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The People's Politician

Tom Giles | 14:59 UK time, Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Another day; another political expenses scandal. Six months on from the worst Parliamentary controversy in memory, the political classes are still reeling from the fallout. Some may even be facing criminal prosecution.

With a general election looming, MPs rarely have been held in lower public esteem. Polling, even before the expenses affair, suggests that an overwhelming majority of the public feel they have "not very much influence" or "no influence" over decision-making locally (73%) and nationally (85%).

The most commonly cited reason is a belief that politicians overlook the public's views:
• "Nobody listens to what I have to say" (29%)
• "Decisions are made without talking to the people" (20%)
(Electoral Commission Hansard Society / Ipsos Mori 2006)

This might be one reason why 17 million citizens who could have voted at the last general election chose not to.

Today, the BBC is helping to launch an new experiment to try and re-invigorate the link between MPs and their constituents - using what's known as "direct democracy" to test how far politicians are willing to do what local people want.

Does the electorate even want the power to influence its MPs' decisions on a daily basis? Do people have time? Do they care? Could this be a long-term way of rehabilitating politics and engaging those who've given up on it? Or will it be seen as just a reaction to this year's scandals?

Ann WiddecombeTwo long-serving MPs - both standing down at the next election and from very different constituencies - have agreed to take part: Ann Widdecombe (Con - Maidstone and the Weald) and Richard Caborn (Lab - Sheffield Central).

Ann starts today with an announcement in her constituency and a new website. Richard Caborn will do the same early in the new year.

For three weeks, they'll try to become as accessible as possible to their constituents - using online tools, social networks and text messaging. They'll aim to find out what issues their constituents want them to champion and turn into real action - whether in Parliament or elsewhere.

The process will be supported by a BBC-commissioned local poll, and online voting on local and national issues - and a vote for the right to petition the MPs directly on those issues.

There'll also be a chance for constituents to comment on the kind of MPs they want. For example, will they want the right to vote out their MP mid-term - using the so-called "power of recall" - as widely discussed this year?

Richard CabornAt a public meeting, the MPs will then explain what they intend to do. This could mean them sponsoring a bill, even voting against the party line. But they'll have to justify in public any decision to go against their constituents' views.

Take a burning national issue like the war in Afghanistan. Would voters want their MPs to urge that troops be pulled out as soon as possible - regardless of the situation in that country? Do they feel that their MPs should champion a "proper" debate and vote in Parliament on our UK involvement, as some have been advocating?

An important part of the project is to test the way technology could change how people think about politics. Both MPs will be given a blog, the ability to vidcast and a Twitter account to post updates (Ann's is here).

It reflects a growing debate (for example, here and here) about the role of representative democracy (where MPs make their own judgements or follow those of their parties) as opposed to direct democracy (where policy is dictated by popular opinion via, for example, referendums).

Some of this debate is around devolving power away from the centre. For example, could we have People's Bills, as well the government's, at the next Queen's Speech?

A BBC2 documentary provisionally titled The People's Politician will be broadcast next year. Before that, we will be posting footage and analysis at the project's blog.

Is the internet really the voice of democracy or an easily-gamed opportunity for those most motivated to make their voice heard?

Both MPs are former ministers. Both have agreed not to seek any personal or party-political gain from the experiment. They won't be paid for taking part and the decisions they take won't be binding on their successors.

Let us know what you think by commenting below or at our blog.

Tom Giles is executive producer, BBC Current Affairs.


  • Comment number 1.

    The issue with all democratic elected bodies is the influence of banking and business. It is common knowledge that the financial services and banks devised non-secure insurance schemes that were the cause of the financial crisis and that legislative bodies were warned of the impending doom and yet because of the influence of these industries (some may call this corruption)these bodies did nothing to prevent the financial crisis. So I would suggest that there are two sides to this issue,

    1. elected officials having little concern for the people who elect them and 2. the disproportionate influence of big business and banking.

    If these elected bodies do not curb the access and influence of the business communities the welfare of the people will continue to suffer. The business of government is not business although you would not know that today. There are too few people with too much power and influence. Democracies have forgotten about the people and the cyncial political and lobbyist structure has set the entire process on a path downward. The West was once viewed as an ideal and now appears as corrupt as China or other Asian governments. When democratic ideals become rethoric for politicians and multi-national corporations undermine national economies for the purose of greed and accumulation of wealth we have the growing discontent not just with the government but also the form of government. This is why history records revolutions.

  • Comment number 2.

    One of the main reasons that politicians appear not to be influenced by voters is that they are too much influenced by lobbyists, who arrange attractive trips for them, or those who make large donations to their election expenses and central party funds, or own a newspaper which can influence voters opinions.

    Personally I am surprised that so few people are concerned about this. They seem to believe that provided MPs declare their interests, then it is OK. But surely MPs and Ministers would not be human if they did not tend to avoid upsetting any of these special interests.

    The idea that these excesses should be banned and that the taxpayer should fund political parties on a basis which reflects their popular support, is a non-starter, even though the relatively small cost would return very good value for money.

  • Comment number 3.

    Why would any politician do what we asked? Here's a typical example. In our town we have very uneven voting rights; so more than 10% petitioned, in Septenber last year, for us to have equal votes. Two schemes have been put forward, but local politicians have at last considered our petitions and now declare that we can only have the long-standing system that provides widely different sized wards and numbers of votes. And which suits them. Not the equality we petitioned for.
    Don't you believe our town should have equal votes too?

  • Comment number 4.

    What about the people who haven't heard of blogging or Twitter? It seems that they won't be as included in this experiment as those who are familiar with blogs and Twitter. It should be just as easy for them to participate in the experiment.

  • Comment number 5.

    parliament is not broadcast on radio. the best means to keep people in touch. so here we have a public service that would engage people with democracy and debate yet the bbc cannot find a radio station for it?

    or is everything ratings rather than public service?

  • Comment number 6.

    The public don't need to have better access to their MPs, they just need their MPs to represent their views, not the views of the party they belong to and certainly not as seems to be the case today of representing only their own financial interests.

  • Comment number 7.

    this is an extremely interesting experiment in a number of ways but predominantly because the outcome can be one of only two things (or maybe on occasion a combination of the two):
    - the majority tramples over the rights or interests of a minority
    - in the case of a well organised minority (as happens in practice very often) tramples over the rights and interests of the majority (yes they have rights too...)
    It will be more than just a little bit interesting how parliamentarians resolve this and how their decisions are subsequently judged by "the electorate", majority or minority.
    Something tells me the parliamentarian just cannot win.....

  • Comment number 8.

    The problem lies with the existence of representatives themselves. If we agree that the populace are able to choose who to make decisions for them why can't we choose to make the decisions ourselves? We don't need the middlemen to represent our views because they don't represent our views.

    It was once claimed by Ancient Athenians, the fathers of democracy itself, that elections are oligarchic, not democratic because you end up with the few whose only real skill is persuasion being in a seat of power.

    A choice between 3 who don't represent your views is no choice at all.

  • Comment number 9.

    Tom Giles writes of a "growing debate .... about the role of representative democracy (where MPs make their own judgements or follow those of their parties) as opposed to direct democracy (where policy is dictated by popular opinion via, for example, referendums)."

    Direct democracy in recent times has been commonly "misrepresented"! Modern direct democracy (in political science) always includes citizen-led elements such as the law proposal and a plebiscite which may be used to veto actions of government or parliament.

    Adding elements of direct democracy to indirect (representative) democracy brings creative input from the electorate into the political process, as well as stronger "checks" on government. This is not dictatorship so it is incorrect to imply that. Also, the procedures of direct democracy allow, indeed demand, much public debate and deliberation of issues. So these procedures differ greatly from opinion surveys, which invite an instant and often ill-considered response.

    Design of this deliberative citizen-led democracy is sketched here
    more detail via


  • Comment number 10.

    I am not a great fan of opinion polls, especially when they are used to discover underlying reasons for something people do. I suspect most people do not vote because there is no PARTY in their constituency worth voting for.

    Before the working class was effectively neutered by Thatcher's oppressive industrial relations law and the demise of strong trade unions, the working classes had some friends in Westminster. Labour may have been borderline unelectable but at least they passionately favoured the ordinary man, woman and child. Leaders like Michael Foot may have displeased the floating voters but there was never a doubt about where their affiliations were.

    Equally truly the Tories represented a strong majority of the affluent middle classes, especially in rural areas, with policies of the kind Thatcher used to perfection. And, for balance, in the central ground, the Liberals or Social Democrats or Liberal Democrats gave a slightly left of centre tone and alternative, traditionally not strong enough to obtain outright power.

    What we now have is congestion politics. With Blair stealing the Socialist vote for his own ambition and moving New Labour heavily to the right, and the Tories unable to assemble a tactical response, the two main parties pandered to the middle class vote. Typically the Liberals failed to seize an opportunity and despite leadership changes still refuses to take risks.

    There is another considerable oversight amongst the parties in that representation is of the people not of the party. The Whip system is now overused; ask any MP in private and they'll tell you two facts - how they feel about x and how they'll vote on x. Does talking to constituents change this?

    The UK today is designed to make money at any cost. People are no longer significant unless they have money; the common people are replaceable, irritating, marginalised, tolerated cannon fodder, out of sight unless the next election is not done and dusted before a vote is cast.

  • Comment number 11.

    @Angel-in-Transit,you have put the case well,Blair/Brown+others inthe labour party have turned me off voting labour,as an oap i know what life is like at the bottom of the pile,has for the tories you are right look at the damage Thatcher did to our industries+social services(houseing,nhs,etc.)i will vote green to hell with the main parties.

  • Comment number 12.

    They ignored us over Iraq

    If our elected representatives will ignore us over the most important decision a government can take then how can they claim to be our representatives at all

    As far as im concerned Iraq proved they werent in parliament 2 represent the people that elected them

    The expenses scandal proved they were however happy to be in parliament to enrich themselves at our expense and therefore were in public life for themselves

    its no coincidence that you have 2 retired MPs doing this experment--- few others would ever put the interests of the constituents , before their own.

    their own interests mean doing what the whips tell them and when its a choice between the Whips ( who hold the key to their careers) and their consituents who pay their wages and who put them there, then the people they take an oath 2 serve might as well be on another planet

    Mps have also shown a remarkable willingness to apply one set of standards to everyone else and another 4 themselves hence they happily voted for a bill greatly tightening up on expense claims for the self employed but, in the same year, voted for their own expenses to be entirely tax free

    they have willingly allowed laws for the most intrusive surveillance in the history of this country for the ordinaries yet fought tooth and nail 2 prevent us knowing anything about their expense claims

    as a result of this Britain is now a country where ordinary people get criminal records for leaving their bins out on the wrong day yet the home secretary can submit expense claims which are plainly fraud and say shes sorry and cry all the way 2 the bank with the £60000 loot

    many people in this country, would be better off being represented by sheep who would be just as independent and much cheaper than human MPs and further more would not bleat about how underpaid they were.

    the only time they have shown any resistance 2 the executive has been in maintaning and extending the corrupt expense system

    there will eventually be a reckoning between us and them, but who knows how or what form it will take

    One thing is for sure however

    The ballot box can no longer supply that reckoning

  • Comment number 13.

    Besides the expenses, people don't trust politicians because of:
    a) Entering into Wars based on lies
    b) Hijacking environmental issues and trying to sell nuclear power as "green"
    c) Allowing the Great 2008 Banking Swindle to bailed out by the taxpayer and future generations. Rewarding the rich to steal from the poor!
    d) Signing away UK plc to the EU without reference to a referendum.

    The Duck Houses and Moat Clearing are just symptomatic of Politican's stupidity - nothing else...

  • Comment number 14.

    Why don't people connect with their MPs?
    Well here are a few of my reasons.
    WE have just had a parlimentary vote on the equality act,which is intended to make it legal to discriminate against white men in terms of employment..the vote was carried 338,8 against,which means that it had cross party backing.
    Equality appears to mean differant things to MPs.
    Since 1997 the government has had an open door immigration policy.
    To backup this policy, the government has manufactered a situation where it is impossible to comment or debate there "policy " without those questioning the policy being demonised as racists.
    Politicians across the board have stated in various degrees that england does not exist and that there is no such group as the indigenous english.while at the same time supporting the identity of the Welsh and Scots as well as the (now)_numberous "minorities"
    On top of this it has become normal practice to lie and deceive parliament and the people of this country.Indeed why should we trust politicians when they appear to accept lieing to one another about the happenings within this country without a blink of the eye.
    The cult of the minority has also meant that politicians now pay more attension to very vocal pressure groups than they do to the electorate.
    Finally,although this is by no means a complete list.
    We are endlessly told that certain people are "of great benefit to UK Plc".Nevermind UK Plc,what about the people?,how is it acceptable to either demonise or make invisible the majority population of this island.
    Our demographics are being deliberatly altered to suit a political ideology.
    The politicians do not represent the views of those that look nowhere else for their identity and they know that what they are doing is wrong.
    Ask yourself this.Why was the act of treason removed from the statute books?
    Im sick of the lot of them.Someone try to give me a valid reason why the present bunch are better than the BNP

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 16.

    Great reporting and a relevant initiative as always BBC - thanks. We could only wish for such a public platform for debate and discussion in South Africa. Here, we have the likes of convicted fraudsters like Schabir Shaik with strong presidential ties allegedly obtaining a medical parole due to his connections with politicians as senior as the president. And then Julius Malema uttering hate speech much to the horror of the public with zero regard to consequences - mostly because there aren't any!

    If there were such a "direct democracy" platform in South Africa in which the voice of the public could be heard on such issues, it would not only provide some relief for citizens but also add as a much needed check on the government. Accessibility to public officials is sorely lacking here.

    Pratish (Wonkie cartoon blog)

  • Comment number 17.

    This country gets the politicians and press it deserves. With so many moronic people is it any wonder that we have expenses scandals and The Sun as our biggest selling daily?

    There should be an IQ test before people are granted a vote.

    Howls of protest? So what?

  • Comment number 18.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 19.

    in the real world we blindfoldedly followed the us into afghanistan after 911 we have not caught anyonone of any significance and despite the monetary cost we still continue
    the heroes we have lost would have been better deployed at our airports and ports and protecting the uk and stopping us banks buying up the uk for pennies in the pound

  • Comment number 20.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 21.

    I do not vote because:

    I Britain we have one of the most ridiculous legal systems in the world hearing of some crimes which occur like the murder of Huddersfield shopkeeper gurmal Singh, Rhys Jones, the post office robbery really think it's time to bring back hanging for these mindless criminals as we are really too soft on them.

    Our soldiers in Iraq & Afghanistan are torturing, raping & they do inhumane things to civilians that you would not even do to an animal & if that is what British values are then it is unbelievable.

    We have parties like BNP who should not even be allowed to exist as a political party in my opinion who do not allow "non white" members then the above comment apply

    The government always does the opposite to what it proposes. They want to invest in education yet there are adult learning cuts announced & reduced funding for universities if this continues how will the people who require basic skills for new jobs achieve them & same goes when wanting to keep people in jobs.

    We are in a major major recession & the increasing costs of fuel at the pumps & road tax is seriously rinsing people out along with other increased costs of living

    I hope this answers the your question as to why I don’t vote

  • Comment number 22.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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