Saturday, November 23, 2013

Parliament week special: three proposals for reforming the Mother of Parliaments

When I worked for the Electoral Commission, I used to feel disappointed that we weren't the Democracy Commission. After all, you can have the best designed and implemented rules for elections in the world, but if the problem lies outside the process, then all you're doing is efficiently managing decline.

Now, with some distance and less naivete, I look at the accumulating catastrophe-in-the-making that is British representative democracy, and am grateful we didn't have to carry that burden.

Any Government that seizes and drains the chalice of reform is unlikely to please the Establishment, since the only thing decision-makers seem to agree on is the Churchillian idea that our democracy - however flawed - is the least worst option. Hence their approach of inaction, crisis management and the occasional tinkering at the edges when it comes to Parliament.

Legitimacy - not as strong as you might think it is

While such an attitude might suffice for the good times, I believe we will need a more robust approach going forward. As we approach the end of a century of universal suffrage in this country, the possible social, economic, political (and of course environmental) troubles ahead mean that we cannot afford to be complacent about the future of democracy.

And even a brief examination of the patient suggests that the legitimacy of the current system is a more fragile affair than we might think:
None of this to say is that good work is not being done under (or in spite of) the current structures. But their status in the country is decreasing and is unlikely to increase unless something is done. 

Three modest proposals

Cards on the table - I think what we need is a root and branch re-invigoration of democracy in this country from the grassroots right to the very top. But, I'm realistic enough to know that we have to start somewhere and if the all-in-one-go approach was feasible we'd all be living in a Power Enquiry wonderland.

So, here are three comparatively easy steps we could in theory take now which I think would strengthen the status and legitimacy of Parliament (and, by extension, representative democracy)

1. Pass a statutory deadline for abolishing the Lords in its current form. 

Sorting out the Lords is the Westminster equivalent of redecorating the spare room. Everyone agrees it needs doing, but it's somehow never the most urgent item on the to-do list, and no-one can agree what colour it needs painting.

Putting a five year deadline on it and requiring a national debate on its future should concentrate everyone's minds wonderfully. And just over a century after it was first considered, we might finally have a fully democratic Parliament in some form.

2. A review to take Parliament out of the playground

I'm all for the marketplace of ideas, but the adversarial, creakingly old-fashioned nature of debate in Parliament tends more towards exaggerated ritual conflict than the best ideas rising to the top. Small wonder that the people struggle to connect with national politics, and feel that the most important issues of the day rarely get the discussions by our representatives (never mind the outcomes) that they deserve.

If Parliament is serious about good governance and legitimacy, then it needs to take a long hard look at itself (with help from outsiders) and ask whether its playground antics do it and the country a disservice. 

Let's not just have a review, but a commitment to act on it too.

Seriously, MP's, when a bunch of scruffs living in tents outside St Pauls last year can have more sensible, respectful discussions than you, listen to each other more, and take decisions commanding more support, doesn't that suggest you have a problem? 

3. MP's, be our representatives, not local troubleshooters

The thing about MP's is that their role is in national governance. So, why do they spend so much time on local issues outside their jurisdiction when we have these wonderful things called councils and councillors who are responsible for them?

There's a long answer, taking in the emasculation of local government over the past few decades, low levels of political education and an understandable tendency for MP's to prioritise the voter in front of them, and concluding that what we really need is (bingo) to fix grassroots democracy. 

For a more expert opinion, see this handy post from politics professor Lord Norton of Louth.

But today, we're talking short answers, and the short answer is that it's stupid, its counterproductive to good national governance, and MP's could stop it tomorrow by just referring such matters back to the councillors.

More time on their core role means better scrutiny and hopefully better law. It also means more time to engage with constituents on national issues of importance, or local issues where decisions are taken nationally (a whole other problem, but one I'll leave to another time). 

It could and should also mean more time spent on making what goes on in the Commons more relevant to the people.

Which, if we're playing the long game rather than the long grass game, should be priority number one for the Mother of Parliaments.

1 comment:

  1. @Mega_Jules has asked me whether re-focussing MP's on Westminster, not local issues, would also require the reforming on the whipping system. The short answer is yes, although I think a lot of MP's with more time on their hands and a commitment to reforming Parliamentary culture - with popular support - would present the bloc vote status quo with quite a challenge in any event.