Democratic accountability is now optional in our political system

November 19, 2023

This week saw an unelected Prime Minister pick up the phone to a resigned former Prime Minister.
Their conversation may have gone something like this:

Mr Sunak. “Hi Dave. You up to much at the moment?”

Mr Cameron. “Oh, not too much since Greensill Capital went belly up and I lost my £1 million salary. Shame you couldn’t sort those extra Covid loans out for me. The £400 million from the British Business Bank wasn’t enough in the end.”

Mr Sunak. “Fancy coming back into Government?”

Mr Cameron. “Not sure. It didn’t go so well last time around. I never really enjoyed getting grilled in the House of Commons.”

Mr Sunak. “Oh, don’t worry about that. I’ll stick you in the Lords, you won’t even have to see those nasty opposition MPs asking you difficult questions.”

Mr Cameron. “But what about basic democratic accountability? I haven’t been elected by the public.”

Mr Sunak. “Don’t worry, neither have I!”

Of course, none of us was in the room when Mr Sunak made the now Lord Cameron Foreign Secretary. But the signal is pretty clear – democratic accountability is now optional in our political system. The world is in intense geopolitical turmoil, while we have an unelected Foreign Secretary, unaccountable to the elected House of Commons.

The return of Mr Lord David Cameron to frontline politics feels like the plot-twist nobody wanted in the ongoing Tory psychodrama. The last 13 years has been plagued by Conservative Party manoeuvring and infighting, while fixing Britain’s problems has dropped off the end of their to-do list.

Boris Johnson’s flagship ‘levelling up’ policy is a distant memory to voters in Blyth or Bishop Auckland. And as for ‘taking back control’ – we haven’t seen the £350 million a week for the NHS that was on the side of a bus. These days, you’re lucky to even see the side of a bus. We did see £335 million go to Greensill, though, before it collapsed, taking our taxpayers’ money with it.

Just 11% of the British public would trust Mr Sunak to keep his promises. Only 21% trust Sir Keir. And that was before the Gaza ceasefire row. The 4th of his ten pledges was “No more illegal wars… put human rights at the heart of foreign policy.”

There is a democratic deficit in this country. The British public decisively voted-in only two of the last five Prime Ministers. Mr Sunak has a personal mandate of 193. No, I’ve not missed off some zeros. That’s the total number of people who actively chose our current PM. You couldn’t win a local council seat with 193 votes!

I spoke at the Break up of Britain conference in Edinburgh on Saturday. Packed with people who want to improve our democracy. Britain is one of the most centralised countries in the developed world. Far too many decisions are made behind closed doors.

We used to control our own energy system. Our own water system. Now they are run for private profit. I’d be happy with public profits being reinvested to provide a better service. But they are cash cows to funnel £billions through overseas tax havens into the bank accounts of billionaires.

Our transport system is chaotic and our buses are unregulated. The Go North East strike is dragging on. People can’t get to work or education precisely because all governments since 1986 have allowed buses to be run for short-term profit when they are clearly critical services that underpin our economy. I met with Unite the Union, and with Nigel Featham, managing director of Go North East, last week.

I successfully persuaded him return to the table and negotiate with union representatives last Monday and Tuesday. But with no democratic regulation over bus services, management were able to refuse to budge, so talks broke down.

Transport is the reason I pushed so hard to extend the North East Devolution Deal. From May next year, we’ll get powers to control our bus system. I intend to build a fully integrated Total Transport Network from Berwick to Barnard Castle, where one ticket will take you on bus, rail and Metro, with free travel for under-18s. That’s what taking back control looks like.