Sunday, 24 May 2009

The choices for democratic renewal

It is deeply to be wished that the national conversation will move to choices for democratic renewal over the next few weeks and months, or if not the national conversation then at least the online conversation. For when the campaign has been fought, we need an agenda. Brown is working on some risible National Five Year Tractor Plan which will no doubt sink without trace like all his other plans. We can ignore Brown. I offer the following as my own view on the choices that should be under consideration; this isn't a political manifesto, and these are cross-party constitutional issues:-


1. A Boundary Commission 'big bang' change - A Commons stabilised at around 550 seats, down from the current 646, for the UK would give an electoral quota of around 82,000 electors per constituency. Many English constituencies are already operating above this level - including the Isle of Wight at 108,000. Many Scots and Welsh constituencies are way below - the worst has only 22,000 electors. A universal electoral quota should apply across the UK, unlike the separate quotas for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as at present. See this post for more information. Changes should all be in place by the next-but-one Parliament - 2015 or so.

2. Fewer ministers and government jobs for MPs - One of the most pernicious effects of the corruption of Parliament by a political class who see politics as a 'profession' is the undignified scramble by MPs for place and position under government. The parties have created ever more government jobs as bribes to their own side, and to silence dissent in the House. Fewer jobs means a more independent Commons, and if government starts to devolve power should not be hard to implement.

3. End the guillotining of legislation - Ill-considered and rushed legislation is worse than no legislation at all. Both houses need time and resources to fully consider new Bills. The simpler the Bill, the less Parliamentary time it will need - a good check on a deeply corrupt civil service who now 'gold plate' every draft Bill with provisions that increase incrementally the power and control of the State.

4. Greater power and status for Select Committees - these should carry the real power and authority of the House. If MPs aspire to anything in the Commons, it should be a job on a select committee, not a ministerial post.

5. Increased Commons decision making over domestic and EU legislation - All EU legislation should be debated in the House, not hived off to an obscure committee that no-one has heard of. Fewer decisions should be delegated to ministers by Bills, the use of regulations (Statutory Instruments) should be curtailed and the issue of 'Statutory Guidance' by civil servants that effectively has the force of law should be stopped altogether.

6. Restore PM's questions to two fifteen minute sessions on Tuesday and Thursday - A single weekly appearance in the House by the PM is not enough. This signals not only greater accountability to MPs by the Executive, but 'pins' the PM to the Commons rather than to the news studio.

7. Constituency power to recall their MP - the bar should be set high enough to prevent frivolous or vexatious attempts at recall, but not so high that a cogent and compelling widespread loss of support for an MP by their constituents cannot be remedied. Despite California having had this power since 1911 they have only used it once - to dump the corrupt Gray Davis.


1. Proportional Representation - I still think first past the post is the most stable and sustainable electoral system. PR also leads to the anathema of closed party lists - the parties deciding the order in which their candidates will take seats, and deprives voters of a direct link to a local MP.

2. Fixed-term Parliaments - I'm deeply instinctively against these, despite the arguments that this would weaken a government's power. The aim of constitutional reform is not to create a strong Parliament and a weak government, but a strong Parliament and a strong government. Determining the date of an election is one of the power balancing factors that should remain with the government.

There. I think that's enough for now.


Gareth said...

"2. Fewer ministers and government jobs for MPs"

There ought to be some form of penalty to being in the Government, to dissuade MPs from grasping at the chance and to better separate Government from Parliament.

There are too many MPs in the Government and too many of their Party colleagues doing what the Government says and not holding it to account.

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with this list but #2 should be accompanied by an across-the-board reduction in the number of people employed by the government.

The Great Simpleton said...

Can't disagree with any of your "For's".

I would add that whipping can only be used on manifesto pledges.

The other question is how to reduce the payroll vote?

On the against I would want more details about the recall system but I broadly agree. On this point The Economist had an intersting article last week.

Its behind a subscription wall but I can email if you can't get hold of a copy.

Bill Quango MP said...

I wouldn't change PMQ's back. It works best at what it is. A single media event.
I would have the Speaker having power to refuse 'puff' questions. "Can the PM join with me in praising the government for its work on restoring sunshine to the bank holiday weekend" etc.
"Order, order. That is a crap question. I transfer your question to the opposition."

One decent session, where answers are given would be better. Plus a pre PMQ 1/2 hour session where complaints or clarifications about the previous session are made to members and the press.
"I said last week that the government has lifted 5 million children from poverty. The independent civil service monitoring office has asked me to say the real figure, as measured by blah, is six children."

Against fixed term as well. But there should be a mechanism whereby a government that polls below 25% for 'x' no of polls must declare an election date within the next 6 months.
Or if the number of registered voters signing a petition reaches a % of the electorate an election must be called?

Guthrum said...

STV- otherwise you are disenfranchising sixty per cent of the population living in 'safe' seats. Nothing wrong with have two MPs for a constituency

Fixed Term parliaments I can take or leave, but definately no more than 200 MP's

Definately an English Parliament

Everything other than Defence and Foreign Affairs returned to the County level.

Swiss Confederation model would suit me, with more referenda, so that my voice will count. Unlike in this gerry mandered system

yokel.php said...

Largely in favour of your proposals, just a few comments:

In Favour:
2. I would go further, and separate being a Minister and an MP. It should be one or the other. MPs appointed to Ministerial rank should have to resign their seat, permitting a by-election. Oh, and when they lose their ministerial post, it should be unemployment, not a stitch up safe seat or a quick bit of ermine
5. Especially agree with a ban on Statutory Instruments, and on Statutory Guidance. [Lets develop this further and ban civil service imposed "administrative penalties" as well, giving the power to punish back to the courts.]

1. It all depends on what you mean by proportional representation. I would like to see Single Transferable Vote for single member constituencies.

Anonymous said...

Reduce the payroll vote, by all means.

However, I don't understand your (and practically everyone else's) insistence on reducing the number of MP's. Surely smaller constituencies means more localism and more personal "service"? And isn't that a good thing?

I would not favour an increase, but I would favour keeping the existing number within the framework of a more even size distribution of constituency electorates.

And some of your other ideas could be very well met by the partial emasculation of the party system. I'd like to see about 100 independent members in the House - enough to challenge and constrain the government of the day, which is what MP's are supposed to do anyway.

That needs to be done within the context of our existing voting system, though - we don't want some committee-animal of a hybrid system that results in a two-tier parliament such as the Wee Pretendy one in Edinburgh, where you have elected and list members, the latter being regarded as second-class, not-really-MSP's, by most people. Especially as it's PARTY lists that are used. They are effectively appointed by the parties - the very last thing that should be allowed.