Thursday, May 21, 2009

The New Mood For Change

Alix wants us all to have a mass debate about reform.

Oh, go on then. Here's my starter for ten.

As the Guardian noted recently, Rahm Emmanuel's view that one shouldn't waste a good crisis is every bit as applicable to our current political crisis as it was to the credit crunch. But even for a crisis as big as the one in which we find ourselves, there is too much possible reform being touted to sensibly address it all. It is going to be necessary to pick and choose our immediate priorities.

My thinking on this subject starts with this thought: I wonder whether this might be a "bottoming out" of cynicism in politics. Let's not kid ourselves, this isn't a storm that has blown in from nowhere, wrecking once-sound edifices in one fell swoop. The public has been fed up with politics for some time now, and in particular, the growing sense that politicians are "all the same" has been increasingly poisonous to people's will to engage. It needn't be its current incarnation, "all the same, just in it for the money", it has also been "all the same, hardly a policy difference between them", "all the same, promise everything, deliver nothing" and "all the same, it's all spin and lies". This crisis, I suspect, has been so quickly seized upon as the time to clean up politics more widely because it happened at about the right time. The downward trajectory of public faith in politics has been on such a prolonged downward trend that, had it continued much further, the system would have become completely untenable. People sense that - and by that, I mean political people who think about these things.

If we are to make appropriate use of the reform momentum, any reforms must not stifle the appetite for further reforms. They should be things that have an obvious benefit, and are perceptible to the public in as short a time as possible. If people sense that all that is happening is technocratic faffing, it will not have the desired effect of nurturing any green shoots of optimism that might have appeared.

For a start, what the public wants, anecdotally and from polling data, is for more heads to roll. Every party should be quite trigger happy with the deselection process before the next election, and appropriate investigations should take place into those cases which look to have been fraudulent. If other reforms feel like a substitute for these actions, they will only make people more cynical. As has been noted elsewhere, it's quite difficult for the Lib Dems to lead on this, because none of our MPs have done anything heinous enough to warrant the kind of synthetic fury with which David Cameron has greeted revelations of moat cleaning and duck islands. Nonetheless, some movement has been welcome; Lord Rennard's announcement today is timely, and it'd probably help if a few MPs stood down at the next election.

But assuming we manage to get past this first, most important, most basic (and lets face it, least interesting) first step, what next? The sense that things are not simply going to carry on as normal will only be challenged by something that people care about. Secondary legislation, for instance, is all very well, but if the reform is to something you have to explain what it is first, it's not going to get anyone all that excited.

Of course, the obvious thing to reform is the interface between the political system and the public: voting. It might not surprise anyone to hear a Lib Dem call for electoral reform, but it really is the most obvious reform here. We have been banging on about this for so long, precisely because it is one of the most effective things we can do to hand power back to people, which is exactly what they want. The Lib Dem preferred solution is STV in multi-member constituencies, for well rehearsed reasons that I won't go over in tedious detail here.

(Incidentally, while we're at it: we should under no circumstances change to any kind of messy, bodge job like the Jenkins Report-recommended AV+ system. It would only give reform a bad name, and stop any recovery in participation in the democratic process in its tracks.)

The Conservatives, so far, have advanced open primaries as a way to re-invigorate democracy. Well, OK, I can see how someone could have watched the US elections and decided that some primaries would make life exciting, but can we really see it being quite as interesting when it's the contest for Labour candidate for Colchester? Having said that, if a move to STV is as effective as I hope it would be in getting people more involved, then I might just imagine open primaries attracting enough attention to be worth doing for constituencies that are rather bigger than those we have at the moment. That, though, would be a secondary reform. STV would remove safe seats (so long as parties cannot deliberately limit the number of people who can stand for them in a given constituency), and with it the sense that a vote can be "wasted".

The other thing which would force the political class to engage with the public more is reform of political party funding. Personally, I'm in favour of state funding of political parties, for the simple reason that it removes the issue of people with more money to spare having more influence. I'm not dogmatic about that, and other solutions might help. Limits on donations would be a start.

An elected House of Lords is, of course, right, but somehow it doesn't seem like the biggest priority right now. Yes, there've been scandals about peers taking cash for ammendments, but there already are rules against that, and they've suffered the consequences. The Lords is, frankly, not the biggest problem we have with our legislature at the moment.

Which brings me to the last thing: the divide between parliament and the executive. Personally, I'd quite like an executive who aren't necessarily drawn from the legislature (like the USA), but in the absence of that, could we just have an STV election for Prime Minister, with the leader of each party standing? That would remove some of the downside to PR systems that people always bang on about - the PM would have a strong mandate to lead, but they wouldn't necessarily have an overall majority in parliament.

As I believe Simon Jenkins observed some time ago now, one of the biggest problems we have in the UK is that we get very worked up when we're arguing about PR vs FPTP, because some people want a proportional legislature, and some people want a strong, decisive executive. Essentially, we're talking at cross purposes. A single party executive and a proportional legislature would allow for both, albeit that the executive would have to build sufficient support for its legislation (no bad thing).

So, that's more or less my programme of reforms:

1. In the immediate term, some heads must roll after due process.
2. We should move to multi-member constituency STV after a referendum at the next election. Failing that, the Tories' open primaries plan wouldn't be a terrible idea.
3. Political party funding should be reformed.
4. The business of the first parliament elected under STV should include wider constitutional reform, including what becomes of the Lords, and thoughts about reforms to the relationship between parliament and the executive. While they're at it, they might as well write it all down, too.

Any questions?

1 comment:

Lee Griffin said...

Open primaries WOULD be a terrible idea if done before other reform. They'll be used as an excuse to keep other parts of the corrupt system the same.

"Yes, he was a bad egg, but you picked him out of all the candidates. Not your fault of course, but you have the chance to pick a new MP for the next election, ok?"

No no no, voting reform first, it has to be the main thing agreed to before anything else. Without it safe seats will remain safe, and the problem will not go away.