Did Robert Colville Get It Spot On?

Rotten boroughs like Rotherham are poisoning British politics

Robert Colvile

Robert Colvile is a Telegraph columnist and leader writer, who tweets as @rcolvile.

Last updated: November 26th, 2012

“What more does Labour have to do to lose the Rotherham by-election? The former MP, Denis MacShane, was hounded out of the Commons for making fraudulent expenses claims. The council is the target of national scorn after it took three children away from loving foster parents for the “crime” of supporting Ukip – a scandal made worse by its ham-fisted attempts to justify itself.

In short, Labour couldn’t have had a worse campaign if its candidate had spent the past few weeks yelling abuse at passers-by from the steps of Rotherham Minster. But it makes no difference. Come Thursday’s by-election, that candidate, Sarah Champion, is on the shortest possible odds to be returned to Parliament. And once she’s in there, it will take an Act of God – or some idiotic MacShane-style rule-breaking – to get her kicked out.

And how did Champion achieve this lofty perch? She had friends in high places. To be precise, the chief executive of the Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice (who reportedly only decided to stand a week before the vote) appeared on a shortlist drawn up by the Labour national executive, which excluded the local favourite, Mahroof Hussain. The majority of Rotherham’s Labour members – more than 100 of the 130 present – stormed out of the selection meeting in protest, leaving Champion to be selected by just 13 people (her defeated rival got 11).

So, thanks to the votes of just over a dozen people, Champion will probably represent the 63,000 voters of Rotherham for the rest of her life, collecting hundreds of thousands of pounds from the public purse for doing so.

Now, I’m sure Sarah Champion is a wonderful person. But I’m equally sure that this is democracy in name only. In fact, it’s a classic instance of what Daniel Hannan, Douglas Carswell and others have been saying for ages – that safe seats are the new rotten boroughs.

Consider the career of Denis MacShane. Were Rotherham voters happy with how he represented them? Judging by the voting figures, absolutely not. In 1997, he won 26,852 votes at the general election, or a mind-boggling 71.3 per cent of those cast. By 2010, that had fallen to 16,741, or 44.6 per cent. So between Blair’s first victory and Brown’s final defeat, Labour and Dirty Denis lost the trust of 4 in 10 of its voters.

So why was he still there? Because there was no opposition. Over that same period, no rival party got more than 20 per cent of the vote. Indeed, even if you piled the Tory vote and Lib Dem vote on top of each other, and stirred Ukip in for good measure, MacShane would still have romped home – just like every other Labour candidate since the 1930s.

As for the council – whose slogan, “Where Everyone Matters”, looks rather ironic these days – the situation’s equally lopsided. Currently, 58 of the 63 councillors are Labour. There is no possibility – zero, none – of Rotherham ever being run by anyone else.

This isn’t just about Labour, or just about Rotherham – there are little one-party states all over Britain, run by Tories and Lib Dems as well. And that’s a very bad thing indeed. Consider this: if you’re a Rotherham politician, you have only one choice of party: Labour. And your odds of promotion will be decided overwhelmingly by your popularity not with the voters, but with your fellow members of the Labour Party.

With such skewed incentives, you end up with a situation where government is unaccountable to those who elect it, and has no real need to serve their wishes beyond the innate altruism of those involved in it. You also end up with a situation where a group of 130 people can choose the MP, for whatever reasons they see fit (and, in this instance, only 13 need to vote for the winning candidate). The only people who can stop them are the national executive, by imposing a shortlist (or, in the Tory version, creating an “A-list” of suitable candidates). But that just means replacing one oligarchy with another.

This is why, as I’ve said before, we need localism – real localism, not the watered-down, decaffeinated, worse-than-nothing version peddled by the Coalition. Open primary elections – including, if affordable, postal ballots – so that parties’ candidates at general elections can be selected by the whole constituency, not just the oddballs and activists who still turn up to party meetings. Mandatory reselection under the same system, so that incumbent MPs don’t get back into Parliament on a wink and a nod. A proper right of recall, so that voters can boot out MPs mid-term if they break the rules – something promised by the Coalition Agreement, but diluted to the point of uselessness. Oh, and the devolution of power over planning, development, refuse collection and whatever else to individuals and communities, bypassing the town hall completely.

Rotherham shows the current political system at its very worst. Isn’t it time to try something better?”

1 thought on “Did Robert Colville Get It Spot On?

  1. There are a couple of “flaws” in this argument. The biggest is that Labour win in Rotherham, not because the system doesn’t give any choice but because more people can bother to vote Labour than for any other party. There was a choice of 10 other candidates at the by-election including an old fashioned left winger, a new-style left-winger, a left of centre moderate independent, a liberal, a conservative, four shades of nationalists and another very good independent. Utimately things can be different because people can vote differently if they want. Maybe the major tweak that needs making is giving more funding and media coverage to smaller parties so they fight on a level playing field. Colvil seems confused between deriding the system and the people who vote but that’s democracy. This leads to the second “flaw” – Colvil argues against his own case by citing declining Labour vote in successive Parliamentary elections – These and Rawmarsh shows that voting patterns can change – the Labour vote in the by-election fell below 10,000 nb a horrendous downward trend which must ring alarm bells. And I believe these patterns will continue to change although the more worrying aspect is how people are deserting the ballot box generally. I think the day of the major parties will be over within 20 years as the shortcomings in, and unrepresentativeness of, the political elites, that Colvil sees clearly now, become more evident to more people. Independents and smaller parties may have their day…eventually, unless people abandon political expression altogether.

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