As The World Burns, Britain’s Political System Remains Broken And Neglected


If it suddenly feels as though there are more loud-mouthed juveniles wandering about during the daytime, it is because both the nation’s schools and the House of Commons have wrapped up their business and gone home for the summer holiday. But while no one should begrudge our young people or their harried teachers a much-deserved break, Westminster’s politicians are returning to their constituencies with few solid accomplishments to their credit, and with the very effectiveness of Parliament itself now in question.

While the world is captivated by the latest slaughter in Israel and Gaza, and scrambles to respond to Russia’s aggressive expansionism and the downing of flight MH17, a number of far less dramatic but equally intractable problems continue to chip away at British democracy and our political institutions. Normally, these “dull” issues only see the light of day at election time – at which point everyone stops to wring their hands about how terrible it is that so few people bothered to vote, or (heresy of heresies) that they voted for UKIP – but a pair of articles in the Spectator and at Conservative Home  sound an early warning that we would all do well to heed before we get distracted by the 2015 general election campaign.

The Spectator piece, by James Forsyth, starts by bemoaning the fact that so many of the ex-ministers recently departed from David Cameron’s Cabinet following the reshuffle have also elected to stand down as MPs at the 2015 general election. But it grows into a broader, important discussion about the kind of MPs that we should want debating legislation and holding the executive to account in the Commons:

Most of those leaving are not doing so because they are past retirement age. Sir George Young might be 73, but William Hague, Andrew Lansley and David Willetts are only in their fifties and Greg Barker is a mere 48. When they go, they will take expertise and experience that the Commons desperately needs to do its job properly. Former ministers play a particular role in the Commons’ ability to scrutinise what the government is doing.

Although the details of each ministerial case are different, Forsyth correctly taps into an increasing sense among many current and aspiring MPs that the only goal worth shooting for is a top-level Cabinet position, and that any other trajectory (a brief tenure as a junior minister or a few terms on the backbenches) is an unacceptable outcome for their political career.

Forsyth then makes an important point about an over-emphasis on youth which seems to attract the ‘wrong’ kind of young people into Westminster politics (such as Labour candidate Emily Benn):

This emphasis on youth precludes people having had a long career outside of politics. One doesn’t have to agree with the former minister who says that ‘we have the worst of all worlds — people who aspire only to be managers but can’t manage’ to think that it is unfortunate that the ambitious feel they have to stand for office before they have had time to reach the top of another profession.

This complaint ties in very strongly with this blog’s own concern at the lack of real ‘citizen politicians’, people whose sense of civic duty compels them to take a mid- or late-career break to sit in the House of Commons representing their constituents for just one or two terms of office. Of course there are always a handful of one-hit wonders, but most one-term departures are a result of losing re-election, scandal, failing to achieve work/life balance or bitterness that plans for rapid promotion and the acquisition of power and prestige did not come to fruition.

Indeed, an MP voluntarily leaving Parliament for a reason other than these typical motivations is almost guaranteed to be newsworthy, as it was when Conservative MP Dan Byles, of the 2010 intake, announced his decision not to seek re-election. And instances of British political candidates pledging upfront to serve only a single term or a set number of terms are almost non-existent.

Forsyth’s twin solutions are quite radical – he proposes increasing constituency sizes to dramatically cut the number of MPs to around the 400 mark, which would make it harder for them to be coerced into wasting time going to battle  for individual constituents and their personal problems, something which better falls under the remit of local government. (It should, however, be noted that US congressional districts are as much as ten times larger than UK constituencies, and American representatives are still expected to fulfil this role).

But ultimately, Forsyth believes it may be necessary to split the executive from the legislature and impose a separation of powers in Britain once and for all. This really is quite visionary stuff, and would form part of the comprehensive UK-wide constitutional reform that Semi-Partisan Sam has long advocated. If the legislature and the executive were separate, the quality and effectiveness of the House of Commons would be less polluted by the presence of young whippersnappers who regarded their seats and duties to their constituents as a mere springboard to higher office. The opposition to such a split would be immense and the details would need to be worked out – would all government positions be purged from the Commons, necessitating a separate election for Prime Minister, for example – but it is a fascinating idea worthy of serious discussion.

Meanwhile, Mark Wallace at Conservative Home has the House of Lords in his sights, arguing that the size of the upper chamber (rapidly nearing 1000 peers) is too large, too inefficient and so stuffed with “cronies and failed politicians” that the ability of the chamber’s subject matter experts to properly scrutinise legislation is severely limited.

With a very unflattering comparison to the 3000-member Chinese National People’s Congress, Wallace explains that such a large body can only be a recipe for confusion:

The swelling ranks are an outcome of the Lords’ confused role. On the one hand, the Upper House is meant to scrutinise legislation as a home of expertise; on the other, it is a tool for morale and political management in the Commons – convenient vacancies are created on the green benches by bumping MPs up, patronage (or the hope of receiving it) is extended to maintain party discipline, and partisan appointments are made in the hope of improving the chances for Government legislation …

The Mail‘s description of many appointees as “cronies and failed politicians” is too often correct – we are meant to get experts, but a lot of the time we get party apparatchiks, trade union officials and the great and good from Whitehall and the media. For every great debate, like that on assisted dying, there are a dozen in which the prevailing ideological trends of our left wing establishment are recited as fact.

It’s hard to argue with that assessment. Semi-Partisan Sam was in the public gallery at the House of Lords on Wednesday, and was shocked by the perfunctory laziness with which Oral Questions was rushed through, the sloppy way in which the self-regulating peers kept (or rather didn’t keep) order, and the sheer amount of timewasting that takes place as the House resolves itself into a committee, out of a committee or divides for a vote (mechanics that are rarely seen by the British people as the House of Lords proceedings tend to be shown only in highlight reels by the BBC). Quite why many of the peers filling the benches for Oral Questions were there at all was a mystery, given their disinterested faces and sleepy postures – until one remembers the £300 daily allowance.

Reform of this sleepy and dysfunctional institution will not be easy – the most recent plans, hammered out in the coalition negotiations in 2010, were abandoned when Conservatives reneged on their agreement to support the changes. But at a time when any mention of House of Lords reform is met with sighs and knowing warnings that it can’t be done, Wallace’s proposal for an easy quick win on the issue should garner support from everyone:

We do agree on a starting point, though: the numbers must be reduced to make the House functional. David Steel’s proposals to require members to commit to being active, working Peers or face expulsion and to introduce an age limit both have merit and would go some way towards fixing the problem.

Yes, it would. We still see the problem of peers “clocking in” to Parliament to be eligible for their daily allowance, while otherwise doing nothing to contribute to the workings of the institution or the democratic process. Accepting an ennoblement should be contingent on making a commitment to turn up for work and do the job. The current situation – where there are life terms, no upper age limits, no requirement to actually do any work and no simple procedure for removing lazy or criminal peers – is a virtual incentive for poor performance and represents the antithesis to a well functioning upper chamber.

None of these very unsexy constitutional issues are likely to set the world on fire, not when so many pressing international human tragedies are doing such a fine job of keeping it aflame in the worst possible way. But we in Britain have a nasty habit of ignoring pressing questions about how we want to govern ourselves and make decisions, allowing them to smoulder untended in the background until events cause them to suddenly burst to life in a wildfire of public outrage.

Think back to 2010, and the pompous outrage that met the formation of a Conservative-led coalition government that “nobody voted for”. It’s certainly true that there was no box on the ballot paper marked “Cameron & Clegg Double Act”, and so in that strict sense the plaintiffs are correct. But we all went into that 2010 general election knowing (or deliberately choosing to remain ignorant of) the way that our voting system worked, and that a hung parliament was a possibility. If the people do not have the proactivity or the attention span to think about these possibilities and make their preferences known beforehand, there are no grounds for complaint when Sir Gus O’Donnell and other senior civil service mandarins facilitate a resolution of their own behind closed doors.

In the same way, we all know (or deliberately choose to remain ignorant about) the variable calibre of politicians that are currently attracted to Westminster, and the hazy unwritten rules and conventions which govern Parliament’s workings. But as well as being cognisant of the problem, we are also now armed with a few radical suggestions for digging ourselves out of our democratic deficit.

With a small window before the 2015 general election campaign to get these issues debated and make them part of the policy discussion before the parties publish their manifestos, advocates of constitutional reform should see this moment as a rare opportunity.

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