Ideas to revive the British political system

The pros, cons and prospects for reform
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Fixed-term Parliaments

What is it? Introducing fixed terms would bring the UK into line with other democracies. In our system, the prime minister chooses the election date, provided it is within five years and a month of the previous election. The more unpopular the government, the more the prime minister is likely to cling on, hoping for a change in fortune.

Who backs it? A ComRes poll in December 2007 found 44 per cent of MPs in favour, 47 against. The number in favour may have risen since.

What is the argument against? Sometimes, a general election produces an unsustainable result, such as that of February 1974, and sometimes a government loses its authority in the Commons, as Labour did in 1979.

Will it happen? With David Cameron and the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, speaking up for fixed-term parliaments yesterday, there is a good chance that it will happen.


What is it? Primaries and alternative votes are seen as answers to the perceived problem that there are too many safe seats in the Commons. Once someone has been selected as a Labour or a Conservative candidate for a seat, the election is little more than a formality. Open primaries allow all constituents to take part in candidate selection. Alternative votes let a voter list candidates in order of preference and counting goes on until someone has 50 per cent of the vote.

Who backs it? Open primaries – David Cameron; Alternative votes – Jack Straw, Alan Johnson.

What is the argument against? Opponents to a party could use open primaries to make it select weak candidates. Alternative voting is not a proportional system and could make the Commons more disproportionate.

Will it happen? The Conservatives have held some open primaries. Others may have to follow. Alternative voting is a distinct possibility.

Proportional representationes

What is it? Simply, the answer to the notorious discrepancy between how votes are cast at a general election, and the resulting make-up of the Commons. Our current system works in favour of the two larger parties, whose votes are concentrated geographically, and against the Liberal Democrats and the smaller parties, whose votes are thinly spread. At the 2005 general election, the Labour Party won 57 per cent of the seats in the Commons, on 35 per cent of votes cast. One of the difficulties faced by those who support PR is that they cannot agree what sort of PR they want. Different systems apply in the elections for the European and Scottish parliaments. But in 1998, a commission chaired by Lord Jenkins, which had been asked by Tony Blair to look into electoral reform, recommended that 80 per cent to 85 per cent of all MPs should be representatives of individual constituencies, as they are now, with a complicated "top-up" procedure to allocate extra MPs on a proportionate basis.

Who backs it? The Liberal Democrats and smaller parties. But so too do some Labour politicians. Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, declared himself this week in favour of the "elegant" system devised by Lord Jenkins.

What is the argument against? Under a pure form of PR, the old British custom of complaining to your MP would disappear. The Jenkins system would create two types of MP – those with constituents to represent, and those appointed off party lists. And any proportionate system is likely to lead to weak coalition governments.

Will it happen? The chances are remote. It might just happen if there was a hung Parliament with a strong Lib Dem presence.


Select Committees

What is it? Select committees are supposed to be the means by which MPs hold government departments to account but they have nothing like the power of US congressional committees. Committee membership is controlled by party whips. One way to strengthen the Commons is to instead allow MPs to elect the committees.

Who backs it? Chris Mullin, a former chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, called for this reform earlier this week. Both David Cameron and Jack Straw have now said that they agree.

What is the argument against? MPs may vote for whoever is popular rather than who would be effective, as Labour MPs did when they elected Michael Martin Speaker.

Will it happen? With both Labour and the Conservatives in favour it is sure to happen – in theory. Whether any government will actually let the system run itself is another matter entirely.

Lords reform

What is it? No other democracy has anything like the House of Lords. No peer has ever been elected. More than 90 inherited their places. All members stay until they die, and cannot be expelled even if, like Lord Archer, they have served prison terms for criminal offences.

Who backs it? There is an overwhelming majority in the Commons in favour of reform, but MPs have not yet agreed on what a reformed House of Lords would be like.

What is the argument against? MPs fear that a reformed House of Lords would thwart the will of the House of Commons more often.

Will it happen? In theory, it is bound to happen eventually, but it could take years while the Lords fight a rearguard action.

Reforming legislation

What is it? Parliament supposedly has the power to scrutinise and amend every clause of every new law the government introduces. In reality, the only detailed argument almost always takes place away from the floor of the Commons, in committee, and even there, the whips tell MPs how to behave. Keep people such as the Labour Chief Whip Nick Brown, away from the committees, and involve the public, say the reformers.

Who backs it? David Cameron and Jack Straw both agree that the system must be improved but may not agree on how. They also both agree in principle that if a public petition gets enough support, it should be debated in the Commons.

What is the argument against? The public expects a government to deliver on its promises, which they might not be able to do if passing legislation turns into a free for all.

Will it happen? No government is going to relinquish control of legislation completely unless forced to, but they might ease up a bit. There probably will be some facility for petitions submitted by public demand to be debated.



What is it? There has not been a national referendum since 1975, though there have been local ones. It is now being suggested that as well as having more of them, the government should give local voters the "power of recall" against MPs implicated in scandals.

Who backs it? All the parties agree that there would be a referendum if the UK were to join the euro. The Conservatives want one on the Lisbon Treaty and they want people to have the power to vote against excessive rate rises. Jack Straw favours letting constituents sack disgraced MPs. So do the Liberal Democrats.

What is the argument against? Referenda are not a good way of settling complex issues and the power of recall may be used arbitrarily.

Will it happen? The public will probably get the power to sack MPs and a plebiscite on the Lisbon Treaty is likely to take place if the Conservatives win the election.

The Internet

What is it? While most forms of political activity have declined, there has been an explosion of discussion on the internet and by text. Barack Obama's campaign broke new ground in the use of technology, which other parties are copying. Why not introduce voting by text or via the web, either for legislation or in general elections?

Who backs it? A commission headed by Helena Kennedy, the Power commission, suggested it could be introduced in limited ways, but only after other reforms had been put in place.

What is the argument against? Any such system would discriminate against those without access to the web or a mobile phone.

Will it happen? The web is used in unofficial ways, such as the petitions on the Downing Street website, but there is no serious proposal to make it official.

The new ballot box

What is it? The number of people prepared to vote has fallen alarmingly. In some countries, including Australia, voting is compulsory. That would surely improve turnout. It has also been suggested that voting here should be made easier, by holding elections on a Sunday or having polling booths in accessible places such as supermarkets, and that the voting age be reduced to 16.

Who backs it? There is no very serious support for compulsory voting but votes for 16-year-olds are backed by the Liberal Democrats and the Government is willing to try new ways to make casting your vote more convenient.

What is the argument against? The explanation for low turnout does not seem to be linked to the inconvenience of finding a polling booth or organising a postal vote, and 16-year-olds are, if anything, even less interested in conventional politics than their elders.

Will it happen? Only minor changes seem likely.