Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Interview with Douglas Carswell MP about "The Plan"

I recently read "The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain" by the Conservatives Douglas Carswell MP and Daniel Hannan MEP. I found it an interesting read and whilst I did not agree with all the ideas proposed within it I certainly think it is a welcome addition to the debate on reform in the UK.

Douglas Carswell who runs a good and frequently updated blog here has been kind enough to grant me an interview about the content of the book which I have included below.

Particularly noteworthy for me is where he confirms that he would be willing in principle to campaign for electoral reform to Single Transferable Vote with multi-member constituencies for Westminster. There aren't many Tories who would do that!

Interview below. My questions are in bold and the responses are in italics:

How many copies of the book have been sold so far?

Over 14,000 - and rising.

I was quite impressed to discover whilst reading it that the book is "Print on Demand". Do you think that eventually most books will be produced in this way?

Yes - and it won’t just be books that’ll be manufactured on demand.

As Dan and I were writing The Plan, I was reading Chris Anderson's The Long Tail. It gave us a eureka moment. Having written various books with various publishers previously, we realised that if we switched to print on demand, we could leverage off internet distribution ourselves directly.

We were convinced that the themes in our book would sooner or later become central to the political debate in Britain - we just didn't know when.

Then along came expensegate. The Plan suddenly seem prescient and demand took off. Print on demand meant that we were able to meet that demand 100%. The Plan wouldn't have been a bestseller had we published conventionally.

In Part One of the book you bemoan “declamatory legislation” based on emotive rather than proportionate evidence based responses to issues or events. What would you suggest is the best way to debate against this sort of political tactic?

The best way to ensure that the laws that are passed deal with real problems is to ensure that our law-makers are made more directly answerable to local voters. If we had a right of popular initiative, plus recall and open primaries to decide who gets to be the MP in the first place, we'd have wiser, more judicious people in our legislature, passing proportionate laws.

Part of your “Cleaning up Westminster” section suggests that select committee chairmen should be elected by the Commons in a secret ballot rather than appointed by the whips office. Wouldn’t the fact that the governing party generally has an inbuilt majority within the house restrict the effectiveness of this approach?

Not at all. That's what happens today. And its one of the reasons why the executive controls Parliament - rather than the other way round.

Using secret ballots to decide who gets to chair select committees would take power away from party whips. The executive would no longer be able to decide the shape of the legislature.

Even more profoundly, it'd change the chemistry of the Commons. Today advancement in Westminster comes through party whips. This encourages MPs to behave primarily as cheer leaders for the executive or shadow executive. It helps explain why the Commons generates much heat and noise, while at the same time being quite so supine and spineless.

Once you use free and fair ballots to decide who gets promoted, advancement would come from the degree to which an individual MP could command support and respect from across the chamber. It would encourage the fair and independent minded.

Another idea from the “Cleaning up Westminster” section is open primaries. You spend some time explaining how this would improve representation but you completely dismiss proportional representation saying: “it would make the problem even worse: a party list system concentrates yet more power in the hands of the whips”. This strikes me as a very selective and misleading representation of PR. Single Transferable Vote using multi-member constituencies, the PR system favoured by most electoral reformers requires no party list and many would argue actually puts even more power in the hands of the voter than open primaries as part of the actual election. What are your thought on this?

I'm increasingly open-minded about multi-member constituencies. Choice and competition are good in politics as well as business.

The key thing, however, is to recognise that with 7 out of 10 MPs coming from safe seats, we don't have enough choice and competition in our politics. I fear that some PR proposals would mean we ended up with a system where 9 out of 10 MPs stood zero chance of losing their seats.

But as I said, STV with multi-member constituencies avoids the list problems. I am very encouraged to see you being receptive to multi-member seats. Would you be willing to update a future edition of "The Plan" to include consideration of this?

Not sure there's going to be a Plan B! In October, I introduce a Bill in the Commons to allow open primaries in every constituency - and the right of recall. That's my number one priority for reform because it's a change we can bring in right now. And it'd change our rotten political system for the better right away.

So if there was to be a referendum for electoral reform to STV multi-member, would you support it and help to campaign for a "Yes" vote?

Yes - I think so. I'd want to see the detail first, but if done properly, I would campaign for change.

Part of the “A return to law, order and accountability” section focuses on the idea of locally elected Sheriffs (which I think would be a very good idea – I am certainly a fan of devolution). This reminded me of a book I read a few years ago by Jonathan Freedland called “Bring Home the Revolution” which coincidentally includes a 10 point plan for Britain too. Freedland includes radical ideas for devolving real power along the lines of the USA and popular sovereignty (as you do in “The Plan”) but he wants to go further than you wishing to change the UK to a Republic and creating a written constitution amongst other things. There are many potential changes like this that are not covered at all in your 10 points. Do you think “The Plan” is really radical enough?

I'm an admirer of Freedland. Like him, I also admire the United States greatly. But it is, as Freedland reminds us, an English system!

Public disgust with the political status quo in Britain is now so great, we stand a real chance of achieving some significant reforms. But the one way to guarantee that nothing changes, however, would be for the reformers to be overly ambitious. Rather than utopia, let’s actually achieve some bankable changes.

Instead of far reaching electoral reform, why not have open primaries right away to ensure our self serving politicians are held to account? Instead of a written constitution, why not do some pretty simply things that would ensure that those we elected held government to account properly?

The whole point of writing The Plan was to show what can realistically be done right away.

Some would argue that one of the reasons we are in such a mess now is partly because we do not have a written constitution and successive governments have been able to fiddle with no need for a blueprint or even a coherent idea of where they are heading with their changes. Isn't it therefore important that any changes that are made are at the very least properly codified as Freedland suggests?

I don't trust the kind of people who'd inevitably dominate the process. They'd be leftists and Guardianistas. So no.

We need to radically change our constitution in order to achieve the revolutionary aims that English radicals like the Levellers sought. It's not the American revolution we need to bring home - but the English revolution that we need to complete.

Starting from scratch with a written constitution wouldn't complete the English revolution. It'd put the vile elites - the quangocrats, human rights judges, Europhiles, remote technocrats and latter day Whigs - in control.

There are sections of the book where it seems to get dangerously close to describing what could be construed as right-wing revenge for perceived left-wing impositions. An example is in the section “Parliament should be supreme” where you claim that a “genteel coup d’etat” has been wrought on Britain by judges. You describe it as “Slow moving, genteel and from the Left.” There is also a list of right-wing dictators who have been subject to international indictment against left-wing dictators who have not. Do you recognise the potential problem here in trying to garner wide consensus (which you would surely need for the fundamental changes you propose) when the motivation for some aspects of your programme appear to read like this?

Actually the one thing The Plan never reads as is a narrowly Conservative work. Re-read the first few pages. It simply isn’t written as a Conservative book. It is very specifically not just aimed at a Tory audience.

It is aiming for something bigger than that. It is not saying this is what Conservatives need to do. It is saying this is what our country needs.

But it does recognise that the Left – as Gramsci recognised would happen - has captured key institutions. The Left’s long march through our institutions explains the leftist disposition of so much of the quango state – from the criminal justice system, to the BBC to the educationalists. The default settings of the quango state are well to the Left of the British people. That is why we need direct democracy – to recalibrate the state and undo the left’s creeping victory.

I think there is merit in a lot of your ideas in the “True localism” chapter. However some would argue that a land value tax would be a more fair and equitable way to raise local finance than a local sales tax. What are your thoughts on this?

How one localises control over tax revenues is less important than the fact one does it.

Fed up with old guard Tory centralisers, who said “it can’t be done”, “remember the poll tax” blah blah, I wrote an academic paper called Paying for Localism to show that it is possible to devolve control over finances. In my paper, I suggested turning VAT into a local sales tax. Doing so would ensure local councils became more or less self financing – and it’d not mean any new tax.

Have a look at it and let me know if you can come up with an even better model.
(Note: Link opens PDF document)

I found your ideas in the chapter “Putting patients in control” very interesting and I think they make a useful contribution to the debate which Mr Hannan has recently made ultra topical. However there are some (for example here) who say that the Singaporean model only works there because of its unique political situation where the government owns or very tightly manages most aspects of their economy and society. How do you respond to this?

I disagree. It’s not Singaporean exceptionalism that explains their better survival rates. Their system is better at ensuring that finite resources are allocated in a way that ensures everybody gets the medical care they need.

I particularly liked the part in the “Neighbourhood Welfare” chapter where you point out that benefit cheats would be much less likely to be as tolerated as they are by neighbours if the effect was felt in a local tax bill; I had not heard this expressed in this way before. Do you agree that if you want to try and sell your message more widely that you need to zero in on points like this that will resonate with people?

Yes. We need to keep showing that big, remote, central government actually harms the most vulnerable folk most of all. It’s made our country less compassionate and tolerant that it ought to be.

I think your “Direct Democracy” chapter where you call for the ability for referenda to be triggered by petitions of enough citizens is the best one in the book. However I feel that you do not go far enough. You spend time explaining how it will all work but you then pull back and say that parliament would retain an ultimate veto. If this was implemented, why should parliament be able to override the will of the people?

Because I still think you need a legislature. I want radical change to that legislature – so that you have citizen lawmakers, not professional politicians. I want the voters to have the ability to sack lazy, self-serving MPs by triggering by-elections. I want the people to help set the Commons agenda, and veto politicians and their endless folly. But I still think you need a legislature.

Once you’ve made the Commons properly accountable to the voter - and government properly answerable to the Commons – good luck to any MP who ignored what their local voters thought.

Ignoring voters is the default setting within our present rotten Commons.

I appreciate what you say and certainly agree with your final point about the Commons ignoring voters but you are still saying that ultimately parliament should be able to override the will of the people. There are places where a model similar to what you advocate is already used (such as Switzerland) where the legislature has no veto and it seems to work perfectly well; the government has to bow to the wishes of the people clearly expressed. Why should we be any different and instead have a compromised system?

The Swiss model allows referendums to veto what politicians want to do. As such the job of holding the executive to account has been democratised - its not just the legislatures role, but the citizens'. That is something I'd like to see in the UK, too. I'd also like people to be able to propose new laws - a right of initative.

But what I don't believe is that you can have a legislative process that starts with a right of popular initiative, followed by popular referendum - without the legislation passing through a legislature at some point.

Why do I think so? Well, look at my wiki-Bill experiment. I've used the wisdom of the internet to allow everyone to help me draft a Great Repeal Bill. It has been a tremendous success so far. A real Bill has been drafted by hundreds of citizens on-line - and the wisdom of the crowd has exceeded that of Westminster.

But even so, I think the wiki-Bill would need to be debated and scrutinised by a legislature in order to iron out one or two inconsistencies. Have a look here to see for yourself.

And my final question – if the Conservatives are in power after the next election, how much of your 30 point plan do you think will have been implemented after the first 12 months?

David Cameron has taken various ideas straight out of the book – open primaries or elected police chiefs, for example. His recent Milton Keynes speech about the need to decentralise power borrowed not only from the books ideas, but read as if it took from the actual text.

So far, so good. But never underestimate the power of the Sir Humphrey Appleby-types.

Hattip to Wikipedia for the image of Douglas used above.


Byrnetofferings said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Byrnetofferings said...

Good interview, although I was slightly saddened to hear the term 'leftist' used. : /

Anonymous said...

What is sad about the term leftist?

It is surely all the leftists that are sad.

Byrnetofferings said...

I was hoping someone as intelligent as Carswell would be more specific rather than just saying that.

Richard T said...

California anyone?

In amongst the thoughtful proposals there is danger. Some of his ideas are those which have brought the state of California to its knees - recall, popular initiatives, and the populism of instant voter gut reactions. How long would it be before the death penalty is back?

neil craig said...

"the Left ... has captured key institutions. The Left’s long march through our institutions explains the leftist disposition of so much of the quango state"

You can reverse that interpretation. Perhaps the greatest problem of government is its tendancy to grow as it comes to be dominated by empire builders (Pournelle's Iron law).

It is at least as much the case that big government has been in a long march through the left than vice versa. Thus, for example, we find donors to, at least, the LibDems, increasingly consisting of quangos, civil service unions, government departments & government funded fakecharities. That is why Labour is no longer in any way a working class institution. The Greens are considered part of the "left" because they support every sort of regulation & subsidy & despite being committed not to progress but a return to medievalism. The same has happened to the LibDems, as I have said elsewhere, in that in its subservience to big statism (support of the EU & of fascist wars) it has driven out the traditional liberals.

The terms left & right do enormous harm because they interfere with any assessment of real positions - in what way, for example is opposition to the EU or support of inexpensive electricity "right wing"? The term originally came about because the aristocracy entered the French chamber first, though a door on the left hand side & thus ended up on the right. Today support of government over ordibary people is considered left wing - the precise opposite of what they wanted then.

DominicJ said...

"How long would it be before the death penalty is back?"

About 3 months I'd guess.
Why not, if more people want the death penelty as an option, why should they be denied?

David said...

"Why not, if more people want the death penelty as an option, why should they be denied?"

Tyranny of the majority.

David said...

"Why not, if more people want the death penelty as an option, why should they be denied?"

Tyranny of the majority.