Defecting from your party is one of the hardest political decisions a disheartened politician ever has to make, writes Liam Vernon.
You stay awake all night thinking over: “Should I leave the party that got me elected? What about the members? Many of these people are my friends. Many of them gave money to get me elected.” A former Conservative MP who left his party in 2014 once said “These decisions are never easy, mine certainly has not been. Many have been sleepless nights talking with my wife.”
But when you finally do it and switch your colours, it can be a great weight lifted from you. Free from the drab of your former party, re-energised with the fact your new political home is warm, welcoming and grateful for your decision, and excited with what the future holds. Paradise!
Well, not quite…
There is a group of people politicians do forget, with honourable exceptions, when they make the decision to swap parties: their voters.
A case study we’ll look at is the 132,000 voters across Wales who put a [X] next to the UK Independence Party on their regional ballot at the last Assembly election. Of the seven that were elected under UKIP, now, only one remains.
Infighting, leadership coups and other factors led the UKIP group to lose members very quickly. But while the AMs got to keep their seats, the voters lost their representation.
When Mark Reckless, Caroline Jones, Mandy Jones, and David Rowlands formed the Brexit Party Group, a eurosceptic band of old colleagues, opposition forces in the Senedd tried to block the group being officiated. They argued that the group didn’t have a democratic mandate, and they had a point. Nobody had, at this point, ever cast a vote for the Brexit Party in Wales. According to BBC Wales, Reckless said he would “love” to hold a by-election when he joined the Brexit Party, but was unable to do so under the system he was elected under.
I have a lot of time and respect for Mark Reckless. He’s the man I referenced at the start of the article, a man who famously defected 9 months before the 2015 General Election to UKIP, and could have easily stayed in his position. But he didn’t, and he stood down to force a by-election and asked his constituents permission to agree with his decision.
He’s now joined the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party, and I just have to ask: will nobody think of his voters?
Well, the Senedd could.
They could take a bold move in the next Parliament, and press a change in the law to require Members of the Senedd who change parties between elections to face their voters one way or another.
A simple recall petition across the constituency if they change parties. A threshold of 10% would force a by-election, or for those on a regional seat would be forced to abdicate their seat and give it to the next person on the list. Of course, you could argue that this could be used by tyrannical party leaders, hell-bent on pushing out opposing voices in their party groups – so suspending a Parliamentarian and leaving them independent would not trigger the legislation.
This is just one way, I’m sure there are others – and I do not pretend that this system would fix the problems of the current Senedd, but let’s give the voters the respect they deserve and let’s make politicians more accountable to their bosses. I want politicians to change their minds, go with their heart, do what they feel is right – but not at the cost of the people who put them where they are.
Liam Vernon is the Digital Communications Officer at the Centre for Policy Studies and former Deputy-Editor of Brexit Central.