"Safe seats" almost guarantee corruption

With the government going slow on plans to implement public powers of recall over Members of Parliament, let's look at what actually creates the corruption

Patrick Mercer
Alex Wickham, UK Politics Editor
On 2 June 2013 20:10

The implications of Conservative Member of Parliament Patrick Mercer becoming embroiled in a 'cash for questions' scandal has, quite rightly, drawn attention to the government’s failure to introduce a power of recall.

For those that missed it, It is alleged that the Tory MP accepted £4,000 to lobby for business interests in Fiji.

Conservative Campaign Headquarters' line on this is verging on the pathetic: “The Government is committed to improving our democratic processes, including through introducing a power of recall, which was a clear commitment in the Coalition Programme for Government. As with any complex constitutional reform, we need to take the time to get this right. We will be publishing more detail about our proposals and will legislate when Parliamentary time allows.”

Anyone who reads that can see they have absolutely no desire to make good on their pledge. We need time, they bleat. We’ll do it when when Parliament allows, honest! Sure you will.

But would the ability for constituents to sack MPs really have stopped purported crooks like Mercer from committing their crimes? I am sceptical.

The evidence shows that the flaw in our democracy that breeds corruption is not the guaranteed five year terms without recall enjoyed by MPs, but rather the lack of accountability that comes with the constituency system, specifically in safe seats.

Liberal Democrat blogger Mark Thompson did some interesting analysis back in 2009 showing that the safer an MP’s seat was, the more likely they were to be implicated in the expenses scandal. His findings are reproduced below:

That correlation has held true in this parliament.

David Laws, who had to resign after being found guilty of submitting misleading expenses statements to hide a relationship with his gay lover, has a majority of 13,036. Laptop-loving expenses cheat Denis MacShane had a majority of 10,462.

Take a look at the MPs embroiled in last year’s rent-swapping scandal, it is no coincidence that most have significant majorities. As for Patrick Mercer, his majority is 16,152.

Members of Parliament are not encouraged to become corrupt because they know their constituents can’t kick them out until the next election. They do it because, seduced by the safety of their seats, they gamble that their constituents won’t kick them out even if they are caught. Gordon Brown is a case in point.

By anybody’s standards he is making a mockery of parliament by jet-setting around the world and barely ever gracing us with his presence in the House. By anybody’s standards except the people of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, that is.

Even if they had the power of recall they would not exercise it. If Brown runs in 2015, they will no doubt blindly vote for him again. It pains me to say it, but recall probably wouldn’t make much difference. Not that the Tories will ever put it through anyway.

It is our safe seats that foster corruption; sadly, that is a flaw no simple law can overcome.

Alex Wickham is the UK Political Correspondent for The Commentator. He tweets at @WikiGuido

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