Cameron's abandonment of the right to recall shows the death of "the new politics"

The constitutional transformation promised by the coalition in 2010 has entirely failed to materialise.

When David Cameron became prime minister in 2010, he promised to pursue "a new politics" of democracy and transparency, aimed at removing the stain left by the expenses scandal. A major feature of this would be constitutional reform. The Coalition Agreement committed the government to introducing a new power of recall, allowing voters to force a by-election when an MP was found to have engaged in "serious wrongdoing" (provided at least 10% of constituents signed a petition), to funding 200 open primaries, targeted at seats which had not changed hands for decades, to creating a "wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation", and to introducing directly elected mayors in the 12 largest English cities.

Nearly four years on, not one of these promises has been met. The independent-mindedness of Tory MP Sarah Wollaston, selected by an open primary in Totnes in 2009, convinced Cameron to strangle the idea at birth; his recalcitrant backbenchers blocked House of Lords reform, and just one English city (Bristol) voted to create a directly-elected mayor after a notable failure by the PM to sell the benefits of the policy to the public. Now, as today's Independent reports, he has abandoned plans to introduce a power of recall for MPs, despite promising to do so in both the Conservative manifesto and the Coalition Agreement. As Lib Dem party president Tim Farron said on Today this morning, there is no "good excuse" for this volte-face. The most likely explanation appears to be that it would serve as a distraction from the Tories' core agenda (one of Lynton Crosby's "barnacles") and harm Cameron's standing among those MPs in danger of falling victim to democracy.

The 2010 Conservative manifesto said:

Our People Power manifesto will give local people the direct power to recall MPs found guilty of wrongdoing without having to wait for a General Election. Conservatives will empower local people to cast a vote of no confidence in their elected representative and bring an end to the concept of the ‘safe seat’. This proposal will make MPs directly answerable to their constituents over the whole of a Parliament – not just every five years.

How the Right to Recall process will work:

The recall process will begin with the filling of a notice-of-intent-to-recall petition, to be signed by at least 100 constituents and submitted to the local returning officer.

Once registered, a recall petition can be circulated within the constituency, petitions for the recall of MPs must accumulate signatures equal to 10 per cent of the local electorate

Any petition that crosses the signature threshold within 90 days would trigger a by-election.

But as Farron commented, "the Conservatives appear to want to be protected from the electorate. It is about self-preservation. It sends a message to the electorate that ‘we don’t trust you. We think you might do things which we don’t like’. The only reason for blocking this is a lack of genuine commitment to democracy and a lack of trust in the electorate."

Whatever ambition Cameron once had to be a tranformative prime minister, capable of restoring trust in the political system, is now unambiguously dead. And, as in the case of his crude abandonment of environmentalism, you are left to ask: did he ever believe in it to begin with?

David Cameron and Nick Clegg at a press conference to mark the creation of the coalition on 12 May 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.