Archive for the ‘Constitutional Reform’ Category

One for the Handbook (literally, for once)

“One for the Handbook” refers to a new policy idea I have thought up, and so literally wish to enter into the (virtual) Political Handbook, rather than merely blog about.

My best blogs are reactive. In fact, my best ideas are reactive, even musically, I think. There’s something reactive about every creative human impulse — the best creativity needs to respond to something. Whether it’s my taking inspiration from popular songs such as “Sunshine, lollipops and rainbows”, “The way you look tonight” and “Bring me sunshine” (Fantasy on Sunshine, a sonata for solo violin, for any who happen to be interested in my music), or simply being inspired by a long walk or pleasant day in the traditional style, human creativity is rarely, if ever, without an impulse it reacts to. The same follows with policy. Government is the most reactive concept on earth — it exists purely in reaction to, and for the intention of correcting, social problems. (Whose problems, and who the solutions benefit are, of course, up for grabs.)

James Graham on Quaequam blog! has written, every once in a while, some very interesting articles on Intellectual Property and Copyright laws. I mean interesting, for once, in a most complimentary and not at all sarcastic or euphemism-laden way, as I like the thinking very much. It sparks off my own, very embryonic, thinking on the subject. This is why I’ve linked to the blog and not a particular article (the current article is dedicated to the subject, unless you’re reading this in a couple of days, when it could be off the front page), as this isn’t reacting against anything in particular, unlike most of my “response” articles to bloggers/columnists.

James’ analysis of existing copyright legislation is a devastating critique of the recording industry at the moment and, for the most part so far as I can see, correct. Copyright legislation at the moment exists mainly to the benefit of those who exploit musical talent rather than artists themselves.

I’m a little worried about coming across so Marxist, and indeed cannot explain why I feel such greater revulsion against the concept of “selling” intellectual labour than I do selling of labour in general. Now I come to think of it, though, it may be more about the concept of selling rights of property than rights of labour. I generally don’t have a problem with artists working for larger companies, with them making a rational decision to sell their labour for a fair price (note, a fair price, not any price). I guess it’s more the idea of companies obtaining a fundamental ownership of the value of the art itself, a sense of ownership of the actual artistic endeavour being transferred, that riles me. As an artist, I obviously have a clear prejudice here, and cannot say that it is logical that I should feel less bothered by, say, the selling of conventional property that one might have produced.

Except that in many cases, property one creates cannot be argued as decisively to be your original work as art can. After all, in typing for a company as a receptionist, though doubtlessly a skilled job, the words created are of little value to me and require little skill of artistic creativity, though very different skills are required. However, in typing this blog, assuming for the moment that I am a talented writer, I could be creating something of genuinely new and irreplaceable value, a work of unique art (yeah, right!)

My point is, of course, far from black and white, and is one which would invariably travel, if it were allowed, to the debate as to what constitutes art in the first place, and where creativity has been applied as opposed to simple activity. Yet I do believe that such a distinction exists. This will doubtlessly put me at odds at many who believe that the concept of creativity is an illusion, that it disguises truth, and that it interferes with rationality, etc., etc.. I can’t argue with that — it is too fundamental a disagreement. So I can merely use this as a starting point.

I do therefore believe that a case for intellectual ownership of a work one can produce easily without creativity is far more difficult to make than for one where creativity is required, and the outcome is unique. Defining this is the problem, and I would not for one moment assume that I am capable of defining where a work becomes a work of art and ceases to be a work of mundane application of uncreative, robotic skills. Clearly creativity and innovation are not enough, as they are also applied to many business decisions and strategies, the copyrighting of which would be patent nonsense. Clearly something of unique and irreplaceable value has to be produced, but here again we come up against a minefield of definition.

Even so, difficulties of definition aside, I do think there is a clear place for intellectual copyright, and moreover, a clear case for some form of limitation on the extent to which it can be “sold” and “purchased”. Moreover, simply because definition is difficult, does not mean that these rights are not needed. I think that on a fundamental level, it is obvious that they are: I think it is obviously false to state that “music should be free” as it is to state that “information should be free”. Neither are free. No “should” will change this, both have a cost at the original level of production.

There are, of course, models to get around this. Spotify is an example. Yet I doubt that such models are capable of covering all content; what is more, even if they could I am not sure whether I like the implications for artists if they are limited to one means of distributing their content, and the potential for abuse that could follow. The advantages of a level of copyright protection are that artists may have a certain amount of personal autonomy, answering to no-one, being truly self-employed.

But, as already stated, I am in clear agreement that the current set-up favours business over artist, and is not about protection of the individual. Such a claim would be laughable. So what can be done to reverse this? I have a couple of ideas:

a) Firstly, remove the inheritance principle. Though I might feel differently about this were I a parent, I hope I would hold to my principles: no potential child of mine should be able to benefit, once they are an adult, from my work as a musician and composer. They would hold no greater intellectual right than anyone else, even if they had immeasurable artistic ability of their own.

b) For obvious reasons, an copyright expiration upon death might not be the safest of policies. Nor from a perspective of equity does it seem reasonable — there are various arguments at play here, but in terms of a “leaving something for your children if you die suddenly” question, the most equitable arrangement that I can think of off-hand would be around 20 years, a generation.

c) Things are complicated, however, by the factor of deferred success. It is possible that I may write something that, having left the undiscerning public cold for 20 years, suddenly becomes very popular. In which case, I am shafted if the limit is inflexible. I therefore suggest that the initial limit be a simple one on what your work can earn to an unlimited extent, but an additional time limit exists as to what your work can earn in total.

This could work two ways: it could be “on top” of whatever your work earns in the first 20 years, or it could be including the first 20 years of earnings. The latter concept would be more socialist in concept, setting a more “absolute” price on what a work of art should earn, for this reason, I am tempted to disown it, though the former concept also does this to an extent. Either way, it could serve a severe limitation upon the ability of artists or companies to exploit a popular work to reap huge rewards through limiting distribution. There would have to be an absolute limit, perhaps something like 75 years, upon which any work is guaranteed to enter public domain.

d) I must confess to be unaware of the law surrounding the extent to which the copyright of a work can be “sold on”, so here I enter the area of speculation. I believe fundamentally that the extent one can sell or purchase copyright should be limited to so protect the original producer, or that the limit of 20 years should be binding upon anyone who is benefiting from “purchased” copyright, and either revert back to the producer afterward, or, if they are dead, become public domain.

This is all very initial. I am unaware of many very important facts to this debate, and this serves just as much as an attempt to define some of my thinking as it does any detailed policy argument from me. However, I hope it proves to be a constructive addition to the debate.

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My questions to and answers from Vernon Bogdanor on Primaries:

About a week ago, I participated in a “question and answer” submission set up by “Open Up”, to professor Vernon Bogdanor (professor of government at Oxford University, and one-time Tutor to David Cameron). Having been impressed by Bogdanor’s argument before, I was intrigued to see him as a strong supporter of Open Primaries, particularly given his support for introducing Single Transferable Vote, and believe that Primaries would be a step in this direction (rather than away, which is my view, as I have blogged about on here before).

I put three questions to him, and wasn’t disappointed to see that he only answered two (after all, there were quite a few contributions, and I was, thinking over it, quite lucky to get more than one answered). Here are the questions, with his answers:

Question: Won’t open primaries vastly lengthen and increase the expense of the electoral process, and make life more difficult for minority parties, independents and candidates from disadvantaged circumstances? Won’t they increase the problems surrounding campaign funding, many of which are evident from the US system?

Professor Bogdanor: To avoid this outcome, I think there should be a spending cap administered by the Electoral Commission.

Question: Could open primaries lead to a further entrenched two-party system, where the largest parties become the easiest option for those seeking to enter politics, to the detriment of pluralism and diversity; and the smaller parties find it impossible to compete, having insufficient candidates to make primaries feasible?

Professor Bogdanor: The truth is that nobody knows. The most likely outcome is that it will increase enthusiasm for democracy and so help all parties.

To be fair, I believe his response to the first question is quite reasonable. Though, as I blogged on The Daily Soapbox, a spending cap could well be utterly insufficient in terms of helping disadvantaged candidates and preventing primaries from shifting the burden further against them; it has to be recognised that this is to a large degree speculation (particularly as I am not aware of many comparisons other than the United States, which has lax campaign funding laws). A spending cap could certainly help avoid some of the more serious problems of campaign funding in Primaries, although in my personal opinion it would not go nearly further enough, and does not address the problem that those already at a disadvantage in the electoral system will be disproportionately effected by the simple cost of running a primary campaign, cap or no cap.

I regard the second answer as a dodge, unfortunately — it is possible that I worded the question badly (I am notoriously bad at concise summations, which explains the general length of my articles on here, facebook and The Daily Soapbox). Of course, the fact that no-one knows is an obvious truth (one could call it a ‘truism’), but the fact is that an increase in enthusiasm for parties obviously does not equate to something which “helps all parties” — indeed, a look at the US shows that in many ways, they are more interested in participation and democracy than we are, but despite this have a far more entrenched two-party system. Parties are things which arise out of democracy, but are entirely pragmatic arrangements, and beyond the existence of an opposition, bear little relation to the level of democracy.

The simple fact is that it is obvious that small parties would struggle to compete, because they face a choice of either holding primaries — and thus playing a larger role in the local democratic process — or fielding as many candidates as possible on the national level. This would effectively put them between a rock and a hard place, particularly if they were in the position of emerging between minority status, and mainstream status. It is easy to see how primaries could entrench the two-party system, therefore — at least under a single-member system.

The other point about Primaries making the two main parties the easiest route into politics is also unchallenged by Professor Bogdanor’s reply, and would go some way to explaining why in the US, despite the greater prevalence of democracy (which may or may not be a good thing), the two party system is more entrenched. When discussing third parties in American politics with my excellent A level teacher, one of his points concerning their lack of success was “what’s the point, when the two parties are broadchurch, and can just as easily accommodate people’s views?” Ultimately, it is this which exposes the false equation the Professor makes between pluralism and democracy; democracy is ultimately about participation, and if it is easier to participate in mainstream parties then the mainstream parties will disproportionally benefit.

So overall, fair first question response (though for obvious reasons, I disagree that it would be sufficient), slightly disappointed by the second response, which I feel would probably be ripped apart in a Oxford politics class, given that we were trained to deconstruct that in A level politics. But fair play to the Professor for taking the time to engage in the first place; he must have had a lot of questions to respond to!

EDIT: I have just noticed this question, later down on the page:

Question: What about smaller parties? Should they have open primaries too? Won’t their comparative lack of funding put them at a disadvantage?

Professor Bogdanor: Yes, smaller parties should have open primaries too. The question of whether they will be at a disadvantage raises the whole issue of whether there should be state funding of political parties, on which views legitimately differ.

(Not asked by myself)

I don’t wish to tackle his views on state funding of political parties here (or what I assume to be his views, because as he indicates, it would be the most obvious way of correcting this problem), merely the assumption that this is the only disadvantage to smaller parties. It patently is not — funding is certainly one problem, but simply numbers is another — a small party, however well funded, is still small, it still has to face a shortage of candidates, and putting itself at a disadvantage if it is to grant electors a choice of more than one candidate in a primary.

I’m also going to be slightly pedantic, and also address the final question and answer:

Question: Is there any evidence that open primaries will lead to better government?

Professor Bogdanor: “Better government” is in part a subjective matter. Open primaries will lead to more participation and therefore better democracy.

…pedantic, because I wish to question the equation of greater participation and better democracy, and undermine a previous argument I made slightly. Though democracy, as I said earlier, is ultimately about participation, it is also very much affected by the level of pluralism, and it does not follow that increased participation will necessarily strengthen democracy. I would like to reference the State of California (and the state of California) as an example here, where referendums and initiatives are relatively easy, and there have been widespread accusations of interest groups sabotaging the democratic wishes of communities at large. Also, unhelpful laws have been introduced which hinder representative democracy, namely a requirement for a 2/3 supermajority in order to ratify the State budget, which recently nearly made California the first State in US history to go bankrupt.

Why the right veered towards Primaries as the left veered towards PR, when the sunlight briefly shone out on our Politicians.

The scramble towards constitutional reform when the sunlight, grandly taken advantage of by the Daily Telegraph, shone through a haze of mist on MPs expenses; was amusing from the perspective of a student of politics, even more so a thoroughly amateur one. For many reasons, quite a few obvious ones that do not need going into (such as the only tangential connection to the actual scandal itself), but one of the less remarked upon ones being the way in which each party”s line of direction so aptly reflected its historical ideologies.

One of the things which fascinated me the most was the way David Cameron played his hand. Ever on the nervous look out as the result of the more extravagant expense claims, perhaps not surprisingly, being disproportionately amongst his own party; he had to be careful to ensure that the field of debate was not captured by the left, or the government, both of whom have felt more comfortable in the field of Constitutional reform than the Conservatives in recent years (though admittedly, the Conservatives’ hiatus from government possibly had something to do with it). This is mostly due to the Conservatives’ historical attachment to traditional institutions and practices, and their recent savage opposition to any form of electoral reform (to the extent of applying arguments against PR to thoroughly non-PR alternative voting systems, as Cameron did in a recent Prime Minister’s Questions).

Shrewdly understanding that he could not compromise on this important — and recent — support of historic tradition in the Conservative party, coupled with his evident need to make a contribution to the debate, Cameron obviously spent a little time researching other forms of Constitutional reform that lie outside the field of alternative voting systems, enough so to have at least a better grasp of them, though the extent is debatable. When he made his move, therefore, he was able to talk with apparent ease about such diverse ideas as fixed-term parliaments, recall elections, and Primaries; as if they had been key to the conservative tradition all along.

Except to an extent, this wasn’t just clever manoeuvring, for though the latter isn’t demonstrably connectible to conservative thinking in recent years, it is far more palatable an idea to the right than it is left, and in a savage world where a possibility exists that one must choose between being reformers or being left out in the cold, it is not surprising that the right latch on to it with such fervour. Because introducing open primaries throws the political equivalent of a massive spanner in the works of the left’s agonisingly slow progress towards promoting reform of the voting system.

I was struck by Vernon Bogdanor’s contribution to the Indie’s ‘panel of experts’ analysing the expenses scandal back in May, that I only dug up today. In it, he says:

Primary elections would ensure that MPs were chosen by a wider group than the small unrepresentative cliques who often now act as an electoral college. In the long run, the single transferable vote method of PR would give every elector the chance to combine a vote in a general election with a vote in a primary election.

In it, Mr. Bogdanor seems to believe that a change to open primaries could be part of a gradual transition towards imposing the Single Transferable Vote. But I feel that this is a grave mistake to make.

Primaries are not perhaps quite as individualist as caucuses, but they are the closest democratic thing, and as such they would make the perfect reform for the right to make to stave off reform of the voting system for decades. For whilst STV is intended as a compromise between a desire for broad proportionality, and retaining the individual basis of elections; open primaries are an active attack on the role of parties in the political system, designed to weaken them permanently. Hence from a politically individualist — and broadly right-wing point of view — open primaries are the perfect weapon against reforming the voting system. “Why”, the question would run, “is reform of the final election process needed, when we have opened up participation in the build-up by so much?”

But if this explains why the Right is broadly far happier with the idea of open primaries, and why it caters to their sensibilities, it doesn’t cover the left’s preference for reform of the voting system, and why it should be hostile to primaries or not.

And when I come to think about it, it actually surprised me how much reason the left has to be hostile to primaries.

It has to do with more than just ideology, or semantic disputes about exactly what role parties should serve in the electoral process (I saw a debate which I felt fell into that trap, concentrated in a small-scale dispute over the nature of consensus politics versus democratic choice). It has to do with real-life evidence, and the far greater importance, to the left, of equality, freedom from economic circumstances, and demographic representation.

Proportional representation systems, and moderate representation systems such as STV are equipped with the tools to represent broad ranges of opinion in a community. In the former grouping it is through the power of the parties, who can institute selection procedures such shortlists designed to favour demographic equality if they so wish. In the latter it is through the system itself, which is designed to deliver a minimum of wasted votes and ensure as many votes as possible are used in allocation of each seat.

For this reason, persons at a disadvantage when it comes to standing for election (those with limited financial resources, business-unfriendly, union-unfriendly, independents, etc..) tend to do better with non-primary systems, and better still with STV (so long as they build up a profile with the people that matter, the local voters; at least in theory that’s how it works). Primaries disproportionately punish all these people, because they make campaigns by necessity far longer, and thus far more expensive, and you can probably see where this is going — they vastly increase the political power of money.

For this reason the left should be very, very cautious about primaries. For campaigns which involve a lot of money vastly increase the hold of businesses over politicians, and could potentially introduce a number of problems with the process of government similar to those seen in America. And if the left supports primaries on the false assumption that doing so will improve social democracy, it is badly mistaken, and could breed a generation of future struggle for itself, needlessly. It should be aware, and beware, of any reform that places more influence into the hands of lobbyists.

House of Lords Reform ~~ An Update

In reading about the House of Lords in a 1990s book “Does Parliament Work?” — in an effort to improve my knowledge about the Lords and Parliament in general — and reading with interest the part about the house’s greater informality than the House of Commons, a thought struck me.

One of the things most agreed by consensus in favour of the House of Lords is its ability to include expertise and specialism when debating legislation. I have often argued in the past for the crossbenchers, among whom are experts appointed by the House of Lords Appointments Commission, to stay holding the balance of power within the House of Lords, whatever other reforms are made to its composition, to secure as best possible the retention of this expertise, complementary to the other purposes reforms may serve. But it struck me that there exists an even better way of ensuring the expertise, as well as the continued informality of process. And, as my friend Ewan Short would like, a check upon the potential for democratically elected peers to get ideas above their station in the event of democratic reform.

I think that the House committees should have the ability to, if sufficiently inspired, offer temporary rights to people outside the House of Lords to take part in debates and have limited voting rights. This would open up the House to popular participation in a more informal, caucus-style way than pure democracy would, which would reward popular participation and, more importantly, dedication in areas of public interest.

It would also prove a check against democratically elected peers getting the idea that they were the most “important” part of the house in a part-democratic House of Lords. It would (if used properly) strengthen the houses’ claim to diversity, speciality and expertise, and make it a better understood and respected national institution. It would also promote it as an alternative means of representation to the House of Commons.

It strikes me that if we go down this route, it will also take fire out of the hands of “all-or-nothing” democracy campaigners for the House of Lords, which would be No Bad Thing. All in all, I think this could be not only quite a nice idea for the future of the House of Lords, but potentially quite an important one as well.

As usual, please notify me if I have completely missed obvious or important things by adding your comments underneath.

Dave

Parliamentary Soveriengty and the modern dominance of the Executive

Timothy Garton Ash, writing in the Guardian, quotes Labour MP Tony Wright as saying “the main objective of members of the legislature is to join the executive”, and also as apparently making the point subsequently that the main objective of our electoral system is now to choose a government, not representatives of the people (thus highlighting one of the severe problems with Parliamentary systems when it comes to selecting the best voting system; that constant tension between choosing local representatives and holding a government to account. This is at least partly the reason why the USA suffers less from the debate regarding Electoral Reform and the deficiencies of First Past the Post, because it has a separated government and legislature).

Contrary to what you’re possibly expecting, this is not wholly a note on Electoral Reform. It’s actually a few broader observances I have to make re: the “Electoral Dictatorship” debate.

Firstly, I am unsure how much the complaint that Parliament has become neutered in particular over the last ten years is accurate. It is entirely possible that it is due to the effect of the sudden transition from a small majority House (John Major’s steadily eroded majority of 21 from 1992-1997) to three real majority terms, two of them landslide majorities. Certainly, in terms of raw statistics, parliamentary rebellions are more common now than they were under Thatcher in the 1980s, something you rarely see reported in the Press.

In terms of changes to Parliament, there might be something in the complaint – it is certainly true that the government attempted to pass a bill which would have given it incredible scope for secondary legislation (legislation delegated from Parliament to other authorities such as the Executive), and nearly got away with it – the legislation in the end was watered down significantly, though still a worrying development. For more information, google “Death of Parliament Bill”.

The Tories have also made complaints regarding the timetabling of Parliament, which they argue has neutered its debating ability. There may be something to this, too – I am not too sure, as I do not know enough about the subject – but it is certainly untrue to posit that until recently the government had no way of frustrating debate in the Commons. It has had the power to “guillotine” bills for a long time prior to 1997, and went from using this power in exceptional cases to using it with regularity a long time ago.

But the original complaint, that of Parliamentary subordination, is already watered down by the behaviour of MPs, who we have already seen have, if anything, been more rebellious in general towards the Executive. Certainly, if Parliament is now more controlled by the Executive, it is through other ways than whipping. The whips in general are no more powerful now than they have been for a considerable time.

One thing is becoming clear, however, it is that the House of Commons is never going to regain practical “sovereignty” over the government in an age where people are quick to expect government action on their everyday problems, and where the media continually breeds the impression that a government must be seen to do something. In a fused Legislature and Executive, it is not in the interests of MPs to go against this attitude towards government. Parliamentary scrutiny procedure can be slow and talky, which some people can find frustrating and the media may find to be less eye-catching than government or opposition press releases.

And coupled with the trend towards people voting more directly to influence the Executive than to elect a good local representative, it becomes clear that a simple switch to PR will not help Parliament regain practical sovereignty one jot, whatever other benefits it may bring. List systems could have the effect of making MPs more obedient to the will of their parties, because the local connection will be diluted and parties will have to vote even more as blocks on the floor of the house. In essence, introducing list PR could make the Executive more practically superior, not less. Countries such as Sweden have not experienced more independence among their MPs, even with a somewhat open form of List PR.

We are also seeing more use, not less, of MPs as “local advocates”. It would be worryingly dismissive to see electoral reform as the panacea all sovereignty ills without considering what advantages the current system has, and how to build upon them.

If Parliament wishes to regain practical sovereignty, therefore, the reforms need to be on a far more practical level, and a way fundamental to parliament’s working, than merely changing the way MPs are elected. Given that people find talking-heavy responses to immediate concerns frustrating, the Commons needs to find more quick and punchy ways of allowing MPs to highlight the concerns of their constituents. Better time granted to Private Members Bills and more weighty powers for committees to require responses from government departments may be a start to this, though I remain a novice when it comes to understanding of Parliamentary procedure. But a more fundamental reform may be simpler than people think.

The House of Lords has acquired for itself the reputation of a good “Revising chamber”, where bad quality legislation is amended so to make it far more effective and put to better use. Granting people local representatives in the House of Lords would be an excellent “safety-check” on the centralised and executive-dominated representatives in the House of Commons, and might even allow for quicker response to constituents’ concerns. It is bitterly ironic that the more effective chamber for holding the government to account legislatively is the one which currently has no ties to local constituencies.

If representatives for constituencies are elected to the House of Lords, then the current strengths must be retained. Peers should still have the independence and expertise the House is famous for at the moment. This requires two things: firstly, that crossbenchers continue to be appointed by the House of Lords Appointments Commission (contrary to popular belief, this is not a process controlled by the government), and secondly, that Peers are elected through a different process to the House of Commons, to different ends.

This latter point can be achieved through two ways: firstly, that Peers are not elected by the same form of election as the House of Commons. This would be a redundancy, as it has already been seen that the single-member system leads to large numbers of constituents’ votes being unrepresented. A secondary system of election should correct this, not add to it. The only criteria for such a system should be local representation, not necessarily single-member representation. A sensible suggestion would seem to be the Single Transferable Vote, although other locally favourable and broadly representative systems exist.

Secondly, that Peers be elected for single-terms only. These terms should probably be longer, in the region of 8-12 years, and this would preserve the independence and ability to apply expertise that Peers currently enjoy. It would merely speed up the process of the Lords, ensuring that constituents are granted continuous democratic influence on a more effective locally representatives House of Lords, whilst ensuring that the Upper chamber is not susceptible to the same form of electoral bribery that the Lower chamber is.

An upper chamber of a bicameral legislature needs to complement the lower chamber, not replicate its flaws, and not go into gridlock with it. The current arrangement does this very well, but it can still be improved. It requires tweaking, not rebuilding. And if any legislative reform is to be attempted to make Parliament practically sovereign once more, a more representative and high profile second chamber is the best place to start.

Mr. Speaker

Recently, a friend of mine highlighted an issue to me that was so obvious that I was surprised I hadn’t recognised it. It concerns the Speaker, a vague House of Commons convention, and the idea of single-member democratic representation.

There is, my friend argued, a convention that sitting Speakers should not be challenged in a general election. Therefore this leaves their constituents with a huge headache; not only do they have the problem of a non-partisan representative (and one who cannot be relied upon to put constituency concerns before the house), but if their non-partisan representative is unchallenged, they are effectively disenfranchised.

There is a lot of merit in this argument, too much to simply dismiss it. It does arguably need a little qualification. If this is a convention, it is a decidedly lop-sided one; the Conservatives have not stood against Speakers seeking re-election, regardless of their previous political affiliation. But Labour and the Liberal Democrats have stood against ex-Conservative Speakers. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speaker_of_the_British_House_of_Commons#Non-partisanship).

Moreover, the merits of the speaker being unchallenged in a general election are too great to simply dismiss out of hand, either, further complicating the matter. Forcing a speaker to fight a close constituency contest would inevitably force him or her into greater political controversy, compromising their position of neutrality within the House itself. Moreover, it could have the novel result in resulting in more unexpected problems for other constituencies; if the sitting speaker is defeated, and a member from another constituency elected to the speakership without the prior understanding of their constituents, how can this be any more democratic than the current arrangements?

However, one thing is clear: in a single-member system, a speaker cannot be a constituency representative in the same way as other members of the House, because of the reasons outlined above. Therefore there is a clear, if not large-scale, need of reform in some way or another. Personally, I am inclined towards the idea of a Speaker, once elected by the House to that position, not requiring re-election from a constituency, and having the option to retire his seat whilst remaining Speaker. This would allow for the political neutrality, whilst retaining democratic accountability (through the House of Commons election of the Speaker) and re-enfranchising the constituents of the Speaker’s old seat. But there are doubtless many other suggestions.

Question Time – Europe and PR

Oh dear. I have a feeling this may be a long one.

1) Nigel Farage makes a good point highlighting the absurdity of having an attendance allowance for the European Parliament, despite MEPs having an allowance intended for their incurred constituency expenses (an allowance isn’t the same thing as an expenses system; it’s merely an additional lump sum that is justified on the basis of something, there is no legal requirement to use it for this purpose). He claims the attendance allowance makes it less profitable to be in your ‘constituency’ (the word is used loosely here, the regions are ludicrously big and an MEP does not personally represent a region, he shares the representation of it with 5 or 6 other MEPs), therefore explaining why your MEP is never visible in your constituency and so few people are aware of who their MEP is and angry about said fact.

All so good so far, but there’s really a deeper reason why this is. It’s a peculiarly British concern in many ways to complain that they don’t know who ‘their’ MEP is, because we’re used to the single-member system for Westminster. In many countries in the Continent, this wouldn’t be an issue, because people would be used to the fact that they don’t have ‘their’ own MEP, rather they have several. List PR makes people more used to not having a direct representative and thus not expecting to see any one particular face around the constituency on a regular basis. In other words, List PR dilutes the principle of direct representation, and it’s just that we in Britain haven’t got used to that due to retaining a single-member system in Westminster.

However, there is more. There are many different forms of “List PR” (some which manage to be worse, admittedly, such as ones where the whole country is a single region, but “our system is not as bad as Israel’s” isn’t really too comforting a reflection), many of which at least attempt to counteract the dilution of direct responsibility. If we had a sensible, accountable form of open list, where MPs on the list are allocated on the basis of the number of votes they receive individually, it would at least create a certain incentive to be on some kind of name association terms with one’s constituents. In other words, certain PR systems at least create an incentive for representatives to know and be known to their constituents, however vaguely that is.

Not so our one. The Labour government, having committed itself to reforming the voting system for the EU Parliament along the lines laid down by the Maastricht treaty (if I recall correctly), decided to do so by instituting the worst PR voting system it could think of, namely Closed-list. No good defence has been offered for this monstrosity, and no good arguments are yet forthcoming. It is as if Labour deliberately wanted to stick two fingers up at the EU’s wish that member states should use some form of PR (“some form of PR” is rather vague, it is unclear whether that would include systems which are sometimes called PR, but really aren’t, like STV) – if this was the Conservatives, I could believe that explanation, but with New Labour I’m more inclined to suspect that it was a deliberate attempt to retain complete party control over the candidate election process.

What closed-list does is, very simply, to result in their being virtually no incentive whatsoever for MEPs to know constituents. MEPs can remain nameless, faceless, shadowy figures of mystery for all it matters, because closed-list means that the entire electoral process for elections to the European Parliament is done on the basis of brand recognition. William Pitt the Younger would be turning in his grave.

2) Jo Swinson takes this to be an excellent opportunity to slam the “attendance allowance” that Brown intended to introduce in Westminster but was forced out of doing by his backbench MPs and the opposition MPs. However, there are a few problems with this:

a) Westminster is, actually, quite a bit closer than Brussels to anywhere in the UK. This may sound a bit facetious, but it is actually an important consideration when coupled with the next one:

b) MPs already get working hours which are expressly intended to grant them enough time to serve in their constituency as well as the House of Commons. This is at least partly the reason they get such long holidays and generous working weeks.

c) MPs have a system of expenses rather than allowances. If they’re not working in their constituency as often, the logic is that they can’t claim as much in travel costs and other possible constituency related expenses. Therefore the logic of having an “attendance allowance” to contribute towards accommodation whilst an MP is working in Westminster fits, as the same logic is applied to constituency work. (Admittedly, this is not the way the existing expenses system has been used, as we are now finding out, but the point still stands as a good one, particularly as recent reforms have slightly tightened up the expenses system).

Obviously, it’s lovely to jump on the bandwagon in slamming Brown’s attendance allowance, but yet again I couldn’t help noticing that people slammed it because it was in use in Brussels more than by looking at the context. Also, I couldn’t help noticing the absence of anyone mentioning that it happens to be used in the House of Lords, too.

3) Someone in the audience makes a further point which cements my impression that PR is not a useful direction to turn in as a result of the expenses scandal. According to them, they don’t know how they should vote because “no party has come out of this better, they’re all just as mixed up in it as eachother” (a paraphrase, not a direct quote). The question automatically becomes this, then: if we already have the attitude that we’re not voting on individuals’ records but parties’ ones, in a system where we directly elect the individual politician, then how will a change to an even more party driven system of democracy help, given that this scandal is about the actions of individuals not parties? It is an illogical response to this scandal to pretend that PR would have helped, and arguing so indicates more of ideological bias than balanced consideration.

Due to the influence of having watched this far, and considered the above questions, I have set up the Manifesto for EU Democracy (see previous post). If you feel like continuing the debate about constitutional reform further here and there, feel free.

[This post is archived from June 1st, 2009. The Question Time it refers to was broadcasted on Thursday 28th May.]