So where do we go from here?

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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 £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.

10 thoughts on “So where do we go from here?

  1. An excellent post.

    Regarding party funding, I think that donation over a certain cap should be taxed in such a way as to provide for the matched funding you suggest. That way, large donor are not just supporting a party, they’re supporting democracy.

    When you say “ministers must also be parliamentarians” – I was under the impression that Peter Mandelson wasn’t a member of Parliament – or am I confused?

    While I like the idea that a future energy secretary holds a Nobel Prize it would mean that there would be no democratic accountability. We’d be reliant on the ruling party to discipline any wrong-doings.

    What I find amusing about electoral reform is all the parties support it… for their own use! The election of the Tory leader and the Speaker are just two examples where FPTP have been removed for something better. If it’s good enough for them…

    Finally, you’re right about the constituency link. Not least because high ranking ministers can’t be expected to manage local, national and international work.

  2. Terence,

    On party funding, I really like your idea of using large donors to provide party funding.

    On ministers being Parliamentarians, Mandelson was given a life peerage just prior to being put in charge of DBERR. He indirectly replaced Digby Jones who was also given a life peerage and remains in the House of Lords despite only being in government for a year.

    In terms of democratic accountability, currently the only accountability lies in the Commons’ nuclear option of passing a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister. Surely subjecting each minister to an approval process and allowing Parliament to no confidence individual ministers would lead to greater accountability – even if they weren’t parliamentarians themselves?

  3. Why is everyone talking about constitutional reform as the solution to the current political crisis and no-one talking about the way the parties present themselves?

    We need to get away from this idera that parties are top-down Leninist/Tory type tools of their leaders, and rediscover the idea that they are bottom up associations of people who get together in order to promote some of their number to political positions.

    Why, for example, are all or PPBs so focussed on the Leader? Why don’t we have PPB which have the theme “join us an empower yourselves” rather than “vote for us and we’ll do good things for you”? Isn’t the latter more liberal? Aren’t we liberals?

  4. Matthew,

    The way parties behave is a direct consequence of the electoral and political system.

    If you have a system which invests so much power in the executive and depends on the votes of a handful of swing voters in marginal constituencies, politics will always be fought on the basis of personalities slugging it out rather than political ideals.

    Even the best electoral system can’t eliminate that entirely, but it certainly would mitigate it.

  5. …but while Ireland has an average of 26,000 people per elector…

    I think you mean “26,000 people per seat/TD”! Personally I don’t see the problem with multi-seat constituencies. Indeed, they would more often be natural communities than the current seats. Large cities such as Sheffield would be one constituency, and small counties like Cambridgeshire (also Oxfordshire if we have 6-seater constituencies or reduce the number of MPs) would be one constituency. Makes much more sense than saying that “Sheffield Central” or “South Cambridgeshire” are a natural community (South Cambridgeshire contains the part of Cambridge city that doesn’t fit into the Cambridge seat as well as a swathe of countryside – no logic there!).

    In counties with a large city the simple solution would be for the city to be one constituency and the rest of the county another. Bring on STV!

    But there is an interesting question attached to STV: how large should the constituencies be? Irish constituencies range from three to five seats each, which hurts smaller parties such as the PDs (who are in the process of disbanding, sadly). In a British context the losers would be the Greens and, conceivably, UKIP (though I’m not sure whether UKIP would attract many votes in Westminster elections). If we want more proportionality we should raise the upper limit to seven seats (lower limit should still be three because of the Highlands).

  6. 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…

    For all the sound and fury, David Cameron flunks that test, saying to the BBC:

    But Mr Cameron rejects any change from the current first-past-the-post system.

    “Proportional representation takes power away from the man and woman in the street and hands it to the political elites,” he says.

    “Instead of voters choosing their government on the basis of the manifestos put before them in an election, party managers would choose a government on the basis of secret backroom deals. How is that going to deliver the transparency and trust we need?”

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8067505.stm

    We need to deal with this attitude otherwise PR will never pass in a referendum. Even the citizens of British Columbia rejected STV, despite having suffered ludicrous near-wipeouts of parties under FPTP: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Columbia_electoral_reform_referendum,_2009

  7. @James Graham
    James,

    It would be very nice to think that if only we had voting by STV and a written constitution, politics would all be wonderful and everyone would think democracy was working really well and we wouldn’t have to worry about something fascist coming along shortly and sweeping the whole lot away on the “Damn the lot of them, let’s get rid of politics” line.

    But I beg to dissent – do people love their politicians and is there no divided between the political class and the people in, say the Republic of Ireland?

  8. Matthew, please don’t trot out the usual anti-reform canard that because PR isn’t a panacea it is useless. This is plainly nonsense and intellectually dishonest.

    Of course it won’t solve everything. What it – or rather a responsive electoral system such as STV – does do is ensure that MPs are more accountable. That is what people are demanding at the moment and only electoral reform can do this.

    I haven’t defended the state of Irish politics – quite the opposite. But in Ireland there isn’t that sense of quiet desperation that characterises politics in England that you are being systematically ignored by the political system.

  9. James, I am not opposed to electoral reform, far from it. It’s what brought me into the party 30 years ago, the fact that the Liberals supported it and Labour were against it was perhaps the key issue which tipped me into the Liberals. The main thing that pointed me towards PR was that I was a Labour-inclined person in a part of the country with 100% Tory MPs. I felt people like me and my family went without representation, that there was some sort of cozy alliance whereby Labour wrote off poor southerners and the hidden council estates in supposedly wealthy areas like where we lived in return for over-domination in the inner cities and industrial north. And I felt Labour MPs from the north and inner London knew and cared fuck all for us in our Sussex council estates and that made me very, very angry. I am certainly not saying that PR is useless – for the reasons I gave just now it is essential and something I strongly support, but I am saying that it is not enough.

    I agree with you very much with the point, as you say elsewhere, that the PR has to be the STV system. The current crisis is not about proportionality, it’s about people feeling that politics and politicians are remote from them. STV is the only system which gives the individual choice between candidates that goes some way to remedying this. AV doesn’t (because there’s only one candidate per party – although it offers the very limited remedy of a like-minded independent standing and not splitting the vote if the incumbent MP is really awful), and list systems don’t and a cobble-up between he two doesn’t. So AV+ has almost nothing to deal with why people are so anti-politics now, and it is hypocritical of us to offer it pretending it does. Saying that does not mean, as you seem to be implying, that I believe PR is worthless even in a debased form such as AV+.

    However, the point I am making is that the REAL remedy to the current crisis is to change the way politics is presented. This does mean considering the sort of literature and campaign material we put out, the way we present ourselves. We MUST find a way to make political parties seem on the side of the people against the big established powers, rather than being one of those big alienating powers. Now when I joined the party we were starting to do that with “community politics”, but that became ossified and the original very radical intentions that its pioneers had were never taken forward and it became just an election-winning technique. I don’t think what we do with it now can be particularly built on (I don’t want to write any more patronising Focus leaflets), but I do want to get back to what we wanted to do back in those days when it was new.

    So, we do need to do things like having an image which is more about ordinary people joining us and finding it and empowering mechanism and less about Big Chief Clegg handing down wisdom from on high. I know I have this image of someone who is fanatically anti-Clegg, but believe me it is because I feel we really are going down the wrong path to think the way forward is just to have a fancy national image based around a smoothie charismatic leader. I want us to be a party which is about people, not a party about leaders. I am pushing this really firmly and with increased urgency, because I am becoming more fearful that we may end up with people’s detachment from politics leading to something horrible happening, and I mean 1920/30s stuff. We MUST get this right, and just saying “a referendum on AV+” is not enough at all.

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