Electoral reform: Hypocrites in glass houses should not throw stones

In March 2021, the National People’s Congress, for obvious reasons, announced the reform of Hong Kong’s electoral system. Once the existing democratic model had been sabotaged by political wreckers inside the Legislative Council, the “one country, two systems” policy was in real danger, and a change of direction was unavoidable. Instead of seizing the opportunities that policy afforded, anti-China legislators used it to create mayhem in the body politic, to encourage turbulence, and to urge foreign powers to harm Hong Kong and its officials. 

What the NPC decided, therefore, was that candidates for elected office would need to be thoroughly vetted, so imposters could be weeded out. They had to be committed to the city, loyal to the country, and supportive of the Basic Law. Those seeking office would have to show they were capable of shouldering the responsibilities involved in running an advanced Chinese metropolis, and it would no longer be possible for political saboteurs or foreign agents to infiltrate the legislature.

Apart from expanding the Legislative Council’s membership from 70 to 90, the NPC approved various quality control measures. They included a requirement that candidates be nominated by no less than two but no more than four members from each of the five sectors of the 1,500 strong Election Committee. The Candidate Eligibility Review Committee was also established, to assess and validate the eligibility of candidates in the Election Committee, Chief Executive and Legislative Council elections. In discharging its responsibilities, the Committee has regard to whether a candidate complies with the legal requirements and conditions for upholding the Basic Law and bearing allegiance to the Hong Kong SAR of the People’s Republic of China.

By any yardstick, the Conservative Party exercises a vice-like grip over its politicians, who are closely manipulated throughout their careers. … Its practices, however, are far from pretty, and it beggars belief that party members like Raab, Truss and Rogers should, oblivious to the hypocrisy, dare to complain about others. If, as they claim, they are genuinely concerned about democratic constraints, they should put their own house in order before preaching to anybody else

Although these reforms are not to everybody’s taste, the systematic abuse of the previous democratic model cried out for rectification. In any event, the changes are not too dissimilar from the screening mechanisms operated in many Western countries, where there is strict vetting of prospective parliamentary candidates. Indeed, if due diligence is not practiced it can have disastrous consequences, as became obvious after the Legislative Council poll in 2016, which witnessed the election of individuals who were utterly unsuited to public office. Some, for example, were not even capable of taking their oaths of office in the manner prescribed by law, let alone scrutinizing legislation or monitoring the work of government.

In 2021, after the electoral changes were unveiled, enacted and, finally, deployed, there was a chorus of criticism from the Five Eyes partners, orchestrated by the US. In the UK, politicians from the ruling Conservative Party eagerly joined in. On March 11, 2021, for example, the Foreign Secretary, the hapless Dominic Raab, since demoted, declared that “this is the latest step by Beijing to hollow out the space for democratic debate”. On December 20, 2021, immediately after the Legislative Council election, his successor, Liz Truss, along with some of her Five Eyes partners, signed up to a statement that “expressed grave concern over the erosion of democratic elements of the SAR’s electoral system”.

However, the most imbecilic comments came, once again, from Benedict Rogers, the serial fantasist who operates Hong Kong Watch, the anti-China propaganda outfit. He is himself a failed Conservative Party parliamentary candidate, and he now doubles up as the deputy chairman of the party’s “human rights commission”, where his capacity for hyperbole and vitriol enjoys free rein. Thus, on December 20, 2021, he excelled himself, describing the newly-elected Legislative Council as a “rubber stamp, puppet, zombie, quisling, Hong Kong branch of the National People’s Congress” (no kidding).

If, as the poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, reportedly noted, “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones”, Raab, Truss and Rogers should get real. Their own Conservative Party exercises stringent controls over anybody wishing to represent it in parliamentary elections, and micromanages their activities throughout their political lives. Indeed, its mechanisms are draconian, intrusive and meticulous, and characterized by degrees of control freakery that leave Hong Kong’s arrangements in the shade. 

After the start of each parliamentary cycle, the Conservative Party’s Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) starts the process of creating a new “Approved List of Parliamentary Candidates”. If somebody wants to become a Conservative member of parliament (MP), they have to apply to CCHQ, which then interviews them. If successful, they will then be thoroughly vetted by the CCHQ’s Parliamentary Assessment Board (PAB), which assesses their suitability. The PAB will only approve applicants if they can satisfy seven criteria, which include such things as intellect, communication skills, resilience, and, crucially, convictions, meaning core beliefs and values. If an applicant fails the convictions test, that will be it, and they will be rejected as politically unsound. In other words, the independent minded stand little chance, as the PAB only wants people who can be trusted to toe the party line, whatever it may be at any particular time. 

If, however, they are approved by the PAB, the lucky individuals can then apply to the Conservative Associations in any of the 650 geographical constituencies where there are vacancies, and seek to become the party’s parliamentary candidate. Although each constituency has its own Conservative Association, comprised of local activists, which chooses the parliamentary candidate, its hands are effectively tied. The Associations enjoy only minimal autonomy, and the candidate selection process is strictly controlled throughout by CCHQ. When an Association chooses its parliamentary candidate, it cannot select whoever it wants, but only someone who has been approved by the PAB and endorsed by CCHQ. This means, for example, that a local person who wishes to stand is excluded from consideration, and the Association is obliged to select a candidate from the list of approved names maintained by CCHQ, even if the individuals in question have no ties to the area or come from elsewhere in the country. 

Once elected, the new Conservative MP is micromanaged, with, at most, minimal freedom of action. He or she is instructed how to vote in Parliament by party managers (“whips”), and, if they do not obey, perhaps because they feel it is in the best interests of the country or their constituents, their political careers may be ended. Indeed, the former Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader, Benjamin Disraeli, famously told free thinkers “damn your principles, stick to your party”, and that remains the party’s philosophy. This, of course, is why it is often said that members of parliament are merely lobby fodder, doing as their party bosses tell them. Similar practices also exist among the other political parties in the UK Parliament, with all of them expecting blind loyalty, as reflected in the Westminster motto, “my party, right or wrong”, and woe betide anybody who steps out of line.

On September 4, 2019, for example, after 21 Conservative Party MPs, to the fury of party managers, rejected a “no-deal Brexit” by voting against the government’s terms for the UK’s departure from the European Union, the consequences were dire. Although they had voted as their consciences dictated, believing this to be in Britain’s best interests, they were ignominiously expelled from the Conservative Party caucus for not having voted as directed. Even Kenneth Clarke, a party grandee who had served with great distinction as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Lord Chancellor, could not escape his party’s wrath. Although some were later allowed to rejoin the party, others, as a lesson to everybody else, were not. This spelt the end of their political careers, as they were barred from seeking re-election as Conservative Party candidates at the forthcoming general election. 

However, instead of simply rolling over, some of the ousted MPs decided to put up a fight. At the general election held on December 12, 2019, the former Justice Secretary, David Gauke, the former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, and the former Women’s Minister, Anne Milton, stood as independent candidates in their former constituencies. But, without Conservative Party backing, they were all roundly defeated, and the message went out that any MP who did not vote as the party instructed faced political ruin. The Conservative Party’s members of parliament are, therefore, little more than puppets on a string, or what Rogers calls “rubber stamps”. 

Quite clearly, the Conservative Party is operated by control freaks, with anybody who wishes to represent it being closely vetted, controlled and directed from start to finish. If somebody displeases it, they face brutal retribution, no matter how great their service to the country or how legitimate their cause. This means, therefore, that, before Raab pontificates again about democracy in Hong Kong being “hollowed out”, or Truss bellyaches about its “erosion”, or Rogers bleats about “puppet” legislators, they should take a long, hard look in the mirror, and they will not like what they see. It is their own Conservative Party that countenances the very things they claim to dislike in Hong Kong, and should be the focus of their concerns.

By any yardstick, the Conservative Party exercises a vice-like grip over its politicians, who are closely manipulated throughout their careers. This may, of course, explain its survival over the last 200 years, as well as its extraordinary success as a party of government. Its practices, however, are far from pretty, and it beggars belief that party members like Raab, Truss and Rogers should, oblivious to the hypocrisy, dare to complain about others. If, as they claim, they are genuinely concerned about democratic constraints, they should put their own house in order before preaching to anybody else. 

The author is a senior counsel, law professor and criminal justice analyst, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.