The House of Commons will be a poorer place when Andrew MacKinlay retires at the next general election. MacKinlay, the Labour MP for Thurrock since 1992, has long been a steadfast defender of Parliament against government in the name of democracy.
He doggedly pursued the case of pardons for shot-at-dawn victims of the First World War. He has served with distinction on a number of parliamentary committees, notably the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. He received a lot of hate mail for his intense questioning of Dr David Kelly over the question of Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
One of the reasons for his departure is the supine nature of the current crop of MPs, who tend to fall in line with any diktat of the party whips. As far as MacKinlay was concerned, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the vote against a review of the extradition treaty with the United States. This one-sided agreement allows the Americans to demand whoever they want from this country. However, Britain has no reciprocal arrangement. MacKinlay is just one of many MPs quitting the Commons in 2010. Some will be missed. More will not be. One who will be a big loss and who is also somewhat disillusioned with Parliament is Alan Simpson, the Labour MP for Nottingham South. A noted environmentalist, he has said he will be more effective campaigning for radical environmental change outside the Commons, rather than remaining on the backbenches. At one point, Simpson suggested MPs have become so subservient to the party machines that they would vote for the slaughter of the first-born, if they were told to.
A number of MPs are stepping down due to the fallout over the expenses scandal. This has led some commentators to see the upcoming election as something of a cleaning out of the stables. While we can hope they will be proved right, the worry is that the party leaderships will regard this as an opportunity to replace independent-minded politicians with even more lobby fodder – those who will vote for just about anything they are ordered to support.
The next election could offer an opportunity for genuine independents to come forward. Television personality Esther Rantzen has already said she will contest Luton South. This is even though sitting MP Margaret Moran is not standing again because of the expenses scandal. The pundits predicting Rantzen’s heavy defeat have clearly not detected the same popular clamour for her candidacy as she has.
Nevertheless, independents have won before. At the 2001 election, retired doctor Richard Taylor won Wyre Forest in Worcestershire, fighting on a platform of opposition to the downgrading of his local hospital in Kidderminster. Taylor was also opposed to the Private Finance Initiative in healthcare. He is a popular MP and his tenure was deemed sufficiently successful for him to retain his seat at the 2005 election.
There was widespread public revulsion over the expenses scandal and this could still count against the mainstream parties next year, with Labour likely to be hardest hit. At this year’s European elections, 56 per cent of those who voted opted to support parties other than the Conservatives, Labour or the Lib Dems. So there is clearly an appetite for independent representation.
Recently, Andrew MacKinlay urged more people to seek to get involved in parliamentary politics. He said: “It takes courage sometimes to stand up and get elected. It can mean putting your head above the parapet.”
A significant number of independents in the Commons could help voters to reconnect with the democratic process. An independent is directly accountable to those who elect him or her. There is no need to follow party lines, no fear of whips twisting their arms and no threat of deselection at the whim of leaders they might upset.
The downside is that, since they are not members of a major party, especially the one that happens to be in government, they have less opportunity to influence those with their hands on the levers of power.
However, if a large number of independents got elected, this could form the basis of a coalition of interests coming together to bring about meaningful change. One of the biggest problems of the present system is that there is little difference between the three main parties. The political agenda in this country has been taken so far to the right that elections are fought over who can best manage the system rather than offering any alternative way of doing things.
Changing the system in favour of the common good should focus the minds of all of us. That change seems more likely to happen if the main political power bases are weakened and some genuine power is returned to the legislature (individual MPs) at the expense of the executive (whoever happens to form the government). For this to be a real possibility, we need the election of independent-minded MPs – whether as representatives of a political party or standing as actual independents.