Friday, June 13, 2014

How to Fix Westminster

Warning: this is a tedious 'politics' post. Feel free to skip it! (Also, I promise not to do another one until the World Cup is over - I'll talk about football instead.)

I've mentioned before that my reason for voting "Yes" in September is largely due to my belief that politics in the UK is unfixably broken. That raises an obvious question: what would a fix look like?

(After all, "unfixably broken" really isn't a helpful definition. By defining what I would consider a fix, though, that should give some scope of the issue, and explain why I don't think it's realistic to expect change.)

So, what would a fix look like? Well, the first thing is that I believe we need approximately 650 new MPs. Assuming the front benches on the government and opposition sides represent the cream of the crop, I feel confident in declaring that they're just not fit for purpose.

However, my issues are more to do with how MPs are selected and how they operate, rather than the specifics of the people we currently have there. I therefore have a further eight general points, and then one further point specific to the Labour party. So, in time-honoured 'list' format...

  1. MPs should be required to maintain their primary residence in their constituency, and to have lived there for 5 years prior to seeking selection. This one is quite straightforward - an MP should be there to represent his/her constituency in Westminster, not to represent Westminster to his/her constituency. Some random bod dropped in from Oxbridge because it's a safe Labour seat really can't do that.
  2. MPs should be selected by the local party without interference from central office. Again, that's a simple one - local people should be the ones to choose who they want to represent them. I understand what Harriet Harman is trying to do with all-women short-lists, but she's wrong - it's anti-democratic. (And, yes, that does mean that if the local party is racist, sexist, or homophobic then they might select a horror as candidate. That's where you hope the electorate are smart enough to vote otherwise and/or the other parties are at least remotely competent in highlighting the fact.)
  3. Remove party alliegance from the ballot paper. Firstly, because we (at least in theory) elect a person to represent us, not a party. But it's also because this forces the parties to get the name of the candidate out there in order to win votes; they have to campaign in all constituencies, not just the thirty or so 'swing' constituencies in the South East of England. (Despite being reasonably politically-aware, I know next to nothing about Eric Joyce, my MP, and I knew literally nothing about the SNP guy I voted for last time - not even his name. That's really not healthy.)
  4. We need a proper right of recall. The current government have introduced something, which is to the good, but it doesn't go far enough. I suggest the following: 10% of the electorate in the event of any conviction, any meaningful breach of their code, if they are stripped or the party whip, or if they choose to leave their party. Or if 40% of the turnout demand a recall, they should be able to do so unconditionally once in the term of the parliament. (For example, Falkirk has approx 82,000 voters, of whom 62% voted at the last election. Under my proposal, Eric Joyce would have faced recall when he was stripped of the Labour whip provided 8,200 voters demanded it (10%), or unconditionally if 20,336 voters demanded it (40% of the 62% turn out). That's still a very high threshold, but it does at least provide the option.) Oh, and we should have an (at least theoretical) ability to demand the dissolution of parliament entirely, and thus force a General Election.
  5. We need minimum attendance requirements for MPs, both in the House and in their constituencies.
  6. Manifesto commitments need to be made legally binding. Otherwise, how are we supposed to know what we're voting for? (Plus, that eliminates one of my biggest outrages - first Labour campaigned that they wouldn't introduce top-up fees, and then did exactly that; then the Lib Dems made personal pledges to work to eliminate fees, and then voted to increase them to £9k a year. The Tories are the only party I can trust on the topic of tuition fees, which is horrible.)
  7. MPs' pattern of work needs radically changed. This involves both dramatically reducing the number of holidays they have per year and dramatically reducing the hours they work when they are there. At the moment, MPs seem to be bone-idle half the time and half-dead with exhaustion the other. Neither is conducive to good governance.
  8. Likewise, MP pay should be significantly increased, but their access to expenses vastly curtailed. I don't have a problem with MPs being well paid for what they do. If parliament works, they're actually worth it. But expanses are still a problem. Basically, we've built a system which encourages corruption, and that's really not healthy.

So, those are my 'general' suggestions. As I said, I have one further point which applies specifically to the Labour party:

I don't know what you stand for any more. See, with the Tories it's pretty clear - I don't like what they believe in, but at least I can understand it enough to reject it. But the Labour party talks about being the party of the working class, of being the ones to stand up for the little guy against the bosses, and all that stuff. But, in practice, it's just not so. The current Labour party is further to the right than the Tories were pre-Thatcher. Hell, in some ways the Labour party are further to the right than Thatcher. You're not the party you claim to be; at best, you're marginally better than the Tories. And yes, if my choices are to be punched or to be stabbed, then I'll take the punch. But, frankly, I'd much rather opt-out entirely.

So go back to your founding principles. That way, we at least get a choice. And I don't mind losing an election where I have a real choice but the other guys got more votes.

But if the only real difference between the parties is the one lot wear red rosettes and the other wear blue rosettes, that does me no good whatsoever. Red Dwarf did that joke in 1988 - the hats are supposed to be green.

So there it is.

I'm not actually sure that would be enough - I haven't even touched on things like equal constituency sizes, the House of Lords, or the ability to force referenda on key constitutional issues (the voting system, the monarchy, independence for Scotland/Wales/NI, or EU membership). But it would be a start at least. And I think those are all (except maybe #3) required changes.

So, how many of them do you think are even on the agenda, never mind things that might potentially be addressed before September? Hence "unfixably broken".

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