Category Archives: Electoral Reform

Accountable to the people, representative of the people

Parliamentary reform reached the top of the political agenda immediately after the outbreak of the MP’s expenses scandal. However, once our political establishment mused with the idea of reforming our electoral system through the adoption of the Alternative Vote system and the introduction of primaries to elect parliamentary candidates, the issue of parliamentary reform slipped off the agenda once it seemed that the issue was being dealt with. This article addresses the need to re-ignite the initial impetus for parliamentary reform and argues that the gap in the dialogue is the absence of discussion centred on wholesale electoral and parliamentary reform rather than minor adjustments like the ones suggested by our political establishment.Parliamentary reform reached the top of the political agenda immediately after the outbreak of the MP’s expenses scandal. However, once our political establishment mused with the idea of reforming our electoral system through the adoption of the Alternative Vote system and the introduction of primaries to elect parliamentary candidates, the issue of parliamentary reform slipped off the agenda once it seemed that the issue was being dealt with. This article addresses the need to re-ignite the initial impetus for parliamentary reform and argues that the gap in the dialogue is the absence of discussion centred on wholesale electoral and parliamentary reform rather than minor adjustments like the ones suggested by our political establishment..

Bar the current fixation on spending cuts and whether they are going be ‘kind’, ‘savage’ or ‘sustainable’, when did Parliamentary reform slip off the political agenda? When the MPs’ expenses scandal was unravelling one could be forgiven for thinking we were on the cusp of wholesale constitutional, electoral and parliamentary reform. Yet following mild suggestions from Brown in support of Alternative Vote and hints from Cameron for the introduction of ‘citizens’ initiatives’, parliamentary reform has slipped off the political agenda. In its place has come the tepid discussion of spending cuts; of ‘we will cut sustainably, whilst they will cut savagely’. John Bercow, our newly elected speaker of the house, gave a speech on the matter of Parliamentary reform last week to the Hansard Society. His speech received about as much coverage in the press as the proverbial cat stuck up a tree. If we are to avoid the political quagmire that was the expenses scandal and the disintegration of our un-regulated financial system then we must push for a political system which is more accountable to the people and representative of the people.

Bercow makes an astonishing claim during his speech; “all of the main party leaders, the Leader of the House and her Shadow, and those MPs outside of the main parties, are publicly committed to reform as never before. This is hugely welcome and it presents a superb opportunity for serious and significant change”. Is that so? If “committed to reform” relates to Browns’ suggestion, not commitment, for a move towards AV – it alone only guaranteeing MPs’ are elected by 50% of their constituents – and Eric Pickles discussion of “fair votes” – meaning the gerrymandering of constituency boundaries – at the Conservative Party Conference, then yes, Bercow is correct to observe our MPs as being “committed to reform”. But if we take reform to equate to the wholesale change of an antiquated, pompous, un-representative and un-accountable political system then our MPs are far from being “committed to reform”. Instead we find our three main political parties distancing themselves from real reform when each sense possible power, or at least an increase in their share of power, by playing the First-Past-The-Post ‘winner takes all’ electoral system. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

Clearly Parliamentary reform is on the political agenda, but the political establishment is far from “committed” to it. Maybe Bercow sees himself as a bastion for reform when the crux of his speech at the Hansard Society boils down to reforming the role of……..wait for it……the backbench MP! Certainly he has a point when he recommends more backbench scrutiny of ministers and Private Members’ Bill being discussed mid-week instead of being discarded to Friday. But clearly when trust in our political system is at an all time low, reform must be radical and wide-ranging. Sir Christopher Kelly, the Chair of The Committee on Standards in Public Life, has been charged with reviewing the MPs’ expenses scandal and will release his report later this month. But one is living in hope if he thinks the report will make recommendations that will radically change our political system. Instead, it is left to actors outside the political establishment, in pressure groups such as Unlock Democracy and campaign movements such as The Vote for a Change Campaign, to set the reformist agenda. Far from calls for greater backbench MP powers, these actors are suggesting the introduction of primaries to elect candidates for Parliament, the establishment of Citizens’ Conventions to help construct a written constitution, and holding a referendum in tandem with the General Election regarding electoral reform, not on AV, but on Proportional Representation. These latter suggestions constitute a truly reformist agenda and are indicative of someone who is “committed to reform”. It is a shame our political establishment has not been galvanized by the initial impetus for reform following the MPs’ scandal. Instead it is left to actors outside the political establishment to set the meaningful reformist agenda and push for a political system which is accountable to the people and representative of the people.

First published October 19th 2009

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