The most fascinating aspect of the expenses scandal is how quickly the debate has moved onto a debate about meaningful democratic and constitutional reform. I have to admit, I didn’t quite see it coming, and while there have been rumbles within what you might call the “democratic reform community” about making a big push in the run up to the general election, it seemed to be more driven by the need to be seen to be doing something rather than a belief that it would actually happen.
Yet things have moved on very quickly. I’ve been amazed at the number of Labour politicians who have come out of the woodwork in recent weeks and professed support for, not merely electoral reform, but actual proportional representation. It is fair to say this has been rumbling on for a while now. Compass, and with it Jon Cruddas MP, came of the fence a couple of months ago. Today we see Alan Johnson out himself as well.
Just six months ago, the orthodoxy amongst electoral reformers in the Labour Party was to bang on about Alternative Vote as being the only option – a ludicrous notion since it would cost almost as much pain to achieve but with almost none of the benefits of full electoral reform. Johnson and others are still talking about the Jenkins proposals – a failed and rather complex fudge designed to keep Tony Blair happy which I am sure Roy Jenkins himself would have disowned by now had he lived long enough. But either way we are a long way from having to decide precisely what system should be used; the call at this stage is for a referendum to be held on the same day as the general election to establish the principle.
The important thing that needs to be emphasised is that mere proportional representation is not enough. Peter Kellner (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/politics-the-only-way-is-up-1690137.html) is half right when he says PR has “nothing to do with probity.” Mark Thompson has done a splendid job demonstrating how the first-past-the-post system and expenses abuse are inextricably linked (this is a brilliant example about how a single blog post can influence a national debate, given the number of times I’ve read or heard it referred to by people in the mainstream media over the past week).
Most PR systems in fact do increase probity, but it isn’t the proportionality that does this but the way they allow voters to choose between candidates within a single party. The list system used for the European Elections does not allow for this and we ought to rule it out for Westminster elections straight away. The Additional Member System used for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly is an improvement but is still limiting (the Welsh Assembly rule against ‘dual candidacy’ gives voters even less choice).
While my personal preference would be single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies, I would be content with any open list system that allows voters to select from candidates rather than parties. The size of the constituency matters too. As we saw in the Scottish local elections in 2007, three member constituencies don’t really allow for much competition within parties at all.
For many people, including some Liberal Democrats, talk of PR is intolerable because it threatens the “constituency link.” The “constituency link” is in fact one of the most pernicious aspects of modern politics. Of course MPs should have a sense of place, but the idea that they should all be responsible for their own relatively small parishes is ludicrous. As Simon Jenkins has cogently argued, as MPs have transformed themselves into caseworkers over the past few decades, they have conspired to strip local government of its authority. And as Andrew Rawnsley puts it, the Liberal Democrats bear a large amount of responsibility for this. Our use of “pavement politics” (which isn’t the same thing as community politics, but rather a perversion of it) as a tool for gaining MPs has made a lot of sense in terms of narrow party interest but has actually hurt the causes for both decentralisation and electoral reform. With the political system in flux and Chris Rennard no longer in the captain’s chair, we have a real opportunity to rethink this.
The biggest irony is that the MP-constituency link is at its closest in the Republic of Ireland, where they have STV. Indeed, Conservative peer David Trimble spends his retirement in the House of Lords railing against it for precisely the opposite reasons that his leader opposes it. To be fair, he has a point, but while Ireland has an average of 26,000 people per elector, in the UK it is closer to 90,000. Irish politics is dominated by two parties divided by history rather than ideology – a state of affairs which is gradually breaking down over time. In the UK, the main thing that causes parties to fight on similar ideological ground is FPTP. In other words, while STV would inevitably lead to more accountability in the UK, we have no reason to expect that the parochialism of Irish politics will come along with it.
Electoral reform is the sine qua non; the one thing that seperates the genuine reformers from the people simply attempting to profit from the debacle – no wonder the Telegraph is in such a flap about it (electoral reform? Fuck! No! More Tories! That’s the answer! Honest!). But won’t be sufficient in my view and will be subject to a full onslaught by the Tory press. For that reason, reformers need to arm themselves with a number of other reforms too. The question is, what?
I don’t think the time has come for a full written constitution to sort everything out, although I do think we’ll have one within 20 years due to a number of factors (if you want to know why precisely, you’ll need to read Unlocking Democracy: 20 Years of Charter 88 and in particular its concluding chapter). Short of that, there have been a lot of suggestions doing the rounds, some of which are better than others.
I’m all for reducing the number of MPs (something which the Tories are demanding, despite the fact it would weaken their precious constituency link), but one of the practical problems the Lib Dems’ Better Governance Working Group came across when we considered this in 2007 was the impact it would have in increasing the dominance of the payroll vote in the House of Commons. Ultimately, I think David Starkey is right: we need to seperate the legislature and the executive entirely. In the short term however, we could simply get rid of the convention that ministers must also be parliamentarians. It is a nonsense in any case which has lead to the Lords being stuffed with placemen despite the fact that their Commons shadows can’t actually ask them any questions. Worried about democratic accountability? Then let them address the Commons regardless of their membership and subject appointments to parliamentary scrutiny.
I’m all for lowering the barriers to get involved in politics and introducing primaries, but let’s not kid ourselves that it will lead to any great increase in participation. If the low level of participation in US primaries (other than major contests such as the presidential nomination) doesn’t convince you, then what about the tiny level number of voters who took part in Jury Team? Opening up the selection of party leaders would be a positive step forward but for parliamentary candidates it would be little more than a figleaf. In any case, the effect of electoral reform would be to introduce a system which in effect combines the functions of both a primary and election.
Recall is problematic. Without electoral reform it would be pernicious, making MPs in marginal constituencies even more vulnerable while leaving MPs in safe seats relatively untroubled. Nick Clegg’s proposal of only allowing recall if the MP in question has been caught breaking the rules is equally problematic: who decides if they broke rules and wouldn’t a vote be little more than a formality if they were censured in such a way? Why not just go straight for a by-election.
With electoral reform however, on reflection (you’ll notice I’ve changed my mind here), I can see it working, if the recall petitions are for recalling all the MPs representing the constituency in question rather than just one of them. That way, it can’t be used simply to force out minority parties.
Finally, there is the question of party funding. There are, in my view, strong arguments for incentive-based funding systems (e.g. small donations up to Â£50 get matched by state support on a pound-for-pound basis, thereby encouraging parties to collect comparatively small donations from a wide base), but I am under no illusions that now is not the time to win that argument. What most certainly does need to be introduced is a cap on donations so that rich people and union chiefs can’t simply buy the system. Both Labour and the Conservatives have at various times over the past few years claimed to support this in principle but both are totally compromised by a dependency on, respectively, the unions and Lord Ashcroft’s cronies.
The Lib Dems have a window of opportunity to force this issue. As I wrote last month, the party should unilaterally impose a cap of its own. The Michael Brown story rumbles on and Clegg’s defence looks pretty thin. It is time we did something to signal that we have learned from our mistakes (and they are mistakes – I don’t care how many checks you make, you should never take millions of pounds from someone who you’ve only known a couple of months).
Anything else? Lords reform would be nice, but must take a lower priority until the Commons is sorted out first in my view (12 months ago, when the prospect of Commons reform was a distant possibility, the calculation was different). I’d still like to see us move towards agenda initiative and veto. Without a written constitution however, a full system of citizens initiative and referendum would be highly problematic. It would be mistaken though to think we can fit every reform anyone has ever wanted into this narrow window of opportunity. The good news is that if we can fix the Commons, the prospect of more democracy further down the line can only be increased.