Leading article: The door is now open for root and branch reform

We have an historic opportunity to remake our political system
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The Independent Online

It is sometimes said that in every crisis there lies an opportunity. The political crisis brought on by MPs' abuse of their expenses system certainly seems to be bearing that theory out. The public's furious response to those revelations has opened the door to a root and branch reform of our political system.

The leaders of the three main political parties outline their ideas for change in this newspaper today. There is now a recognition across Westminster that business as usual cannot continue. It is as if the trauma of the expenses scandal has dislodged a clot in the body politic. Finally, the blood of reform is beginning to flow.

While it is a shame that it has taken a political scandal involving phantom mortgages and dirty moats to instigate serious debate on reform, the shift should be welcomed with open arms by all those who wish to see our democracy strengthened. This newspaper has long campaigned for the type of progressive reforms which the leaders of all the main parties are now contemplating.

It might seem odd to advocate granting greater powers to Parliament given the air of disgrace that hangs over the institution, but that is precisely the medicine Westminster needs. Far from being the cockpit of our democracy, Parliament has grown steadily more irrelevant in recent decades. The solution is to make Select Committees more like US Congressional committees. They need to become powerful – and independent – scrutinisers of public institutions and the powerful executive arm of government. Party control of Parliamentary procedure must be loosened in other areas too. It should be made easier, for instance, for individual MPs to initiate legislation, with more free votes and independence for backbench members. We also need to create opportunities for interested parties outside the chamber to put forward reforms and legislation, as in the Scottish Assembly.

But it is not only to Parliament that the Government should devolve responsibility. Any serious programme of constitutional reform must halt the steady centralisation of power that has been taking place since the 1980s. Local councils should be empowered to raise a greater share of the money they spend. The half-reform of the House of Lords needs to be completed to create a vigorous revising chamber. There is a strong case for an elected component to the Lords, but it is vital the reformed upper house continues to draw on the expertise of disinterested experts, not just another layer of professional politicians.

As well as calling for a bolstering of the legislative branch and a radical devolution of power, this newspaper has long advocated the institution of a fairer voting system. The curse of our first-past-the-post system is the manner in which it creates safe seats. This stirs up apathy among those whose votes are unlikely to make a difference and encourages parties to concentrate their campaigning efforts on a small number of swing constituencies. The present system also means that smaller parties must leap extraordinary hurdles to gain representation in Westminster.

The reform needed here is the introduction of an element of proportional representation into the voting system. A system of pure PR would create as many problems as it solved, allowing smaller parties to bring down governments and putting great powers of patronage in the hands of party managers. But a modified constituency system, and the introduction of a number of PR-elected MPs, would avoid these pitfalls while doing much to remove the toxic distortions of the present system.

Another beneficial reform would be the introduction of fixed parliamentary terms. Dismantling the present ad hoc system of "going to the country", which gives an advantage to the incumbent party, can only be to the good.

The fact that Mr Cameron, in particular, has embraced the case for reform is an encouraging sign that we will not have to wait too long for at least some of these changes. But history suggests constitutional overhauls tend to look more attractive to political leaders in opposition. The test comes when they take up the seals of office. Freshly-minted prime ministers tend to overlook the faults of an electoral system that has delivered them power. In the run-up to the 1997 election, Labour promised a referendum on proportional representation. We are still waiting for that consultation.

But 1997 now feels as if it belongs to another era. Recent polls suggest the public mood has shifted decisively in favour of an overhaul of the personnel of politics. This newspaper believes that, if presented with a sufficiently bold programme, the public will also decisively favour still more radical reform of our political system.