Tag Archives: democratic-renewal

Revolution! MPs to question ministers shocker!!!!

I’m sure all the people involved are well meaning but there is something soul destryoing about this story on the front page of the Guardian today:

Lord Mandelson is set to make history by becoming the first cabinet minister from the House of Lords in modern times to answer questions in the Commons.

John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, is planning to use his mandate as a moderniser to break centuries of tradition which have kept the Commons and Lords apart in an attempt to make ministers who sit in the upper house accountable to MPs.

Nicholas Watt goes on to describe, in miniscule detail, how the convention that MPs never talk to ministers sitting in “the other place” might be allowed to address the House of Commons (note how he writes all this down, seemingly irony free, yet can’t even grasp a basic fact such as whether the Alternative Vote system is proportional or not – it isn’t just MPs who are the problem here). As long as they don’t cross the bar, they’re safe. One can only speculate what might happen if the big toe of an ennobled minister were to inadvertantly slip over the line. Chaos! Apocalypse! Revolution!

For some reason I am reminded of Egon Spengler’s grave warning in Ghostbusters not to “cross the streamers” – of course at the end of the film it becomes necessary to do that to prevent the end of the world. Somehow I suspect Peter Mandelson setting foot in the House of Commons won’t be anything like as spectacular. Or involve quite as much marshmallow (I could be wrong about that last bit, I will concede).

The normally sensible (he has a blind spot when it comes to the House of Lords, it must be said) Vernon Bogdanor doesn’t exactly help, describing this move as “radical.”

I have to admit that I’m in two minds about this myself. On the one hand, clearly the House of Commons should be free to scrutinise any minister of state, in the House of Commons, without having to worry about bars or go off to the much smaller Westminster Hall. On the other hand, I don’t think there should be ANY ministers in the House of Lords full stop.

This convention about having to ennoble any non-MP who is to serve as a minister is total nonsense. It leads to people like Digby Jones getting a peerage simply for doing five months in the Department of Business, Enterprice and Regulatory Reform (a department which itself existed for twelve months before Gordon Brown insisted on reprinting all the stationary yet again). The argument for it is that ministers must be accountable to Parliament – but they aren’t. They get to answer questions in Parliament – however lamentably – but they are only actually accountable to the Prime Minister.

If we want ministers to be accountable to Parliament then we should have confirmation hearings. Parliament should have the authority to throw out any nominee that it believes to be weak or incompetent. The quid pro quo of that would be that anyone in principle should be able to serve – and not be a parliamentarian. A side benefit, I suspect, is that reshuffles would be less frequent (as they would be become more bureaucratic) and thus ministers would be given the space to do a job rather than spend six months getting up to speed before the Prime Minister moves them somewhere else to cover up for his own failings.

Better ministers with more of an opportunity to do their job? I’m sure the reactionaries in Westminster would be outraged. It might just lead to better government for the rest of us though.

You can’t be a half-iconoclast

If there’s a problem with the Unspoken Constitution its that it barely qualifies as satire. The shenanigans surrounding MPs’ expenses, Carter-Ruck’s single handed attempt to rewrite the UK constitution to favour their client Trafigura and this torrid little paper sneaked out by the Ministry of Justice today (which patiently explains why Royal Prerogative powers are, in fact, all wonderful and the only thing that stands between us and authoritarianism), all amply illustrate that Stuart Weir and co’s attempt to write the famously unwritten constitution is more a reflection of reality than an exaggeration of it. A Modest Proposal is satire. Yes, Minister and The Thick of It are satires. The Unspoken Constitution is merely frank.

I have to admit to finding this week somewhat depressing in that it is clear that a great many MPs have returned from recess determined to shut down any further discussion about reform and that, to an extent, they are succeeding. The media itself has been very helpful in this respect, detailing the process almost moment-to-moment but almost entirely lacking in analysis. Let us not forget that the people who are now complaining about the unfairness of Sir Thomas Legg applying new rules to them retrospectively are for the most part the same people who attempted to keep this little scam of theirs shrouded in secrecy – in defiance of the law – for years. All the indications are that for the most part, they still haven’t learned why that was an utterly stupid and damaging thing to do.

The media, frankly, loves the status quo because it means it can write about politics on its terms. Everything can be about story; the notion that politics is about a battle of ideas takes a back seat. There has, if truth be told, always been a tension between the two, but the latter took a distinct turn for the worse 20 years ago and has never recovered.

The paucity of vision in politics today was on display at the Vote for a Change/All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Continuation of First Past the Post debate on Tuesday. I won’t attempt to sum up the debate because there wasn’t one to speak of; as Oona King pointed out very early on, almost everyone in the room had made up their mind already so what was the point? But I was struck by the number of MPs who stood up and waxed lyrical about how they regard their main role being to represent their constituents and their constituency, above all else.

Historically, that is quite a new notion and I know it is a notion that has a lot of support within the Lib Dems. But it is a dreadful one nonetheless. MPs’ primary role is to scrutinise – both the executive and legislation. Their first duty should be to the national interest, surely?

I’m not suggesting, incidently, that a sense of place for MPs is unimportant or that local issues should play no part. My beef is with the notion that this should be the priority. What’s worse is that it is a fiction to suggest that they do. Most MPs put party loyalty above parochial concerns most of the time. Local campaigns can force them to abstain or even defy their whips, but only if a lot of pressure is created. True, MPs are generally more likely to defy the whips than at any point in the recent past, but this is still the exception rather than the norm.

Either way, the notion of the MP as an independently minded individual who cares passionately about working within the system to bring forth their vision of the good society is extremely unfashionable. This is true whether we are talking about party politics or even this current vogue for indpendents; in fact, when it comes to the Martin Bells, Richard Taylors and Jury Teams of this world, ideas appear to have gone out of the window entirely – at least political parties have manifestos still. What I found on Tuesday was that the supporters of FPTP were united in arguing for this idea of parliamentary politics.

It’s a real problem for supporters of proportional representation because it is an argument that holds real resonance amongst the public. Who wouldn’t want an MP who is committed to doing whatever you tell them to do (leaving aside the fact that there will be 70,000 other constituents with competing interests for one second)? This idea of the ultra-local politician has taken a firm grip in the popular psyche; people even imagine that it was ever thus.

The problem for electoral reformers is that thus far we have failed to take on this argument. Worse, a great many electoral reformers actually agree with it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people tell me that they are a) pro-proportional representation and b) in favour of retaining the constituency link. It is one of the main arguments that people who support the Jenkins system assert.

I don’t believe we can ever win the argument for proportional representation until reformers can agree that what we need is a radically different kind of politics. Each time someone argues for essentially the status quo with a few tweaks to neutralise the worst aspects of it, they concede almost all the ground to the other side. It becomes, essentially, a narrow and technocratic argument about systems and practicalities. The moral force behind the argument for PR is entirely lost. We might as well not bother.

Ultimately this argument applies to the reform debate more widely and brings me back to The Unspoken Constitution. Our current system has become so toxic that the time for incrementalist change is now past. We need a fundamental shift, not an attempt to meet the status quo halfway. Tim Garton Ash is correct when he says that the Lib Dems aren’t arguing for this any more and that it is a crying shame. What’s odder is that Nick Clegg’s language nine months ago – before the MPs’ expenses scandal erupted – was significantly more radical. Even Cameron comes across as more forthright on this area now, even if he is hopeless when it comes to specifics.

Maybe it doesn’t poll well, but I’m not convinced that sounding like everyone else does either. Either way, the lack of a clear iconoclastic liberal voice in this debate at the moment is lamentable.

Great policy Ming – now let’s campaign on it! (UPDATE)

Over at Our Kingdom I’ve given my view of the new Lib Dem policy paper on British governance. Broadly I think its great; but then I did have a hand in writing much of it!

That isn’t the whole story though – predictably I have an amendment to propose. Watch this space for more details.

UPDATE: I’ve now posted an article about my proposed amendment on Lib Dem Voice, and have set up the obligatory accompanying Facebook group. Please sign up!

Polly Toynbee – where do I start?

Polly Toynbee is waging her war against local democracy once again, insisting that only centralised super-states can be socially progressive and blithely ignoring the fact that all the Scandinavian countries she worships so much are far more decentralised that we can even dream.

This week, she has come up with the bizarre hypothesis that ‘localism’ and electoral reform are two mutually exclusive proposed solutions to democratic renewal. Of course, apart from the recent Tory and Labour converts to localism, the two reforms have always tended to go hand in hand. Indeed, how can you truly claim to want to bring decision making down to as low a level as possible while defending an electoral system that tends to ignore the votes of the majority of the people?

She bases her assertion on the fact that people voted on broadly national issues in the local elections, not local ones. Leaving aside the fact that I happen to think that isn’t true – the results varied wildly from council to council – why should we expect people to vote on local issues when local authorities don’t have any power? It’s not far off from bemoaning the fact that the votes cast in the Eurovision Song Contest aren’t about the quality of the music. Yes indeed they aren’t, but as it doesn’t really matter either way, so what?

If further prove were needed that Toynbee doesn’t really know what she’s talking about, she claims that the Lib Dem’s performance in the local elections was worse than Labour’s (it wasn’t), and that her preferred model for electoral reform is the Jenkins System which, erm, isn’t actually a proportional voting system. Indeed, it makes the partially proportional system used in Wales look representative.

While we’ll never know, I’m convinced that if Roy Jenkins was alive today he would be pleading for people to ignore the proposals he drafted for Blair back in 1999. They were an attempt to fudge the issue and come up with a system that Blair and the wider Labour Party would be willing to accept at a time when they were riding high with a 170 majority. Needless to say, they failed. He was too clever by half and didn’t satisfy anyone. Yet to this day I still hear people going on about it as if it were the Holy Grail. I’m convinced that in the centuries to come, whole organisations will be established to campaign for this system which no genuinely independent review body would recommend in a million years.

Toynbee’s objection to local democracy appears to be rooted in the perceived worst excesses of Conservative councils. In this respect it is entirely tribal and rooted in the typically Fabian notion that the people should not be trusted with too much democracy. Of course, with a fair voting system, the chances of the Tories or indeed any party wielding an unassailable majority in a local authority would be remote. The idea that we should have more representative local authorities but be content to leave them as glorified talking shops is faintly obscene. At least bread and circuses sounds a little more fun.

RoboCop comes out against elected mayors

An interview in the Guardian:

Looking colourful in a salmon pink shirt and maroon pair of braces that contrast with his grey, brushed-back hair, Mallon claims that the mayoral model is open to abuse by the power-crazy. He realised that after meeting another mayor early in his tenure – whom he refuses to name.

“I would like to suggest I am a pretty sane, balanced human being who no doubt has his quirks,” says Mallon, one of just 13 mayors in the country.

“But I am not going to abuse my power. I am not going to abuse my authority or do anything I should not. If you get a mayor who was power-mad, he could bring a town down or a city, so you can see I am not completely sold on the elected mayor idea. It works here because I like to think I am sane – though people who usually say that aren’t. It works fine here but it is unique.”

The big question is, who is he referring to?

Evict the Lords!

(This is my post as part of the Elect the Lords blogging event)

Despite all the Jack Straw bashing over the past week over his plans to keep hereditary peers (and one can infer life peers as well) in the House of Lords until they die off, there is no escaping the fact that he has a point. While MPs are mainly in favour of democratic reform, the House of Lords itself is at best ambivalent. Even the Lib Dems, who claim David Lloyd George’s legacy as their own and have always had policy for an elected second chamber, have a sizeable number of pro-appointment members in the Lords.

The problem goes beyond the normal “turkeys voting for Christmas” conundrum. For many peers this isn’t merely a case of not wanting to give up power. Entering the House of Lords was a lifetime commitment for them, one which has cost them a number of career opportunities and which they are financially dependent on. For a number of Lords, particularly the career politicians, booting them out of Parliament would hurt them severely in the wallet and in some cases even force them into penury.

There is something casually corrupting about the concept of life peerages. Many people may be unaware for instance that members of the House of Lords are permitted to work for lobbying companies – to be clear this isn’t a secret and must be declared. The intractable resistance to ending this practice is rooted in the fact that members of the Lords have few other employment opportunities given their obligations in Parliament. Where else in the world would Parliamentarians with unparalleled access to their fellow members be paid by companies to lobby on specific policies?

When I discussed the Elect the Lords Campaign a couple of years ago with a life peer, her first comment was “reform won’t go anywhere unless you deal with the pensions issue.” For many life peers, the Lords is their pension. Given however that any proposal to compensate retiring peers with fat pension funds is likely to go down like a lead balloon with the public, it isn’t surprising that Jack Straw is so tempted to go down the path of least resistance.

The question is therefore, if we don’t want to spread reform out over a 50 year period, what do we do instead? To start with, we need a structured plan. Last year, Labour politicians were openly talking about a “gradualist approach” whereby Lords reform would be spread out over several years, at each stage subject to a new vote in Parliament. Can you imagine anything worse? Under this plan, we would have had a major debate in each cycle about whether to up the elected quota or alternatively go back to appointment, with no clear end destination in place.

Far better we decide where we want to go now and give people a clear sense of what to expect. That isn’t to deny that reform may have to take place over several years, but it is to say that the people involved should be entitled to know what to expect. Kick a life peer with no independent source of income out of the Lords tomorrow, and you would be morally obliged to offer them a much larger financial package than you would if you gave them 12 years notice.

If, as appears to be the growing consensus, the second chamber were to be elected by a third at each general election, we would have such a model. A third would be replaced in the next general election, then another third and then the remainder. Just as we had when the bulk of hereditary peers were removed, an internal ballot could be held to decide who would go when.

This way, the first wave of life peers would be removed by the next general election, while the remainder would be gone by the end of the next decade, a much tighter window than Jack Straw’s vision of unelected doddery old men and women still holding on in the 2050s.

There’s no escaping the fact that a significant amount of public money will have to be spent on pensioning these people off, and this will prove unpopular. But instead of trying to evade this fact, the government should be making the alternative case. If we don’t remove life peers, they will continue to be entitled to receiving an attendance allowance, paid for by the taxpayer. We either pay for them to stay in the chamber, and weaken our democracy, or pay to remove them. It really is that simple.

Comment here.

Constitutions and the choke factor

My boss has written a nice post about the last episodes of the West Wing last night, linking it with the House of Lords Constitution Committee’s report this week on Royal prerogative.

For me, the “choke” moment of the two episodes was the bit when Bartlet gave Charlie his copy of the US Constitution. But then it got me thinking: not only do we not have a document with similar meaning in the UK, but for our government such rules are problems to be got around, not sacred limitations of their power.

Both America and the US Constitution have their faults, and the iconic status many Americans grant the Constitution occasionally strikes one as bizarre. I would certainly take issue with the way some treat it as if it were written on tablets of stone – constitutions have to be able to slowly evolve over time. But I take far more issue with those, including its current non-fictional president, who act as if it is a legalistic buffet that you can pick and choose from to suit your agenda.

In the UK, we desperately need a written constitution; the last five years of repeated assaults by Labour on our civil liberties prove that. But going hand in hand, we need a culture that values constitutional documents.

Yet the nearest thing we have to a constitutional document, the Human Rights Act, is continually under attack. We are told we have a “human rights culture” – the truth is we have anything but. A human rights culture is a culture in which people instinctively understand what rights are, not one in which the police claim the HRA forces them to give perps Kentucky Fried Chicken on demand.

The problem is, for constitutions to have that sort of ownership or resonance – for them to be able to convey that West Wing “choke factor – they tend to be borne of war or revolution, neither of which are things liberal democrats (small-l, small-d) should wish on the country. The real problem with the HRA is that it was drafted by ministers and civil servants while the rest of us were shut out. It should have been drawn up in a more open fashion and should have been ratified by a referendum – back in 1999 Labour could have easily won such a thing. If we are to have a written constitution, it has to be written by the people, for the people, and nothing less than a Citizen’s Convention will do.