Monday, June 01, 2009

The dangers of knee-jerk constitutional change

So far I think Tom Harris has made the best suggestion about how to respond to the expenses scandal - you can see his brilliant idea at And another thing...: The only possible response to the expenses scandal.

I'm afraid I can't come up with anything quite so spectacular but here's one that would change politics as we know it and that I know many people would be glad to see: Outlaw the Liberal Democrats. That will restore faith in democracy and end the scandal I'm sure!

More seriously there are numerous wild suggestions for constitutional change flying around, some of which seem to have been given no more thought than a brief contemplation in the pub. They are then advocated with an aggressive "any idiot can see this is a good idea" type of reasoning, often with pejorative terms like "reform" and "democracy" used as though they magically validate everything, with those who dare to question just how it will solve the problem at hand bluntly dismissed.

This is in no way a sensible approach to constitutional change. It needs to be carefully thought through, with the knock-on effects considered and with a more permanent basis of support than heat of the moment desires. There are many changes being advocated at the moment which are getting support in the opinion polls, but will people really be happy if they're implemented?

For example one proposal flying around is a standards board that would have the power to suspend or even sack MPs for misconduct. It sounds like a no-brainer doesn't it? Indeed a similar standards board exists for local government. But remember when that board suspended Ken Livingstone from office as Mayor of London? (It was overturned before the suspension took place.) The reaction was against the standards board for seemingly overriding the democratic choice of the people.

The idea of recall elections is taking off. Leaving aside the need to ensure that such a tool is not abused for mere partisan gain, has anyone advocating this ever actually knocked on voters' doors during a parliamentary by-election? I have and to put it mildly voters are not exactly happy that they've had yet another election land on them. Next time there's a by-election on, remember to ask the voters if they want more elections inflicted upon them!

Or there's the simultaneous demands for fixed term parliaments and a snap general election. But the whole point of fixed term parliaments is that you can't have a snap election!

(And fixed term parliaments don't exactly work well either. Germany supposedly has them but this hasn't stopped successive German Chancellors from manipulating the system to call an election whenever they want to. If people want to create the desired effect they need to change the political & popular culture to the point that a Prime Minister calling an early election for political advantage will risk displeasure being felt in the ballot box. But why bother trying to be effective when you can just pass tokenistic ineffective constitutional changes that make you feel good?)

I've also heard calls for more demands for referendums, including ones that the voters can initiate. Direct democracy - it sounds so wonderful doesn't it? But is it always the best thing? Referendums have been used to impose values upon people. In California the courts have just upheld that a referendum can take away basic rights, in this case the right of people to marry. Is direct democracy automatically the best thing if it can be used to deny people their rights?

Then on another level we have suggestions that the whole question of MPs' salaries and expenses should be handled by an independent review body. But one of the reasons why the expenses culture developed the way it did is because MPs did not wish to be seen to be accepting the full salary increases recommended by past reviews and instead an entire culture developed that allowances and expenses were meant to be generous to make up for the wages not being as high as they "should" have been.

And of course the usual suspects have once again pounced on every little thing to demand proportional representation. Apparently this will make it easier to get rid of MPs the public don't like.

So can someone tell me how the majority of voters of London can get rid of Richard Barnbrook from the London Assembly? He was elected by proportional representation after all. Or how are the majority of voters of South East England able to reject Daniel Hannan if they want to, when he is at the top of the list most likely to win the most votes in the proportional representation election on Thursday? Or, if we're taking the single transferable vote, how are the majority of voters of Northern Ireland to reject Bairbre de Brún if they wish? There's no alternative Sinn Féin candidate to choose instead. The harsh reality is that "safe seats" exist not because of magic but because a lot of people vote for political parties regardless of who the individual candidates are, and there's not much that can be done to change that.

Now a lot of this is critical and it's meant to be. I don't believe that there is a set of changes that will act as a magic wand to suddenly transform British politics and end all the expenses issues. Indeed one poll has found that two-thirds of voters agree that there is "nothing fundamentally wrong with Britain's constitution providing that MPs are honest and competent". (Daily Telegraph: MPs expenses: Six in ten voters want autumn general election)

But whilst "if it ain't broke don't fix it" suffices most of the time, it clearly doesn't at the moment. So here are some ideas, no more, no less, to throw into the discussion on ways forward:

* Initiate prosecutions against MPs who have committed criminal offences. If found guilty send them to jail and automatically vacate their seat.

* A standards board with the power to dismiss MPs. Yes this would be a trampling on democratic choice, but frankly there are times when the needs of the country as a whole should override the decision of one individual constituency. The principle has already been conceded at local government level, even if it took the Livingstone case to bring it up.

* That good old standby of an independent review body for MPs' salaries & expenses. However I would give it the power to actually set salaries not merely make recommendations that are politically difficult for MPs to vote in. That may not be popular in the short term but it would be better than the current mess. For oversight I would have the Lords as the chamber in control of the review body.

* For MPs who need a second home in London, instead of giving them the money to rent or buy one, perhaps the Commons should buy the home instead and the MPs only live there for the duration. This is an adaptation of the "hall of residence" idea often floated but repeatedly shot down on security concerns.

* Consider the constitution in a calmer state of affairs - that will produce better results than knee-jerk changes that just jump on the bandwagon.

A lot of this isn't sexy, it isn't dynamic and it isn't radical. But it's targeted at the problem itself, it isn't seeking to exploit the crisis for ends that have nothing to do with it and it isn't proposing the shake up the country. Calm reflection is always better than instant reaction.

1 comment:

Dingdongalistic said...

Tim -- I don't think that a standards board to investigate MPs would work that well, not just because of the arguments you provide re: Livingstone.

First, we have already seen that introducing and independent body to take responsibility for something does not insulate politicians from the risk, with the failures of the FSA coming back to haunt the government. I suspect it would be very similar in the case of the failings of an independent standards board.

Second, Independent bodies often make an issue disappear off the radar until it suddenly blows up again. The last thing we need with regard to expenses and MPs conduct is for another decade of silence before scandalous details that have developed in the meantime suddenly appear in the Daily Telegraph, and everyone goes back to "bash an MP" mode.

Third, it is yet an additional element of needless bureaucracy when there are two far simpler, possibly less expensive, solutions:

a) Make every expenses claim FoI, and allow the public to hold MPs to account for their expenses. One of the biggest problems is that the system has been too secretive - it would be less tempting to make dubious claims if you know the public and your local opposition campaign may well be watching that space to catch you out.

b) Simply do away with expenses altogether, and have two or three allowances - one flat-rate allowance, for additional costs incurred while working in Westminster, one travel allowance to and from Westminster, and possibly an extra, flat-rate allowance for people outside commuting distance.

All the same, I do appreciate your cautiousness on these issues - often the attitude of those writing for the Guardian and Times recently towards constitutional reform made me think of a toddler with a look of glee clutching scissors in one hand and glue in the other.


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