Election date confirmed

Brown to go to Queen on 6 April — BBC. Gordon Brown is set to go to the Queen tomorrow for an election date on 6 May, according to the BBC. This brings to an end the most remarkable sitting of parliament in recent years:

• Tony Blair was elected in 2005. Gordon Brown was never elected, neither by the UK population, nor even by his own party, as no-one stood against him and he won the contest by default when Blair stood down.
• The expenses scandal, though run as a major newspaper publishing venture by the Daily Telegraph, was actually the fruit of years of work by Heather Brooke.
• Michael Martin was the first speaker of the House of Commons to be forced to resign since Sir John Trevor in 1695
• More MPs will stand down at this election than any other since the end of the second world war. 200 are expected to stand down, including John Maples, MP for Stratford-on-Avon, who announced his intention on 10 January.
• Contrary to popular opinion, this is not the longest parliament in recent memory. Five years and one day will have elapsed between this election and the last one. John Major’s term was ended by the election on 1 May 1997, five years and 21 days after he won on 9 April 1992. Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 to 1992 was also longer than this sitting. Prior to that, the longest sitting since the war was 8 October 1959 to 15 October 1964. However, although there can be a gap of more than five years between the elections, the maximum length of a parliament itself is 5 years.

Job Descriptions for MPs?

By far the biggest story of the parliament-which-is-soon-to-end is the expenses of Members of Parliament. Expenses, perks, salary, general behaviour. To a certain extent, we ought to celebrate the final ending of the age of deference, when we, the people, now feel able to challenge the political class to explain how they spend our money.

But the elephant in the room (this cliché has become very common recently) is the question of what MPs actually do. Cabinet ministers, of course, run government departments. Sort of. Actually, civil servants run government departments, and cabinet ministers (if they are wise) set policy or (if foolish) get involved in top-level executive decisions. Junior ministers, naturally, do what their senior colleagues do, but less so. The opposition is there to hold the government to account, and back-benchers of the government are… well… to provide the necessary support for the government to be a government.

If MPs are merely voting fodder or some kind of inspection agency, then their senior-management level salaries look a bit over-priced. Some MPs ask barely more than one or two parliamentary questions a year — not the sort of thing which holds anyone to much account. There are All Party Parliamentary Groups on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from human trafficking (a substantially overlooked topic) to beer, a subject which is seldom overlooked. However, these APPGs have no direct influence on the activity of government. There are also select committees, which form part of the process of law-making. But, again, quite a few MPs are not members of any select committees. These are typically the MPs who ask the fewest parliamentary questions.

Members of Parliament have, at least since the war in most areas, supplemented their parliamentary duties with constituency duties. These range from holding surgeries as semi-surrogate social workers, to an endless round of openings and parties. MPs also respond to constituents’ letters, and raise issues of importance with local government. But, again, they raise issues, but have no direct authority. Naturally, in a public sector organisation, a letter from an MP carries a certain weight. But only a certain weight. It is soft influence, not hard impact.

Ask a member of the public exactly what an MP does, and you may get a fairly vague answer. Ask an MP what MPs do, and the answer can be equally vague. To restore trust in politicians, we need job descriptions.

To someone who has lived without one, a job description may seem threatening. MPs have muttered about the unfairness of being told what to do, and how to live. The phrase ‘living on rations’ has cropped up.

But the truth is, the entirely unregulated life of an MP can be as bad for them as it is for the people they serve. A friend of mine was told by his doctor that if he did not stand down as MP for a seat he had famously won a few years before, then he would be dead in five years. Endlessly late nights, a culture which emphasises alcohol consumption, and a demanding programme which is effectively a 40 hour week in Westminster supplemented by a 40 hour week in the constituency, is not good for the MP, nor is it good for the decisions they should be making on our behalf. There is a reason why good companies do not let their senior managers overwork — overworked managers gain progressively fewer results the longer they extend their hours.

The other benefit of a really clear job description is that, if an MP fails in it, he or she could actually be removed. The ability for the electorate to remove failing MPs is part of Liberal Democrat national policy. An MP who seldom turns up at the House of Commons, is rarely in the constituency, and whose letters are written by a team of poorly paid researchers working from a fairly elementary rule-book, is not earning the money we pay them. Worse, he or she is preventing a more diligent, hard-working person from representing the voters.

It is no surprise that all of the worst excesses of the expenses scandal were in ‘safe’ seats. An MP with no accountability framework, no means of removal, and no likelihood of even having to campaign hard when the General Election is called can casually disregard his or her duty. And, it seems, some, or even many, did.

Job descriptions, then. A simple summary of hours to be worked, outputs to be measured, methods of accountability, common standards and disciplinary procedures. Businesses discovered them decades ago. It’s time for the elected-sector to make its way into the late 20th century. Perhaps as a step (heaven help them) into the 21st.

No ‘Dark arts’ in Tory schools sell off…

One of my closest friends was in school with Michael Gove. He remarked to me a few years back ‘he is not the man I knew’. I’ve only met Gove once myself, and he seemed nice enough. I am of course reassured that, in his plans to sell of British schools to the French (among others) he will (in his own words) “make sure that extremist organisations, or people who have a dark agenda, are prevented…” from running them. Therefore, we can be confident that Hogwarts will not, after all, be in the hands of Voldemort.

However, he has been speaking to Hollywood actress Goldie Hawn’s charity, which emphasises social and emotional progress over academic testing and the use of simple breathing exercises to boost learning power.

His plans are estimated to cost £1.8 billion.

Crucially, he is claiming that this will all boost the chances of pupils from poorer backgrounds reaching top universities.

Michael Gove, I beg to differ. Experimental schools have never proven to be effective in helping those from deprived backgrounds. Where they have worked, they have worked for the rich, who can afford to compensate later for any deficiencies. Moreover, they tend to face much stronger resistance in deprived communities: after all, if you live in a ‘bad’ area, you are most likely to want the same kind of education for your children as those in ‘good’ areas are getting, not some experimental model imported from France, Sweden or the USA.

Just as importantly, in a time of massive national deficit, this is not the moment to be spending £1.8 billion on an educational experiment which may or may not work. Remembering that experiments, generally, don’t.

I have absolutely no doubt that Michael Gove is a good man, who desires good for the people of this country. But his innate goodness is not enough to make a bad idea into a good one. Naturally, in the run up to a general election, Gove will be trying to show that he is full of radical ideas, even though the polls suggest we are now heading for a hung parliament in which he will never be allowed to put them into practice. (Or, possibly, unkindly, because he will never have to put them into practice). Nonetheless, he must be careful what he wishes for. There is no idea so bad that it does not run a chance of being acted upon in the right (wrong) circumstances.

So, why do I think this is a bad idea? Simply, because the problem of education in deprived areas is exactly not a failing of the education system itself. We know that British education works, because it produces people like Stephen Hawking, Tim Berners Lee, Paddy Ashdown, Reeta Chakrabarti, J K Rowling, and, indeed, Gove himself. Trinity College Cambridge (I have been told a number of times by people who went there) has more Nobel prize winners than the whole of France. True, Oxford and Cambridge pick up more students from the independent sector, but the independent sector operates (or did at least until the advent of the revised A-level system) the same educational approach and the same curriculum as state funded education. From this we can conclude that it is not the system which is the problem.

I lived for a number of years in deprived communities, and was a school governor both in a very well run comprehensive school in a wealthy area, and a nursery school in a deprived area. There are many reasons why children from deprived areas have much poorer life chances than those from wealthy areas. These reasons span political divides. Right-wingers would say that clever people move to wealthy areas and have clever children who collectively do well at school, giving those schools a good reputation which attract more clever children. It would be hard to deny this. Left-wingers would argue that structural injustice in society takes the people least able to make the most of their opportunities, and deprives them of even those opportunities. Again, it is very hard to build a credible case against this view. But, since both views have some truth, it is foolishness to support one while ignoring the other.

In Britain, we have one of the world’s better educational systems. It is uniquely suited to our culture, and it produces world-leading results in some. If we want it to be better, then we should work to improve it, not to tear it up by the roots and replace it with culturally alien models which are not even proven on their home ground.

Seriously, what education needs from politicians is that they support it and invest in it. Not that they interfere with it.

Wrong answer too late.

In tonight’s vote the Commons opted for a national referendum on the Alternative Vote as a replacement for our current first past the post system. The referendum would cost an estimated £80m, but, because the Government has delayed so long (almost 13 years, in fact), it is unlikely that the bill will be passed before the General Election, and therefore even less likely that any referendum will take place.

More seriously, Alternative Vote is not a true proportional system — up to 49 per cent of the votes would still be discarded, meaning that a government can still be elected with an absolute majority on around 30 per cent of the total national vote.

This paragraph is going to be short and mercifully simple. But if you lack the Liberal Democrat passion for discussing complex voting systems, please feel free to skip to the next paragraph.

So: in first past the post, you put down one X on the ballot paper, and, late that night, the candidate with the most Xs wins. The candidate may have gained not much more than 1/3rd of the total vote, and, often, only three quarters of the voters will have voted. As trust in politics declines, the numbers voting shrinks, and so our elected leaders have less and less of a mandate. The alternative vote system gives you a 1-2-3 etc choice of your favourite, second favourite, and so on. When the votes are counted, the least successful candidate is eliminated, and their second choices are distributed among the remaining candidates. This carries on, until one candidate has more than 50 per cent of the vote, and they are the winner. All the remaining votes are discarded. Although this is marginally more successful at giving people an MP they are happy with, it does not mean at all that the government is elected based on the votes cast across Britain. There’s a variation, AV plus, which I won’t go into, which is a much more proportional system. Truly proportional voting comes with the Single Transferable Vote, which is hideous to work out on paper, but which computers can do as easily as AV, AV plus, or even first past the post. And, these days, even the government has computers.

So where does that leave us? The one thing that the Alternative Vote Labour has pushed for tonight will give us is a system where it is much harder for a Conservative government ever to be elected. Gordon Brown may be counting on getting the support of Lib-Dems because of his fig-leaf gesture towards a proportional system, but, in truth, this is tinkering with the electoral system in order to change the result of future elections.

If Labour had done this, as it originally promised, when it first came to power, then we might have avoided much of the collapse of trust in politicians of the last ten years. Even Alternative Vote reduces the number of ‘safe’ seats which play no real role in an election. And it is in the safe seats that we have seen the greatest abuse of expenses. But this death-bed conversion smacks of nothing more than desperation. And it is a desperation which will surely further undermine the residual confidence the electorate has in government.

Quite simply, it is the wrong answer, too late.

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