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We should reform now, but we cannot transform until we agree what politics is for

Something odd and deeply ironic is happening. People who have never voted are telling us we voted for the wrong people. People who have invested their lives in being famous are suddenly deciding that they have the attributes necessary to run the country. Meanwhile, politicians that most of us have either never heard of, or not heard from for a very, very long time are coming out of the woodwork, blaming the system for their faults, or the public for its jealousy.

Reform is long over due, and the question is not really any more whether it will take place, but how far it will go. At the one end, David Cameron would like to change as little as possible and shift the bulk of changes away from MP remuneration. At the other end, persons such as myself believe it is high time for a fair voting system, a ban on MP second jobs, an expenses system which pays genuine expenses and nothing more, public accommodation for MPs, and an outright ban on profiting from the public purse. These are largely the views shared by Nick Clegg and Vince Cable, names which are curiously untarnished by the current crisis, and who therefore doubly should be listened to.

Reform is all very well (and, very, very essential), but we are missing something more important and more profound. Even if the Daily Telegraph had only been able to point to light bulbs, trouser presses, scotch eggs and the costs of genuine mortgages on second homes which had never been flipped, where the mortgage arrangements had been made to place the least burden on the public purse — even if this had been the case, many people who still have been very angry.

As a general rule, people are angry at politicians, and (in my experience) even angrier at people who are trying to get elected as politicians but who have not yet succeeded. Last year a man stopped me and asked me if I was opposed to some local piece of Tory nonsense. I said I was. This did not satisfy him. “Would you be opposed to it in all possible circumstances?” He asked. I asked him what he meant by that. He insisted that I give him what he called a ‘straight answer’. I tried to explain to him that he could probably come up with some kind of circumstance in which I would change my view, but that I was, as things were, completely opposed, and in any probable circumstance, likely to remain so. He wasn’t at all satisfied, and told me that it was typical of politicians not to give a ‘straight answer’.

But the truth is, I gave him a straight answer straight away. He then changed the question to the point at which no meaningful answer could be given. Why? Possibly he’d seen Paxman do this on television, but, deep down, I think he was secretly disappointed that I had given him a straight answer, and wanted to find some form of the question for which there could be no straight answer, which would then justify his belief that, if I was in politics, I must be trying to trick him.

The funny thing was, this was a man who had never voted, and probably has not voted since.

Do we somehow, for some cathartic sociological reason, need a class of people who are always in the wrong, no matter what they say? Now that people are uncomfortable about sexual, racial, gender, disability or religious stereotyping, are we down to the ultimate outcasts, who can comfortably be blamed in all circumstances without the risk of the critic being criticised for his criticism?

There must surely be more to it than that.

I went to have a meeting about the budget a few weeks ago, with none other than Vince Cable. The first thing he said was that MPs really don’t get to comment on the budget. The budget is set by the government, and either accepted or rejected as a single piece of legislation. Here was the man who probably (and by popular agreement) understands more about our economy than anyone else in Britain, and yet he can have no useful input in setting the budget which is the government’s fundamental economic instrument.

The truth is that parliament is still locked into a medieval mindset, where the will of the crown is put forwards by legislation, and the only restraint on the power of the crown is also legislation. Therefore, all that parliament can do is make laws. In practice, the group in parliament with the greatest number of votes also gets to be the government, which has essentially limitless executive powers (since we have no written constitution), except as limited by parliament’s legislation, or, more likely, by the constraints of time, money, and a guess about what will play well with the electorate.

But very few people, when they talk to would-be MPs on the doorstep, enquire about what legislation they are thinking of passing. Rather, they want to know what they will do if they are in government. This is touching, but fanciful. Most MPs will never be in government, because, even if their party wins a majority, they themselves will be required to play the part of more-or-less loyal backbenchers, or possibly and at best, after the modern fashion, junior ministers who are a sort of lower management between cabinet and civil servants.

Is this really what we want? We are frequently told that the real work of parliament happens in committees, but this is not really the case. In the European parliament this is much more true, but in Westminster, at least in recent years, it seems that committees only have power to embarrass the government, which can still push through its programme if it wants to.

Those who advocate our ‘winner takes all’ style of government claim that it makes for strong governments, and anything else makes for weak government. But this is not borne out by history. Rather, what we saw with both the Thatcher and Blair governments, is that they won initially with big majorities and a huge amount of enthusiasm to unite Britain, seize the day, and do what must be done. But, as their time in office progressed, they gradually ran out of ideas. Thatcher’s reign ended in the debacle of the poll tax, and Blair, though he had the sense to get out while the going was good, would have finished up in the double crisis that Gordon Brown now finds himself in. With nothing to renew them, governments run out of good people, and so are forced to put progressively less suitable (but politically sound) people into key positions. Instead of the campaigning Clare Short, and then the (largely famous because of his father) Hilary Benn, we now have Douglas Alexander as minister for international development. Peter Mandelson, so closely identified with the original Blair victory, has wandered in and out of government, finally finding his way into the Lords. Estelle Morris, the last Secretary of State for Education that anyone can remember, quit the job because she didn’t feel up to it. John Prescott had to go. And so on. I don’t particularly mourn the loss of these people (well, perhaps Estelle Morris a little bit), because, by and large, I feel they were essentially bad at their jobs. But the bright constellation of Blair’s inner circle is now dimmed. Instead of prudent Gordon Brown we now have Alistair Darling, instead of the bright Blair smile we now have dull Gordon. Thatcher’s mob fared no better. By the time John Major came to office (but not, as was often pointed out, to power), there were very few left who could command the public’s respect.

And yet, parliament ought to have been able to attract the brightest and the best from all walks of life. So how come we don’t seem to be able to put together a half decent government?

It is high time for the British system to be transformed. We don’t run an empire any more. We don’t have local landowners representing the interests of their illiterate tenants. We are not trying to hold back the power of the barons, or of an unruly monarch with a penchant for raising taxes to fund more battle ships. Our system is full of checks and balances, but they are largely checks on the wrong things, and balances to forces which no longer exist.

Ask most voters to explain the way in which the Lords, the Commons, the Crown and the Courts interrelate, and they will look at you baffled. But this is not because voters are uninformed, uninterested or unintelligent. The system itself is ludicrously complicated, functions poorly, is hopelessly inefficient, and, as we have too often seen, results in the misapplication of poorly drafted legislation for a result far from the original intention. No wonder voters are apathetic. It would be like asking them to vote on who should drive a train that has no engine, or who should wash the dishes when there is no water.

There is now unprecedented energy in Britain for the debate on what politics is for. But we seem intent on diverting it into a discussion of whether the BNP will benefit from the protest vote, and how poorly Labour might do in a year’s time. These are interesting, to be sure, but bring us no closer to the fundamental reforms without which the last month in politics has been no more than an exercise in mass prudery.

Cameron promises every kind of change except actual change…

“Cameron pledges shake-up of power” – BBC

David Cameron has been wrong-footed for once by Labour. In responding to Alan Johnson’s Lib-Dem inspired call for proportional representation, he has gone strong on ‘radical change’. Except that his changes are not radical at all.

Cameron, writing in tomorrow’s Guardian, and, if he hasn’t thought better of it by then, giving a speech in Milton Keynes, suggests fixed-term parliaments (yawn, everyone has agreed that ought to happen for years), less whipping of MP votes (Lib-Dems already do this, and it’s not a reform of parliament, it’s a reform of his own dynastic and hierarchical party), allowing backbench MPs to choose committee chairs (backbench MPs got to pick the Speaker — and see where that got us), limiting the number of decisions the prime minister can make without going to parliament (Tony Blair — yeah, him — already introduced that one), allowing local councils to reverse government decisions (radical, but completely loopy), and publishing the expenses of civil servants who get more than £150,000 salaries (not really a reform of parliament).

But he bitterly opposes a reform of the electoral system saying, with an enormous piece of double-think that would have done credit to George Orwell’s 1984 characters, “Proportional representation takes power away from the man and woman in the street and hands it to the political elites.” Say what?

It’s quite bonkers, and I suspect that he knows it is. He goes on: “Instead of voters choosing their government on the basis of the manifestos put before them in an election, party managers would choose a government on the basis of secret backroom deals. How is that going to deliver the transparency and trust we need?”

But, David, voters don’t choose the government at all on the current system. And you know they don’t.

Cameron is hoping on the current system that 40% of the vote will give him an absolute majority in parliament. How can that be voters choosing the government, if 60% of them wanted someone else, but he gets the power to over rule everyone else? Sometimes, 35% of the vote is enough to give an absolute majority, on our current system. How can that possibly be allowing the voters to choose the government? In fact, it’s mathematically possible (and, heaven knows, after the Florida run off which got George W Bush elected, mathematically possible is something which needs to be taken seriously) — mathematically possible that a party which gets less votes than either of two rivals gains an absolute majority in Westminster.

What’s worse is that the first past the post system creates safe seats, at least for Labour and the Tories. If you look around the electoral canvas at who the worst culprits are for misuse of expenses, you see fairly quickly that they are concentrated in… yes, that’s right — the safe seats. A candidate in a safe seat need make no particularly strong appeal to the electorate. He (90% of the time it is a he, not a she) does not need (except now, since we are all alert) to publish expenses, account for the number of hours he spent in Westminster or in the constituency, or defend his apparent complete uninterest in discussing constituency related matters in the House. For example, at the last election, Andrew Mackay, now standing down in disgrace, polled 49.7% of the vote, which was 23% above his nearest rival. Derek Conway, famous for paying his son from the public purse even though his son did nothing, polled 49.8%, 22% above his nearest rival. Douglas Hogg, of moat fame, polled 50.3%. Sir Peter Viggers, known for his duck island, polled 44.8%. Nicholas Winterton polled 49.6%, while his wife Anne Winterton polled 45.4%.

I am not remotely suggesting that a safe seat made these MPs behave in the way they did, any more than the expenses system made them do what they did. But I am stating absolutely categorically that safe seats make MPs unresponsive to the electorate.

And it’s the safe seat system which David Cameron (polled 49.3%, lest we forget) is defending when he puts forward a series of relatively inconsequential changes to avoid the big change which he fears — proportional representation, otherwise known as a fair voting system. In a fair voting system, where the votes of the people really decide who is in and who is out, no seats are safe, and no MP’s career is ever in the bag — no matter how well he has sweet talked the local Conservative association.

So far in this crisis, David Cameron has played a master game, giving the impression of strong leadership despite the fact that it is Tory MPs who have notched up the most ridiculous claims, and had the least grace in accepting the public’s anger. Poor bumbling Brown has never got close to him. But, now he is beginning to reveal what he really thinks, and it is incumbent upon us as the voters to read carefully what he is proposing:

Not one of the changes he is putting forward would have the slightest effect on making MPs more honest or less likely to misuse the public’s money, and not one would make them more responsive to the voters. Cameron’s eye is on government. It’s what he really wants. But, in this crisis, it is for once not the government, but the ordinary MPs who have let us down. Cameron’s solution — reduce the power of government, increase the power of MPs — is curiously disconnected from the real problem.

Forget ‘how to run a cheaper parliament’: how about ‘how to run a better parliament’?

The MP expenses scandal has got everyone trying to save money on parliament. Cut expenses, cut the number of MPs, reduce the money spent on constituency offices, reduce the support for cabinet ministers. Etc, etc.

How much do we really want to spend on government? Or put another way, would it be worth saving 10% if it meant the government was really rubbish? Would it be worth spending 10% more to have a really effective government, as opposed to the usual run of the mill incompetence?

No business that meant business would consider economising on talented staff — although lots of business which are busy going down the tubes get locked into a cycle of threatening redundancy, which results in the most talented staff leaving first (they can more easily find other jobs), leaving the business with the less talented, which means profitability drops, followed by another round of redundancy, and so on.

I overheard a conversation in Westminster on Thursday between two glossily attired parliamentary researchers on exactly this topic. How much should MPs be paid, they were asking? They decided that the current amount was the correct amount — any less, and the ‘right’ people wouldn’t sign up, any more, and there would be no particular reason to believe that you would get better MPs. I suspect them of being Conservatives — the notion that the situation we have now is the best one, and any change will wreck things, is written deep into the Tory DNA.

But, ultimately, it’s the same question.

Of course, the answer is not about reducing or increasing the money we spend on MPs, but (as any business can tell you), but using whatever system of rewards and allowances is introduced to favour the right kind of MP activity.

The current system encourages MPs to play the housing market, invest in interior decoration, and experiment with the rules to maximise personal profit. Unless this is actually what we want our MPs to do, it’s clear that, abused or not (and it certainly has been), the system does nothing to make our MPs better MPs.

Of course, the notion of performance related pay for MPs is instantly laughable. And, like most instantly laughable ideas, it pays rather closer consideration than might first appear. The instant response is ‘how can you possibly measure what MPs do?’ But, in the business world, performance related pay yields the best results when applied to the least measurable things. Performance related pay for widget operation on a production line just makes a soulless job even more soulless. But rewarding the PR or marketing manager for performance results in greater creativity, and, when done right, better real results.

To suggest that MPs could not have performance targets is essentially to admit we have absolutely no idea what we expect MPs to do. Perhaps this is one reason why we are always dissatisfied with them. But, actually, the introduction of basic voting and attendance targets would be a start. It would not be difficult to measure in some way the responsiveness of an MP to their constituents. And, of course, measures such as these would strongly discourage prospective members whose main aim is to join the luxury gentleman’s club, and live at the public’s expense for little work.

Yet even these things encourage MPs to be more active, not to become better at being MPs.

Most organisations or professional associations now reward staff who develop new skills, and many actively manage out the staff who have no intention of keeping their skills up to date. For MPs, not only do we have no accepted picture of what they should be doing, but we have no assessment of what abilities they should have to do these.

I was forcibly reminded of this during the second Gulf War. Every day, Saddam Hussein’s wretched government was able to put up a minister who could brief the world’s press in English. Neither we nor the Americans, however, could put up a single elected official who could speak Arabic. In the greatest international crisis of recent decades, with Al Jazeera watched by millions of Muslims, we could find no-one to speak the language. The bizarre thing is, Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office have probably the most powerful and effective language-learning programmes in the world.

Suppose that MPs were rewarded for learning languages, acquiring skills in economics, getting inside information on farming and understanding manufacturing? Nobody (surely) can argue that the country benefits from having MPs that know almost nothing about most of the topics they discuss. Our current system for MP career progression is all about political patronage, popularity, and paying back hidden debts. Again, surely nobody can argue that this benefits us as a nation. Suppose that MPs had to satisfy a threshold of ability and dedication to the House of Commons before they could become ministers?

There’s more that we could do in this direction. School governors get chucked off governing bodies if they fail to attend enough meetings, even though they get neither pay nor expenses for their voluntary involvement. Suppose that an MP who failed to attend parliament sufficiently became ineligible to stand for re-election? Suppose that this applied to cabinet ministers and to the Prime Minister. We might quickly discover a much greater degree of accountability to parliament.

As long as we limit ourselves to the question: ‘how much should MPs be paid?’, we will always come to confused and unsatisfying answers. The real question must be ‘what do we expect MPs to do?’, followed swiftly by ‘how can we monitor that?’ and, finally, ‘how do we organise their remuneration to make them more eager to do it and to become better at it’.

Our current system rewards mediocrity. If we are going to change it, which we must, let us make a system which breeds excellence.

Are single issue parties the answer? Not exactly…

Next month’s European elections could see voters turning to small parties in record numbers, says the BBC

It’s time for the Euro elections, and England (particularly — other parts of the Union are better at this) has never quite made up its mind as to whether the Euro elections are to be taken more or less seriously than Eurovision. Single issue parties come and go. Remember the Referendum Party? The Common Good? Respect? (Whatever happened to them?) Perennial favourites are back, of course: UKIP and the Greens accounting for right-wing and left-wing, under the guise of being about something important. But our most popular single issue party, the Official Monster Raving Looney Party, seems to give Europe a miss. Maybe they don’t take Europe as seriously as the others do. This time we have some new ones — English Democrats, the Jury Team, No2EU, Fair Play Fair Trade Party, Libertas, Mebyon Kernow, Animals Count, the Alliance Party, the Pensioners party, the Roman Party, the Socialist Party of Great Britain, Socialist Labour Party, The Peace Party, Wai D, Yes 2 Europe, and the Christian Peoples Alliance.

That’s an awful lot of parties.

For a few years, we took a stand at the Greenbelt Festival with the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum. Generally speaking, we were there in a tent with about 100-200 organisations represented, all trying to have some impact through politics. They ranged from major charities through to one man bands. A few of them eyed us with suspicion, while others told us how hard it was to get the major parties to take them seriously. In some cases, they both eyed us with suspicion and told us the major parties wouldn’t take them seriously.

There are basically three kinds of single issue politics. One is temporary but important. One is well-meaning but fairly useless. One is dangerous and dishonest.

Joanna Lumley’s campaign for the Gurkhas is the most recent in a long line of highly focused campaigns on a single issue which attract cross-party support, achieve their goal, and then disappear. Lumley is not looking to form a Gurkha’s party, or to propel herself into parliament by this means. She identified an injustice which meant a lot to her (her father had fought alongside the Gurkhas), and invested her profile and talents working with the legitimate owners of the issue — the Gurkhas themselves. This is the first kind of single issue politics, and it plays an important role in British society. But, very, very rarely does such a cause form a party and stand at elections. Its strength is that it can work with the existing politicians for something which is evidently right.

Fair Play Fair Trade, Animals Count and the Peace Party are examples of the second kind. They raise a legitimate social issue. But, in fact, their involvement in the election does nothing to take their agenda forward. At best, they achieve nothing. At worst, they switch off the people who actually do get elected from doing anything about it. At the 2001 General Election, for example, I, as a very green first-time candidate, attended a meeting about asylum seeker rights — something about which I care passionately, though it’s not a popular issue with most people. It didn’t take long to realise that everyone else present was from one of the extremist parties, and the meeting had been organised to demonstrate that only they cared about asylum seekers. They did their best to make me welcome, but they didn’t conceal very successfully that the only reason they had invited me (and others, who did not attend) was in order to be able to say ‘we invited the main parties, but they weren’t interested’.

Then there are the parties that put forward a single issue, but are actually about something entirely different. I grew up believing that the Green party was a party of environmentalists. It was only when I started meeting them that I discovered they (at least in Britain) are actually an extreme socialist party that attracts attention and votes by flying the Green flag, but are closed to any form of environmentalism which does not tally with their underlying philosophy. If you want to save the planet, join Friends of the Earth instead. A number of the ‘save the NHS’ parties are run by people who had no previous contact with the NHS, except as patients, until they decided that the closure of a local hospital was an ideal issue on which to sell their party. Some of these are more honest than others. I believe that the Greens do care about the environment. On the other hand, every piece of literature I’ve ever seen from the BNP attempts to present a single issue, such as law and order, as their real concern. You have to read a long way down many of their pieces before you discover what they are really about.

Single issue campaigns are part of the warp and woof of British democracy. Single issue parties are the electoral equivalent of dithering: when it’s too hard to choose, perhaps because of a crisis of the kind we have seen over MP expenses, many people opt for them because they feel they have a duty to vote, and want to vote for something else, anything else.

But when these single issue parties have been elected, as with UKIP and the Greens at the last Euro elections, and as with the BNP and Respect on some councils, and, for George Galloway, in parliament, their record is depressing. Aside from going on Big Brother, it’s very hard to spot anything that Galloway has actually done since being elected as a Respect MP. UKIP lost their party leader swiftly, and lost another MEP to a benefits-fraud conviction, and have probably the worst voting record of any party in any European country. The Greens have not engaged in any positive dialogue which has generated any change that would not have happened if they had not been there. Although the BNP have failed to secure seats in any of our parliaments, their European cousins, Vlaams Blok in Belgium and LPF in the Netherlands, actually gained enough seats to form governments. But their governments quickly collapsed, because they lacked the consensus to put into practice their underlying racist policies, and they had no other policies on which to base an administration.

Hand wringing is all very well. No one can deny that many of our mainstream politicians have let us down badly, not just over the last couple of weeks, but over the five, ten or twenty years since they were first elected. But, like it or not, real politicians in real parties are in it for the long haul, and when all the bluster of scandal and election are over, they sit down together and work out — often across party boundaries — how to get the best deal for the public who elected them. They certainly don’t always get it right. But their record is infinitely better than the hand wringing or single-cynicism parties that surface especially at Euro elections.

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