Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Who do you work for, again?

Yesterday, the House of Commons were obliged to debate the question of whether or not we should have a referendum on pulling out of the EU. And, in the course of doing so, they very neatly displayed one of the major things that is wrong with politics in this country.

For the record, I'm not in favour of leaving the EU, and nor do I think having a referendum is actually a good idea, but that's another post for another day.

However, the government have put in place this ePetition system, where if people get enough electronic signatures on an issue, the HoC are required to debate it. Enough signatures were gathered, and so debate it they did. Sort of.

The thing is, what actually happened is that the three party leaders each used a "three-line whip" to instruct the various MPs on how to vote. Thus, the MPs went through the motions, had the debate, and then duly went and voted against the referendum. Done.

(As I understand it, the 'whips' work like this - each MP is issued with a schedule of the events for the day/week, including the various votes to be taken. The whips will indicate their party's position on the various measures, and then underline the issues based on how important they are. The more times something is underlined, the more important it is, with three lines being the most important. Hence, a "three line whip" means "you will vote this way, and we really, really mean it.")

And so, the net effect from yesterday is that it mattered not a jot what the people of this country want - David Cameron, Nick Clegg, and Ed Miliband have collectively decided we can't have a referendum, and that's that.

But I never voted for Dave, Nick or Ed. In fact, I was never given the opportunity to vote for any of those three. My MP is Eric Joyce. (Okay, I didn't vote for him either, but that's not the point.)

His job is to represent me, and the other people living in my constituency. His job is most definitely not to meekly accept the dictates of Ed Miliband and vote for whatever he says.

(Now, that doesn't necessarily mean he should always do what the majority of his constituents want. That's not how a representative democracy works. However, it does mean that he should represent us and our interests, regardless of what Ed may want.)

And the same is true of all the other MPs up and down the country, of all parties. Dave, Nick and Ed are not running a dictatorship.

I think this is one of the most fundamental things wrong with our democracy - the central parties have acquired too much power and do not properly represent the will of the people. And people sense this, hence the growing disillusionment with politics in this country.

I think three things need to change:
  • It needs to be written into law that an MP must maintain his or her primary residence within the boundaries of the constituency for three years prior to the election. (A grandfather clause is probably required for the incumbents, both for when this law is brought in, and also in the event of boundary change. But it should apply only to the incumbent, and only if they maintain the same primary residence.) Note that this, at a stroke, eliminates one of the worst excessive of the expenses scandal as well - the practice of 'flipping' the primary residence for tax reasons becomes impossible.

    (It does, however, create problems for MP-couples, such as Balls/Cooper or Harman/Dromey. Frankly, I have no problem with that - too many of our MPs live lives completely isolated from the real world. Anything that cuts down on that is a good thing.)

  • The selection of candidates must be done by the local party without interference from the central party. This practice of parachuting in favoured candidates to safe seats is a disgrace and must be stopped. Likewise, Labour's policy of all-women shortlists is undemocratic and unacceptable. The local party should draw up their shortlist, and then nominate their candidate. (And it must be illegal for the central party to block campaign funds for a candidate they don't like - otherwise, the central party will retain too much influence.)

    (Unfortunately, this is likely to set back the process of making parliament more diverse by several steps, as the loss of all-women shortlists reduces the number of women candidates, at least in the short term. This is extremely unfortunate. However, we can either have an undemocratically-appointed diverse parliament or we can have a democratically-elected parliament with no guarantee of any diversity. We can have one of these. I choose democracy.)

  • Within parliament, the whips must be stripped of any sanction. They can continue to indicate the preferred vote of their respective party leadership, but they should not be able to do anything about so-called rebels. Remember, MPs work for us and should be representing our interests, not those of Dave, Nick, and Ed, so who exactly are they rebelling against?

(We should also probably have some legal way of removing our MP if he ceases to represent us properly. However, in practice I suspect such a thing would be unworkable - either recalls would be so common as to prevent parliament from operating, or the required conditions would be so strong that they could never actually be used.)

That's what I think, anyway.

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