Tag Archives: citizens-initiatives

Giving Citizens a Voice in Parliament: your help needed!

I’m attempting to get a motion on the agenda of the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth this autumn. The motion itself speaks for itself (see below).

If you support it, and are a voting representative for conference this autumn, please can you email me (to semajmaharg[at]gmail[dot]com) the following details:

  • Your name
  • Your address
  • Your membership number
  • The local party you are a voting representative of (or LDYS as appropriate)

I need everyone’s details as soon as possible as the deadline for submissions is 12 noon on Wednesday 21 May.

Many thanks!

Giving Citizens a Voice in Parliament

Conference notes:
a. In the government’s 2007 Governance of Britain Green Paper, it proposed to “improve direct democracy” yet has failed to produce substantive proposals on how it plans to do this in over a year.
b. Liberal Democrat-run councils such as Kingston have lead the way in developing more participatory forms of decision making. The party outlined a number of proposals for rolling out best practice nationwide in its September 2007 policy paper The Power to Be Different.

Conference believes that giving the public a greater say in policy making and a right to petition elected representatives at all levels of government could enhance representative democracy by providing accountability and clearer lines of communication between elected representatives and their constituents.

Conference therefore calls for:
1. A Petitioning System Fit for the 21st Century: the system for petitioning Parliament should be simplified and it should be possible to submit petitions online. Parliament should develop a system to formally consider all petitions submitted to it and take action where appropriate. Any resident or expatriate of the UK or a British Overseas Territory would have a right to petition Parliament in this way, including children.
2. People’s Bills: whereby the six legislative proposals that received the most petition signatures from registered voters in any given year would be guaranteed a second reading debate in the House of Commons.
3. A People’s Veto: all Acts of Parliament would be subject to a rule whereby, if one million registered voters petitioned against it within 60 days of the law being passed, a referendum would have to be held on whether or not to repeal it.
4. A Responsive Electoral System: elect both Houses of Parliament using single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies (STV). Unlike other electoral systems, STV gives the voter choice between candidates from a particular party, as well as choice between parties. No other system is as good at taking politics out of the backrooms and into the daylight.
5. A Citizen’s Convention: an independent convention to review how to improve the governance of the UK. At least 51% of the Convention’s membership would be made up of randomly selected members of the public. The government would be required by law to co-operate with the Convention in implementing its findings and hold consultative referendums where necessary.

Due to the clear need for security when implementing such measures, Conference reiterates its call for individual voter registration. Submitting petitions in support of People’s Bills and to veto legislation should be subject to the same level of scrutiny as nominating candidates for election.

UPDATE: Motion duly submitted this morning. Thanks to everyone who sponsored it!

Recoil at recall!

Bad law is often passed when people encounter a problem, seize on a solution and wed themselves to it regardless of the unintended consequences. It’s the sort of kneejerk reaction we see from our Labour and Tory rivals all the time. Sadly, Antony Hook and Duncan Borrowman have done this over the “solution” of recall for MPs to solve the “problem” of Derek Conway fiddling his expenses.

Let me start by adding this caveat: I can see the case for recall where an executive is directly elected, such as in the case of an elected mayor. Directly elected executives are powerful things which are supposed to represent communities as a whole. This would be a valuable check on their power.

An executive is not the same thing as a representative however; both perform radically different functions. The purpose of representative democracy is that elected representatives have leeway to disagree with the people they represent, on condition that they are held to account after a period of time.

Liberal Democrats – and anyone with half a braincell who lacks a vested interest in the status quo – support proportional representation. This would maximise choice and competition within the system and ensure that politicians had to sing more loudly for their support. PR might even have ensured that benchwarmers like Conway had been given the heave-ho a long time ago. Either way, to the best of my knowledge, no-one has designed a system of recall that works with PR and avoids imposing the very majoritarianism that the electoral system is designed to bypass.

A Green MEP supported by 10% of the electorate should not be subject to the indulgence of the majority. Under PR, a system of recall would be outrageously open to abuse. We can have PR, or we can have recall: we cannot have both.

It might be argued that in lieu of PR, recall might be justifiable if under a FPTP system (or AV for that matter). The problem with this is that recall would exacerbate many of the worst aspects of such electoral systems.

An MP with a majority of 30,000 would be much less vulnerable to recall than an MP with a majority of 30. MPs in marginal constituencies would be under constant attack; MPs in safe constituencies would be free to do as they pleased.

We already have a system whereby the swing voters in marginal constituencies have a disproportionate level of influence on our Parliament. Recall would give them even more influence.

I’ve often been criticised for my support of things like citizens’ initiatives and Chris Huhne’s proposed people’s veto on the basis that it would undermine representative democracy. On the contrary, I want to strengthen it and see some forms of direct democracy as a way of doing that. But recall is an example of a system which can only undermine representative democracy. It is a way of exerting the tyranny of the majority onto MPs. Only the most venal, spineless and self-serving politicians could work their way through the political culture it would impose on us.

In summary, recall is incompatible with PR – which we should all support. It is incompatible with the principle of representative democracy – which we should all support. And even as an interim measure it would exacerbate the worst aspects of majoritarianism. If you value pluralistic politics, you should avoid it like the plague.

Thankfully, Parliament is unlikely to adopt recall before hell freezes over. It is even less likely to adopt recall than it is to adopt PR. We’re probably safe.

In the meantime, I’m afraid that unless he resigns (and I think he should), either Mr Conway will have to be with us for another couple of years or he will end up in the slammer for a fraudulent use of public funds. That’s a price I for one am happy to pay.

Downing Street Petitions: Initiative without Resolution

Well done to anti-road user charging campaigners for getting a million petition signatures on their Downing Street petition. As someone who has railed against this proposal, not from a motorist perspective but from an environmental and civil libertarian one, it is gratifying to see such a disastrous policy being given such a rough ride.

It does however present present me with a bit of a problem. We desperately need to rebalance direct and representative democracy in this country, but I can’t help but think that this sort of half-measure may end up doing more harm than good.

The Road User Charging example is a good example: government has already made it clear that it has decided to do this. To back down now would make them look very foolish indeed. Yet there is no formal mechanism for what happens next. From what I can make out from the website, Blair will just refer it to Milliband, who will write a curt “thanks for your input, but, no” letter to the petitioners and that’s it.

The problem is, there is simply no way of resolving whether these million plus individuals are representative of the wider population, or just a particularly animated minority. It has to be said that car users get particularly wound up about constant infiringements on the divine rights of motorists. Just the other day, an acquaintance of mine informed me that he was emigrating to Australia because “I’m just sick of draconian traffic laws…makes me feel like sending letter bombs… but someone beat me to it!” How’s that for a balanced perspective?

In my experience, campaigners on all issues have a tendency to assume that they are riding on a crest of popular support, and astroturfing is a standard tool in the modern campaigners’ repertoire. The Downing Street Petition Engine allows people to hang onto these beliefs, without providing a means for testing it out whatsoever. Not surprising, coming from a Prime Minister who much prefers religious leaders to scientists. In short, everyone who uses this system and doesn’t see immediate results will have a right to feel aggrieved and feel that issues are simply being cherry picked to suit the government’s agenda – because that is exactly what they are doing.

At least in Scotland, petitions go to a Parliamentary committee and get deliberated on. The Petitioners may not get what they want, but at least they get more of a formal hearing. In truth, the fact that Blair has done this before Parliament did demonstrates quite how inward looking the Westminster Bubble has become (all the guff from all sides last week about preferential voting marking the end of civilisation would lend credence to that view).

What we really need, of course, is a system of Initiative and Referendum. Far from undermining representative democracy, I’m increasingly coming to the view that this would be its salvation. With a system in place with clear ground rules, the lazy slur of “politicians never listen” would be exposed for what it is – if not enough enthusiasm can be generated to get an initiative started on an issue, then why should we be surprised if politicians aren’t leaping on that particular bandwagon. Conversely, faced with a process that could effectively overrule them, you can bet that politicians will be all too keen to address issues that are generating a lot of real public debate, with a view to nipping them in the bud before they have their hands tied.

Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that a referendum to legalise abortion has just been won in Portugal, and the Centre for Policy Studies have just published a new pamphlet on CI.