The most radical change is in Scotland and Wales. But the new system for the Euro elections means change in England. And debate over reform of the House of Lords and PR suggests this is just the beginning. So radical are the implications that place could replace party as the basic unit of political organisation.Yesterday marked the start of the campaign for the Scottish Parliament. Yet, if a meeting last month of rival Scottish candidates is anything to go by, the issues are only just starting to be addressed.
The impetus for the event was the revolutionary change about to take place across Scotland in the relationship between electors and the elected. Currently, every Scottish citizen has three political representatives: a councillor, an MP and an MEP. In three months, they will have 18: a councillor, an MP, eight Members of the Scottish Parliament and eight MEPs. This proliferation of politicians is only partly explained by the creation of a new parliament. It is also the system for the Scottish election through which every area will choose not only a constituency member, but also seven list members to represent the whole region.
Like all MPs, Scottish members have a heavy load of case work arising from their constituency surgeries. After the elections in May, the bulk of constituents' concerns - issues such as education, housing, health - will become the responsibility of the new Scottish Parliament. Being a Scottish backbencher in Westminster will soon be the cushiest job in politics. But it is hard to imagine MPs happily referring constituents to MSPs if they think votes might be at risk. Will a Labour MP pass on case work to a Nationalist MSP? The Speaker currently adjudicates in disputes between Westminster MPs, and will have to liaise with her opposite number in Holyrood to resolve the inevitable conflicts between MPs and MSPs.
Then there is a phenomenon new to Britain - list representatives. When each citizen has eight Parliamentary representatives at Holyrood, how will constituency and list MSPs share responsibilities? At the seminar in Edinburgh - organised by the London-based Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and the Scottish Council Foundation - Holyrood candidates agreed that the principle should be "signposts, not no-entry signs". Information should be available about the different roles of MPs and MSPs, and about the specific interests of each MSP - like their committee membership - but voters must be free to choose their representatives. But this approach is controversial, with some people arguing for a rigid demarcation between constituency MSP focusing on cases and list MSPs focusing on issues. With so little preparation for change, the only thing that can now be guaranteed is confusion.
Another feature of the list system is that candidates' likelihood of election depends mainly on where their party places them in the list. The concern of each politician becomes not the performance of other parties, but staying at the top of their own party list. Indeed, Alun Michael's election to the Welsh Assembly as a list member means he needs his own party to perform badly in a marginal constituency contest. When politicians from opposing parties are no longer fighting head-to-head, could it mean they become more willing to co-operate across party lines?
The changes in electoral system will have effects beyond the individual relationship between representative and voter, impacting on the whole political geography of Britain. Look at the European elections, also being held under a list system. For the first time, politicians will be directly elected at a regional level. Working co-operatively across party lines, MEPs could form powerful alliances in areas like the North-east and West Midlands, adding further momentum to English regionalism.
Some will welcome these possibilities; others will resist them. The real barrier to successful change is that we have come to prize the characteristics of a system incapable of meeting new challenges, for example, the traditions of a parliament in which many MPs have no useful role. To compensate for their lack of job satisfaction, MPs have invested more and more time in individual case work for constituents. But while MPs spend an average of over 30 hours a week on case work which would be better dealt with by local councillors or a strengthened ombudsman system, other important roles are largely overlooked.
Local partnerships and networks - vital to local economic development, and tackling issues like social exclusion - will involve the council, businesses and community groups but MPs are often marginal. MPs need to see themselves more as civic entrepreneurs, not just dealing with individual cases but getting people together, taking local initiatives, making change happen locally. From this perspective, the fact that Scottish Westminster MPs will lose most of their case work could liberate them to take on a more strategic local leadership role.
Much has been said and written about the constitutional changes already in place or planned by New Labour. Yet little or no attention has been given to the front line of the democratic process - the relationship between politicians and the people they represent. This is the lens through which many people view the whole political process. If new political structures and electoral systems lead to confusion, buck passing and more adversarialism, public cynicism will only grow.
There is an alternative, where politicians help to build their local communities, where they co-operate on local and regional issues, and where citizens have new and better choices when it comes to making their voice heard in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff or Brussels. But this alternative will not simply evolve.
The question is whether a system which developed to fit the needs of politicians and parties can be reformed into one which empowers individual citizens and meaningfully represents localities and regions. The answer from the Scottish candidates at last month's event in Edinburgh was "yes". If this goodwill is to turn into action, it will require commitment from leaders as well as candidates.
Matthew Taylor is director of the Institute for Public Policy ResearchReuse content