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Parliamentary reform should be major objective for next government

What they never told you about ParliamentParliament is currently not fit for purpose. It isn’t just the corruption – the expenses scandal, the recent Rifkind-Straw venality, the link between life peerages and party donations reported yesterday. More insidious and even more damaging is the way that Parliament presently operates fundamentally undermines any serious degree of democratic accountability. Tribalism (my party right or wrong) and careerism (keep in with the Whips if you want ministerial preferment) are rampant, and often override objective assessment of the issues. On government bills at report stage MPs frequently vote without knowing what they’re voting for, but just blindly follow the Whips. On non-government business which often reflects electors’ intense concern, the government simply ignores any vote they lose.

Lords Amendments, which are often very sensible, are dismissed peremptorily and almost with disdain, thus destroying the benefits of better scrutiny in the second chamber. Lobbyists for the big private interests operate secretly with access to Ministers often denied to MPs, leading to under-the-counter deals which make a mockery of parliamentary elections. Private Members’ Bills are railroaded into submission by the government majority or by the Whips’ shenanigans. Where MPs badly fail their electors, there is at present no effective channel for electors to remove them.

It is important to realise that radical reform of the way Parliament operates is unlikely to happen, because incoming governments have too strong a vested interest in the status quo, unless there is a strong, persistent and well-informed demand from the public for action which gives them genuine participation in the parliamentary process, more direct transparency to overcome dependence on a highly distorting media, and the right to recall MPs for manifest breakdowns in integrity or competence. To that end I and 9 of my cross-party colleagues have just published a booklet, edited by me, entitled What They Never Told You about Parliament and How It should be Put Right. If anybody would like a copy, free, I would be glad to sent it to them (email me or write to me at House of Commons London SW1A 0AA) or you can download it here (PDF).

What is primarily needed is agreement between the parties to set up at the start of the new Parliament a Speaker’s Conference, or alternatively a weighty external commission, to examine all the key ideas proposed in this booklet together with proposals invited from the public and interested organisations like charities and the Hansard Society. This needs to be accompanied by a major public campaign to alert voters to what is at stake and to put pressure on MPs, particularly new MPs,of whichever party, to give full and active support. We also aim to set up a parliamentary website devoted to reform of parliamentary procedure (excluding wider policy issues) to provide a channel so that public grievances or proposals for positive change can be aired.

If anyone has any other ideas, please let us know.

8 Comments

  1. There will not be an incoming government. The only certainty is a hung parliament. Tory media is playing up the SNP controlling the Labour agenda, see yesterday’s papers

    The good ideas here will come to naught without one essential – repeal the fixed parliaments Act. Otherwise the result after May will be five years of chaos or small parties holding the big ones to ransom. The Act repealed, the movement can start on the lines outlined here.

    No repeal, five years of chaos and declining faith in parliament on the lines of the Weimar republic.

    Repeal or else.

    Trevor Fisher

    1. Rod says:

      “small parties holding the big ones to ransom”

      That’s our best hope.

      How else can we rein in the Blairites/Tories?

      1. Robert says:

        It will take some doing to get rid of Progress from within labour.

    2. John.P reid says:

      But the big parties have ruled the country by getting in elections between 43 and 36% of the vote for the last 41 years, with 4 exceptions turnouts of between 60% -72% , pre 1970 there were 80% turnouts

      1. Rod says:

        Our electoral arrangements are designed for a two party system and so a two party system is produced.

        Over time, political exigences have caused the two main parties, Lab and Con, to concede enough to each other to make their common practice and actions far more consequential than their nominal distinctive ideologies.

        We now need an alternative. That means alternative policies, not more of the fake internal antagonism/bickering of the Westminster elite.

        1. Robert says:

          That is not going to be easy none of the other smaller parties are really clever enough or rich enough sadly we will only see change if the voters decide they want change.

  2. David Ellis says:

    There can be no reforming this corrupt institution at the heart of British imperialism. What is needed is a radical socialist party standing for Westminster elections pledging to abolish the Westminster Union and replace it with a federation of sovereign British nations. Turn the Westminster Houses of Parliament (commons and lords) into London’s biggest Wetherspoons or a museum.

  3. Excellent piece. Having looked at the booklet, I particularly agree with Graham Allen’s call for a written constitution. With another hung Parliament looking likely, we need agreement on the unwritten rules for choosing a Prime Minister in that situation. In 2010 Gordon Brown stayed in office for a few days, as incumbent Prime Minister, despite Labour being second in the General Election, until the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats agreed a coalition. The precedent was set by the February 1974 Election. With no majority for any party, Edward Heath stayed in office, and attempted to form a coalition. The questionable decision to allow Heath to remain in office for several days, after Labour had won more seats than the Conservatives in the Election, was made by the queen, after her advisors had consulted Robert Blake, a supposed constitutional expert. Blake’s advice was not exactly neutral, as he was a member of the Conservative Party, author of “The Conservative Party from Peel to Churchill”, a history published in 1970, and had been given a place in the House of Lords by Heath in 1971.

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