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Douglas Carswell: How Direct Democracy has inspired many of the policies of the Coalition Government

CARSWELL DOUGLAS Following on from the pieces about the government policies inspired by the Centre for Policy Studies, Policy Exchange and the TaxPayers' Alliance, Douglas Carswell, the MP for Clacton, highlights the policies being pursued by the Government which were inspired by Direct Democracy, which he co-founded with Daniel Hannan MEP.

A new idea in politics passes through three stages before finding acceptance.  Initially it is likely to be dismissed as madness.  Second, comes the stage when politicians accept that it may be a good idea, but convince themselves it is impractical.  Finally, former sceptics will merrily tell you how it was their idea all along.

Frustrated with the barren Tory script of the 1990s, Daniel Hannan and I set up what became the Direct Democracy group in the early noughties.  Our radical agenda to disperse power at first seemed outlandish. 

Shortly before the election, David Cameron gave speeches that didn’t merely touch on the same themes.  As ConservativeHome and Guido Fawkes both noted at the time, the actual text of what Cameron said borrowed from what we had written in The Plan (2008).  

Indeed, as Charles Moore has put it, “Mr Cameron's policy guru, Steve Hilton, ...has enthusiastically lifted several bits of The Plan.  So much so, he continues, “the localism of the Carswell/Hannan "direct democracy" movement is now good Coalition orthodoxy".

Here are some specific examples of Coalition policy that were first put forward by Direct Democracy:

  • Directly elected police chiefs / crime commissioners:  An idea that is very much at stage three, this idea was first written up in our 2002 paper Direct Democracy: empowering people to make their lives better and fleshed out in Send for the Sheriff.
  • Radical localism:  Now orthodox, it was anything but when first advocated in our 2002 paper, and was still outré when we published the Localist Papers (with the Centre for Policy Studies).   The idea that councils could be given fiscal autonomy, which we proposed in Paying for Localism (with the Adam Smith Institute) still seems stuck in stage two.  
  • Cleaning up Westminster:  Long before the MPs' expense scandal broke, our book The Plan called for an end to the system of MPs' perks – as well as the election of the Commons Speaker and select committees by secret ballot free from whips' control.  Indeed, our suggestion that Commons committees approve Whitehall budgets and confirm appointments is now on the cards.
  • Political renewal:  Our 2007 paper Open Politics, set out a programme for political renewal that has either been implemented, or is Coalition policy.  These include fewer MPs and ministers, citizens’ initiatives and referendums.
  • Recall and Open Primaries: In the last Parliament, my Ten Minute Rule Bill fleshed out ideas in our earlier publications for the recall of MPs and for open primaries to decentralise control over politics.
  • Great Repeal Bill:  You decide if the government’s implementation of our idea on their Your Freedom site is better than the original project we started on Wikiversity.
  • Welfare reform:  The Centre for Social Justice pioneered much of the thinking for welfare reform.  However, I hope our Local Welfare paper published in 2007, in which we advocated a decentralised welfare system to allow innovation and change, played a cameo role.
  • Contract with Britain:  Produced rather last minute during the recent election campaign, the idea of a Contract with Britain was proposed a couple of years previously in The Plan

There is no such thing as plagiarism in politics. We're all in the business of spreading our ideas, and the more of our proposals that the Tory leadership want to pilfer, the better. But a policy wrenched from its context can be a dangerous thing. If you want to abscond with the new engine, you ought at least to have a word with the mechanic who built it.

For example, I am delighted that the Coalition has taken up the idea of open primaries - the single best way to make MPs independent, to strengthen the legislature against the executive, and to shift power from party bosses to voters. But primaries should take place at the initiative of local people, not in 200 constituencies arbitrarily chosen by central government. The current proposal is not just useless; it is actively harmful, since primaries, instead of being a mechanism to increase accountability, would become a weapon in the Whips' arsenal: "You'd better not vote against this Bill, or we'll make sure there's an open primary in your patch".

The same is true of recall mechanisms. A vote on whether to make a sitting MP fight his seat again should take place when local electors want it, assuming they can gather enough signatures (most systems that allow for recall votes set high enough thresholds to deter frivolous campaigns). But what is being put forward is a scheme to allow for recall only when Westminster grandees judge an MP guilty of wrongdoing. Stop and consider this for a few seconds and you will realise that a good idea has been turned into a very dangerous one. A group of MPs, possibly from partisan motives, can effectively remove any of their colleagues from the House of Commons - for who could survive a recall vote having been labelled a malefactor?

In other words, policies designed to disperse power could end up having precisely the opposite effect because they are being bungled in the implementation.

I know that Cameron's policy wonks have been reading our manual; they might get more out of it if they also consulted the engineers.


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