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When Nobody Can “Take Back Control”

With the emergence of the centrist Independent Group, British politics is in a state of near collapse — and the democratic deficiencies of the country's politics have been exposed.

Labour MP Chuka Umunna announces his resignation from the party at a press conference on February 18, 2019 in London. Leon Neal / Getty

The breakaway Independent Group has existed for close to a fortnight now, with little sign of the obsessive media coverage of their every move (including a trip to a chicken restaurant) abating. Initial discussions over whether members of the group would call by-elections in their respective constituencies have also fallen by the wayside, for a simple reason: there is nothing in electoral law that forces them to do so. Labour has begun the process of selecting candidates in the constituencies their members defected from, and been criticized for doing so, as well as for campaigning in ex-Tory Anna Soubry’s seat of Broxtowe.

The criticism leveled at Labour, especially for the latter, is a baffling phenomenon, but a standard example of the British media’s ambivalent relationship to logic. Broxtowe is typically a marginal seat and remains so. Soubry is not a Labour MP, and has publicly stated that both she and other Independent Group MPs will do nothing to bring down the present Conservative government. But the media preoccupation with the Independent Group, the sensible face of centrism, leads to ludicrous depictions of the decision to contest Broxtowe as a campaign of personal abuse targeting Soubry. First Labour is accused of not understanding how campaigning works, then when it campaigns to win marginal constituencies, thus increasing its seats in the House of Commons, it is accused of borderline misogynist abuse.

But the defecting MPs’ refusal to move to a by-election highlights one of the biggest problems in UK politics: a complete lack of accountability outside of the ballot box. None of the eleven ex-Labour and Tory MPs has any idea whether their constituents would have voted for them knowing they’d abandoned the party they stood for, and from which they received funding and campaigners. Polling found only 6 percent of Labour voters cast their ballot because of their local candidate or MP: the party’s manifesto was a far bigger draw. The hardcore Chuka Umunna fans simply weren’t there. Yet when a successful office-seeker abandons the party, little can be done to shift them until the next election.

Nowhere was this clearer than in the North Antrim recall petition in mid-2018 against the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) Ian Paisley Jr. After being suspended from parliament for accepting and failing to disclose paid-for holidays to Sri Lanka, then lobbying in parliament for the Sri Lankan government, the constituents of North Antrim moved to open a recall petition that could see a by-election forced against him.

The law allowing the recall of MPs only came into force in 2016, and stipulates that recall petitions can only be brought in if MPs are suspended by parliament for at least ten days, convicted and given a custodial sentence of under a year, or convicted for making false parliamentary expenses claims. Paisley kept his seat because fewer than 10 percent of his constituents signed the petition: an extremely high bar to hit, and one that acts as a helpful buffer to any MPs facing recall. Fiona Onasanya, the MP suspended by the Labour Party after being convicted and jailed for lying about a speeding charge, will face a recall petition if her appeal fails. Again, the fact that so many people must attend one of ten designated sites to sign the petition boosts her chances of remaining in post.

But perhaps the most egregious law bolstering political parties’ power was brought in to protect the 2010 coalition government: the Fixed Term Parliament Act. The law made it far more difficult to move towards a general election, giving the party in power breathing space to cling to power for five years and securing the tenuous coalition’s term between 2010 and 2015. As a result of the act, Theresa May was able to call a general election in 2017, misjudging the Conservatives’ popularity and, instead of winning a greater parliamentary majority, ending up with a hung parliament and being forced to enlist the DUP to join a confidence-and-supply deal to keep May in Downing Street.

Under normal circumstances, May’s thumping defeat in the vote on her Brexit deal would have led to the government’s collapse and a general election. Any government unable to pass primary legislation, utterly frozen and beset by rebellion, would be unable to claim to be functioning. Yet, all the power to call an election lies with the government, and the opposition’s power to force a no-confidence vote is limited, scuppered by the slim arithmetic that keeps the government in power.

The argument for severely limiting the ability to call by-elections and general elections holds that these protections allow MPs and parties to get on with governing and decision-making without the threat of recall. In practice, it instead winnows down the power of constituents to hold politicians to account to a tiny window of time centered almost exclusively on the ballot box. MPs leaving their party and voting against their constituents’ interests, and governments failing to effectively govern do so without fear of reprisal. Constituents have little say over who their candidates are, even those within political parties, and once MPs are in office, deselecting them when the next election looms is difficult and their behavior in office is largely unchecked. Labour constituencies that have moved votes of no confidence in their MPs have often been demonized, while Conservative seats that have done similar have received little attention.

The result is further disengagement on the part of much of the electorate, with those who are engaged growing angry, feeling excluded from the political process, and finding themselves misrepresented by a media that is expected to hold politicians to account. Attacking Labour for campaigning in marginals against members of the Independent Group, and constituency Labour parties for registering discontent with their MPs, treats representative democracy as a sham in which voters are a mere sideshow, expected to vote and do nothing more. Between elections, constituents are expected to sit back and let politicians and the media get on with the actual work of government, observing but never participating.

More people than ever enjoy few rights in the workplace and live in fear of losing their jobs; those campaigning against workers’ rights argue that fear keeps people on their toes, working harder and performing well. The politicians who have instituted anti-union laws face none of these fears: MPs aren’t faced with the prospect of being sacked on a whim, but nor do they face the most basic commitments to accountability for their voting patterns and public behavior. Public anger and dissatisfaction with the political class have never been higher. Building in more accountability and greater opportunity for engagement in the political process is the only way to increase voter turnout, and confidence in a deeply flawed political process.