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Post-MPs’ expenses do we need a new politics? And if so, what?

By Meg Russell
26 May 2009

Following the exposure of MPs’ expenses claims constitutional reform has moved back up the
political agenda. There has been much bold talk of the “greatest crisis since 1832”, and the need
for a constitutional “revolution”. Today David Cameron has joined the Guardian newspaper in
its call for a “new politics”. A wide range of proposals has been put onto the table, from the
introduction of PR, internal reform of the House of Commons, reducing the number of MPs,
Lords reform, primaries, and localism. So which if any of these is the answer to the problem, and
which is likely to happen?

The first thing to say is that little that is being discussed bears much direct relevance to the
problem that occurred. This problem, of inappropriate expense claims by certain MPs, was
linked to the rules of the expenses system and its administration. These issues are being dealt
with, through interim changes introduced by all parties, a reference to the “Kelly” Committee on
Standards in Public Life, the purging of errant MPs by the parties, and election of a new House
of Commons Speaker. We should not underestimate the importance of these changes. In
particular, if the new Speaker proves to be reform-minded and a more forthright defender of
parliament than Michael Martin, this could change both the culture and practice of politics
considerably, and for the better.

Many of those speaking up now want reform to go further. The Guardian has suggested that the
problem is “systemic”, and that only wholesale reform of our political institutions will turn
around the low levels of public trust. But if the problem is indeed systemic, the system at fault is
not primarily the constitution. If certain MPs chose to maximise their financial rewards from
parliamentary expenses, and some in the process even sought to avoid paying tax, this tells us as
much about our attitudes to money as it tells us about politics. We live in a competitive
consumer culture where increasingly the only measure of value we apply (including to ourselves)
is financial. We believe we have a right to expect levels of consumer goods undreamt of even 20
years ago. Far less fashionable than accumulation and competition is the notion of public
service, to the extent that those who decline the rewards on offer are even seen as rather odd. As
was pointed out by a behavioural economist on last week’s Today Programme1, MPs were only
acting in a way that most people would given the same opportunities. Yes, they may have been
exploiting public finances and avoiding tax, but we live in a world where tax has become a dirty
word, and we rarely discuss the benefits that tax revenue brings to society. Indeed there is an
entire profession of tax accountants whose job is to advise people on minimising their tax
liabilities, including through tricks such as changing the designation of their “main home”. If
MPs’ behaviour was unethical, then the same must apply to this profession and those who use it.
But this probably includes hundreds of thousands of people, mostly far from Westminster. If we
want to clean up ethics then this does need to go further than MPs’ expenses, but the answers
don’t all lie in politics itself. Indeed, as I suggested in a Fabian pamphlet2 in 2005, public distrust
in politics is more to do with the prevailing consumer culture (and competitive media) than it is


1   http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8060000/8060758.stm
2   http://www.fabians.org.uk/publications/ideas-pamphlets/must-politics-disappoint


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with constitutional reform. If reforms are pursued in order to restore trust, then those enacting
them are likely to be disappointed.

There is absolutely nothing to suggest that most of the reforms now on the agenda would
address the problems that have occurred, and indeed many new myths are being generated. For
example there is no reason why MPs under a PR system would be any less likely to fiddle their
expenses, given that the problem lies in the expenses system and the prevailing culture. There is
no reason to think that an elected House of Lords would not see the problem of “cash for
amendments” which resulted in the suspension of two peers last week. After all, very similar
problems occurred with the elected House of Commons in the 1990s. It is quite erroneous to
suggest that changing the electoral system would result in “an end to safe seats”, unless talking
about a very specific alternative. Under most PR systems around the world, based to at least
some extent on closed lists, party leaders have far greater control over who their candidates are
than they do in the UK. Open primaries, similarly, would greatly weaken accountability through
local parties, and probably bring the arrival of big money into selection contests as well.

We must view all of these proposals with caution, and weigh them carefully against the facts
rather than leaping into reforms which have not been thoroughly thought through. Another key
aspect of the current debate is that most of those contributing have been pursuing reforms for
years and are seeking to exploit the moment to get their favoured schemes back on the agenda.
It is difficult to blame them for that, and a discussion about our democratic system and
improvements to it is of course healthy. But what is less healthy is if reformers encourage the
view that our system is “broken” or not fit for purpose. This only serves to drag the reputation
of politics down further. There are reforms that we should pursue because they are principled
and right and may result in a better democracy. But we should debate these in a cool-headed
fashion, while not dragging our current system into the mud. There is no evidence of a huge
groundswell of support in favour of reform, rather just a huge amount of media attention on
those who have long wished to see changes to the system. There are few in this debate who are
expounding views that they haven’t held for a very long time.

For this reason, we also mustn’t be fooled into thinking that suddenly reform will be easy. There
are some relatively small and desirable reforms that could be pursued now. But with respect to
the bigger things, the same obstacles that have prevented them happening previously have not
gone away. In many cases these relate to resistance from the parties, and often major splits
within party ranks, coupled with ambivalence or even hostility on the part of the public. Some
major reforms requiring legislation would face a difficult parliamentary passage, and could take a
long time to implement even if this succeeded. In the remainder of this article I turn to some of
the specific reforms under discussion, and their desirability and probability of success.

      Giving MPs control of their own agenda. One of the sorriest sights of last week was MPs
       trying to get a debate on the no-confidence motion on the Speaker, and being told that they
       must wait for government to provide them time. In a democratic parliament MPs should
       have more control over their own agenda, and be able to force a debate and votes (within
       limits that allow enough time for debating government bills). In a recent report3 the
       Constitution Unit suggested that there should be a period of time in the Commons every
       week when backbenchers set the agenda and could debate, for example, committee bills.
       Now seems the right moment to implement this reform. This, and the other small reforms
       within the Commons itself, are relatively easy to make happen: they just depend on the
       political will of MPs.

3
    http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/publications/unit-publications/142.htm


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      Strengthening select committees. Many have called for greater independence of select
       committees, and particularly changes to how their chairs and members are chosen. In
       principle the Commons itself chooses committee members, and it showed independence in
       defeating the whips’ attempt to remove two chairs in 2001. Electing chairs in the chamber
       may be a good idea, as is widening the membership of the committee that suggests members’
       names to the House. But the House itself must also show more independence, and that is a
       cultural matter rather than something in the rules. Committees can be further strengthened
       by being given more staff, and the ability to move bills. These changes, again, depend only on
       the will of the Commons itself.

      Reducing the power of the whips. It is fashionable to talk of reducing the power of the
       whips, but has indicated with respect to select committees this is largely a power which is not
       written down. The whips step in and fill a vacuum where MPs are unwilling or unable to
       organise themselves. They also, in many ways, fulfil an important role. It seems unrealistic to
       expect whipping to reduce for example, as David Cameron suggests today, on government
       legislation. But it will certainly only do so is MPs assert themselves.

      Other internal reforms of the House of Commons. There are various other reforms
       which could be sensible in building a stronger House of Commons, and in particular
       encouraging cross-party work. One would be the establishment of permanent, specialist,
       legislation committees to replace the current non-expert public bill committees. Another
       would be giving the House control over who sits on these committees (as, unlike select
       committees, this really does currently rest entirely with the whips). Some of these proposals
       are set out in our report4. It would be good if these could be pursued under the new Speaker.

      Reducing the number of MPs. The Conservatives want to reduce the size of the House of
       Commons, and this has some popular support. But it is more difficult than it appears. They
       would need to be legislation, followed by boundary reviews all over the country, including
       consultation with local residents, which would take several years. Changes within the space of
       a single parliament seem impossible. But while some reduction in the number of MPs might
       be defensible, a big reduction would result in fewer bodies to do important parliamentary
       work. Based on experience in other parliaments, making the party groups smaller would also
       make them easier for the whips to control, so could counter the effects of other changes
       above.

      Changing the electoral system. There have long been calls for a shift to a PR system, and
       the Jenkins Commission reported on this in 1998. But Labour is completely divided on the
       issue, while the Conservatives are almost uniformly opposed. David Cameron has firmly
       rejected it. It would need a bill, and almost certainly a referendum, so even if it passed
       parliament (which seems unlikely) it could be rejected by the people. There are many claims
       made for PR, and it clearly has some advantages. But it has disadvantages too. The truth is
       there is no perfect electoral system and no simple answer to this question. This is why
       reform, despite years of talking, has never proceeded very far.

      Fixed term parliaments. David Cameron has tentatively suggested that the Conservatives
       might back fixed term parliaments, removing the right of the Prime Minister to decide the
       election date. There are some strong arguments for this system, which exists in many other
       countries and for the Scottish Parliament. It would require legislation, but this would face less
4   Ibid.


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      opposition than many other measures. However it is hard to make a fixed term parliaments
      system watertight: there needs to remain flexibility to call an early election if the government
      lacks public and parliamentary support. The existing system is very ingrained in Britain, and it
      is interesting to note that new rules on fixed term parliaments in Canada (a similar system to
      ours) were openly flouted by the government which called an early election last year.

     Open “primaries”. Presently members of the political parties in a local area have principal
      control for selecting their candidates, and some have suggested that this should be widened
      to include other voters in the area. This is the system that exists in the US. It appears
      attractive, but brings with it major potential problems. It is far easier for a local party to keep
      an eye on what an MP does then it is for constituents, given that the MP is in regular contact
      with party members. So de facto accountability could be weakened. It would also be very
      difficult to win primary elections without significant financial backing: far more than is
      needed to win support among party members alone. In the US it is virtually impossible to get
      selected unless you are a celebrity, personally very rich, or have corporate backing. It is hard
      to see how this would improve British politics.

     An elected House of Lords. Lords reform remains on the agenda 12 years after Labour
      came to power, despite numerous promises. But the reason, as with electoral reform, is that
      there is so much disagreement both between and within the parties. This disagreement
      remains, and David Cameron has recently indicated that Lords reform is not a priority for
      him. Change therefore appears unlikely. It would in any case require a bill, over which there
      would be much disagreement in parliament. The public mood is in favour of election, but
      also in favour of independent and expert members who would be difficult to retain in an
      elected system. As in the North-East regional referendum, a campaign against “more elected
      politicians” could therefore have some success. A more in-depth analysis of the prospects for
      this reform can be found here5.

     A British Bill of Rights. The Conservatives want a British Bill of Rights, but David
      Cameron also says he wants less power for the judges. It therefore remains unclear what
      shape such a Bill of Rights would take, and whether it would enhance or diminish the existing
      provisions in the Human Rights Act. The definition of this proposal seems so fuzzy that it is
      difficult to comment on its likely success.

     Returning power to local government. This is a favourite demand of opposition
      politicians, but difficult to implement in practice: both Labour and the Conservatives have
      removed discretion of local authorities in certain areas. Reform is in many ways desirable, but
      there is a tension between uniform services and local autonomy which voters may not always
      appreciate. David Cameron calls for this today, but these demands need to be made more
      specific.

     An end to “sofa government”. Tony Blair, in particular, was criticised for his informal style
      of government and the bypassing of formal cabinet meetings in taking decisions. David
      Cameron has said he wants to reverse this trend. But like reducing the power of the whips in
      parliament, this largely requires a cultural change rather than a change to the rules, and may
      prove harder in practice than in theory. Cameron’s specific proposals are undefined, and he
      may well find himself slipping into exactly the same habits as Blair and Brown should he
      become prime minister, for similar reasons. In a complex policy environment, with a fast-


5
    http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-bin/fulltext/122246709/PDFSTART


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      moving media, it is often simply more practical to take decisions quickly and in smaller
      groups.

     A bonfire of the quangos. Like returning power to local government, this is a favoured
      demand of opposition politicians, which proves harder when it comes down to specifics.
      Many quangos exist to bring in experts when policy is complex, or to ensure that decisions
      are implemented independently, including independently of party politics. There is a tension
      between devolving power away from politicians in order to enhance trust (for example
      Gordon Brown’s suggestions on policing MPs’ expenses in future), and weakening politicians
      and parliament. Indeed some argue6 that ‘depoliticising’ decisions and handing them to
      quangos has helped weaken trust. But it will be difficult in practice for politicians to take this
      power back.

     A written constitution. If anything this wholesale proposal is the furthest of all from the
      specifics of what went wrong in the expenses scandal, and is probably also the hardest to
      implement. At present Britain’s constitution is written down in numerous places, and some
      parts do not exist in law at all. Bringing all the provisions together in one place may seem
      neat and tidy, but agreeing what should be included would prove extremely difficult –
      especially given the degree of disagreement on issues above such as those above. It is
      questionable whether any government would be prepared to give up parliamentary time to a
      bill proposing this.




6   http://www.polity.co.uk/book.asp?ref=9780745630984


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