Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Anti-party Politics

The proposals that Jack Straw has put forward for the reform of the House of Lords remind me why politics is too important to be left to the politicians.

Since the 1960s politics has lost its sense of vocation and become a profession. MPs are now paid a professional salary and there are recognised career paths that lead into the House of Commons: "lobbyist", "researcher", "campaigner" and so on. The number of people with either business or Union experience in the House of Commons has fallen sharply, while the number of MPs who were previously public sector workers has increased. Lawyers continue to be a large part of the legislature.

However, MPs have ceased to be real representatives of their constituencies and have become solely delegates of their party, on which they are entirely dependent to get elected. The independent MP remains a very rare beast- only four in the current Parliament. The number of seats under FPTP that are genuinely competitive is really quite small- so the key to being elected is merely to get the approval of a few tens of party activists. Safe seats can be in the gift of some very unrepresentative figures indeed.

The constitution of the House of Commons needs review- it is high time that every seat was a marginal and that votes directly related to seats- and that the system allowed for more and more independent minds and voices in the House.

If the House of Lords needs reform we should bear in mind several key principles, if it is not to become a pale imitation of the House of Commons- or worse.

Firstly there should be a broad range of non political figures- Bishops, representatives of other religions, business people, union leaders, community leaders should be in the Upper House ex officio. Often these leaders are members of the House of Lords now- and they make a profound contribution to the debate.

Secondly the mandate of the Lords should be different from the House of Commons. Firstly the cycle for the Lords should be a lot longer- and possibly, like the law lords today, it should be until retirement unless guilty of some gross abuse or crime. Perhaps also specifically non party seats should be elected to be cross benchers- including senior judges, as at present, but also including, for example, academics. The franchise therefore might not simply be related to where any given Lord chooses to represent, but might be University courts, for example. In fact once of the key advantages of the Lords today is that they are purely national and do not represent local constituencies. I saw Iain Dale suggesting counties as a basis for Lord representations, but under PR we could return to County constituencies for the House of Commons, so I do not see County positions for the Lords being necessary for the Commons. An exception to local representation might be that some MSPs or MAs or their specific representatives may be selected to represent the Scottish Parliament or Welsh or Northern Irish Assemblies in the House of Lords.

As should be clear from the above, I do not approve of salaried members of the House of Lords- I do not think it necessary or wise to professionalise every level of Parliament.

The purpose of all these reforms- to both Lords and Commons is to call the Executive to heel. We have already got a Prime Minister who has done the worst thing a Prime Minister can do- he fought an illegal war. The failure of Parliament to hold the government to account, with the extremely honourable exception of Ming Campbell and the Liberal Democrats, is an example of what is wrong with the House of Commons. The abject dependence of MPs on their party machine renders honourable dissent career suicide for ambitious wannabe ministers.

After reform I would also suggest that the Executive may co-opt more outsiders into the Lords to serve as ministers- it happens now, but I would like to see a much broader range of brains and talents in government than simply those who have climbed the greasy pole of "researcher-lobbyist-leader of the opposition", for example.

Politics has become a closed shop- and this is one reason why so many are angry and disillusioned with our political class. It is time to open up the franchise, and create a freer market in political ideas than the current increasingly corrupt and intellectually bankrupt party system.

Electoral Reform for the House of Commons and a more open House of Lords, including a large elected component is now long overdue. Jack Straw's ideas are wrong, but by all means let us start the debate.

7 comments:

James said...

"Often these leaders are members of the House of Lords now- and they make a profound contribution to the debate."

Do they? Where's your evidence? Ever since Public Whip started following House of Lords votes I've been struck by how little cross benchers actually contribute to the House of Lords. Typical attendence rate: 12%. They hardly ever hold the balance of power and while they occasionally make the odd good speech, there's nothing at all to stop them from doing that outside of the chamber.

I do detect from your post that you've fallen for the House of Lords Myth - that misty-eyed idea that the Upper House is somehow filled with great, sober minds weighing up ideas in stark contrast to the nasty, partisan and populist House of Commons. In truth, votes in the Lords are almost always MORE partisan than votes in the Commons (there are fewer Lords who vote against their party whip more than 10% of the time - in fact there are four: Baroness Kennedy, Baroness Mallalieu, Lord Hattersley and Lord Lloyd Webber. The latter has voted a grand total of 8 times since 1999, rebelling once).

What we urgently need in the second chamber is more partisan politics, not less. The important thing is though, which we can both agree on, is that the chamber should be elected by some fair voting system to ensure political balance.

Ironically, if we had a system such as STV, I would expect to see quite a few independents getting elected. I would be quite relaxed about that, so long as they had their own mandate and didn't sit there because someone decided they were a member of the "great and good". Pah.

Cicero said...

Enjoyable rant!

I was thinking less about the cross benchers than the bishops to be fair.

I obviously do beleive in fair votes but I do not beleive that the system for both houses should be the same.

Tristan said...

I see no reason that Bishops should be in the Lords unless they're elected. There is no divine right to sit in the legislature.

The abuse of the appointments system will not stop, failed, but loyal MPs or candidates will be elevated, peerages for favours will occur (although hidden even better). A seat in the Lords would be offered to an MP if they stand aside for a favoured candidate.

Experts should be allowed to address the Lords, in the chamber and in committee, perhaps applications to speak could be made, although you need some way of ensuring the petitions are sensible without costing too much money.

The chamber should be a lot smaller, elected by a proportional non party based system. To make that manageable you'd need to have some sort of regional system. STV on groupings of counties could work then. Another possibility is having a rolling election with a small number elected each vote, but that could easily lead to election fatigue.

Terms should be longer than the Commons, and you should be limited to the number of terms you may sit.

Some pay is needed, we can't expect Lords to be entirely self-sufficient, we'd end up with people with money or financial backers more than we do today.
That said, pay should not be high.

James said...

I'm glad that someone else has drawn attention to a developing trend towards the professional politician. At present the proportion MPs who openly admit to having no other prior career outside the Westminster village stands at 14% - not an enormous number, but one that has rapidly expanded over the past fifteen years and is likely to be understated because MPs would probably not like to admit that this was actually the case in their own instances.

The greatest casualty of this process is the quality of political debate. This is facile enough owing to the pressures of presenting a united front to the press, but I also suspect that some of the unspeakably banal and empty sloganeering heard at conference and elsewhere is the product of too much time spent in the company of other politicians in a 'party political' atmosphere - the essence of a professional politician.

rjdbham@aol.com said...

I agree that the terms of office should be longer. How about six year terms and for no more than two terms? This would loosen the ties of party discipline.

To have real power, the second chamber must be largely if not exclusively elected. (And elected of course by a form of PR.) There is value in having experts and others in the second chamber but they must be in a small minority or have purely no voting rights in the chamber.

James said...

1. There is no trend towards the 'professional politician'. Politicians have historically been professional, and indeed many of the most respected politicians in recent times have dedicated their lives to politics. The wikipedia entry on Baby of the House makes this point quite well for me.

2. By all means have different systems for each house, but they don't have to be radically different. For example, the Australian model uses preferential voting for both houses, but only multi-member constituencies in the senate. Personally, I can't see why you can't have multi-member constituencies for both houses, so long as the second chamber has longer terms and different constituency boundaries (which it inevitably would).

James said...

In fact there is a very clear trend towards MPs from political backgrounds which can be viewed at:http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/notes/snsg-01528.pdf

In summary, in 1987 there were 34 MPs who stated that they had an occupational background as a political organiser. That number has risen at every subsequent election to a current total of 87.