Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Why term limits can't work in Britain

Trevor Phillips gives evidence to the Speaker's Conference today. His proposal, according to yesterday's Guardian, that MPs should not be able to serve more than four terms in Parliament sounds to me entirely unworkable.

Political system: Are there any examples of term limits being applied in Parliamentary democracies? I am not a fan anyway, but they depend on a US-style separation of powers to be used in either the executive or the legislative branch, or both. (One could do this for either the London Mayor, GLA or both). But applying term limits at the Parliamentary level without a separation of powers has bizarre results, often placing unreasonable restrictions on democratic choice.

Introducing term limits in Britain would probably have to involve some limits on Executive terms: for example, either limiting a Prime Minister to serving for two full Parliaments, or even any Cabinet Minister to eight years in total. Workable Parliamentary term limits would demand an entirely different political system. (This would also surely depend on fixed election dates: does the Parliament of 1964-66 count as one term? What about the short Parliament of 1974?)

History: That this modest proposal demands a complete transformation of the British political system can be seen in that it would have prevented Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, Anthony Eden, Ted Heath, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher or Gordon Brown being Prime Minister. (For their parliamentary experience in each case, see this earlier post responding to Phillips' controversial comments in November). Attlee might just escape to 1950 on a technicality (if he can have 1935-45 as one term), while John Major could have governed to 1997 (but the Tories would have had to fight the election without him). Tony Blair would have had single term as premier before leaving Parliament in 2001 without defending his record before the voters.

In practice, no MP already entering their third term would make much sense as a new major party leader. There might be a case for more David Camerons and Nick Cleggs but to dictate that only a Hague (1997 version), Cameron or Clegg can be a party leader, and never a Ken Clarke (out by 1987), Gordon Brown or even a Charles Kennedy (both forced to depart in 2001) would be extremely odd.

Age: Would the proposal, by accelerating the turnover of seats, increase Parliamentary diversity? Page 83 of this House of Commons document outlines the previous experience of MPs elected in 2005. Only 5% of MPs had been in Parliament since before 1979 (over six terms) but Phillips' four term limit would have barred around 144 MPs who were re-elected in 2005, while a five term limit would have seen 98 additional forced retirements.

But this would also considerably lower the average age in Parliament (which was 51 in 2005). Parliament has a reputation for being middle-aged, but this would make it a more homogenous place dominated by thirty- and forty-somethings. Unless older candidates became considerably more likely to win new selections than at present, the proposal would significantly cull the number of MPs aged over 65, despite that being the fastest-growing section of the population. The Equality Commission is also responsible for challenging age discrimination. This proposal would tell MPs that they can not continue in a job purely on the grounds that they have more experience in the role than other potential candidates. (That would almost always apply to those over 50, though Phillips would have kicked Charles Kennedy out at 41 because he was elected at 23)

Ethnic and gender diversity: Paul Boateng, among the breakthrough class of 1987, chose to stand down after four terms in 2005. One feature of Phillips' proposal is that he would have insisted on the departure of Keith Vaz (then aged 48) and Dianne Abbott (then aged 51) at the last election too.

Given that only 2% of MPs elected in 1997 or before, were non-white, this would still on balance do something to accelerate ethnic diversity. (Only two of the 144 MPs forced to stand down in 2005 were black, and perhaps eight new black or Asian MPs might then have come in). But the MPs elected from 2005-10 come much closer to containing proportionate numbers of non-white MPs, and so this diversity effect would weaken in elections from 2025 and quite probably disappear entirely from 2030. At that point, term limits would be having a strong age effect but probably no race effect at all.

If that sounds like an advance worth making for now, it is worth observing that the reason it would make little or no difference is that progress has been made towards fair chances (without term limits). Any acceleration effect of term limits depends on the progress made in selections at the other end of the process.

With so few women in Parliament before 1992 - as this graph shows - Phillips' proposal would have sped up gender diversity if it had been in place for the last election or the next one. But this will have a much less dramatic impact by the election after next (2014-15 or before) as Phillips' proposal would then propose to bar from Parliament any of the 101 women MPs elected in 1997 who are still there. Again, this could still accelerate diversity more mildly - to the extent that the rate of new selections in 2015 was higher than that in 1997. (As would be the case, because only the Labour Party was selecting women in any significant numbers before 2001). But it will have a strong impact only if women are being selected in close to 50% of new selections (rather than 25%-35% as at present).

So, here, the difficult part is still the getting to 50% of new selections for women. If women were achieving 50% of selections, this proposal could achieve across four Parliaments what otherwise might take six.

Aiming at the wrong thing

This helps to capture the more important objection to the Phillips proposal. Both philosophically and practically, I think this term limits proposal is simply aiming at the wrong thing on Parliamentary diversity.

I would give priority to the goal of securing 'equal chances and no unfair barriers' for candidates of whatever background in Parliamentary selections. If we were to routinely achieve the selection of non-white candidates in around one in 12 (over 8%) and women in half (50%) of new selections, then candidates would have fair chances regardless of race or gender.

Where this is achieved, then the current pattern of political careers 'fair chances' would work itself fully through to a Parliament which looks like Britain within 25 years (five or six Parliaments). And, for me, that is in any event better understood as a desirable by-product of having achieved 'fair chances' more than it is 'an end in itself'. There may be a case for transforming entirely the British political system - but trying to achieve this in four rather than six Parliaments isn't it.

But, where 'fair chances' are not achieved, then Phillips' term limits won't achieve their goal, because the new cohorts of MPs will not contain fair numbers of black, Asian and women candidates. These will not, for example, do anything to get more working-class candidates, of any ethnicity or gender, into the Commons.

I have made my own submission to the Speaker's Conference reporting on the data: to me, the evidence suggests much discussion about progress on race as too pessimistic (there is a good case for deepening current approaches; which have made more difference than many people recognise) while we are often too complacent about gender (perhaps believing the job was done in 1997).

My cohort analysis of recent intakes and current selections shows that we have over the last decade seen much accelerated progress and are now close to fair chances for black and Asian candidates. However, we remain a long way off 50% of new selections going to women, with all parties selecting women in a quarter of selections, though doing better in safer seats.

If we can achieve fair chances, I am sceptical about seeking to accelerate their impact since, by definition, that requires an element of rough justice. That is an entirely different case to where further measures may still be justified to achieve fair chances and a level playing field. (With Labour well short of selecting women in 50% of cases, it seems a misnomer to talk of all women shortlists as 'positive discrimination').

The case either for or against term limits has to be primarily about either the gains or losses from a less established, and less experienced, political class. For me, that case has been primarily driven by anti-political sentiment: what we need to do is change the culture of party politics which is the gateway to Parliament and Government.

For those interested in Parliamentary diversity, the focus should remain on securing and sustaining fair chances for all candidates in Parliamentary selections. The term limits proposal is a red herring, and a quixotic tilting of windmills unless turned into a more open proposal for a constitutional revolution.

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