Hannan and a functioning democracy


Typically erudite and robust performance by the controversially sound MEP Dan Hannan at a Civitas seminar this week in Westminster. The coalition, he thought, was a real chance to re-align British politics, with libertarian Conservatives and Orange Book liberals coming together. But, he felt, the problem is not so much winning the arguments – we won those years ago – but implementing the principles of a free society and a functioning democracy.

It is this last problem that troubles him. Take the case for open primaries to select general election candidates. At present, it is the local party bosses who select candidates, leaving candidates and MPs more beholden to their party than their electors. Few seats ever change hands at elections, so once you are in, your only fear is losing the party's endorsement that guarantees you victory. So again, the whips have more power over you than do your voters. Open primaries, says Hannan, would change all that at a stroke – MPs would have to be fully conscious of the mood of their constituents, and prepared to argue their case against all comers. Yes, there is a proposal to introduce open primaries – but only in a small number of seats, hand-picked by the House of Commons authorities. What sort of a democratic revolution is that?

The power to recall MPs is, says Hannan, another bastion of democracy. Again, MPs would have to fear their constituents more than their whips. But again, while this idea is being mooted, the official plan is to leave recall up to the powers in Parliament rather than up to voters themselves. Another Establishment stitch-up.

Hannan is also concerned about the proposed referendum for the Alternative Vote system. He's a great proponent of referenda – speaking enthusiastically about the Swiss canton system, where they have referenda for just about everything. But AV, he says, was not in either party manifesto. There may be a case for a referendum on full-scale electoral reform; but this will be a referendum not on a point of principle, not on a subject that people are demanding to be heard on (like our relationship with the EU), but on some deal thrashed out in secret between party heavyweights.

It takes brave politicians to give away their own power to the people. At least it's now being talked about. But we need a lot more bravery still.