Parliament: never waste a good crisis

Never waste a good crisis – never was this more true than in the current Parliamentary calamity.

The Conservatives have been quick to advance an agenda for reforming Parliament itself that is deeply worrying.

Their proposals to reduce the number of MPs (from 650 to 500) would have several detrimental effects: strengthening the role of the executive, and its ‘pay-roll’ vote against the depleted ranks of back-benchers; possible ‘gerrymandering’ constituencies in such a way it would guarantee a permanent Tory majority.

Above all, their seeking to gain political advantage, and not to seek instead a consensus about reform, is exactly what is not needed. This is a crisis of the system, not of the government of the day, and it is the system that needs fixing by consensus amongst the political parties. The Tories risk deepening the crisis by triggering a political civil-war over the nature of democracy in Britain itself.

So what can and should (in my humble opinion) be done?

The key principle for any reforms has to be: strengthening the role of Parliament in relation to the executive. Parliaments’ current malaise is partly due to its impotence.

The second principle is: look at the system as a whole. Too much reform has been piece-meal and disconnected – for example House of Lords reform disconnected from House of Commons electoral reform.

We need an elected 2nd Chamber – a Senate. This should be tied to a change in the voting system which seeks to distinguish between the two Houses. The argument against PR for the Commons is it would lead to weak coalition Executives. Fine, in that case let’s use STV (single transferable votes) which would still allow for strong majorities. Let’s use PR instead for the Senate, so that no one party can dominate it, and give it restraining and scrutiny powers on the executive.

While we’re at it lets move to fixed electoral cycles – different for each House.

Numbers of MPs – as already argued, reducing the number would work to the executives advantage – although we probably need a pretty fundamental geographical redistribution.

Parliament has, purely by convention, virtually abandoned any role at all in determining ‘tax and spend’ policies. This is almost unique in western democracies and needs to change – the select committees should take on a new role of pre-scrutiny of budgets and spending plans.

This should be part of a general strengthening of the Select Committee system. They need far more resources – our Select Committees have about a quarter of the staff of an individual Representative in the US Congress. With a reformed upper House we should also consider what role it plays in scrutiny – for example should we have joint-committees of both Houses on some of the major policy areas, with strong back-up staffs?

We also need the equivalent of a Congressional Budget Office to support committees, and to change the role of the National Audit Office so it serves all select committees and takes on a systematic performance scrutiny role.

For Parliament to really re-establish itself it needs to find again its real purpose. It is sovereign in making governments and legislation, but little else at present. The real business of government – getting and spending and organising – is left entirely in the hands of the executive. That has to change if Parliament is to regain public trust, it needs new sense of purpose and role – otherwise people will be asking – Parliament, what is it for?

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