In the last few weeks we have seen the blackest, dirtiest and most unwholesome picture of our parliamentary democracy. We have seen a new Prime Minister, uncertain on his feat, pulling cheap political tricks. We have watched as the leader of the opposition sneered and jeered and howled “liar” in everyway he could get away with. We have watched the leader of the third party leap up and down in indignation like a bizarre jack-in-a-box. And the rest of the political establishment have just lobbed detritus at each other like chimpanzees at a tea party.
And this unedifying spectacle has been refereed and egged on by a blood thirsty press, wallowing in the fallout of every carefully placed political bomb and jibe. None of this is new; our political system, in all its ancient glory is perfectly set up for such playground squabbles, the deliverance of not political servitude but bully-boy war mongering that echoes the worst of “Tom Browns School Days”, “If..” and “Grange Hill.”
And we, the voters, the paymasters, the supposed inheritors of this once great democracy, can only watch, ignored by the players, as they use our schools and hospitals and fields as their weapons, our taxes as their war chests and our country as their personalised battle field.
It is time for a change.
Our political system has changed little in the last few hundred years. Although legislation has broadened the qualification of those that can stand for parliament, and indeed those that can vote, once through the hallowed gates into the so-called Commons, a change comes over all that removes them from the common place to another world. A world of privilege, opportunity, and nepotism that is unrecognisable even to the old world school tie of now nearly defunct City institutions.
In this secluded village two systems attempt to work together. On the one hand, the work of committees supported by all parties yet reporting to the government; on the other a medieval tournament of division that is held together with threats and bribes and scandal by vicious whip touting sergeants.
The electorate, the proletariat, the merchants and the landowners, have little real insight to this world. For all that it is televised and recorded; it is kept on quiet sub channels and away from those who might just need some sort of guide to what the hell is actually going on. But where it is brought to the mainstream public consciousness, it is first edited and regurgitated using personal agendas and bias as a sauce, to be served up as a pie fight with the blood thirsty howls of the barbarian as its leader.
This is the system designed by our forefathers in a day when the general public, the great unwashed, were not supposed to see the mechanics, were supposed to be happy with their lot and would have little interest in anything but the result. The press of that day reflected the system with detailed analysis from the Thunderer and its peers and nothing much in the rags; very similar to today in many ways.
Except now something has changed. The politicians have noticed that while for the last hundred years they have been sneering and jeering the people who pay their salaries have simply lost interest. The voter feels disenfranchised. When and if they do vote many will just vote as they have always done, a very few will vote actually based on what is happening locally, and the rest will vote based on the last snippet of news or brash headline from a scheming, conniving editor, doing the bid of his or her power hungry Magnet. The rest simply don’t vote at all, and that can be half of them.
One need that has been identified by politicians is for more regional representation. But their solution, not wholly welcomed by society, is to add additional regional layers of government. At what cost? And would we see more time and money wasting arguments coming from these new assemblies? It is a typically political and impractical solution to, however, a very real problem.
Can this be Changed?
The short answer is probably no, simply because the very people that have to ratify any change are the people who are benefiting most out of our current system. Billy Bragg, pop star, occasional poet of the people and voracious campaigner for a changed second chamber, has found this out the hard way. Whether you agree or not with the fine details of his idea for electoral reform of the Lords, most, I think, would agree with the aspiration of his campaign. And yet, despite much publicity and momentum, real change in the House of Lords is still many moons away.
But that does not mean that an attempt should not be made. This is our country, our way of life, we should be sure that the system that underpins they way in which decisions are made actually produces well founded ideas propped up by knowledge and expertise that is grounded in good sense and research. The current system, by its very gladiatorial nature, seems to produce good policy by accident rather than design, if it produces anything worth while at all.
But any change has to be not only in the way things are organised, but in the very culture of the system. It is pointless changing the committee system if before any reports or recommendations the ability of free thought is taken away from participants on the grounds of party loyalty. It is crazy making rules that ensure that we have the most representative parliament – male and female, Asian and Caucasian and African, Jew and Gentile and Muslim (and atheist?), gay and straight, single and married – if when this stew pot of people take their seats they merge into an ugly parody of colours: Blue and Yellow and Red. It is daft to elect a politician on the grounds of their support for a local institution if their party then has a national agenda against such support. And it is pure madness for a politician in opposition to come up with an “urgent policy” if then they are to say that no one else can pursue it because they are in a different party; for instance the one actually in government and able to do something.
I watched David Cameron today look at Gordon Brown as if he was something nasty on the sole of his shoe; behaviour of the kind that would have earned me a smack from my Conservative supporting mother when I was young. And yet, both he and Gordon Brown purport to be highly intelligent men both capable of taking on the reigns of government and making something of this country. How? By sneering? By ridicule?
My initial reaction was that it was a pity that Guy Fawkes did not get the job done back in the 17th century. But I realised that this debased system was creating a worse problem than two school boys poking at each others eyes. Because, where politicians have talents, have strong ideas and a sense of duty, their abilities are being wasted by a system that does not allow them to have considered opinion. And challenge, when it comes, is either from others wrapped up in the same system or from the media who really do not care a damn for the future of the country; that is not their job. So the challenge is as meaningless as the original idea.
Take the report by Iain Duncan Smith on our “broken society.” The report, on the face of it, has contributions from many worthy contributors. But it fails at the last hurdle because any conclusions it makes (and it makes many) are tailored to fit the reader; those tried and tested blue-rinse Tories. So the report calls society “broken” when, despite high crime figures, the actual percentage of brokenness is small enough that most people would never have noticed had not the report told them about it. And the report decides that it is the fact of getting married that stabilises a family, when it is probably as accurate to say that it is stable people that tend to get married. So much work, so many words, so many contributions, yet the summery is but the meanderings of a political junkie and based little in reality.
I repeat; it is time for a change.
Tearing down the Temple and Starting Again
The Houses of Parliament are a quite stunning complex of buildings; one of the largest parliaments in the world they are dripping with history, despite the fact that much of it really isn’t that old. In 1834 a fire caused by burning outmoded tally sticks in a stove, burned most of it down. After much public debate the chambers that we know today were constructed. The design seems to owe much to the jousting tournaments of yore when supporters of the two competitors were ranged on opposite sides of the fray. It makes for fantastic pictures, but maybe not for such good governance.
In most democratic governmental chambers around the world the layout is more in the round, with even the leader of the parliament sitting in a nonexclusive position. Indeed, when the frighteningly expensive Scottish Parliament was built in recent times this was the design approach taken. With a few exceptions, this design leads to a less confrontational style of debate. Less confrontation means more constructive debate, it is as simple as that.
And to further prevent the creation of psychological barriers, MPs would sit not grouped by party but by region. Not only would this, to a certain extent, “split friends up” like at school, but would encourage regional representation. If the MP sitting next to you has a problem with his or her area, then this problem may well also affect you. Whatever party the two of you are from, it would not be difficult to see how you may end up clubbing together. This is good representation and goes some way to addressing the lack of representation of regional issues.
I believe it is time for a new Parliament building, though I would hesitate letting a world class architect anywhere near it. Parliament is meant to be for the people, so this building should be, ideally, designed by the people and commissioned by the people, and at a cost that the people are prepared to pay.
Offices would be without status; all politicians would get exactly the same size private office; functional, clean, simple and neat. The offices may also be arranged by region as we have arranged the seating in the chamber.
Committee rooms would all radiate from the central chamber to remind members that it is the central chamber that carries the decision, not nefarious deals done in side rooms.
With the exception of dealing with security matters, doors would be of glass, there would be no locks, no restrictions, no barriers. All business conducted within these parliamentary walls would be open to scrutiny at all times by all people; though I concede that private rooms would be needed when dealing with sensitive issues concerning members of the public. But use of these would be to strict rules.
Canteens would be healthy, simple and open to the public. Members of Parliament are meant to be representatives of the people, not above the people. If they are having their space paid for by the people, they get to share it with the people.
Over all, the design should not just promote a culture of cooperation and equality, but should shout its intention to the world so that the public never forgets why it is as it is, and never stop reminding MPs of how they should be.
Changing the Rules of Engagement
Gordon Brown, in his first few days as Prime Minister, said he wanted to create a new politics and a new government. He wanted a government of the Talents, and he would not be restricted by party lines as from where he got those talents. In some small ways he has done this, but I doubt that he has achieved it to the extent that he would have wished.
The trouble lies with how our party system is governed. A political party is meant to be, in my near unreachable, idealistic world, a collection of people that are drawn together by common ideas on how a country can be made a better place. However, in reality, a political party is a tribe bound by common ideological principles that bear little relation to what is possible or practical or would be any good for anybody, let alone the entire population. I believe that historically Labour has suffered more from this malaise than other parties, but not exclusively.
In this tribal system any policy has to be judged as worthy against an ideological test. Basically, does it fit with what we believe, comrades? If a policy does not fit, then it is discarded even though it may have been the perfect solution. Strangely, Tony Blair was the oddity in that he really didn’t care whether a policy fitted comfortably with his party or not to the extent that he more or less changed the name of the party to fit the new policies. This was rather refreshing. Though it is arguable whether the policies he followed actually had any useful merit, the one thing they were not was tied down by a straight jacket sown by zealots.
In a truly democratic system, any one should be able to bring an idea to the table. To a small extent we have that now in the form of a private members bill. Unfortunately, since these often do not have the support of the major, or even minor, parties, they seldom see the light of day; hunting being the one exception.
Let us take the subject of climate change. The major political parties have been commissioning reports left right and centre to prove their green credentials. However, once they have their conclusive report it is then squeezed into a natty policy suit and presented as “the urgent thing we must do about climate change – if we ever get into power that is.” Of course, the government of the day is unwilling to take up any part of the oppositions report, even if it has merit, because, well, they are the opposition!
And the opposition, should the government take any ideas, will use it as an excuse to call the government a thief and a charlatan.
This makes you wonder how much ANY politician actually cares about Climate Change. Or is it just another vehicle to catch votes at the next election?
In our new system, all politicians would have equal opportunity to bring forth policy ideas. The government’s job would be to take these on board and decide, through debate and vote, which will actually make up the business of the next parliament. There are probably a thousand potential pitfalls in this as I have laid it out, but there has to be a better way than the idea strangling one we have now.
Communicating with the Outside World
Life blood to any politician is exposure. And I doubt any system we could design would remove that need. However, how that communication is managed, and how the press fit in, needs some serious rethinking.
The most obvious case is the rules that should govern Government Announcements. Although I understand the need for information to be given to Parliament, it is also essential that it is given to the people – they are the paymasters – and given directly, not second hand via friendly newspaper editor.
Not just the government, but politicians in general must make their primary responsibility to the chamber and its machinery. It would be made illegal for a politician to make any comment for publication where their name is not firmly attached and they subsequently can make themselves available for scrutiny in the chamber. We really must see an end to “unnamed government source.” It is probably the single most disenfranchising statement a journalist can make. “I know who said it, but I am not telling you!”
ALL government announcements, as a point of law, MUST be made formally to the chamber in the first instance, and immediately followed up by a detailed explanation to a publicly distributed news release – a sort of government funded newspaper and website combination but without any editorial comment, etcetera. This must happen BEFORE any interviews with the all important independent press.
And, talking of the press, in so much as it will be illegal for a politician to brief “off the record” so any organisation publicising such briefings would also be committing an offence. It the press wants to print scandal, fine, but the scandal will have to have a name.
Politicians say they are eager to “reconnect” with the electorate. But their actions do not reflect this intent. So we need to force them to reconnect by putting the electorate FIRST in any communication or consultation.
And in debate we must also force politicians to clean up their act. If Gordon Brown says that he wants to have a window tax to fund housing projects, I do not want to hear what David Cameron thinks of Gordon Brown. If Cameron agrees, I want to hear that. If he disagrees, I want an alternative. Too often, in this country, the only noise to come out of a politician’s mouth is their personal opinion of their adversary. We are fed up of this static that blinds the system. Our mothers had it right when they said, “It you have nothing useful to say, say nothing.” About time our MPs started taking that advice. The speaker of the house must have the power to stop a politician who does not contribute to a debate in such a way as to positively forward a good idea. In practice that means much of Prime Minister’s Questions would be in trouble.
Regulating the privileged few
MPs and member of the Lords were until the mid-nineties self regulated. After that point the rules of conduct, of privilege and of standards have been regulated by an independent Committee on Standards in Public Life. However, this committee, though independent of government has been criticised for being subject to pressure from Parliament. In 2002 Elizabeth Filkin resigned as commissioner after a whispering campaign. She had upset many well connected committee members and MPs after her investigations of several high profile members on both sides of the house, including John Reid and William Hague. http://politics.guardian.co.uk/commons/story/0,,614633,00.html
In our brave new world, an independent panel selected from people who have no connection to the MPs (so most of the public) would have complete control of what MPs can or cannot do. This would need to be a robust organisation with powers to investigate individual allegations of misconduct and prosecute, challenge and sanction where appropriate. Its responsibility would also include the second chamber (the House of Lords currently has no appointed Standards Commissioner). I suspect some of the rules that would come about would be things like:
An MP is an employee of the state and is not allowed to moonlight in any other paid job.
An MP may not sit as a company director or be a partner in any organisation or hold any office in any private or public company.
An MP may not be a consultant to any organisation, company or charity whether such consultancy attracts enumeration or not.
MPs salaries may only be increased inline with inflation.
MPs constituency offices and employees will be supplied by the state and cannot be paid for through the expenses system
This would probably result in a considerable loss of income for some MPs. If they were unhappy over this, the question would have to be asked whether they became an MP out of duty or for reward. If it transpires to be the latter then it is arguable that they are an inappropriate candidate as a Member of Parliament. It has been argued before that if you do not pay MPs substantial amounts that you do not attract the best candidates. Bearing in mind that an MPs job is not administrative and does not require high level managerial expertise (that is the role of the well paid top civil servants) then I would think this argument fails to hold water. And if in the process we reduce the number of QCs who become members of parliament, who are better suited to adversarial games than honest discourse, then that would be no great loss.
Lobbying is another area where the rules allow MPs and lobbyists to abuse and misuse the system, such as it is. We need to change the way lobbying is carried out by making it official and available to all. Any company, organisation or individual who wished to lobby parliament has to first work with their local MP. They have to apply to the MP directly and are not allowed to employ a lobbying company. The MP is duty bound to help them with their request and not put up barriers to their request being put forward.
The actual lobbying is done by the MP publicly in front of the relevant committee. Lobbying is not a matter for private communication. Because it would be made illegal for any money or favours to change hands, a private person or small charity should have equal power to lobby as a massive multinational.
The other often major bone of contention is in the registry of members interests. This lists MPs earnings outside of their salary and things like investments in companies, especially where those companies may have any involvement in government. It is not practical to ask someone to sell everything if they wish to become an MP, but they need to be divorced from at least some of their interests and have the carrot of independent earnings removed from temptation. A friend of mine ran a small but successful radio production company for many years. He was then asked to head up a department full time at the BBC, an offer to good to miss. However, as part of the deal he had to agree to either close his production company or hand it over to someone else and play no further part in it. It was seen as a corporate conflict of interests. This is common in the wider world, and the same criteria should be applied to MPs. In practice, this would mean Kenneth Clarke could not be a board member at British American Tobacco and an MP at the same time.
Of course, it would be unfair to prevent MPs from doing local engagements like charity auctions, speaking and so on. However, as these would be seen as part of their job they will doubtless be happy to do these on a voluntary basis.
Certain aspects of the job like foreign jollies have already been tightened up, but there are still gaps in the system where an MP forks out money and then claims it back as expenses. This has previously brought claims of nepotism as one or other MP has employed a member of their family for a nice fat sum paid for out of the national purse. If additional expenditure was managed directly by the parliamentary accountant’s office (so they pay salaries for MPs and assistants and rent for the office etcetera) then the MPs would have much less room for sneaky manoeuvres.
The Honours System
The origin of most honours systems lies in patronage to a monarch, and ours is no different. Lords were given titles and land either because they had done something for the crown or were going to do something, like give it money. It is the oddity of the recent “Cash for Honours” scandal http://politics.guardian.co.uk/funding/story/0,,1972222,00.html that what they were investigating was the very thing the system was set up for in the first place.
Today, however, there is no place for such an archaic system, but I do believe that society needs to honour their own in some fashion. I would therefore propose that the entire honours system be removed from our governmental system in entirety and placed back in the hands of the Monarchy.
Since our Monarch has no direct political influence or motive (I would suspect that she has had little great approval for any recent governments) there would be no political corruption possible. The Monarch, as part of her role, would then appoint a wide ranging committee to control nominations for awards. We would keep the titles and awards as they are since they are familiar and respected by the public. But they would no longer hold any political patronage.
Without the creation of political “Lords” we lose the present system that floats the House of Lords. And that is therefore next on the list.
A New Second Chamber
I feel at this point I should shut up and just hand over to Billy Bragg http://www.secondarymandate.org/ Although his idea is far form perfect, at least he has had one, which is more that most have managed.
A second chamber, sometimes called a Revising Chamber, has always been a bone of contention. The arguments against it being elected is that is just becomes a clone of the first chamber and nothing much is achieved. The argument against it being appointed is that it becomes corrupted by nepotism and favour.
However, I feel these arguments only have any validity within the present governmental system. If that system is changed, these arguments no longer present a problem.
Appointing a second chamber is always tempting because of the ability to cherry pick the most talented who would not otherwise consider going through the duress of an election. But the problem is that this is always someone else’s appointment, not yours, and how can you trust another’s motives? And who gets to appoint in the first place? The government or Monarchy? We are back where we started. In addition, you only get part timers this way.
I lean towards a completely elected chamber. However, I would be interested in examining the case of a “Chamber of Independents.” This assumes that party affiliations (taking the whip) are disallowed. You cannot stand either as an official member of a party or by being supported by a party. You must be independent.
This second chamber would be much smaller than our new Commons, and the members would be elected on a regional basis. Apart from not having a party, these members would also not have the same kind of constituency responsibilities as MPs; their regions would simply be too large. But they would have area offices with staff so that they are well versed in local issues and with the local council.
This would be a full time role with full time attendance expected; either in the second chamber or their local office. All members of our Chamber of Independents would be expected to scrutinise policy as it came up from the Commons Chamber and any previous expertise would be used as appropriate. Medical Doctors would expect to find themselves sitting on health committees, for instance.
I would give these now hard working Independents an additional responsibility. Since they are regionally elected, they would become ambassadors for their Local Council to the parliament. They would not have an active part to play in local level politics, but when the council needs representation and advocacy at parliamentary level, the Independent would be the person called upon.
Making Votes Count
Much of this essay has been spent, in one way or another, in an attempt to reconnect our system of governance with the people who commission it. And indeed to make the public realise that they are the commissioners of our government, not it’s subjects.
But I cannot in truth address this issue without bringing up the thorny matter of Proportional Representation. The debate has moved significantly since I was young with PR being adopted in parts of our system, for instance both the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have some elements of PR.
It is felt by some, the Liberal Democrats in particular, that PR is the curative for our lack lustre voting record. However, voting numbers have been falling all over Europe, most of which uses one PR system or another. But it does engender cooperation and I feel that as long as people still feel that they are being represented locally and regionally, can still get hold of their MP and have them work for them, then the advantages of a system or PR would outweigh the disadvantages. But I am no expert here and am willing to hear the various arguments for the various systems. I can say, though, that I think time is called for our head to head, first past the post system.
I want my vote to have meant something.
What I propose here is not some carefully worked out plan, for I do not have the tools to engage in such an enterprise, and is without doubt full of holes. It is instead a gut instinct approach to what I think is a very real problem: our parliamentary system is quite simply inappropriate for our society. It has probably been inappropriate for some considerable time and it is doing us no favours.
Politicians from all sides would argue that it must be fine for look how much stronger our country is now compared with 20 years ago. But I would argue that the country has become stronger despite the politics not in spite of it. I do not deny that our government has achieved some important goals; the minimum wage and independence for the Bank of England in recent times, and legislation to attempt to depoliticise the Unions from the previous government. But it is also true that where there is success, politicians will take credit and where there is failure politicians will be quick to blame someone else.
We cannot change human nature. Politics is, has always been and always will be attractive to those with a large ego and the arrogance to support it. But what we can change is the system that allows them to get away with it.
We need a system that not only makes the politician accountable to parliament but to the electorate. A system that is so open, and where its rules are so well publicised that there really is no where for the opportunistic MP to hide.
The public are the ultimate employers. Through elections we hire and fire. But so often we vote globally rather than regionally, so that we retain the bad MP in favor of our preferred party. A change of system could change that; could mean that MPs have to work closely together as a matter of course, and in a way that is both seen and understood by the public.
Finally, a word about the Forth Estate: The Press (or media).
The press have become part of the political establishment. They argue that they are representing the public. Andrew Neil has said that directly on This Week on the BBC. But he fails to appreciate that we do not want him to represent us. We did not elect him, have little in common with him and certainly do not empathize with him. Journalists are monumentally unqualified as representatives as they are so often slaves to their corporate masters’ agendas, or their own small Westminster village mentality.
A new parliamentary system that is not only far more open but is highly communicative and able to be scrutinised by the public will go a small ways to surgically removing the media bunion from its backside. And perhaps the press can go back to doing what they should be doing – reporting the news rather than creating it.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, said Bert Lance in 1977. Except it is broken, and we are paying for it. About time it got fixed.