One of the likely consequences of the whole MPs expenses scandal is that parliament will change – we don't quite know how yet, but certainly some (of the admittedly more optimistic) commentators are starting to cast this as a great opportunity for reform. Whether panic leads to good changes is a pretty debatable matter. Instead the danger is we get the classic Dangerous Dogs Act scenario where a desire for quick fixes leads to bad decisions. And the jury is still very much out on whether any and (if so) what kind of reforms will mollify an angry public.
What is interesting about this whole discussion though are the many different ideas being suggested. In an article in today's Times, for example, Peter Riddell talks about seven possible avenues for change (and in fact there are more, as he omits to mention the possibility of electoral reform – but more on that in a second).
Riddell makes many good points (parliamentary petitions seems a particularly good idea, and I agree with his broad conclusion that the most likely outcome is probably a strengthening of parliamentary power). However, I wanted to take issue with one comment he makes, which I think is wrong. He claims that:
“Reformers are split between supporters of representative democracy wanting to give more power to MPs and advocates of participatory/direct democracy wanting to shift power from MPs to voters. The views are inherently incompatible.”
I don't think this is the case (although perhaps Riddell is right to suggest this is how the debate has frequently been framed). But I think he is confusing two distinct issues – the power of MPs relative to the executive, and the relationship between MPs and voters. Furthermore, I would suggest that the two matters do not present a contradiction. In fact, quite the reverse – if you change one relationship, you are, by default, necessitating a re-think of the other.
First, I would argue Parliament currently lacks confidence, and many of its actions in recent years have occurred because of a lack of understanding of its true constitutional position, coupled with the needs of short term political expediency. I first realized this during the cash for honours crisis. The initial investigation was carried out by a Public Administration Select Committee. However, as soon as the police were called in, this action was suspended. However, this makes no sense: Parliament is, in theory at least, sovereign, and the highest authority in the land. I would argue that quite the reverse should have happened – the parliamentary committee should have told the police to desist, engaged in a complete investigation and then, if necessary, provided the evidence to bring charges. This is, of course, a recurring pattern. In recent days, for example, many Parliamentarians have been very keen to pledge that they will give away their decision making autonomy to external bodies, such as the proposals being drafted by Christopher Kelly on MPs' expenses. Parliament seems simply desperate to pass the buck.
Part of the problem here, I would argue, are the constitutional arrangements we have in this country. The public don't trust parliament to police itself or the political classes, because they are all assumed to be in bed with each other. Because authority (and thus patronage) is so centralized in Britain, the success of an individual political career is largely reliant on the leadership of a party, so there is (rightly or wrongly) an assumption that no one has any interest in rocking the boat.
How might this be solved? One solution I would suggest would be to create greater scope for politicians to become true legislators. Let's face it: virtually no one in Britain wants to be an MP. They want to be ministers, and the Commons is just a necessary step on that path. But by strengthening the Commons (by for example making it easier for individuals members to sponsor and co-sponsor bills with a genuine chance of getting onto the statute books and strengthening select committees), it can become a much more powerful counterpoint to the Executive. As a result, it becomes possible to imagine people forging hugely important political careers without ever entering government.
Does a renewal of the House of Commons contradict devolving power down to citizens? I don't think so. In fact, quite the reverse. The flip-side of granting individual legislators more power is that they must be held accountable for how they use it. At the moment (with some exceptions), voters tend to see their vote for an MP as a tacit decision on the Premiership. If MPs were more empowered to pursue their own agendas, then their own records would necessarily come in for closer scrutiny.
While lawmakers would certainly have to look to their constituency more (thus undermining the power of party whips), this wouldn't mean that MPs had to follow the will of the public, but rather that they would have to justify their decisions a lot more. As a result, some, who were unable to do this, might lose out, but it is important to remember that there is also be the potential for political rewards.
To those ends, I would tentatively suggest some ideas for reform of both Westminster and popular politics:
- Reform the private members bill system. All MPs should be allowed to propose legislation. Some kind of transparent filtering mechanism (probably involving select committees) should decide which bills go forward, and enough time should be allowed in the parliamentary schedule for these bills to have a realistic chance of becoming law. This would break the executive’s stranglehold on the parliamentary schedule. Bills could be co-sponsored to encourage bi-partisan solutions.
- Increase the power of select committees. Legislatively, they should have far greater power to scrutinize and amend legislation proposed by the executive. As a result, senior committee chair people would become very powerful figures in defining the legislative agenda, but remain separate from the executive. The power of committees to investigate issues and misdemeanors should also be increased, including the right to subpoena and hear evidence under oath on penalty of perjury. They should have the same power as police to pass evidence onto the Crown Prosecution Service and recommend charges are bought.
- Cabinet appointments should be ratified by committees. In the event of disagreement, a vote should be taken by the whole House of Commons.
- Given all of the above, it is vital the select committees are insolated from the executive.
- House of Lords reform needs to be re-visited. A wholly elected chamber is certainly preferable to the current arrangement. However, this institution must be a very different beast to the Commons. Various solutions (longer period of office, maybe a decade, but limited to a single term? Rolling elections every two years? Broad regional constituencies elected under a different election system?) could be considered, but this would again provide a legislative counterpoint to the executive.
- As was advocated in The Change We Need, primaries should be rolled out. However, instead of this just being a party initiative, the possibility of instigating a broader system with universal partisan voter registration should be examined. This would mean that broad-based campaigns to oust sitting MPs could be more easily organized.
- A system to organize a recall election for an individual Member of Parliament should be set-up. Necessarily, the threshold will be high, but the very presence of the tool will change the relationship between MPs and constituents.
- Campaign finance law should be reformed so as individual MPs are far more reliant on attracting many small contributions support from individual donors. This would require an examination of the relationship between central and constituency spending, and a reconsideration of the legality of large donations and institutional giving.
These are just vague ideas, but I certainly don't see inherent contradiction in seeking to construct a constitutional settlement that creates responsive and accountable legislators, but also a respected and powerful legislator.
One obvious oversight here is the discussion of the electoral system. Given the twin aims that I outline above, I would not favour a shift to a European-style party list system of PR (as we are about to use in the European elections, in fact). Such a system greatly undermines the power of the electorate to dispense with or reward individual lawmakers. Other systems, such as a candidate list system, where voters choose the individual rather than the party may be better. But I also wonder if the discussion of PR – while having its own merits - is a little tangential to this debate, for a couple of reasons. First, and most obviously, plenty of countries with PR have very corrupt politicians; far more so than our lot. Second, and more importantly, I also wonder if public dissatisfaction with the electoral system (and it is highly questionable how broad-based and deep that dissatisfaction is, even among the proverbial riders on the Clapham Omnibus), is more a symptom of some of the issues I have discussed above, rather than a cause of it. The normal data cited to prove the flaws in our electoral system is the discrepancy between vote shares and the meta-outcome of the election – so how big the government's majority is. But if power were shifted from the executive to individual lawmakers, that meta-outcome would grow less important. Instead, results in individual constituencies would start to have a far greater impact. Given this, a move to a system like the alternative vote may be more attractive than a system guaranteeing national proportionality.