Friday, June 08, 2007
Telegraph Column: The Importance of Parliamentary Reform
This is my column in today's Daily Telegraph (See HERE). The comments on the Telegraph site are interesting in that they have so far concentrated slagging off Ken Clarke or talking about issues which weren't even covered by his report!
This week's launch of Ken Clarke's Democracy Task Force paper on parliamentary reform will go some way to dispelling the myth that Cameron's Conservatives are policy-lite.
At the launch, David Cameron looked genuinely excited by the proposals Mr Clarke has produced. Indeed, he seemed far more enthused than Mr Clarke himself. And so he might. The paper represents a genuine attempt to find ways of modernising Parliament and re-engaging people with the political process.
The headline proposal is to take the Downing Street e-petitions one stage further and experiment with what has come to be known as "direct democracy". The current online petitions are pretty meaningless and largely ignored. Not even the Prime Minister is told which has attracted the most support each week.
The Tory suggestion is that once an e-petition has attracted a certain number of signatures, it should be debated in Parliament and voted on. It doesn't seem a radical idea, but to adherents of the Burkian theory of representative democracy it is a red rag to a bull.
Members of Parliament jealously guard their representative rights. And while the basic tenets of representative democracy still hold true, in an age when technology enables the people to have a direct say, surely we should all be looking at different ways to engage the electorate, rather than just allowing them a vote once every five years or so. That's the message Mr Cameron will be projecting. He sees this as the most important part of the Clarke task force and wants the idea fleshed out over the next few months.
I've got another idea, not discussed by Mr Clarke, which could also enhance the role of back-bench MPs and parliamentary debate. It is to allow the Early Day Motions with the most signatures in any given week to have an hour long-debate in Westminster Hall. EDMs are commonly described as graffiti on the walls of Parliament.
But if people really thought they could lead to a meaningful debate, they might lobby their MPs for a particular EDM.
Mostly, MPs are open to persuasion. There is a misconception that across the parties they behave like sheep and do the whips' bidding. Philip Cowley's research on the www.revolts.co.uk website shows that the 2001-2005 Parliament was the most rebellious in post-war history - and this one is currently on course to beat it.
Contrary to what people think, the power and influence of the whips is on the wane. There is little doubt that the Clarke proposals will hasten this trend, particularly in the area of select committees.
Mr Clarke proposes that whips should lose their powers of patronage over select committees and that committee chairmen should be elected by MPs. This will give them greater legitimacy and independence and provide an alternative career path for those MPs not suited to being ministers.
The most important of the Clarke proposals is to weaken the power of the executive over the legislature, but they could go further.
While the proposal for the prime minister to appear twice as often before the Liaison Committee is a good one, a more symbolic suggestion would have been to restore Prime Minister's Questions to a twice-weekly format. However, I understand from a source close to Mr Cameron that such a move has been ruled out. This is a pity.
In the coming weeks, three more policy commissions will be releasing their findings. Some commentators are already saying it is dangerous to provide Gordon Brown with the opportunity to deploy the "great clunking fist". It's a misjudgment: they cannot complain at the lack of policy and then advise Mr Cameron to wait a little longer before coming out with policy proposals for fear of what Mr Brown might do.
But what the task forces indicate most strongly is the dawn of a new political era in which the Conservatives will be having a conversation with the nation, while Mr Brown retreats to the only thing he knows - adversarial politics. We'll soon see who is most in tune with the electorate.