Political reform : some quick thoughts

Suddenly PR is in the limelight and seems to be getting support from those disaffected by politics in the UK. I’ve long been pondering about how it is best to govern this country. Mainly about where power lies: The UK, nations, regions, counties, local councils, etc.

Some thoughts:
  • We need a Constitution. No “we’ve already got the Magna Carta” is not a valid answer.
  • The Lords needs thinking about. Almost removing hereditary peers has been a massive step. An elected upper chamber is the obvious solution. Though I’m not 100% behind it. Voting brings in a whole range of cons, pandering to popular opinion, short term-ism, and attracting those who want to be ‘politicians’. The current setup, for all its faults, avoids some of this. Appointing ‘good people’ to a upper house has merits and when it works it ensures a group of generally wise people with varied experience and skills can debate and pass legislation. The problem with elected members is that only a small set of people want to stand for election, canvas for votes, etc… and they generally are not the best for the job.
  • However, ‘who selects who sits in the Lords’, and ‘how do they ensure a balanced upper house’ are questions that are hard to answer, and maybe an elected upper house is the only workable solution. If so, I would want long terms (10 years for example) to avoid short term thinking, and measures to avoid whips and parties dictating free thinking.
  • While all those Westminster traditions are cute (the ‘other house’, ‘my Honorable friend’, divisions rather than instant votes), they actually stop the important process of good law making. They need reforming. The Digital Economy bill was a good example of this. While those (there was only 40 or so) in the house were almost universally (and across party lines) against various points and the bill in general, when it went to a vote (division), hundreds emerged from the bars etc to vote as the whips told them to. They had no idea what had been discussed. They may not have even read the bill, but vote as they were told they did. An instant vote taken in the house would have avoided this.
  • We need clear and simple rules about how the nations are given power. Westminster being responsible for the UK and England is stupid and broken. For example when the Treasury was faced with an urgent need to cut spending they looked at what they could cut. This included UK spending (Defence, International Development, national policing, etc) and English services (Education, NHS England, etc). Defence couldn’t be cut, we are still fighting a Blair war, and we have promised to ring fence International Development. But… what about the English Higher Education budget. That could be cut. And few would notice. Scottish HE funding is decided by the Scottish Parliament, whose budget is set by formula, so wasn’t an option to be included in the cuts (this is not a Scottish dig, another time it will be their formula ‘tweaked’ for the worse, the point is this happen at different times in different ways for the two nations). To me this highlights the problem well of our mixed up way of running the UK. Each nation should have the same local powers….
  • Yes that means a English Parliament. Yes that would come with costs.
  • Fixed term elections are an interesting idea. It would avoid the advantage a ruling party has of choosing the best time for them to call an election, and bring about an element of certainty of when election will take place.
  • Voting is difficult at the moment as we are effectively voting on so many things. Who will make a good Prime Minister, Which party has the best policies, which party is best placed to run the country, which local candidate is best to serve your local needs, which local candidate has the best policies. I’m not sure what the answer is…
  • …Maybe we need to elect those to run the executive separately from electing those to sit in the House of Commons. Would be a very big change but worth a ponder.
  • Obviously PR is on the cards. It has pros and cons but I think now the Pros massively out weigh the cons. The current system is simple – in a good way. Who ever gets the most votes in my area gets the seat. Party with most seats runs the country. However, it seems the country is moving away from a two party system (the two main parties now receive far less of the over all vote than they used to), and therefore this system is representing the voting habits of the nation less and less. Other countries have moved to PR quite successful in the last few years. Scandinavia, New Zealand and Germany seem to do it well. We  can learn from Israel and Italy’s mistakes.
  • For me, the current system has another flaw. The party that has the most MPs (who mainly vote as the whips tell them to) runs the executive (which creates the Bills and controls the whips), Makes the whole parliamentary process somewhat pointless (rubber stamping).
  • I’m actually quite optimistic about this coalition government. While no tory fan, the two parties have compromised mainly on giving up their most extreme ideas, the Lib Dems make Tories more socially responsible, the Tories ensure the Lib Dems do not follow some of their more wacky ideas. It does actually make democracy work very well. By definition, the policy areas they agree on (e.g. scraping ID cards and the associated databases) are those which most people voted for (anyone voting LD/Tory voted for a party with that policy), are the things that got through the negotiations with ease. Surely a good thing.