Politics is not broken, it's just badly stressed - The Snow In The Summer or So-So

30 May 2009
Building a Better Politic

So, what's to be done with parliament? Start with the simple matters, move on to the more ambitious questions.

1) Keep a sense of perspective. This isn't corruption in the Italian sense, it's nowhere near as bad as Tangentopoli. Politicians are not openly taking bribes to advance policies. Civil servants are not openly taking kickbacks from anyone. Yes, people are in parliament to make themselves richer, but they're also there to do something they passionately believe in.

2) Don't trust the instant saviours. Returning to Italy, Sr. Berlusconi appeared to ride to the rescue in 1994, but he's proven to be no less corrupt or venal as the people he replaced. Again, keep a sense of perspective: voters will regret sending a message of two fingers to the political class. Readers may wish to speculate what a coalition between Mr. Farage of the UIP and Mr. Butterfield's Nationalist Party would be like, please don't have nightmares.

3) Work out what the hell we want our politicians to be. Do we want people who are just political wonks, whose only ambition after leaving university was to get into the Commons? Would we prefer people who are independently wealthy, and perhaps less representative of the regular person? Should the Commons be selected by random from all eligible people, like a jury? Or from all eligible and willing people? Would it be advantageous to disband parties?

4) We need to work out their payments. An average living wage? Wage of a senior civil servant? Pay expenses to and from their constituency? Expenses for running accommodation near to the parliament building? Would we wish to move parliament away from London, say to a purpose-built site between Manchester and Leeds? Provide accommodation?

5) Should the Cabinet be members of parliament, or appointed as a ministry of all the talents? Would that undermine the legislature, or would the separation enhance both arms of government?

6) If elections are deemed desirable (in other words, if the Commons isn't to become a compulsory duty like jury service), there must be no safe seats. MPs need the clear and unequivocal support of their electors. It must be possible to appoint a particularly strong member regardless of affiliation, and to remove a particularly offensive member.

How to make all seats unsafe seats? Proportional representation is the answer. The top-up model (as used in Germany, Scotland, and Wales) works if and only if the top-up list is itself a choice between candidates, and that tends to confusion: is your main vote for Candidate A on People 1, or Candidate B on List 2? We can't properly understand it ourselves, we'll never be able to explain it to our granny.

Open list voting (Netherlands, Denmark) is simpler to understand: vote X by your one preferred candidate, the totals for the parties are worked out, and if the party is entitled to three seats, the three candidates with the greatest personal totals are returned. Closed lists (as used in the forthcoming European elections) certainly won't fit the bill.

A more simple model? Vote transfers: order candidates from favourite to least-favourite, and shuffle until someone gets the majority of the vote. Fans of the two-party system will prefer the Alternative Vote (as used in Australia); fans of diverse opinions will go with the Single Transferable Vote (Ireland, Scottish councils, Labour leadership contests).

If we're to treat Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael as examples, leading parties under STV would tend towards the centre ground, so they can pick up lots of second- and third-preferences from across the spectrum. They've also got to be pragmatic, able to determine the important parts of their manifesto and the bits they're prepared to put on ice. Do the opponents of representative voting wish to be seen as inflexible and immoderate?

Even a French system of non-instant run-off would be preferable: the French, you'll recall, elect anyone achieving an absolute majority of votes, then put forward those candidates receiving between 15% and 50% of the vote to a second round. And they have elected mayors for the smallest towns.

The existing politicians have blethered on about open selections, allowing anyone - party member or not - to choose who they want as their candidate. They're obviously copying this idea from the Moronicans, and we don't think this is a particularly wise move, precisely because we don't want the UK to move to a one-party country like Moronica. If parties wish to experiment with this, let them do so, but we will feel no compulsion to treat the result as any more valid than that obtained by asking the party membership.

Nor do we believe that special elections to unseat a sitting MP are a tremendously wise move; they smack of sore losership. If the general elections are frequent enough (every three years, as in Australia) then these special elections serve no purpose. Assuming the parliamentary term is four or five years, we would perhaps allow special elections to be called at least six months away from the general election in either direction. A special election would be triggered only by a very high threshold: at least 10% of the constituency's electoral roll. If verified, the MP would be forced to resign, and would be entitled to defend his seat in the subsequent by-election. Oh, and this blog thinks the idea is such a perversion of fair play that we would tend to support the existing MP to the point of 1-then-non-effective, or abstain entirely.

Lowering the voting age to 16 is a decision to be considered on its own merits, and would properly be considered apart from these constitutional reforms. We take no position on the question.

Should there be a mechanism by which very popular petitions are forced to be debated on the Commons? Perhaps, but the threshold must be very high, otherwise parliament would be filled with frivolous petitions and nothing would ever happen. The EU has set a threshold of one million citizens; the UK threshold might be 250,000 citizens. Following its presentation, the petition would have to be approved by the Speaker's office as suitable for debate, so that the Commons wasn't debating anything beyond its constitutional competences. The petition must not duplicate any another petition debated in the recent past (say, the length of one parliament).

Register of lobbyists and lobbying activity? Absolutely; indeed, there should be no debate at all about this. The Green Party already publish all their lobbyists, other parties may voluntarily follow suit from today.

A written constitution would help to provide clarity, and the UK can borrow from examples of good practice across the world.

All of the proposals are interesting, but they miss the elephant in the room. No one is addressing the yawning democratic deficit, the missing level of power between Westminster and the shire counties. England needs devolution to her regions, redressing the consolidation of power at Whitehall. Why does the NHS have to meet targets set by London, ignoring the expertise of specialists in Bristol? Why should the labour market in Liverpool be treated the same as the one in Epsom? Yes, someone must impose minimum standards, and those standards should be no lower than at present, but there must also be room for each region to spend its money as it sees fit. Does Mr. Eager Young Space Cadet, Mr. Soup Dragon, Mr. Clegg have anything to say on subsidiarity? Does he heck!

Planning is a very good example. Westminster's place is to set broad guidelines, saying (for instance) there need to be another 150,000 homes in the West Midlands area. The West Midlands says that they should be built in X, Y, and Z. Council X determines exactly where, and in what form the development should take place. At present, if developers don't like a council's decision, they can appeal to the much less accountable Department of the Environment in the hope of getting it overturned. We can't square that with properly devolved democracy: if the council says no, it means no, and that's that.

We've long been of the opinion that point 3 is the most problematic one. What the hell do we want our politicians to be? There's nothing wrong with people who want to be MPs, it's just that they tend to be not all that good at empathising with the rest of the public. Politics becomes a closed shop, something for the cognoscenti to debate while treating the great unwashed as statistics. At this stage, we would introduce four reforms.

A) Raise the minimum age at which someone can stand for election to the national parliament. We reckon 30 is the minimum to gain a reasonable amount of life experience, anything beyond 40 would curtail careers perhaps a little too much.

B) Ensure that there's purpose-built accommodation for MPs, within reasonable distance of the Commons chamber. This does not require, but does not preclude, the prospect of relocating the Commons to new premises within or without London. Members would be able to claim reasonable travel expenses, but nothing more.

C) Introduce a system of elections to return representatives who are actually representative. This would probably translate to a single transferrable vote in multi-member constituencies, or some derivative thereof.

D) Begin the process of devolving power within England, along the lines of the Scottish Parliament, complete with tax-varying powers. For constitutional neatness, this requires the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies to have tax-varying powers also.

A possible timetable, assuming a four-year cycle of Westminster elections:

2014 - Westminster election
2015 - Devolved assembly election (Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, English regions)
2016 - Upper chamber
2017 - Local council (where all-up)

Arrangements:

* Westminster election: split the country into about 85 regions of about 500,000 electors each. (Readers who recall the European Parliament constituencies will recognise the scale: it's about eight current Westminster constituencies.) Each constituency returns about 6 members by STV, for a total Commons of 500. (We reckon on keeping the boundaries for as long as possible and varying the number of MPs, for reasons that will become clear.)

* Regional assemblies: use the same constituencies as Westminster, electing an appropriate number of AMs by STV. We reckon that roughly one AM to one MP is the right sort of ratio; by this measure, the Scottish Parliament may be too large. The division of England into regions is a matter for another post: we might start by using combinations of BBC news regions (map).

* A fully-elected Upper Chamber replaces the Lords'. Here, we suggest two members from each constituency, elected for eight-year terms, so Lords' finishes up with about 340 members. Again, STV would be optimal.

* Local councils may prefer to elect all their members in one go, or to elect a third each year, leaving one year fallow. That would be a local decision. Either way, STV is the right way to go.

The local council map, particularly in the remaining shire counties, would need to be re-drawn: we cannot honestly see a need for parish, district, shire councils and a regional assembly. Something - either district or shire - has to go.

The European Parliament elections would continue to take place every fifth year. It would make sense to have early June as a regular election date for local and national elections.

What we need, most of all, is to think. Carefully consider all the ramifications. Remember point 2. We don't need no Silvio Taxdodger.

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