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Thursday, 19 September 2019

Democratic reform and renewal

This follows on from the previous post. Today we have the prospect of the cerebrally inadequate John Major making an appearance in court - though not speaking - for his 12.10 to 12.30 slot. One hopes Lord Garnier, who represents this most mediocre of intellects, has made some substance of his simple-minded bigotry or we will be bored to tears.

European nations as we know them are, constitutionally, mostly infants. As I have written before, by the end of the 14th century in England (and I mean England and not the UK) serfdom had almost practically ceased to exist, the wage labourer having emerged from the Black Death. By the end of the 16th we had an independent and prosperous middle class and were developing systems of law and democracy from which we would emerge through the turmoil of the 17th to the era termed by historians 'early modern'. In contrast, serfdom and feudalism survived in Europe until the mid-19th century, and Europe's birth-pangs took a century or more of war and chaos before democracy (of a sort) emerged. Yes, they have written constitutions - but in English terms, are barely out of nappies;

Date of Constitution
Sweden 1974
Denmark 1953
France 1958
Germany 1949
Italy 1947
Spain 1978
Portugal 1976

For most of Europe, the Maastrict and Lisbon treaties - in effect the EU constitution - are just a natural progression from what are already new systems of governance.

Not so for the UK, though as commenters made clear yesterday, Brexit has exposed major faults in our system which now needs some fixing. The Lords and the Speaker are the most obvious. Allister Heath in the Telegraph does a decent job this morning of setting out the Heads of Terms -
.... the next government will have to legislate to prevent MPs from ever “seizing control” again and then repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. The power to conduct international treaty negotiations must be left solely to the executive; at the same time, the ability to prorogue needs to be codified, alongside much else.

The governance of the Commons must change radically, with the Speaker bound by clear rules. Any MP who wants to change party should be forced to call a by-election.* The House of Lords will have to be scrapped or, preferably, comprehensively reformed, with a debate about who should belong to it and what proportion should be elected and how. An English Parliament is long overdue, with tax and spend genuinely devolved to a properly federalised United Kingdom.
The civil service is in desperate need of an overhaul: ministers should become CEOs, with staff working directly for them. In a world where special advisers have become so important, we ought to discuss whether more ministers should be directly appointed, or belong to the upper rather than lower chamber.

The next government must take to heart Lord Sumption’s Reith Lecture, perhaps the best political analysis of the year, and row back on the "rights culture". There has been too much mission creep, and too many decisions have been taken by the courts, rather than left to democratically elected politicians. This doesn’t mean that we mustn’t continue to protect rights: on the contrary, I would argue that we need a robust British Bill of Rights to replace our membership of the ECHR.
Add a general power of recall with a threshold high enough to prevent vexatious abuse and an overhaul of local government and electoral health measures and there you have a legislative agenda for the greatest reforming Parliament for over 150 years.

I hope and believe we can do all this without a written constitution. Just as statute law sits happily alongside common law and precedent, we can achieve change without throwing out the baby with the bathwater. As Blair found to his frustration and chagrin, you cannot abolish the Lord Chancellor.

It's really no longer just about Brexit. It's about re-forging our nation for the benefit of future generations, a legacy of love. 

*Allister is thoroughly wrong about this particular point; MPs represent their constituents, not their parties. It's the constituents who should have the right to force a by-election, not the judges. A power of recall would cover this.  


DeeDee99 said...

Either the FPTP electoral system has to be scrapped in favour of a version of PR, or another method must be found so that parties which fail to get any MPs under the "winner takes all" system will still have some representation.

I am, of course, thinking about the UKIP/SNP situation in 2015.

4 million UKIP votes, spread across the UK resulted in one MP. Whereas 1.4 million SNP voters resulted in 56 MPs because the votes were concentrated in one region. The Scots already have a devolved Parliament, but FPTP gave them a disproportionate ability to interfere in the British Parliament and laws which will only apply in England.

rapscallion said...

The remit for general power of recall must be widened too. Crossing the floor or reneging on major points of one's parties manifesto should be added. Never again must we allow the situation vis-a-vis Yvette Cooper, who was elected on the basis of the Labour manifesto to respect the referendum result. She only then went and set in motion the bill to stop any "No Deal" or clean break Brexit - a move in direct opposition to the wishes of her constituency. Many MPs do not now represent the views of their voters and this is because they inhabit a bubble, isolated from the real world and with little to do (because pretty much most of the laws are produced by the EU). Truly the devil makes work for idle hands.

Concur with DeeDee99 because that really did throw into sharp focus the huge anomaly in our system. 1.4 million over-represented, and 4 million under represented. The parties concerned are actually irrelevant, its the principle of the thing. We should also have a federal system so that each country that makes up the union is largely self-governing except in the case of Defence, Foreign Affairs and some Home Office functions like immigration, counter-terrorism etc. Central Government has become too large and too unwieldy to be effective and properly responsive.

Stephen J said...

Direct democracy needs to cover policy, scrutiny and recall.

How else can a parliament know what the people that they govern want? We have seen that if you force them to face the electorate, they do everything they can to avoid it, unless they think that the result is a forgone conclusion.

The idea that ministers should possibly be given permanent jobs rather than face the electorate every few years is pretty good. Of course we would expect them to demonstrate skills, like an understanding of the law and finance in return for their avoidance of the practice of short termism, a degree of job security.

We should keep the Lords as is, but remove all their power, so that as they die, the Lords becomes ever more irrelevant. I have just been reading David Copperfield, and I discovered in my ignorance that there was whole branch of of the state that I had never heard of, namely Doctors Commons... Clearly in the book the discipline is falling into disrepute, and if it still exists, nobody alive has seen any of its work, or deemed any of it useful.

In other words, it is possible to remove whole institutions, if they are past their SBD, and the Lords is definitely that.

The whole point of having representatives is that they should represent the interests of those that put them into office rather than only looking after number one. Starkey made that point when he suggested that because the commons pre-existed any form of formal democracy, representatives was just fine, but with democracy, they should have been reassigned as delegates.

So parliament should become a talking shop that is subservient to the electorate, but don't bother standing for election if you can't be bothered to mug up on the subjects that you will be expected to demonstrate expertise in.

As for the honours racket, perhaps we should ban anyone that is employed by the state from receiving any such baubles, after all they are usually pretty well paid.

When we honour someone for genuine unpaid service to some worthy cause, they should know that we really value their work...

And nobody can say that Gavin 'effin Barwell has done a good job!

Raedwald said...

Rapscallion - I've long suggested that recall should be a simple catch-all process with no restrictions except the bar to prevent vexatious use -

"The electors of Blankshire parliamentary constituency no longer have confidence that Max Musterman MP represents their interests and that Max Musterman be duly recalled from Parliament"

What %age of voters needed must be open to debate.

Jack the dog said...

Obviously the main objection to introducing a codified constitution is that it would be written by the weasels dags and charlatans who comprise the political classes and senior levels of the so called civil service.

Far from being a peerlessly concise accurately drafted masterpece that would stand through the ages as testament to the brilliance of our civilization it would likely be a third rate knock off of the lisbon treaty.

Idem for an elected house of lords. THe current system is undoubtedly broken, but honestly what are the chances of a reformed HoL functioning any better, especially if the members are elected party animals.

The only possible way I can see to have a HoL that approaches how it is supposed to function is:

a) to limit the numbers by statute to say 400
b) limit membership to say 20 years
c) have members appointed by a HoL commission with say 11 members who are forbidden by statute to do more than one term as a commissioner
d) the make up of said commission to be subject to a free vote in the HoC after every Queens speech
e) former civil servants, heads of quangos and MEPs/MPs to be limited by statute to 30% of the reformed HoL. This limit does not necessarily include military personnel.

It might be cute as well to disallow any member of the reformed HoL from being a (current) member of a political party.

JPM said...

Had Europe historically had People's Courts and direct democracy, then everyone from Galileo to Gauss and from Copernicus to Curie would quite likely have been burnt at the stake.

We see the same mentality in these threads.

Raedwald said...

JPM you're seriously getting worse.

"Everyone who disagrees with me is a murderous fascist" is a message suitable only for the infants playground. Grow up.

JPM said...

If only I'd said that, eh?

John in Cheshire said...

I agree that the political system needs to be reformed as suggested but when the lot we have at the moment can't even address the inequalities of constituency boundaries, or fulfill the commitment to reduce the number of MPs, I would be surprised if any changes happen any time soon.

Don't forget the Harrogate Agenda, by the way.

Mark said...


Why ever would Gauss and Marie Curie have been burned at the stake you silly, desperate little man? Who wouldn't have been!?

Juncker on a bike. Called out again and it's "I never said that did I?"

Mrs Proudie of Barchester said...

The time for the house of Lords is over, but a revising chamber with a clear remit is perhaps advisable. The name has to go: I'm not so keen on it being called a senate, but favour something like High Council of the Realms, which sounds suitable grand. Members would not be called 'lords/ladies' but 'High Counsellors" (post-nominals H.C.R.). The right to grant titles should be restored to the Queen/King, but only as titular honorifics, no seat in parliament, and only granted for exceptional and outstanding merit.

This second chamber should represent the federal elements, i.e. the four nations of the united kingdom. It should be, as I said, a revising chamber. Maximum tenure of office, ten years, no second term.

Agree absolutely on the need for a constituency right of recall for the reasons given.

We already have a Bill of Rights from 1689, which needs to be better taught and properly applied. It could, of course, be added to, but for goodness sake don't let the likes of Harriet Harman anywhere near it.

Statutory guidelines laying down the role, duties and powers of the Speaker, together with the right from MPs to have a Vote of Censure to remove an incumbent speaker if he/she deviates from the job description.

Statutory clarification of the role and duties of an MP - none of this Burke-ian representative stuff, but firmly based on the manifesto, which has to be legally binding.

The appointment of a proper legal mind as Lord Chancellor (keep the name but get rid of the Justice Secretary nonsense - much too Blairite).

Abolition of quangos and NGOs. Totally undemocratic. Devolve as many central government powers and responsibilities as possible.

I enjoyed that!

Wildgoose said...

If the UK were to transition to a truly federal set up with Parliaments for all of its constituent nations, (England currently and deliberately being denied one), and say replacing the House of Lords with a proper overarching federal Upper House responsible for UK-wide matters, then I would be happy.

Unfortunately, I don't believe the British Establishment will ever allow England proper recognition, no matter how much the English (and others in the UK!) will demand it.

It is like Cameron's mission to get a better deal for the UK from the EU against the threat of our leaving. He was treated with contempt just like the British Establishment treat the English with contempt. Have they learned this lesson? I doubt it. Hence my calling for English Independence. But I would be happy to be proved wrong.

DiscoveredJoys said...

I doubt that we would get more benefit from a written constitution than we do from the existing grab bag - if nothing else a written constitution is too easy a target for constitutional lawyers to make money from.

I can see the benefit in producing a short summary, rather like the Highway Code. Not legally binding (the laws behind it are) but an example of good behaviour that can be taken into account. Plus you could make the 'Constitution Code' teachable content in civics classes. Plus more - when the Speaker makes stuff up his attention could be drawn to the Constitution Code section on the Speaker's impartiality.

Dave_G said...

If you want to give control back to the people then you need to give them the 'key' to it - control over spending.

Everything boils down to money - EVERYTHING...... and those that control it, control the agenda. Currently it's the banks (and the people they posit as their representatives in Government).

The banks own NOTHING. The banks simply fabricate, manipulate and thieve using their 'fake' currency. It's the people that create the wealth and the people ought to be controlling where and how it's spent.

Politics is a cover for the misappropriation of the peoples hard-earned and designed to deflect blame from those that so easily abuse, waste and steal it. Show me ONE example of proper, audited and efficient use of the PEOPLES money and I'll show you my hairy, pimply arse.

Screw the politics, the politicians, their dags in the 'Houses' and the lawyers that protect them. The power is and always was in who owns and controls the purse strings.

Until WE do we have absolutely no dog in this fight whatsoever.

Isn't it time the money-lenders/creators were held to more scrutiny instead of this constant dancing around the issue?

Stephen J said...

JPM reveals himself as a forelock tugger.

JPM said...

It's entertaining, but only to to a degree, to see grown men playing make-believe games.

Those monsters are not real.

Trust me.

John Brown said...

I would like to see equal sized constituencies, constituencies having the power of recall and MPs who change parties needing to be re-elected via a by-election.

I am also in favour of AV as this enables voters to vote for whom they really would like to win but then also be able to ensure their vote does not allow such travesties of election to occur through vote splitting as happened recently at the Brecon & Radnorshire by-election. AV means that the winning candidate always has 50% or more of the vote.

I would also like to see a HoL where there are both voting and non-voting members of the HoL and where the voting members are selected by each political party in numbers proportional to the number of votes cast for their party at each GE.

These voting members would also include those from parties who did not manage to gain an MP because of the FPTP system but never-the-less did receive sufficient votes to have at least one voting HoL representative.

Mark said...

Even more amusing to watch children.

Anonymous said...

For what its worth I see a confederation as a way out of the current situation; many problems would naturally fall away, and the House of Lords could be retired, it being inimical to such an alliance. Four parliaments, with a chamber set aside in each, for those matters under discussion concerning all parties such as defence, where the monarch would still be the head, thus keeping the Kingdom a desired benefit to all. A table needs four legs.


Mark The Skint Sailor said...

I'm not a fan of PR as a voting system, mainly because then you're forced into a committee style government and nothing ever gets done. FPTP does allow a system where party can dominate the debate and a particular policy has the ability to get enacted.

I voted for UKIP in that election, but I still defend FPTP.

I'm definitely of the opinion that any MP crossing the floor in either direction must trigger a by-election in their constituency. Moving from Government to opposition or vice-versa must allow the electorate their say. If their representative can make a good argument and win the day, then fair enough, but to move away from one viewpoint and latch onto several opposite policies and parties like (for instance ) Chukka has done is effectively sticking two fingers up to the majority that voted them into place.

The ability to recall should have been built into the fixed term parliament act. The current situation has shown that MPs will say any old thing to get into Parliament and then change their opinion once voted into power. Under the FTPA we have to wait for a general election before turncoats can be voted out. And if a significant number of turncoats refuse to allow a government an election, then we are stuck in limbo as we are now.

I'm highly supportive of replacing the house of Lords with a randomly selected proportion of the public, much like jury service. In that way hopefully the second house allows a variety of viewpoints and that's where the under-represented opinions like that of UKIP supporters can get a voice. If they can forge alliances while in the (for want of a better phrase) House of Representatives then they can affect and alter Government legislation from the Commons.
Of course such a system needs to address how you support someone in their 20's that leaves their job job for a number of years (by way of a pension possibly, or whether a lifetime post allows enough "churn" to keep a fair representation of the public in play over the years.

Devolution needs to happen in England, with a truly English Parliament. The only argument I have against it is cost, adding another layer of government. But it's only fair that if Wales, Scotland and Ireland have their own assemblies, England should have theirs. The house of Westminster can then get on and legislate on UK-wide affairs and Welsh and Scottish representatives are kept out of English-only affairs.

As I said, this all costs money, but what price for truly democratic representation is too much? I voted for Brexit and knew there would be a financial cost in the short term, my reasoning was that freedom and true accountable representation was worth the price. In the same way, true representative democracy closer to home is worth the price.

JPM said...

Have you ever raised any, Mark?

Mark said...

No, but I was one. We all were but most of us do manage to grow up

Edward B said...

We need candidates for MP to have some experience outside politics. This is difficult to regulate but a first step must be a minimum age requirement of say 40.

We need the option on the ballot paper to vote for "none of the candidates". If this option wins most votes then there needs to be another election in the constituency, with a totally different slate of candidates. Also if "none of the candidates" wins, failed candidates should be barred from standing for election for say 5 years, so they do not just on to the next constituency.

If the HOL is a revising chamber its members need to be able to understand legislation, so membership by lot will not work. If there is a requirement to be able to understand proposed legislation this probably rules out most MPs too!

Anonymous said...

John Major should be ashamed of himself. Trying to destroy the career of a fellow Conservative.
An old expression from the House-"your opponents are opposite but your enemies are behind you."

JPM said...

It would technically be possible to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor, but it would require a complex Act of Parliament, and no doubt involve many difficulties.

Blair succeeded in some of his objectives however, by transferring responsibilities, and creating new departments, but keeping the post and title with its central function.

Arguably those changes completed the Separation Of Powers in this realm.