics that relied on the internet, mobile phones, social chat sites like Facebook and My Space, twitter and all other suchlike activity, Sir Paul and his co-panellists spent an inordinate amount of time explaining various aspects of the enterprise, quoting liberally from the Jury Team website.

One assumes from the name of the anti-party party that, apart from the pun of judge and jury, it is a reference to the way that highly estimable institutions works – without fear or favour, balancing the evidence (with a dash of judge’s guidance). Indeed, Sir Paul managed to insert a quote from Gilbert and Sullivan’s highly entertaining “Trial by Jury”.

There is, however, a problem: a jury is not elected, it is chosen randomly from eligible members of the population. That may be quite a good way of choosing legislators as well (though the logistical problems of people having to stop their jobs and family lives for four or five years whether they liked it or not, whether it was appropriate or not would be hard to solve) but that is not what Sir Paul and his cohorts are arguing.

They want an elected House of Commons that will resemble a randomly picked jury or an appointed House of Lords (I’ll come to that below.) The contradictions in that idea need to be resolved.

There are other contradictions that crop up whenever people propose reforms that are best left where they belong – in pubs, wine bars or round dinner tables. It is bad, such reforms postulate, that politicians care about their careers or behave according to the party’s demands. Well, maybe, though I prefer careerists to people who are in politics in order to “help other people” or to “do good”. They are the potential dictators because they know what is good for other people. Ayn Rand was not wrong about the evils of altruism, particularly in public life. That she opposed private charity as well is a separate issue and one on which I part company with the lady.

Then there is the muddle as to what an MP is supposed to be guided by; is it his or her own conscience, the good of the country, the will of the country’s people, the needs and/or interests of his or her constituents? What happens when there are serious contradictions between some or all of those? And what of the fact that many people vote for a party?

According to the poll conducted by YouGov on behalf of Jury Team, 26 per cent said that they voted the way they did because they supported the policies of the party and 6 per cent because of the candidate; 17 per cent voted because they supported the party and its leadership and 12 per cent because of the candidate and the party. All very muddled though, I suppose, attitudes might change if candidates stood on their own individual principles, especially if they carefully tailored them to suit the constituency’s mood at the time of the election.

Here is an example. When Britain was preparing for the war in Iraq, which was debated in Parliament ad nauseam, the idea was quite popular in the country. Those who opposed it out of principle, like Sir Teddy Taylor (whose explanation for his opposition is muddled but consistent), received angry letters from their constituents, demanding that they abandon their principles and fall in with the majority’s wishes. Should they have done so?

Subsequently, as the war did not turn into a quick and easy victory it became less and less popular. What should MPs have done at that stage? Decided that, after all, they are not in favour of it? Many of them did and even tried to erase from the record the fact that they had voted for it in the first place but it is hard to think well of them for that reason.

What of that famous quotation from Burke’s Address to the Electors of Bristol, which Jury Team proudly sports on its website and Sir Paul Judge trotted out at the launch.
His unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you or to any set of men living.
Edmund Burke wrote those proud words on his election in 1774. His Letter to the Electors of Bristol continued:
These he does not derive from your pleasure – no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
Hmmm. Not quite what Jury Team is saying methinks. Where do they stand on conscience versus constituents? Or, for that matter, on country versus constituents?

Four years after his election Burke and his electors faced that very conundrum as a swift reading of a biography of that great man (I recommend Conor Cruise O’Brien’s) would tell the the Jury Team’s gifted researchers.

In 1778 Burke supported the idea of free trade for Ireland, partly out of deep-seated principles, partly because he thought it was better for the whole country to have a richer, more developed Ireland. His constituents thought otherwise. Free trade would undermine their own protected position in Bristol and the politician’s attempts to explain that in the long run this would be better for Bristol as well were met frostily.

In 1780 Burke decided not to stand in Bristol as he had lost the support of his electors. Instead he re-entered the House as MP for Malton.

One can argue about Burke’s views on the role and duties of an MP and, indeed, historians have done so for over 200 years. But by no stretch of the imagination can one say that his defiance was directed at the party managers (yes, they were in existence in the eighteenth century as much as they are now). It was directed at the people who elected him, to whom, according to the Jury Team, as I understand it, an MP is bound to listen at all times.

The line-up at the launch consisted of Sir Paul himself, a former independent MP, Martin Bell and a present one, Richard Taylor, Lord Ramsbotham, a Cross-Bench peer, Tony Egginton, Independent Mayor of Mansfield and Councillor Keith Ross, Leader of Independent Group at the Local Government Association (LGA).

Without any disrespect to them I must point out that Mayor Egginton and Councillor Ross talked exclusively about local government and the possibilities of independents rising within it. As Councillor Ross’s career shows that has always been possible for people who have no desire to align themselves with any party but want to serve within their local authority. Frequently, as in this case, they can rise in the national structure of local authorities.

This gives us no indication of what can be done at the national or European level or what needs to be done. There are many reasons why people will vote for an Independent councillor that would not apply to a Member of Parliament.

Lord Ramsbotham, a man of genuinely distinguished military and public service career, spoke of the advantages that Cross-Bench Peers have over MPs who are beholden to their parties. They are also beholden to their constituents who may or may not re-elect them. If candidates are to be chosen in open primaries, as the Jury Team suggests, they may or may not be picked if they start doing what peers, and not just those on the Cross Benches do, which is speak and vote as they see fit.

One can’t help wondering how many of those people asked in the YouGov poll, who dutifully expressed their distrust of MPs would also insist that the House of Lords should be an all elected one, a development that Lord Ramsbotham, very sensibly, sees as the destruction of the Cross-Benches and, one may add, of the general independence of the Upper House? We are back with that impossible contradiction.

So we come to the two MPs (one former) who, actually, spoke first, immediately after Sir Paul Judge. Their presence, we were told, showed that it could be done: an independent can get elected to the House of Commons.

The problem is that Sir Paul was a little economical with the actualité. There were certain aspects to their elections that will not be there for Jury Team. Richard Taylor referred to one of them when he explained that he was very lucky in that there was an overwhelming local issue – the Kidderminster hospital – in his constituency and people felt very strongly about it while the sitting MP, David Lock, was “precisely on the wrong side”.

Very true. What neither his short address nor his website tell us is that the Lib-Dim candidate in Wyre Forest stood down both in 2001 and 2005, urging his supporters to vote for Dr Taylor. That sort of thing does help and is unlikely to happen when Jury Team puts up its candidates.

In the case of Martin Bell the situation was even more favourable. When he stood against Neil Hamilton in Tatton in 1997 both the Labour and the Lib-Dim candidates stood down, urging their supporters to vote for Mr Bell. Furthermore, he received a great deal of help from the local Labour association. Again, this is not something that will happen to any Jury Team candidate.

While we are on the subject of St George of the Anti-Sleaze Campaign, a.k.a. Martin Bell, it is worth reminding ourselves of his subsequent political “career”.

In 2001 he announced that, unless the Conservatives at Tatton choose Neil Hamilton again he would stand down. They chose George Osborne and Martin Bell stood down, retiring into his castle, well satisfied with slaying the Dragon of Sleaze.

He was then called upon to fight another battle and stand against Keith Vaz who had become embroiled in a far worse scandal than anything Neil Hamilton had managed. St George of the Anti-Sleaze Campaign refused, pleading his war-weariness but then rode out again on a very different battle: he stood in Brentwood and Ongar against Eric Pickles, a man of limited ability but blameless reputation.

Mr Bell had clearly realized that fighting an election against Keith Vaz with no quarter given by the Labour machinery and no help from any other party would have been a silly idea so he decided to fight against another Conservative on the grounds that the local association had been infiltrated by a Pentecostal Church.

The evidence for actual infiltration was rather slim and, in any case, why was St George of the Anti-Sleaze Campaign getting involved in the internal squabbling of a Conservative association? He lost and did so again in the 2004 European Election when he stood as Independent (for no discernible reason) in the East of England Region.

He now spends his time in that graveyard of all ambitions, a UNICEF ambassadorship, grousing about politicians and journalists alike.

Incidentally, if they wanted an existing Independent MP, why didn’t they bring out George Galloway? After all, his party, Respect, has now split and he may well be the only representative of his particular branch of it.

There were two other people on the platform, Lyn Tofari, potential candidate for the South-East Region and Miranda Banks, potential candidate for the South-West. At the time they were the only ones to have come forward. By now Jury Team has more potential candidates on whom people can vote through the internet or by mobile phone.

Open primaries are a big part of Jury Team’s plans, as they oppose the choice of candidates by closed circles within parties. They have a point there and the situation is particularly bad with the European elections in which lists are drawn up by parties (though it is not clear that the would-be candidates and campaign managers know this).

But will an “open” primary be any better? After all, this is a primary of self-selected voters who are likely to vote immediately on reading the summary posted by the candidates. There will be no question and answer sessions, no way of establishing what the candidates are like beyond the way they see themselves. This is not precisely how the American system of primaries works but then the Americans have primaries within what is virtually a two-party structure.

Ms Tofari gave us an interesting speech about how she had become involved in local politics, first at the parish level, then rising to other bodies. Her next logical step was going to be a seat as an Independent on Buckinghamshire County Council but she abandoned that in order to become involved with Jury Team and to stand (possibly) for the European Parliament. On the whole, I think that was a mistaken decision.

Ms Banks, on the other hand, leapt around the place, gesticulated with great fervour and meaning, talked much of painting pictures, creating images and, generally, managed to leave no cliché unsaid. I was not altogether surprised that she is a “performance psychologist”.

After the formal parts of the meeting, during which not one reference had been made to the fact that 80 per cent of our legislation comes from the EU and Parliament can do nothing about it, even when it actually goes through that institution, I went up to talk to the two wannabe candidates.

Why were they thinking of standing for the European Parliament (I didn’t think they would know what I meant by Toy Parliament)? Well, they explained to me, it’s because neither they nor other people know anything about the EU and they thought they would do this to find out.

Rather an expensive way of learning something that they could read on a certain blog or, failing that, on the Europa website, which is full of very useful information.

Then I expressed my surprise that among all the complaining about politicians being subjected to party discipline or being interested only in their own career, there was no mention of the main problem, the 80 per cent of our legislation coming from the EU and of Parliament either knowing nothing about it or not being able to reject it. And, by the way, I added, the European Parliament is not the primary legislating body in the EU.

I got blank stares in response. I didn’t know that, one said. No, added the other one as well as a young man who had joined our group, I didn’t know either. This is the sort of thing we need to find out, they said.

We chatted a bit longer along the same lines. It was clear that neither the two would-be candidates nor the rest of the audience, many of whom were thinking of joining, had the first notion of how the EU works, how it affects our legislation and how it is structured, let alone what its purpose is.

There are far more candidates for the open primaries listed on the site but a swift perusal of their election mini-manifestoes confirms that people are signing up without bothering to find out what it is they want to be part of.

We hear a great deal about the arrogance of politicians and all those who live in the Westminster/Brussels bubble. Indeed, I have written and spoken about it myself. But what of the arrogance of people who think that they should be in that bubble, make decisions that affect us all and generally throw their weight around without wanting either to slog through the party structure (fair enough if you do not believe in it) or to make the slightest effort to find out what is actually going on around them?

What on earth makes these people think that the world (or Britain or their region) is waiting breathlessly to hear their ignorant ideas on what needs to be done? At the very least, they could find out that the European Parliament does not function in the same way as the Westminster one does. Or about the treaties. Or about the European Communities Act. Or, or, or ….

In the end it is not only our politicians who are failing in their duties but many of us as well – our duties as citizens of a constitutional democracy. Those duties include finding out information. Much of it is easily available. Before rushing in to give us the benefit of their wisdom, members of Jury Team ought to start thinking about their own tasks and duties.