Campaign for democracy
Campaign for democracy: Brown vs Cameron vs Clegg
Today, in exclusive articles for The Independent, all three party leaders set out their visions for the future as the demand for genuine reform grows stronger
Wednesday 27 May 2009
Gordon Brown, Prime Minister: I'll consider anything that makes the political elite accountable to citizens
Revelations about the unacceptable practices in MPs' expenses have angered and appalled me. They have shown that the British people want to be proud of our democracy and are furious when it is undermined.
I will not tolerate behaviour that is against everything I believe in. A thorough investigation of all expenses claims will be conducted. No single newspaper can be judge and jury and strengthening our democracy takes all of us. I am determined that when the full investigation is complete in the next few months any wrongdoing will be rectified and punished. All of us – I mean all – have to pass the test.
But of course the recent controversies crystalise a long-gestating problem of disengagement between the British public and those who serve them as elected representatives.
That is why as soon as I became Prime Minister and in my first Commons statement as Prime Minister, I said that Britain needed big changes in our constitution so that the British people held greater power over the decisions that affected their lives. I said that the answer to disengagement from democracy was not to bypass its structures but strengthen them.
I proposed the removal of centuries-old powers held undemocratically by the executive over peace and war, treaties and appointments. Now those powers will reside in Parliament, where, for appointments, there are now pre-confirmation hearings.
When I became Prime Minister I was also concerned, as a long-standing supporter of Charter 88, that our freedom of information was not robust enough. Transparency is the foundation of a modern democracy and I strengthened the public's right to secure information free of charge.
But as I said at that time, the strengthening of Parliament against the executive was merely the first part of a rolling programme of constitutional reform.
In a few weeks, Jack Straw will announce the outcome of a long period of consultation on our constitutional renewal Bill. Most MPs enter Parliament to serve the public but that consultation will now have to take into account the revelations of the abuse of the system.
Since March we have been consulting on a Green Paper on a Bill of both rights and responsibilities – about how to entrench the rights and freedoms of the British people in relation to the state. In the months ahead we will move in all these areas.
Yesterday I spent time meeting young people in Fife and tomorrow I will meet members of the Youth Citizenship Commission to talk about how young people can vote on local budgets, run local youth councils and elect members to a national youth parliament.
I will be talking about how by recall, redress and better representations all local people can have far more influence on local budgets and local decisions, from policing to schooling.
Everyone must know that they are being heard. We will shortly publish proposals which reform the Commons and put more power where it belongs – in the people's hands. There is no option I will not consider if it redistributes power. What has always been clear to me is that we must look at new ways in which the political elites can be made accountable to serve more effectively the single most important person in our democracy – the citizen.
David Cameron, Conservative leader: Make Parliament strong again and call time on cosy party stitch-ups
We've seen the expenses, we've heard the excuses, now it's time to extract something of worth from this scandal. People don't want to see more self-pity from politicians. They want to see real action to bring about change – not just in the expenses system, but in the whole political system. This crisis gives us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make that change. The public calls for political reform are urgent. But feeding the frenzy with ideas sketched on the back of an envelope would be a woeful wasted opportunity. Meaningful reform must start with a simple, single objective. The Conservative Party's objective is this: to redistribute power from the powerful to the powerless.
Most people in Britain feel that they are on the distant periphery of power, the movement of their lives directed by the orbit of a powerful centre. They're right, and the results of this power imbalance are hugely destructive to our society. When you feel that someone else, somewhere else is pulling the strings of your life it saps social responsibility and self-reliance, and severs community ties.
We can only defeat this powerlessness with a new politics – and that must start with the most radical decentralisation of power this country has ever seen.
Of course it isn't always possible to devolve power down from national government. That's why there should be a clear, unbroken line of accountability between the British people and those who make decisions on their behalf. The lynchpin of this line must be a strong Parliament.
Right now the Mother of all Parliaments can seem more like a pliant child. Legislation is run through on the rails of government dominance, without proper scrutiny. That's why we've said that the House of Commons should have more control over its own timetable. Without automatic guillotines there would be more time for debate.
Select committees should be engines for serious scrutiny, not cosy party stitch-ups, so their chairmen and members should be elected by backbenchers. There should be much less whipping during the committee stages of a Bill, leaving MPs free to consult their conscience and their constituents and act accordingly. In keeping with this new culture of parliamentary strength, we should limit the use of the Royal Prerogative. Going to war and signing international treaties are massive national decisions that must be discussed by the people's representatives in Parliament, not just a small secretive cabal in Downing Street.
There are further steps we need to take to end the culture of sofa government. So we'll put limits on the number of political advisers, strengthen the Ministerial Code, protect the independence of the Civil Service, and ensure that more decisions are made by the Cabinet as a whole.
We also need to look seriously at the case for fixed-term governments. I know there are strong arguments against this. But if we want Parliament to be a real engine of accountability it's got to be an option. That's why a Conservative government will seriously consider fixed-term parliaments when there is a majority government.
With the backing of the people, the will of Parliament and the authority of a new Speaker, we will create a new politics. We're not looking for a revolution – but we are looking for the most radical redistribution of power Britain has ever seen.
Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat leader: Let's take the dirty money out of politics – and have a battle of ideas
The expenses scandal that has rocked the country in the past few weeks is just the tip of an iceberg of problems with Britain's political system. The exploitation of the House of Commons expenses rules has exposed a culture of arrogance and secrecy right at the heart of our democracy, protected for decades by the vested interests of those in charge. Finally, the truth is out and real change is becoming possible.
This is a once-in-a-generation chance to overhaul our political system, and we must seize it. We need a revolution – the power to sack MPs, a fair voting system, an end to the House of Lords, more power for Parliament to control the government and the eradication of dirty money from politics.
Money has far too big an influence on our politics. Labour is funded by trade unions, the Conservatives by multimillionaires, many of whom don't even pay their full British taxes. And all the parties have run into difficulties with donors who look dodgy. So we must stop big donations once and for all with a cap of £25,000 on any individual donations and a cap on total spending too. Politics should be a competition of ideas, not advertising budgets.
Once elected, government should be subject to proper control by the people's representatives in Parliament. Our Parliament has been weak for too long – there isn't time for MPs to scrutinise legislation and spending is controlled entirely by government with MPs unable to alter a single pound in a single budget. This has got to change. And a new, reforming Speaker should urgently reduce the power of government in Parliament.
But the reform of Parliament will never be complete while appointed party apparatchiks sit as legislators in the House of Lords. Whatever the merits of individual lords and baronesses, they should not be deciding the law of the land. This anachronism cannot be swept under the carpet any longer.
Finally, we must restore democracy by giving power back to people. Liberal Democrats have been calling for over a year for constituents to have the right to sack their MP if they are suspended for wrongdoing – this must be made law immediately so people can have their say on corrupt MPs as soon as possible.
The ultimate power people hold, however, is in their vote, and our system denies millions their voice. The Labour government that holds the reins of power was elected in 2005 with the support of just 22 per cent of eligible voters. Such a system, where so much power depends on the support of so few people, will always breed secrecy and arrogance. It must be changed and a voting system introduced that puts power into everyone's hands.
We have a choice in this crisis. We can patch up the obviously rotten parts of our democracy like expenses and pretend that's enough. Or we can choose to build a new democracy from scratch, with new rules for everything and new hope for the future. I know which side the Liberal Democrats are on.
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