Monday, May 25, 2009

How Can We Revive Parliament?

I've had calls this morning from two MPs spitting blood about Boris Johnson's article in this morning's Telegraph. In the article he rails against the way parliament works (or doesn't) and the whipping system in particular. He paints a picture of lazy MPs who don't bother to think about what they are voting on and who bow meekly to a powerful executive.

They file through the lobbies to vote – and what are they voting on? Nine times out of 10, they haven't a clue. All they know, because their BlackBerrys tell them, is whether the whips want them to vote Aye or Nay; and so they shuffle obediently on and then, with a fatuous sense of a job done and a public served, they return to their dinners or the yielding arms of their companions of the evening; and yet another unnecessary and ill-drafted law prepares to enter the statute book; and the put-upon people of this country will be chivvied or taxed or cajoled or coerced in some new way by MPs who have only the vaguest understanding of what they have done.

I have lost count of the number of times I have sat through debates, after which my colleagues have begun their speeches with the words, "This has been an excellent debate", and I have wanted to shout, "No! It hasn't been remotely excellent.

"It has been a collection of cut-and-paste Lego-brick speeches in which people have been speaking not from the heart or direct knowledge of the issue, but because the whips have suggested it would be a good idea to speak."

Both my correspondents spluttered that Boris was the very personification of the parliament he now vilifies. One of them even questioned why the Telegraph hadn't looked into Boris's expenses. Boris's recipe for the future is that all MPs should stick two fingers up to the whips - not something I remember him doing a lot of in his time in the House of Commons, but there you go...
We want a new breed of MPs who will consistently tell the whips to get stuffed; who will smash the brutal and intellectually enervating system of party discipline that turns Westminster into a kind of Seventies Leyland car factory, apathetically turning out badly assembled laws to plague the people of this country.

We need far fewer laws and far fewer MPs (400 would do fine). My advice to constituency parties is not to hire candidates unless they promise two things: to read every line of every Bill they are called upon to pass; and to vote according to their conscience, and not according to the wishes or orders of the whips.

That may gum up the machinery of law-making, and that would be all to the good. It may make it impossible for Parliament to produce yet another annual Criminal Justice Bill. It may make it more difficult for MPs to produce yet more laws telling teachers, doctors, nurses and other public
servants how to manage their vocations.

If we had fewer MPs, and they were forced to concentrate on what they were actually doing, we would have much less legislation, and I can't think of a better way of saving us all time, trouble and money.

We need a Parliament of rebels, and we need it now.

I know where he's coming from, but this is very simplistic and populist. What he's suggesting is that Parliament should be made up of 646 independents, with very little party allegiance. That may reflect the prevailing mood, but it would lead to the seizing up of our system of parliamentary government.

I agree with him that politicians of the future need to be more individualistic and take far more interest in the legislation they are passing, but without a degree of whipping no government - or opposition, for that matter - would be able to function. Yes, whipping is too heavy at the moment, but a reactive move to the other side of the whipping pendulum would not improve matters. So what would?

New MPs must commit themselves to attending debates in the chamber more often and make it the national debating forum it is supposed to be. But the government must play its own part too. Instead of being addicted to passing legislation, it should allow far more parliamentary time for opposition debates and debates on the big issues of the day. When was there a long debate, for example, on the economic crisis? Graeme Archer points out today that MPs were denied the chance to vote on DNA sample retention. Why? No wonder voters see Parliament as being irrelevant.

MPs must assert themselves and their independence. Too often they are consumed by their own ambition to climb the greasy pole of politics. They know that any dissent is likely to be rewarded either with a further year of languishing on the backbenches or being appointed to Standing Committee A on European legislation. Rebellion for its own sake should never be rewarded. But conscience and conviction driven rebellion should be seen in a more positive light by the whips than it is at present. Government whips see there role through a very narrow prism - that of enabling the government to get its legislation through, with nothing else mattering. That needs to change.

When you get elected to the House of Commons any form of career planning goes out the window. You're randomly appointed to standing committees on bills you have no knowledge of or interested in. Indeed, if you do have knowledge of the subject you can be sure you won't be appointed to that committee, because heaven forfend that you should wish to table amendments or make a speech in committee. You role is to sit there for hours, preferably mute, and get on with your constituency correspondence, while the front benches do their pre-arranged stuff through the "usual channels". It's this which needs to change as lies at the heart of what's wrong with parliament today.

If you're lucky, and have kept your snout clean you might be appointed to a junor frontbench role, and then be expected to vote with your party every time. Any semblance of original thought goes out the window. It's likely that your frontbench role will, again, not be in an area where you have any expertise at all. You'll have to learn about your portfolio, and just when you think you might have got the hang of it and met all the relevant people you are reshuffled, with no consultation, to another random portfolio. Chances are you only got it because the first choice turned it down. But you accept it because you fear if you don't you'll be on your way out. Rarely does the Chief Whip ever sit you down and discuss your future in advance of it being decided for you.

One of the best things which could happen is for political parties to take a leaf out of the book of private sector organisations and develop some proper career planning structures for their MPs. being on the front bench should never be the be all and end all for any politician. Just being an MP ought to have enough job satisfaction on its own. There has been some progress on this by making Select Committees more powerful. Interestingly, Michael Fallon turned down a front bench Treasury role because he wanted to continue on the Treasury Select Committee. I can see more of this happening in the future. The Conservatives in government should also revive the backbench policy committees which did so much good work during the Thatcher and Major years.

As ever, Boris writes a thought provoking article, but his recipe is flawed and simplistic. There are many ways of enhancing the role of parliament and its reputation which he doesn't mention and which I haven't talked about here, but I have gone on long enough.

What would you do to revive the independence of Parliament and encourage the public to take a closer interest in its proceedings?

UPDATE: EU Referendum has a good post on this subject.


Unknown said...

Start of by having a directly elected PM, who appoints his own ministers. Until there is a proper separation of powers, Parliament will always be the executive's poodle. No amount of tinkering will change this.

Anonymous said...

Better to get people to talk about the issues that need to be resolved I feel. If Boris' article does that then he will have succeeded

After all DC hasn't yet announced what he would do if he was in charge.

Personally I feel that all expenses and allowances should be removed until a new system is in place. It would concentrate their minds and ensure that the things they brought about were transparent and entailed the right to throw people out of Parliament or the Lords

Boris may be simplistic, but he does appear to be listening

James Burdett said...

Surely one of the problems is that Parliament has an in built mechanism for self-whipping. What I mean by that is that of the 350 odd members of the Labour side, over 100 of them are in the government so have to vote en bloc. The remainder vote with so that they don't prejudice their chances in the annual game of musical chairs. It is why most rebellions feature 'usual suspects' those who have the sagacity to work out that they are on the backbench for the duration.

The same works on the opposition side to a lesser extent, and practically every Lib Dem is a spokesperson. I suspect that if we took Boris' notion and 'burnt the whips' there would still be a tendency for lack of independence. The dirty great elephant in the House is the government. It is the magnet beside the compass it has a distoring effect. Perhaps it is time to consider an innovation our American cousins came up with and strip the government out of the Houses of Parliament?

C Hogan-Taylor said...

I broadly agree with the above, but we all know that making the job of MP honourable and something to strive for in and of itself - i.e. getting rid of career politicians - means that the sticky issue of pay has to be confronted.

It used to be seen as a noble profession because those who undertook it did so without remuneration, because they could afford to. Clearly we can't have that system again, but how much is the right amount? If it should be kept low (to retain the 'noble' element) they should have other jobs, but the expenses scandal has pretty much ruled that out because the public see it as troughing, even though it's arguably essential.

This is before you come to fixing the process of parliament, which I agree is a bit of a joke, but I think it's the fundamental starting point to any reform.

Anonymous said...

That may reflect the prevailing mood, but it would lead to the seizing up of our system of parliamentary government.

Yes. I'm not seeing a downside here. A parliament which is unable to ram endless members' pet legislation and prodnosery down the public's throat? OH NOES! THIS CANNOT BE ALLOWED!

BTW, Iain, I have to point out that when you talk about Boris, there's a definite air that hints slightly of jealousy. It's as though you envy Boris his popularity and high profile; it rather makes you look like Brown to Boris' Blair.


The only time whipping should take place is for a manifesto commitment, otherwise it should be a vote of conscience for an M.P.

Hubert said...

You and your kind represent the past, Mr Dale. Dave will bring us fresh candidates in open primaries and reinvigorate the Body Politic so that it truly reflects the will of the people. Please leave quietly and with dignity, like Higg and Viggers.

Iain Dale said...

Anonymous 1.41. re your last para. Is that meant to be funny?!

insert-coin-here said...

Give the UK a Direct Democracy.

The rest will sort itself out.

Job done.

fulcanelli said...

That's not quite what he's saying.

He is suggesting that MPs actually take some interest in their jobs, and consider reading proposed legislation before voting, and then voting based upon their own opinion and conscience. If that opinion aligns with their party's that's fine, if not they should be free to vote as they see fit. He is not suggesting there should be 646 independents, he actually mentions reducing the number of MPs to ~400, but instead that they act as individuals, free thinking in their approach to policy and parliament.

I fail to see how that can really be a bad thing. Debate, reasoned and informed, is the main stay of many practices in life outside of Westminster. Why should it be any different in parliament?

bnzss said...

I can't really see a legitimate defence of the whip system, since that defence is 'this private organisation [the party] has executive and legislative power [large majority in Parliament] over this country BECAUSE it's just more robust that way [instead of loads of people arguing about a law, you'll just get Nick Clegg and some bloke sitting in the viewing area]'.

Boris' view may be simplistic but it is, surprisingly, the least devious. And the most palatable.

Anonymous said...

Alan Johnston calling for electoral reform referendum, I take it if he wants one, he is going to put the EU referendum on the same Ballot?

Hmm thought not.

fulcanelli said...

Also, you only have to look at the upcoming Equality Bill for a dreadful piece of proposed legislation.

Have most MPs even considered the wider ramifications of this proposed legislation? It is a serious affront to faiths and Christianity in general. A perfect example of the mess Labour has created in this country.

Anonymous said...

" but it would lead to the seizing up of our system of parliamentary government."
As someone responsible for trying to keep a number of family breadwinners employed , I can only assure you that would be no loss ! The staggering amount of fatuous legislation passed by Parliament in the last ten years, is mind numbing. Suggest that you check the FSB website for the exact details, but its pretty depressing !

ukipwebmaster said...

Have it make all of our laws perhaps?

Daniel said...

As mentioned above, there needs to be separation of powers. As long as the executive sits in the legislature, most MPs will be nothing more than ass-kissing toadies to their party whips.

I wouldn't hire an MP as managing director of my company because they would have no relevant experience, yet somehow we're supposed to trust them to run ministries with budgets far larger than than most businesses, again in which they have no experience.

We have poor government because it's presided over by people who don't know what they're doing and we have poor legislation because it's passed by people whose personal ambition takes precedence before all else.

mark said...

So basically, it is as corrupt as has ever been, and is unlikely to change.

Human nature says there will always be those who toe the line (the majority) and those who speak their mind/rebel (the minority).

That will never change, simply because we are human, and we are utterly predictable in our ways.

Everything else is probably just froth or interesting pontification. We will likely continue as normal.

I truly hope that parliament will change radically, but cannot see the reality reflecting the hope/need, simply because power is power, and fairness/parity/true democracy does not enter the political power equation that exists and will always exist.

So you could say we are all waffling (albeit with passion and interest) ad infinitum..

Tory King said...

Great piece.

I truly agree with the article on TrueBlueBlood today. in which TBB says that Cameron should reopen all Seats to Primaries including exisiting MP's and new PPC's.

This will help position the party strongly.

Anonymous said...

Iain Dale would make a better Mayor than Boris....and that's sadly no joke

Alan Douglas said...

"What would you do to revive the independence of Parliament and encourage the public to take a closer interest in its proceedings?"

Make THEM responsible for more than the 20 % of actual laws and regulations that is left after the EU decides their 80 %.

Effectively MPs have nothing to do, so clearly that are of no value.

This must change. You and Boris have spent many words ignoring the elephant in the room.

Alan Douglas

Anonymous said...

Strengthening the powers of Select Cttees might be a start. The new Regional Cttees are sitting in all parts of the country now but opposition parties are boycotting them which is a shame.

Bel said...

Iain, you advocate some "proper career planning structures" for MPs.

Is this not precisely the problem? Being an MP should not be a "career" for anybody. Time was when people went into Parliament to serve their country, having had a successful career elsewhere.

Sue said...

Let's be honest here. Brown, Smith and the rest of the "elite" don't bother getting a vote when the legislation is something they want to push through and 80% of our policies are laws are made for us by the EU.

What on earth do MP's have left to do? We actually need very few of them by all accounts and then only at constituency level.

That's why the public is angry about the expenses fiasco because they don't have the power to represent us any longer so why should they be paid so much?

In order for the UK or England to be a democracy, we need to take our powers back from the EU first. Perhaps when MP's are actually representing the people they are supposed to, they will be worth a couple of quid.

javelin said...

Very sadly you and the MPs are wrong and Broris is right. It's important to get the simple things right before you worry about career structures. Yes Boris is being simple. But he's right you have to get the basics right (you call them simple). The basics of Parliament is to make laws are hold the executive to account. This is the primary purpose of Parliament. It has been lost. Whipping, spinning, flipping and pairing have replaced debating. How many MPs have fought against the over taxation and snooping that they are now complaining is being brought to bear on them.

Let the MPs spit blood - they have lost their sense of purpose. They, like you, see debating see career structures as their purpose. It's frankly embarassing that grown men can't see the purpose of their jobs. Very, very embarassing. Grown men with no purpose other than career development as an end in itself. I hang my head in despair.

Iain Dale said...

Bel, maybe that was the wrong expression, but I explain what I mean. Do you disagree?

Plato said...

Mr Whale - I agree re whipping only on manifesto pleges.

I have lost count of the splurge of legislation that has been enacted in the last 12yrs.

I have been really struck by the daily spew of competitive announcements from every frigging Dept. You'd think they were winning house-points.

The lack of activity highlighted by Mr Field is wonderful. I for one am very sick of HMG's size 9.

The old saying of 'less is more' could not be truer.

Simon said...

"We need far fewer laws and far fewer MPs"

The first thing he did upon coming to power was to impose a particularly nasty and petty law by banning drink on the underground. I am getting sick of hearing from this pompous hypocrite. He should have stuck with being an MP, those are valued qualities in Westminster.

Anonymous said...

Can but give change a try, the current system has proved useless. Parliament has been a cosy club for MANY, MANY years. MPs tell their constituents that when in office they vote as free agents, voting not the way their constiuents want but how they think they ought to vote. But, then do exactly what the whips tell them to do, some free agent!

The running of Parliament should not be in the control of a Party as Harman does at the moment. They should sit for many more days than they do. They have far longer holidays than schoolteachers. Then with an officially shortened session, as it is at the moment, they complain about not having enough time to debate the Bills. The whole system is long overdue for reform in many areas.

Vienna Woods said...

Thought provoking! This all boils down to policies, how they are thought through and who proves them.

I was once a district councillor and sorry to say we had a cabal of "elders", or "Ideas Men" who thought up local policies, some of which were so ridiculous that it took days of discussions to have them revised or thrown out. From my experiences at that time, half my colleagues were "Yes" men and the few realists such as myself were regarded as nothing but troublemakers.

I see the same problems today with parliamentary political parties and believe it totally wrong that because some who are in say, a shadow ministerial position treat other members as lesser mortals there to nod through any of their not so bright ideas. Most of the good back-benchers (Frank Field is one who springs to mind!) have more sensible ideas than the government and the shadow cabinet rolled into one

Steve Hardy said...

And still I suspect people appear not to "get it". My own suspicion is one of the main culprits here is the steady morphing of the meaning of words from what the public instinctively “know” to what our leaders (and many “stakeholders”) require. The classic case is the word “democracy”. Most out in reality land still feel it means “the will of the people”. In governing land it seems to mean many things from “allowing a voice to pressure groups” to “doing what is right”.
Which brings me in a roundabout fashion to Ian's piece, if “populist” means it is popular then “democracy” would dictate that's what we want and should get, it does not have to be right or convenient.

Ken Haylock said...

I'm with Peter Whale. Why should a random MP for any party be expected to loyally vote for some bonkers measure that they would never have agreed to in a million years, and which has been devised on the hoof after a focus group, just because he/she wears the same colour rosette? In between that and the timetabling that ensures that many proposals aren't even discussed during their rapid migration through the commons from lobbyist or focus group to statute book, you might conclude that the vast majority of MPs are an expensive luxury. Just select the two front bench teams and make the rest redundant, replacing them one for one with much cheaper coloured beads (red, yellow and blue, naturally) that can be counted to determine the result of commons votes for the remainder of the parliamentary term.

What's that you say... farcical? At the moment we seem to be paying about £250 million quid a year or more for a system that doesn't currently offer much more than the coloured bead option would...

Chuffer said...

"Government whips see there role through a very narrow prism..."

Anyone else remember posts here being rude about Ukip's and the BBC's spelling?

Grumpy Old Man said...

Ref 1.41.
Iain. From the spelling, I think it's a Rapid Response Anyrat. Right-wing bloggers are getting a plague of Anyrats, so you are not alone. May I suggest ignoring the comments but leaving them on blog so that we can all exclaim at the rapier wit and political maturity of such posts?

Unknown said...

If you got rid of the whipping system, MPs would set up an informal equivalent, and rightly so. I didn't vote for my MP qua individual, I voted for him because I agreed with his party's policies, and I want his autonomy to be limited in favour of accountability. Having more free votes would depoliticise important issues - how would voters be able to have any impact on the process if they didn't know which way their MP was going to vote? Who wants accountability wants party, and who wants party wants whips as well.

As for rebellions, actually read some of the stuff on revolts, or Phil Cowley's books. As usual, Boris Johnson (who rebelled perhaps twice on whipped votes in seven years) is barking up the wrong tree.

haddock said...

perhaps you would now do a post to explain your use of the word 'populist'....with the inference that populist = bad ?
'populist' views, expressed by the general population are now giving the lazy MPs a well deserved kick up the arse.
I don't see that as bad, do you ?

jailhouselawyer said...

"What would you do to revive the independence of Parliament and encourage the public to take a closer interest in its proceedings?".

That's simple...

Give all convicted prisoners the vote.

strapworld said...

Surely, anything is better than having centrally controlled and vetted candidates, all who appear to come from one social class and can place oodles of money into the party machine!

Far, far better that the local association decides whom they want, preferably from local candidates or someone with knowledge of the area and, more importantly, life!!

Cameron talks about inviting anyone!! Let us see if someone from a sink estate but who has great idea's get anywhere the selection committee.

Who is in charge of the candidates now? Maude?

William Blakes Ghost said...

Where do you start? There is so much wrong with Parliament and our political system these days that it needs to be stripped down and rebuilt. Anyway here we go.

1. Make Parliament powerful again.

- Give it back its sovereignty and end it's current position of being the processor of laws made elsewhere (i.e. recover powers from the EU)

- Remove lesser issues. Devolve all regional/ county matters (including funding) to the regions/ counties leaving Parliament only to address national level issues other than acting as a safety net for regional/ county issues that are serious which can no longer be addressed by the region / county.

- similarly cascade power from regional/ county level to local level where appropriate. (i.e. instead of the ratio of council tax being 75% county 25% local it should be the other way around)

- Evaluate the number of MPs purely on the basis of the ratio of representatives to the number of constituents served taking into account the general growth in population and migration/ growth /decline of constituents from one constituency to another.

- make all constitutional matters, the subject of direct democracy and bound by the people's decision. Additionally, introduce binding sundown clauses for all transfers of power outside the sovereignty of the UK (i.e. 15-25 years)

- introduce interim review and remediation clauses and sundown clauses for all major legislation

- greatly reduce the ability of Government to act independently of Parliament.

- greatly reduce the number of independent public sector organisations who can act without the approval of the electorate or Parliament.

- make all elected Government manifesto commitments for referendums binding for 15 years or until thrown out.

2. Restrict the power that political parties have over their elected representatives.

- Democratise the parties. Bring in primaries for candidate selection. Define a minimum % turnout of party members required to select a candidate (50%?)

- bring in statutory criteria for selection (e.g. professional management qualifications).

- Limit the whip much as Peter Whale suggests above.

- ban the funding of political parties by all organisations. Only individuals can donate (capped). All donations must be transparent.

- ban all 'party lists' (e.g. A-Lists etc.)

3. Make MPs transparently accountable and remove their privilege.

- Split the funding of MPs between local and central spending.

- MPs can only claim expenses on their London involvement

- Introduce clear job descriptions for MPs as to their duties and responsibilities in the form of a legally binding standard contract with the constituency (including recall clauses)

- full transparency in MPs financial affairs.

- no exclusion from the nations laws (e.g. special tax exemptions)

- all MPs to prepare annual reports and attend annual open 'townhalls' in their constituency.

4. Ban political parties in Government from meddling with the political system (e.g. changing the voting system)

5. Reform and restore the power of the House of Lords.

- Make it democratic (altering it's size as appropriate).

- Make it directly accountable to the Monarch.

- Reform its remuneration system. Making it a salaried role.

- Abolish not only the party whip but also ban any affiliation to a political party. All members to be cross-benchers.

- Give it primary responsibility for constitutional matters and continue responsibility for vetting HoC legislation (and vice versa).

- Give it primary responsibility for policing the HoC and its terms and conditions (and vice versa).

- Introduce contracts with 'constituents' as with MPs


Well hows that for starters? I'll leave the internal tinkering of how the two Houses work for them to work out.

The thing is our political system needs holistic reform. The EU needs to be sidelined and the power of political parties as entities needs to be diminished to a large extent.

parliament can't be fixed said...

Burn Parliament down. We'd be better off with a benign dictator.

Thomas Rossetti said...

I very much agree with Boris and the majority of the comments, above. We do indeed need a parliament of rebels, not lap dogs who tow the party line in order to enhance their own careers. I don't see what is "simplistic" about this at all.

More rebels would be matters would be properly *debated* in parliament, not just rammed through as they are now.

Boris's suggestion may indeed result in legislation being "gummed up" but what is the problem with this, exactly?

One law that does need to be passed -- and quickly -- is one that forces a general election every time a sitting Prime Minister resigns. Anyone with me on this one?

Thomas Rossetti said...

Something I forgot:

In terms of the "whipping only on manifesto pledges", I'm all for that.

Weygand said...

Your analysis of the problem complements Boris's - the only difference between you is in what should be done.

Boris's solution may be 'simplistic', but at least it addresses the real issue - how to release parliament from the control of the party machines.

You put forward no solution to this problem, save that MPs should strive harder to resist the whip, while at the same time explaining exactly why they would be unlikely ever to do so.

Your plea that MPs sublimate their personal ambition, sounds like a sermon extolling chastity and poverty - and about as likely to be followed.

The public want MPs who will take moral and intellectual responsibility for the way they vote and a government which has to win their support rather than command it.

The only way to achieve this is to break the power of the whip.

Helen said...

1. Restore legislative powers to Parliament. That cannot be done while we are in the EU so that needs to be dealt with first of all. Until you do that, all suggestions are hot air.

2. Remove legislative powers from quangos who are unaccountable to anyone, not even to Parliament.

3. Then think of separating legislative and executive powers. But this cannot be done until the first two have been achieved.

So, what are we hearing from the Conservatives about nos 1 and 2?

Mike H said...

"How Can We Revive Parliament"?

How can you revive a corpse?

It needs so much radical change that perhaps we should abandon all attempts at revival and accept that what's needed is more like a re-birth.

More and more legislation originates in the EU. The debating chamber is almost empty most of the time. The government controls what is debated and when. Whipping and guillotining debase the fundamental democratic process.

What's the point? It's beyond revival.

Anonymous said...

Get out of the EU and turn Westminster back into an English Parliament.

Until those two things are done everything else is a waste of time.

Harri said...

They file through the lobbies to vote – and what are they voting on? Nine times out of 10, they haven't a clue.

Nine out of ten ! and the rest.

Bel said...

Iain, I suppose what you mean is that backbenchers should be made to realise that their role is a worthy one, and that one can have a very successful time in Parliament even if he/she never becomes a minister. I agree with that.

However, will this be possible to achieve? Parliament has lost much of its power to Brussels. Many backbenchers probably don't see the place as having the sort of power to effect meaningful change, as might have been the case in the past.

FonyBlair said...

Wasn't it Caroline Flint, Minister of Europe who admitted to not reading the Lisbon Treaty in full yet stand up and tells us it's good for Britain!?

If the Minister in charge of this area doesn't even read the most important document relating to her job then it's not suprising there is a culture of not reading legislation on which they vote.

To be fair to MP's I actually think they work hard. Unfortunately working hard does not necessarily make it a relevant or worthwhile job. Less MP's means more accountability and focus on those that remain.

That can only be a good thing. Boris is right.

FonyBlair said...

Sorry - here is the link

Caroline Flint admits to not reading the Lisbon Treaty

HarveyR said...

Boris is a Populist - Shock!

He's been very successful at being a populist. Why change a winning formula?

There are two different Parliaments. The one on public view is full of "characters", sound bites, PMQs, reshuffles, resignations, leadership challenges and set piece debates. The press, and even the blogs are obsessed with this Parliament, yet hardly any of it directly affects people's lives.

The other Parliament is full of MPs engaged in constituency graft, Select Committees, Public Bill Committees, amendments, redrafting, the taking of evidence and the writing of reports. None of this engages the public, it lacks the theatre and doesn't get reported on. But it's in this Parliament where the detail of laws is discussed and agreed and where MPs work to help their constituents deal with life changing problems.

I'd like to see some reforms, mainly to make Parliament more representitive. That doesn't just mean some version of PR or an elected Lords, but other changes to the way the machine works so that individual MPs and (elected) Peers can have more influence over its business.

Unknown said...

I don't see why a house full of independents would necessarily annihilate our democracy. It would be different, obviously, but if they were intelligent, thoughtful, capable people, it could be a radical transformation for the better. Imagine bills made by people who actually thought them through?

To get there - we need genuine PR, not the AV+ being pushed by Alan Johnson, which would elect yet more party drones. Failing that, or possibly alongside it, we need open primaries to elect the candidates for the main political parties, with a very strict limit on donations from any source to any one candidate.

Ken Haylock said...


Are you really suggesting that you would be happy to vote for an inbred chinless moron with questionable business and personal ethics and a suspiciously unhealthy interest in children, so long as they wore a blue rosette and could be guaranteed to troop through the lobbies at the command of the whipsin the next parliament? Are you by implication suggesting that you would never even consider voting for an outstanding Labour or Lib Dem or Independant candidate in those circumstances, however dire, because slavish personal loyalty to The Party {Insert clenched fist salutes here} is more important than exercising your personal judgement at the ballot box?

I get the impression that you are doing exactly that. It's not what democracy is for...

Richard said...

Why the focus on Boris?

Your leader has a comment piece on the opposite page, in which he sets out his proposals.

Glynne said...

Larry Siedentop's article "Its time to update the ancient constitution" is worth a read.

Not sure our current crop of MP's or this disfunctional Government are the right people to make judgements on this.

Robert said...

''They know that any dissent is likely to be rewarded either with a further year of languishing on the backbenches or being appointed to Standing Committee A on European legislation.'' The only hint at the real problem

The answer is simple. Get out of the EU and give power back to our parliament so that MP's can actually scrutinise laws made in our parliament for our people.

They gave away these powers and they should be forced to take them back.

What other reform could be more important than the rights and freedoms of our people that were fought for by our forebares.Taking them back from undemocratic despotism of the EU would go a long way to solving the problems of our current democratic deficit.

yellowbelly said...

"I know where he's coming from, but this is very simplistic and populist. What he's suggesting is that Parliament should be made up of 646 independents, with very little party allegiance."


Iain, what is so wrong with simplistic and populist?

" Populism is a discourse that claims to support "the people" versus "the elites". Populism may comprise an ideology urging social and political system changes and/or a rhetorical style deployed by members of political or social movements. Generally, populism invokes an idea of democracy as being, above all, the expression of the people's will."

And BTW, Boris is proposing 400 MPs.

Steven Webster said...

The present parliamentary parties are over, in my opinion. No matter how hard they try to get the public "onside" the greed and the hubris will eventually completely destroy them.

Catosays said...

I agree wholeheartedly with Yellowbelly.

What's so wrong with being populist and simplistic?

We've had 12 years of complicated dictatorship. Time for a complete change, methinks.

Erskine May said...

There's a lot that can be done to strengthen Parliament in calling government to account. However, it is important that one starts from a reasonably accurate factual base.

There are now more rebels in the House of Commons than at any time since the 19th Century. The high point of party cohesion was in pre-1970 Parliaments (especially the 1950s). MPs since the 1970s have been more willing to defy the party whip.

Standing Committees no longer exist. Bills are now normally referred to evidence-taking Public Bill Committees.

Post-legislative scrutiny is about to become a regular feature of the legislative process.

Parties are essential to the health of a representative democracy, providing the means of aggregating opinions as well as of collective accountability for public policy.

Whips facilitate party cohesion: they are not the cause of it. A cohesive party is a prerequisite for effective whipping, not the other way round.

The House of Lords is now more effective than at any time since 1911, especially in scrutinising the detail of legislation.

It is important to get the context right, otherwise the danger is of implementing change that has a negative, not a beneficial effect. There is certainly a great deal that can be done to strengthen Parliament, including reducing the size of the House of Commons, strengthening committees, introducing ePetitioning, and faciliating more direct contact between citizens and select committees. None of these proposals, though, is new. There are various reform agenda that are in the public domain incorporating such proposals. What is needed is not more ideas but rather the political will to implement them.

The opportunity to achieve change tends to be greatest at the start of a new Parliament under a new Government (as in 1979, with the introduction of the departmental Select Committees). The real challenge will come at the start of the next Parliament.

Yak40 said...

How many votes are just rubber stamping some EU edict ? Why do we need 600+/- MPs anyway, far too many.

Ken Haylock said...


The answer is simple. Get out of the EU and give power back to our parliament so that MP's can actually scrutinise laws made in our parliament for our people.This is actually a non-sequitor. I mean yes, you may or may not have an argument with reference to the EU and the answer may or may not be to leave, to reform the EU or whatever, but that has nothing whatsoever to do with the effectiveness of our parliament to make good law in areas which it is still sovereign.

I submit that if you were to imagine a world in which we had not been part of the EU these last 12 years or so, the amount of dodgy legislation being rammed through our parliament unconsidered by New Labour and unchallenged would be at best undiminished, and only the source would be different...

Don't Call Me Dave said...

MPs should only be allowed to vote on a motion if they have actually bothered to sit through the debate. That might improve attendance and participation in the democratic process somewhat.

AEG said...

The single act which, for me, sums up the idiocy of our current lot of MP's was the Climate Change Bill. In a nutshell, we're now legally obliged to reduce our carbon emissions to 20% of the level that they were nearly 2 decades ago. When the bill was passed, the government admitted it had no idea how much it would cost (now estimated to be at least £404 billion - the most expensive piece of legislation ever passed). Only 3 MP's voted against it. Whatever your views on climate change, anyone can see the idiocy of that bill. They must have been sleepwalking through the lobbies.

I like the idea that you can only whip on manifesto commitments - much like the convention that the Lords never block a bill included on the Governments manifesto.

We need to stop guillotining debates. Every single piece of legislation needs to be debated line by line, in both Houses. End Of.

We need a Speaker who stands up for Parliament against the Government and forces ministers to actually answer questions, and reprimands them severely for not announcing to the House first.

I like Charles Moores observation that it used to be the case that in order to be appointed to the Government (as opposed to the parliamentary party) you used to have to stand in a by-election. This would generally ensure that the minister had a mandate to represent the government instead of his constituency. We need fewer ministers while we're at it.

We need open primaries for candidate selection. This will ensure that an MP will actually be accountable to his electorate as opposed to just his party. This is especially important in safe seats.

Parliament needs to account for every single budget that the Government announces. Why was the German parliament allowed to debate the purchase of the Eurofighters recently, and we not? International treaties which we put budgets on each year would have to be debated to see whether we are getting value for money. This would include the EU.

Parliament needs to be sovereign in this country. We need to be able to overrule the ECJ or the ECHR, or even the International Criminal Courts.

Backbenchers should be encouraged to take second jobs. This keeps them in touch with the real world and the public mood. We need to end their isolationism.

Basically, we need to limit the power of the Government and restore power to Parliament.

P.S. If I read it correctly, the first couple of paragraphs of Boris's article seemed to be a reference to Flashman at the Charge, which I heartily approve of. Good man, that George MacDonald Fraser. If anyone hasn't read Quartered Safe Out Here, they need to.

no longer anonymous said...

I agree with Boris re the whips. these often nasty and unpleasant people need to get the boot.

David said...

I don't think Boris was claiming to be any better than you're average backbencher in relation to voting so hypocrisy is not the right charge. I do agree his solution is simplistic as a Government needs a reliable majority but is that not what Manifestos used to be for?
The point that 75% of our law now comes from Europe and much of the other 25% is barely read until it gets to the Lords is well made and clearly needs to change. The committee stage should be enhanced and I see no problem in members of committee having legal and other resources available to assist them in making representations in bills. What we need to do is get rid of the makework that allegedly keeps backbenchers so busy (but magically disappears when they get office) and give them proper serious work to do.

thespecialone said...

I also agree with yellowbelly and catosays. What really is wrong with being simplistic and populist? Why does everything this day and age have to be so complicated that nothing is really done because of the complication?

I actually agree with Boris. He is popular and despite the BBC trying its hardest to get Livingdead re-elected, it failed. Why? Because Boris came up with POPULAR policies!

MPs are there to represent us, the electorate. Ok, we may not agree with our MPs all the time, that is normal; but to just blindly follow your leader (and whips) is not democracy.

That is why, despite all his other faults, Robin Cook was right to resign from the government over Iraq.

javelin said...

Iain it's clear you're in the minority position here.

There are no rants no hysterics. Just clear headed people speaking clearly about a corrupt and broken system of Government.

WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO STEP AWAY FROM YOUR MP FRIENDS ON THE DARK SIDE IAIN - and the join the rest of the reasonable people in this country who want a better Parliament???

AEG said...

We also need to pay them less. In the immortal words of Lawrence of Arabia,
"They won't come for money. Not the best of them".

Unknown said...

Erskine May said, Parties are essential to the health of a representative democracy, providing the means of aggregating opinions as well as of collective accountability for public policy. and I wonder on what basis you believe this. Parties are essential to the vested interests that fund them, not to anything else. I have no say at all in the lengthy manifesto on which any of the main three parties stands, and, given that I have never yet voted for the incumbent government, I have no investment in what they have promised - which may be as well given how easily they kick anything inconvenient into the long grass as soon as they gain power (the Jenkins report, f/i).

If we got rid of parties, we might have to expect our MPs actually to think. Is that a bad thing

subrosa said...

I was involved in politics some years ago, quite closely involved. Several times it was suggested I stood as a councillor.

The thought filled me with horror because I knew, much as I supported most of my party's policies, I could never bow to anyone far less someone who threatened me (and that's what whips do).

Nowadays I'm not longer a member of any party and that leaves me able to comment freely.

OK, don't all the Scots start shouting for me to stand because I've had enough and am quite happy to sit on the sidelines, in my official retirement, and criticise to my heart's content.

Mitch said...

We don't need to reform it,just turn the clock back to 1996 and shoot tony bleedin blair.Get him before he wrecked everything.

wolfie said...

Direct elections for PM. She/he then chooses a cabinet.

MP's there to represent their voters NOT a party machine.

Totally solves the problem. MP's aren't there for a career they are there as a public service.

Roger Thornhill said...

You and Boris sound like you are asking for a House full of Libertarians. The LPUK is no faux-whipless Jury Team and it will be repealing the caravan-loads of bad law enacted over these last couple of decades.

Anonymous said...

What would you do to revive the independence of Parliament and encourage the public to take a closer interest in its proceedings?

Electing MPs by a different system -- STV, AV or AV+ -- would probably help. As would recall elections.

Anonymous said...

Well, Boris' article certainly explains the passing of the Smoking Ban legislation....

Anonymous said...

A very small and simple change would be to introduce secret voting in the House.

The Whips could still do their job, in that they would make sure their charges turned up to vote, but without any knowledge of how they had voted, there could be no reprisals.

Of course the expectation would be that an MP would vote the way their party wanted them to, so the party system would have some force still.

But the party would have to convince their MPs, rather than bully them. Quite a difference.

Anonymous said...

whats with all the whipping in politics anyway?

Anonymous said...

Let's see, an MP reading about their responsibility and voting with both knowledge of a debate and what their constituents think? That wouldn't be like Caroline Flint then, Minister for Europe, who hasn't even bothered to read the Lisbon Treaty!

The thing is Iain, lost of people don't understand politics, they vote for an MP - because they like the look of them; read something that came through the door; because they've always voted for "that party" - then they find something local comes up, and the MP takes the party line, against their constituents best interests.

Unknown said...


I make my evaluation of party policies and on the competence of parties' leaders and managerial teams. I wouldn't say I was tribal; I've voted red, yellow, and green in my time. But party is the vehicle for accountability. The individual MP's characteristics, good or bad, make little or no difference within certain bounds. What do I care if an MP is inbred or not if he votes for things I agree with? I don't want him to vote for what he thinks is best - I want him to vote for roughly what his party said they'd do, and at the next election I will reject or affirm him on that basis.

Backbench MPs don't even need to be competent; that's what caseworkers are for. Corruption is another matter - makes people more likely to change government policy in ways I can't control.

Less autonomy, more accountability, that's what I say.

Unknown said...

Secret voting sounds idiotic. How are we supposed to judge MPs if we don't know how they've voted?

Domesday said...

It's simple surely. Every PPC or MP signs to a pledge to work and vote according to four priorities in this order:
1. conscience
2. country
3. constituency
4. conservative party
The 4 Cs, memorable, simple and above all right.

One exception: if they vote against a manifesto pledge they must publish their objection prior to the election and stand on that basis.

Indigo said...

Boris is not wrong. Why didn't the House of Commons debate the measures to be taken to save the economy, last autumn? As far as I can tell, all the decisions - bailing out banks and printing money - have all been taken by the PM (or, possibly, by the PM and Cabinet). At the time, probably most of us believed it when we were told that these measures were necessary to save the UK economy and the pound.

However, the revelations about MPs' exploitation of the expenses allowances - and how Brown and the Speaker allowed the abuses to continue, in order to keep Labour MPs on board - throws a different (and terrifying) light on the decisions that the PM made to "save" the economy. Remember the PM telling us all to go shopping - nowadays that sounds rather as if it was a coded signal to his avaricious and materialistic MPs that they need not worry that their troughing days were coming to an end.

It doesn't matter who wins the next general election, things are going to get very bad indeed afterwards. Apparently, in real money terms, the so-called credit crunch has already cost Britain more than the Napoleonic Wars, more than WWI and WWII. VAT up, income tax up, for years and years and years, to pay back Brown's public borrowing.

We may even find ourselves envying Iceland - at least they have fishing to fall back on.

Anonymous said...

Reform is clearly needed with more localism so MPs are left with the main issues to get right and also much stronger select committees with real powers to call the Exec to account. Finally all the talk of Independents fills me with foreboding. I can see why they seem appealing but large numbers of them really would make for poor governance. Look at those county councils where there are already lots of Independents and you will invariably see weak leadership and lack of direction and no improvement in turnout or performance despite years of this approach. The other aspect of this that worries me is Celeb Indies - God help us, too many of them are even more on an ego trip that the current politicians and when they learn that being an MP is more like being a social worker on 24 hr demand they will lose interest rapidly leaving us no further forward at all.

George Kaplan said...

I agree with Roger Thornhill

Lord Blagger said...

Referenda is the only option. MPs can proposed etc.

However if the referenda is voted down by a majority, it can be introduced.

Referenda for all acts.

Rival parties can introduce rival acts. They get voted on too.

That includes the finance act.


David Hughes said...

I agree, Iain - but perhaps Boris Johnson's simplistic approach was designed to stimulate thought and debate. Surely after your previous stances you are not advocating that politics should be a career path ?
It should be mandatory (although I haven't a clue how it would be policed) for M.P.s to acquaint themselves with the detail of Acts of Parliament before they vote on them and then vote according to their beliefs rather than the Party line.
More so when it is contentious legislation - you mention the DNA example when what this Government is proposing is in contravention of - whether you like it or not - European law as handed down to the UK Government ( and yes, I do realise that they are trying to circumvent a vote in the House) from Europe. If you sup with the Devil, use a long spoon.

In Contempt of Parliament said...

Why not require MPs to publish their analysis of the bills and their reasons for their votes. If they want to say they disagreed, but the whip made them do it, the voters will be able to decide for themselves if that's what they want. Maybe voters want party loyalty?

Or they can say what they got in exchange for it - e.g. support for the party line in exchange for time/support on a local issue of interest. Negotiation, compromises, and tit-for-tat deals are part of the reason we send representatives there.

The problem is when they do it without thinking, or do it in support of personal rather than constituency interests, or if their views are at odds with those of the people they represent. It is the secrecy that poses the difficulty.

Having to justify their actions on our behalf to us should be quick and easy, assuming they've given the bill the thought and consideration they ought to.

It would be educational for the public, a valuable resource for judges and lawyers trying to interpret the intent of Parliament, and for students of political history and moral philosophy.

And we would only have to look at the quality of the work to see how MPs deserve their salaries. How better to restore respect?

Philipa said...

I like what Boris says - fewer MP's and two fingers to the whip is fine by me. I don't like the idea of the whip anyway, people should vote with their conscience not their BlackBerry.

In fact.. Boris for PM!

AndyR said...

Yes Prime Minister - Power To The PeopleSir Humphrey Appleby - Professor, tell the Prime Minister about the benefits to Parliament.

Professor Marriott - Well, as you know, under my local government scheme, each borough would have its 500 street representatives. Now this means that the local MP would be able to talk to them all in one hall.

Appleby - So... they'd really get to know him.

Marriott - Exactly. And tell all the people in their street about him. Personal, private, word-of-mouth recommendation.

Jim Hacker - Sounds terrific.

Dorothy Wainwright - Hold on a moment. Where would the constituency party come in?

Marriott - Ah, well that's the marvellous thing. Party organisations would be completely bypassed. MPs would become genuinely independent.

Hacker - What?

Marriott - You see, if they were known to all their constituents or their committee representatives, then whether MPs would get re-elected would be nothing to do with whether the party backed them or not. It would depend on whether the constituents felt they were doing a good job.

Appleby - So if the MP wasn't dependent on his party machine, he could actually vote against his own party and get away with it.

Marriott - Exactly, because there'd be no need for official candidates. Election would depend on the reputation of each individual MP, not the image of the party leader. An end of the party machine. An end to the power of the whips.

Hacker - But how would the government gets its unpopular legislation through without being able to twist the odd arm? How would it command a majority?

Marriott - It couldn't. There could only be legislation if a majority of the MPs were actually in favour of it. Parliament would become genuinely democratic.

Appleby - Prime Minister, it is the most courageous policy you have ever proposed.

Hacker - Professor, thank you so much. Absolutely fascinating. Goodbye!

Marriott - Thank you, Prime Minister.

Appleby - Prime Minister! It's a splendid idea. Real democracy.

Hacker - Dorothy, it's out of the question!

Rob said...

Boris' piece reminds me rather a lot of a piece by Polly Toynbee last week but leaving that aside ...

Politicians will always form groupings for mutual assistance and if they do so permanently you have parties. And party leaders will always whip, one way or the other, no matter what's formally introduced.

But the party machine needs to be challenged, and I believe the best way to do so is for the system to welcome independent MPs, removing the many obstacles that presently exist for independent candidates. I'm not saying parliament should (or could) be filled with independents but I am saying that a decent number of them would act as an early warning and a brake on some of the system's less acceptable behaviour.

A decent collection of indie MPs (say, a hundred or so) would
* be prepared to speak out whenever necessary, as speaking out would be a good career move
* seek to hold all the political movers and shakers, whatever their party, to account
* not be chasing careers in the house, beyond the career of being a good MP
* be chosen by their constituents on merit, not on the charisma or otherwise of their party leadership
* not agree among themselves, thus avoiding just another 'machine'
* provide a refuge for party MPs who choose to speak out against their own parties, as falling out with the party would no longer mean automatically losing one's seat

I commend independence to the house.

Rob ShepherdPs: Ian Dale: ,not the Rob Shepherd you like to vilify as a sports writer