Alan Watkins: Save Labour with PR, Mr Brown

There is only one way the Prime Minister might prevent complete electoral disaster
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The Independent Online

The late backbencher and journalist Julian Critchley used to be fond of remarking that the only safe pleasure for a Tory MP was a bag of boiled sweets. Indeed, he used that as a title for one of his several works of reminiscence. Even that small indulgence is to be denied to our legislators – and quite right too, if those reforms which are now occupying the minds of the Government and the House of Commons authorities are ever carried out, as I rather doubt they ever will be.

Over a decade ago, when I went off on two weeks' holiday in France later in that year, I returned to find the country had gone completely mad. That had been brought about by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Today there is a similarly frenzied feeling in the air. The death of Diana inaugurated the age of falsity and fraud presided over by Mr Tony Blair.

Now the era is being brought none too peacefully to its close by the clumsy gesture and lugubrious appearances of Mr Gordon Brown, like a Scottish undertaker who has received garbled instructions about which kirk he is to attend to take part in the service, and where it is that he is supposed to be burying the body.

In the two weeks when I have been on holiday, two groups have separated themselves. There have been the political classes, who still think that politics is an arduous and honourable occupation; and there are the rest of the population, who believe that life is precarious and that its rewards depend more on good fortune than on honesty and application.

I have spent my life writing largely about politicians and their ways. But I did not have any idea why Mr Nick Brown, for instance, the Labour Chief Whip – a bachelor who necessarily spends much of his time in an already subsidised House of Commons – was able to claim between £300 and £400 a month for groceries. I always thought that people had to buy their Maltesers, if that was what they liked (one of the commodities listed in recent reports) out of their own taxed income.

Nor did I know that members could flit between first and second homes according to the convenience of the moment, or that husband-and-wife teams, of which there have been several – the most spectacular was Miss Julie Kirkbride and Mr Andrew MacKay – could perform a kind of pea-under-the-thimble trick where frauds on railway trains on their way to race meetings tempt the customers to part with their money. Truly, I have spent a lot of time like the young man playing the piano in the brothel without realising what was going on upstairs.

I do remember, however, that in the mid-1970s, the national insurance contributions of the self-employed were increased by the new Social Services Secretary Barbara Castle. This change had already been planned by her predecessor, Sir Keith Joseph. At the same time, MPs were converted into employees of parliament, so eliminating the bigger insurance contributions.

The granting of larger privileges of members of Parliament has a long history. The age of greed and plunder began its course, not under the deposed Mr Speaker Martin, but under the sainted Madam Speaker Boothroyd. The period of the last Conservative government saw the introduction of a hitherto undreamt of cornucopia of expenses and allowances. It likewise witnessed the setting up of a multiplicity of committees, regulators and authorise – to do with stan

dards and privileges and the conduct of public life – all designed to repel the attacks of Mr Alistair Campbell and Mr Blair, and to restore some faith in the Conservative Government.

Of course, it did not work. It never looked like working. The decline of public life continued as inexorably under Mr Blair as it had under Sir John Major. And Mr Brown is a soul wholly lost.

I have mentioned Mr Speaker Martin. He clearly deserved to go. But then, he should not have been elected in the rather messy procedure that was adopted in the first place. We are now told that the procedure has been changed, and that the new occupant of the chair will be elected by exhaustive ballot.

This is all very well. But what has happened – what is to happen – to all those House of Commons bureaucrats and parliamentary apparatchiks who justified or ratified these surrealistic claims when they were first made? One does not want to be vindictive, but surely Mr Martin's head cannot be the only one in the bucket?

In the whole disgraceful story, unless there has been some sleight of hand on the part of the reporters, what has been reimbursed has not been allowance against tax, but, rather, a sum of money payable in cash or into an account. This makes a huge difference. My modest proposal is that MPs should be turned back into self-employed persons, in receipt of a regular retainer provided by HM Treasury but being able to claim only legitimate expenses under the tax system.

In 1997 the Tory Party was virtually destroyed. This year or next the same fate awaits the Labour Party – and for much the same reasons. The age that is now ending could go down as the Fiddling Parliament. It would have about it a true ambiguity: "fiddling" in the sense of cheating or dishonesty and in the sense of messing about on the fringes, of frolicking on the margins, as the late Labour minister Harold Lever once expressed the matter.

A variety of remedies have already been canvassed. Thus: the sovereignty of parliament should be restored. But the sovereignty of parliament is precisely what has got us into all this trouble in the first place. At this point, someone else says that this is not to be confused with the unfettered power of the House of Commons. And someone else again points out that what we need are more independent members.

It is fair to say that Mr David Cameron has made the running, closely followed by Mr Nick Clegg. Mr Cameron is flirting with a more open version of party democracy.

There is a perfunctory and stuttering history of democracy in Tory constituencies over the choice of parliamentary candidates. But it comes and goes, according to fashion and the exigencies of the moment.

Mr Cameron has a gift for picking things up and putting them down again. What he has not done is pick up any new-fangled ideas of electoral reform. He sees the prospect of all those shiny black cars before him, new ministers scurrying about like beetles, and he sees no reason to disturb the pleasing vista.

Mr Brown is in quite a different position. Indeed, the only thing Mr Brown can do is to go for the alternative vote in single-member constituencies. The voter would mark the ballot paper 1, 2, 3. My guess is that the Tories would still win the election by a small majority, the Liberal Democrats would have an increased representation, but Labour would still be saved from complete disaster, as it would be under the system which almost finished off the Conservatives in 1997.

At that election, Labour promised a referendum on electoral reform, but Mr Blair gave us an excellent report instead by Roy Jenkins. And Labour did nothing. Mr Brown could still save his party, just about, but his stubbornness and his vanity would not give himself the chance.