Interview: Parliament’s most liberated MP, Douglas Carswell
This is awkward for both of us. Radicals like Carswell are not accustomed to receiving accolades from the system. "I don't win that many awards in the House of Commons. I certainly don't get any from the whips' office," he says. Nor are lobby journalists supposed to spend their time feting the elected representatives they report on.
But it is precisely because this particular MP is so different from the mainstream that I am now sitting opposite him. Carswell has emerged as the winner of a Politics.co.uk project seeking to find the MP who has liberated themselves the most from the straitjacket of the party system. Our jury members praised his ability to foster his trademark independence of spirit while maintaining all the fundamental views which make him a Tory MP.
I'm speaking to Carswell in his office in Portcullis House, the despised modern block for MPs which provides our parliamentarians with utterly anonymous office spaces. Lots of the inmates here, inspired by their surroundings, blend into the wallpaper of everyday partisan politics. A small number are less constrained by the shackles of the party system and, according to a jury of experts assembled by politics.co.uk, Carswell is the most independent of them all. "I'm enormously flattered. I'm as pleased as Punch," he says, smiling.
Carswell is his own man, but it was not always this way. "I don't want to sound too much like a politician, but like all good politicians I've been on a journey," he says, laughing nervously. The story, like all good ones, has three parts: ignorance, disillusionment and, finally, freedom. Before becoming an MP in 2005, Carswell worked for the Conservative party's policy unit. He was a cog in the machine, and a very preoccupied one too.
I demand to know how he could have been so deeply involved in the Tory party without becoming an automaton. His answer is direct enough. "I think I was probably just a bit of a wonk," he admits. "My head was so buried in coming up with proposals, and we were in opposition as a party – I hadn't really understood what makes so many MPs tick, or in some cases not tick."
It was only after he was elected to parliament in 2005 that he realised things were not quite right. It only took six months or so before panic set in. "I came into this place expecting to find great characters determining public policy and I found a lot of whips' pigmies squabbling amongst each other for baubles." Carswell wasn't quite ready to do a Louise Mensch and quit altogether, but quickly found himself concluding he simply wasn't interested in standing again come 2010.
"Many of the big issues were stitched up by the whips working through the usual channels," he complains. "I very rapidly realised my job as an MP was to be a sycophant to the whips, to hope for promotion so I could read out someone else's lines like a third-rate actor. If I was really good and a whip's nark for long enough, I might be able to be minister in charge of widgets. But if anything of interest happened in the widget world it wouldn't be my views on widgets that count, it would be the views of the party machinery. I suddenly realised the whole system of democracy has been completely messed up by the party domination of politics."
Such extremes of disillusionment are unusual even by Westminster standards, where many MPs can find themselves passively accepting their roles or simply looking elsewhere – perhaps towards serving their constituency, or by playing a longer game to pursue promotion to the corridors of power.
That was never Carswell's aim, though. He wanted out, and was prepared to mess around with the rules of the game to get his way. He realised that parliament's ability to hold the executive to account had "decayed" and, in 2009, took the unprecedented step of calling for Commons Speaker Michael Martin to resign. I interviewed Carswell back in September of that year, when he told me he viewed Martin as a "symptom of a wider malaise". You could sense the hope in his voice. "The removal of the Speaker wasn't the end of the process – it's the start," he said optimistically.
Four years later, and the huge potential the expenses scandal gave parliament has only been partially realised. Tony Wright's reforms of the select committee system have freed them from the nefarious influence of the whips, making them much more efficient in doing their job. The Commons' backbench business committee, though, has been emasculated by changes to the "small print", and Carswell's passionate advocacy of recall proposals haven't done enough to win over the coalition.
These disappointments have left Carswell frustrated, but he remained an MP despite those initial bleak thoughts. While the bigger battle between parliament and the executive continued at its agonisingly slow pace, Carswell's more personal struggle was progressing more quickly. "When I was first elected to the Commons I had to suck up to the party press officers, and if I was really nice to them they might allow me to use a toady quote I would give out to a journalist," he remembers. That has all changed, in large part thanks to the internet. "On Twitter I can say what I want and people like you pick it up directly," he adds, laughing, almost gleeful at the realisation. "Do we still have a press office in the Conservative party? I don't know if we do! It's been a revolution."
That revolution in his thinking was triggered by two epiphanies. Firstly, that it didn't have to be this way. Before 1918, for example, MPs who were promoted to become ministers were obliged to resign their seat and fight a by-election, effectively an approval hearing for them to switch to the other side. Secondly, the internet seemed to empower politicians to establish themselves as individuals in their own right. Blogging gave Carswell a platform from which he could speak his own mind. It allowed him to build up a personal brand with local voters.
"I think we're going to start seeing a world when people out there will vote for a more personal sort of politics," he says. "Twenty years ago, people would vote for the party, not the politician. Now, the internet means you can repersonalise politics again." It's not just him making this change, he points out. Look at Gisela Stuart in Edgbaston, or Sarah Wollaston in Totnes, or Robert Halfon (runner-up to Carswell, according to our jury) in Harlow. "I think most people in Harlow will probably know Rob Halfon's name."
What all these politicians have done, Carswell believes, is stepped outside the limitations of their political parties. They are more than just a blue or red rosette and are prospering exactly because of their individuality. "I can't help noticing that the great Gisela Stuart should have lost her seat at the last election and she didn't. Why not? It's got to be something about this wonderfully individualistic frank outspoken member for Edgbaston that means people keep re-electing her, despite the unpopularity of her party."
In Carswell's seat of Clacton, he thinks he could only get a third of the vote as a Tory. The key has been the "huge slice of the electorate" which is non-aligned. Carswell calls this group the "anti-politics vote".
If only the political parties were to realise it. His advice to them is to "lighten up". Carswell's thesis isn't a good one for the rigid, centralised approach of the party HQs. In the 1950s, the vast majority of voters plumped for either Labour or the Conservatives. Nowadays, the Lib Dems, Scottish nationalists and others have all diminished their "market share". With turnout levels falling, the problem becomes even more acute.
Carswell urges a more American approach. He says the Democrats and Republicans have only managed to maintain their monopoly over US politics because these parties are so extraordinarily broad. "Are they going to adapt, and recognise the internet is here to stay? Are they going to allow people to aggregate opinion within the party structure, or are they going to carry on retaining central control but losing market share?
"I think they should lighten up – just encourage you to blog and think freely and be full of dissent, and they'll discover in the end it helps the parties win votes because the brand becomes more authentic. Politics and debate will become meaningful."
A looser style of politics could be the end result of the current malaise facing British politics, but any meaningful shift isn't going to come quickly. Carswell seems to know this, but can cope by having liberated himself from the system. "The only way you can get it to vote for you is to change the way you do politics," he says. "People talk about the middle ground – no, it's the anti-politics vote that is the decisive vote in this country. It matters."
He seems comfortable with the paradox – very comfortable indeed. What worked for him he now prescribes for the whole of British politics. "If you want to gain market share, you have to let go."