Reform now: 10 ways to save our system
How do we restore the reputation of Parliament? Andy McSmith and Michael Savage asked 10 respected figures at Westminster for their solutions to the crisis engulfing politics
Thursday 28 May 2009
Tony Benn; Former Labour minister
I have been a long-time supporter of fixed-term parliaments, a system that is used by most parliaments across the world, including the US. I do not believe that the Prime Minister should be given the power to decide when the next election is, which can give the ruling party an obvious political advantage.
MPs should also have to fill out a formal declaration that they will behave ethically once they become members of Parliament. It may help transparency if they were made to publish their income tax details, too. We also need to introduce a federal system, so that English MPs are deciding rules for English constituencies. Why should English people be governed by the opinions of politicians from Scottish constituencies? Changing that would have to be part of electoral reform.
Another part has to be serious reform to the House of Lords. An elected senate would be a fairer system. Overall, we need a new constitution for Britain, something I have been arguing for over many years. Like all these big ideas, these reforms will take a long time to achieve. But they are not impossible. First you are thought of as mad. Then you are dangerous. Then you cannot find anyone at the top who doesn't claim to have had the idea first.
Richard Shepherd; Conservative back-bench MP
The first thing to do is restore the Commons as a legitimate check on government. The Commons should not be the government, it should be a check on government, and we have really lost that. I have sat on committees under a succession of leaders of the Commons, but every proposal I brought up, they said 'the whips would not accept that'. Then just recently, the Commons did an extraordinary thing: they overturned the Government over the Gurkhas. When something like that happens, it doesn't bring chaos. Most MPs are party people. The trouble is when MPs hold every position only by virtue of being a member of a party – that is when Parliament loses its way. When I grew up, Parliament had enormous prestige. Now, even on civil liberties, it has more or less given up. We have a Cabinet that does not even want to see the legal basis for going to war.
In the present atmosphere, you are getting thousand of ideas thrown up which rational people know will never come into existence. The idea of "star chambers" to judge MPs seems extraordinary. Their membership is determined – by whom? By the party leaders. To a detached eye it looks very like political points scoring.
Essential to any idea of reform is that you have to have a House of Commons with a sense of itself, other than as a place for parties to operate.
Susan Kramer; Lib Dem MP
I am a strong supporter of lowering the voting age to 16. When I am out meeting constituents, I am very struck by the number of people in their twenties who have become disengaged from the political process. Many of them do not understand the process of elections. They cannot think through the different things being offered. Many do not understand what to do at the voting booth, but are too embarrassed to ask.
But by lowering the voting age to 16, allowing people to vote while they are still at school, first-time voters are in the ideal environment in which to be walked through the process of voting. It would make them feel much more involved in our democracy. It also sets up a legacy. A person who has voted once is far more likely to vote again in subsequent elections. I hope that the current crisis might encourage us to finally make this a reality.
On top of that, there are all the old arguments that we allow 16-year-olds to do things such as join the military; it is time that we gave them even more adult responsibilities, and trust them. Young people are often given a hard time in the media and by some politicians. Hopefully, handing them the vote would help change political discourse, too, with parties trying to offer them something, rather than criticise them.
Michael Howard; Former Conservative leader
There is a pressing need to restore confidence in Parliament. The most important thing we could do, which David Cameron mentioned, is do away with the routine guillotining of debate that has become a feature of the present Government. Parliament has not been able to do its job because it has not been allowed time to debate. Sometimes a government has to rush legislation through, but the routine timetabling of business has made it impossible for Parliament to function properly.
I am also strongly in favour of reducing the number of MPs so that they all represent constituencies of an equal size. You have to be careful with holding open primaries for the selection of candidates, which the Conservative Party has introduced, because you don't want to make it necessary for candidates to raise sums of money for themselves rather than for their party. But I think it's perfectly possible to devise a system where that does not happen.
I am not an enthusiast for giving voters the power to recall their MP in mid-Parliament. Governments frequently have to do things that are unpopular. The danger with recall is that you might get a lot of applications to recall MPs for reasons that have nothing to do with their performances, other than that they have supported an unpopular government measure.
Chuka Umunna; Labour candidate
The tumultuous times at Westminster at the moment are quite frightening – foreboding even. But as the saying goes, never waste a good crisis. We need to use this period for long-awaited constitutional reform. One thing we need to change is the voting system. It is not a panacea to solving all the problems in our democracy at the moment, but it is a necessary step.
At the moment, we have the ridiculous situation in which about 100,000 voters in a few marginal seats decide the outcome of an election. It also means that the whole of our political discourse has become dominated by a battle for the decisive centre ground. Back in 2003, about a million people marched in London to mark their opposition to the Iraq war, yet Britain's two main parties both supported the military action. What could better exemplify the lack of different voices in politics?
If we had an electoral system that was more consensual, with different parties involved in deciding policies, many more people would be given a voice within government. An alternative, proportional voting system would do that. The Labour leadership needs to come forward in our next manifesto with some concrete proposals to introduce major reforms such as these.
Richard Taylor; Independent MP
Party whips are essential to the parliamentary system, but I think their powers must be reduced. Many MPs tell me they wished they could have voted in the way I had, because I am only guided by my conscience, not by the whips. In all my time in parliament, I have only managed to change the mind of one MP. That was in a debate on passive smoking, an area in which my medical background gave me some expertise. There should be many more "free" votes (votes without a whip).
What the Government doesn't seem to realise is that giving MPs more free votes could work in its favour, too. At the moment, if it loses a vote that was heavily whipped, it is a disaster for it. If they lose a free vote, it is much less of a problem, and MPs are given far more freedom to listen to the arguments presented.
The second ingredient to reform is to limit the time frontbenchers and backbenchers are allowed to speak for. At the moment, front-bench MPs talk for far too long, limiting the time for others to have their say. If you can't make your point in 15 minutes, you're in trouble anyway! Allowing backbenchers more opportunity to enter debates, together with the idea that they might even persuade people to change their minds, would encourage them that they could have some influence. Parliament would be a much stronger institution as a result.
Lord Dubs; Labour peer
The expenses row is a catalyst for parliamentary reform, rather than a logical reason for it, but I would seize this opportunity to create an elected House of Lords. In the Lords there is a clear majority against change, and even among Labour peers it is about 50-50, but I have long felt that an unaccountable system is something that people no longer accept.
If we are going to have elections, it would have to be under some form of proportional representation. Would you bring in the reform in one go, or allow the present members to die off? There is an objection that some people gave up jobs or pensions when they entered the Lords, and it would be unfair to change their conditions, but I don't think that would be a popular argument just now.
Another question is whether you hold elections to the upper house on the same day as the general elections, or on a different day, such as the day of the European elections. If you did it on the day of the general election you would get a better turnout and you would not have the problem of one house being more up-to-date than the other. But the powers of the House of Lords would have to be defined a lot better, because you would have to make sure that the Commons is still supreme.
Natacha Engel; Labour back-bench MP
We cannot move on until every MP has got their expenses receipts out, because at the moment people want to know what their own MP has been up to.
When that is done, we can start talking to people about what they expect from their MP. Do they want us to focus on constituency casework, or scrutinising legislation? It is down to us as MPs to explain what it is that we do on behalf of the people we represent and then to listen to what people actually want. We have to tell people what the options are. If it is not this kind of parliamentary system, we need to tell people how a different system would work. If you are going to open up the parliamentary system to public involvement, how engaged do people want to be?
What is really striking to me is that the political parties are trying to deal with this in a party political way. Some of the stuff David Cameron was saying was really exciting, but all of his ideas are about stealing a march on his political opponents, and that's why they can't be taken seriously. We need to deal with this crisis in a non-partisan way before politics can really start again.
Only when we have got the receipts out in the open can we start talking about constitutional reform. But we have got to talk to people. At the moment, we are simply talking amongst ourselves – the political classes.
Menzies Campbell; Former Lib Dem leader
There are some very simple things that could be done overnight to help MPs hold the Government to account more effectively. The main vehicles for backbenchers to scrutinise the Government are the select committees. At the moment, membership to a committee is used by party whips as a kind of reward for loyal MPs. That has to stop.
The Treasury committee is a good example. Its work has become very important throughout the economic crisis because its members have broken with party bias to find out what went wrong. But it should not take a crisis to do that. Chairmen should be elected in a secret ballot, making them much more independent.
While in theory the committees have the power to force witnesses to appear before them, I know from personal experience that in practice, some refuse to attend. Powers to compel witnesses to appear must be reinforced.
Finally, the Government must be forced to take recommendations by the committees much more seriously. At the moment, it only has to offer written responses. Ministers should be forced to attend a debate on the conclusions, so that they have to debate why they oppose measures suggested by these important committees.
Gordon Prentice; Labour back-bench MP
MPs have allowed themselves to be neutered. An example is the explosion of parliamentary private secretaries. When I was a PPS, only Cabinet ministers had PPSs, now you get PPSs to the most junior ministers saying they cannot sign early day motions because they hold a government position. Being made a PPS is not a mark of performance, it is a kind of gagging.
There should be fixed-term parliaments so that the Prime Minister cannot engineer things to go to the country at the most favourable moment. There should be legislation to put the status of the civil service on a statutory footing, and every time there is an expensive reorganisation of Whitehall, such as when they create a Department for Children, that should be subject to parliamentary approval, as it is in Canada.
There should be a mandatory register of lobbyists. The register should record details of who the lobbyists are, and who is being lobbied.
We should also make it illegal for parties to accept funding from people who are not UK citizens, domiciled in the UK for tax purposes. I am going to put pages on my website devoted to my Conservative opponent and the huge amount of money he is spending in my constituency – more than £250,000. All this money comes from Lord Ashcroft. It is an example of how seats can be bought.
Readers join the debate...
None of the above
On all ballot papers there must be a box for "No Confidence" in any of the candidates. And a tax surcharge of £100 on all those who do not vote!
No more political parties
We need independents to stand everywhere. It is the only way we can be assured of bringing true democracy to our country and to stop, once and for all, the endemic corruption and self servience to unelected, dangerous political gangs.
It isn't the MPs that are corrupt, it is the system of party politics that is corrupt and which has corrupted those involved in it. Nobody could seriously imagine that the flipping of second homes, the charging for mortgages that didn't exist, the failure to pay capital gains tax, the double charging for second homes and all the Gilbert and Sullivan expense claims, could possibly be described as "serving the public interest". And that is the point. None of them represent the public – they represent their party, NOT their constituents. It is to the party they owe their seat, it is the party that decides the extent, and life, of their political career, not the voters. I think the focus should be on the development of a system in which political groupings such as parties have no place. It will not be easy.
Why not ban the tribalism of party politics and have all MPs unassociated with tribes? Then they have to represent communities and country rather than do what a leader and whips want, like circus animals! Remove the power of the parties and you get closer to real democracy.
PR – or not
We need a system of proportional representation, such as [is] used in the vote for London Mayor, where everybody's vote counts. And free hats and party poppers and whistles for everyone who votes.
Proportional representation is often called a fairer system (and in some ways it is), but it also breaks the direct link between the representative and the elector and it also can lead to the situation we see in Italy, Israel, Czech Republic etc, where, frankly, democracy is a mess with no stable governments and disproportionate influence [is] held by fringe parties that carry the balance of power.
In order to ensure that Parliament is truly representative throughout its term, would it not be possible to stagger elections – say 25 each quarter?
As in Australia, make it a fat fine offence for not voting. And have proportional representation.
PM with a mandate
It is absolutely essential that a general election is called ASAP to allow for a properly elected Prime Minister to be installed.
The Labour and Tory leaders are falling over themselves to assure us they are willing to surrender much of the undemocratic power they wield, but in fact they will give little or nothing away unless they are forced to by some very justified civil disorder. We need full proportional representation, an elected second chamber (with PR), a written constitution and an elected head of state who holds power for a fixed term of office.
Real change? Only with lawful rebellion.
We need a written constitution. The idea that we actually do have a constitution through a complicated system of laws is a fallacy. One of the main functions of a constitution is that it is open and understandable to everybody. The idea that anyone can compare what is written in a slim paperback book to what is happening and raise the alarm when the two do not add up.
Government interferes too much at the moment and should be restricted to only a handful of essential services as laid down in a written constitution. The Whip system should be abolished. Everything an MP does or claims for should be in the public domain.
Stay at home
In the words of Bill Hicks, "Don't vote, it only encourages them".
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