How democratic are doctor politicians?

A group of 240 doctors recently threatened to stand against leading members of the government in the next election, in protest at the NHS Bill (Now the Health and Social Care Act). They are ‘shocked at the failure of the democratic process and the facilitating role played by the Liberal Democrats in the passage of this bill’. They follow the example of Richard Taylor MP, a consultant physician who won his Wyre Forest seat from a junior health minister in 2001, campaigning against the closure of the A&E Department at Kidderminster Hospital.

My immediate reaction to this news was essentially that it’s a free country, and anyone can stand for parliament if they like. I’ve seen very little comment about this, however, and I have begun to wonder about the legitimacy of such a campaign.

There were two possible scenarios when this initiative was first announced on 19th March. The first was that the government would bow to the pressure from this group of healthcare professionals and drop the bill. That was always unlikely, and that moment has now passed. The second scenario, which could still come about, is that this group stands 240 candidates in the general election, and wins a number of seats. It seems to me that both scenarios, for different reasons, are a potential threat to democracy.

In the first case, an unelected group would have imposed their will on parliament, forcing the government to alter its legislative plans. Surely, no matter how much one might dislike the NHS Bill, this is not acceptable? The doctors argue that ‘the will of the citizens of this country’ has been over-ridden by the coalition government. Has it? The two major elements of the reforms – the dissolution of the Primary Care Trusts and the handing over of their commissioning powers to GP consortia, and the opening up of healthcare provision to ‘any willing provider’ – were both in the Conservative manifesto. As we know, the Conservatives won more votes and more seats than any other party, and went on to form the coalition government with the Lib Dems, with both reforms finding their way into the coalition agreement.

We don’t know yet whether these doctors still plan to launch their ‘revenge’ strategy. But suppose they do. How would that fit with the way democracy works in this country? We can assume that they will have strong views on the NHS; but there has been no mention yet of their other policies (on free schools, for instance, or how they might stimulate economic growth, or whether they would replace Trident). Even if a small group were to be elected, they could exert considerable influence, given the likelihood of another hung parliament. An NHS campaign would have considerable popular appeal – but would a group of MPs elected solely on the back of such a campaign have genuine legitimacy?

Richard Taylor’s political activities were mostly confined to health issues. Other policies he pursued included support for Section 28, the renationalisation of the British railway system, and the availability of cannabis as a controlled drug. He also opposed the Iraq war. It seems reasonable to suppose that all the new ‘NHS’ MPs would also embrace an eclectic variety of views. I’m not convinced that would be good for transparency and clarity in our political system.

First published 26th March 2012 on Liberal Democrat Voice: you can read the Liberal Democrat Voice article and comments here.