Archive for the ‘Electoral Reform’ Category

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.


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.

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.]

A letter on Constitutional Reform

When I was at my most radical, I wrote this letter on Constitutional Reform. I now look back on it with little bit of mingled embarrassment and amusement, and also with the critical enjoyment that comes with re-reading, and correcting, one’s earlier arguments.

(IE: I do not still agree with much of this, but still find much of it interests me. Hopefully, not just me!)

[Preamble: when I call this a letter, I actually mean it was a letter (:-o), to a friend of mine. For this reason, a very few things have been edited. I have also made a few edits designed to provide clarity of what I meant, as I wrote this fairly late into the night.]

Constitutional… REFORM

1. Assemblies, Parliaments and devolved powers

As you may have noticed, democracy in this country is in a bit of a mess. Currently less than 60% of people turn out to vote, and roughly 37% of those hold almost all the cards in a small minority of regions countrywide. The net effect of this at present is that the weight of elections swings almost always on the not inconsiderable girth of what is known, somewhat derogatorily, as “Middle England”.

I say “almost all the cards” because other than of course the occasional off-chance that a government might lose a constituency with a 13,700 majority – almost a rotten borough in democratic standards – we have a second chamber, and one which has exercised considerably more power of late than it has throughout much of its history, due to a not ineffective programme of reform put through by the Labour government. It can even be argued to be more representative despite being unelected, as no party holds a majority – like the popular vote – and there exist such things as cross-benchers and independents – like individual voters nationwide. So it is clear that, ridiculously, despite being unelected, the House of Lords complements the Commons when it comes to democracy rather than limiting what already limited democracy there is; notwithstanding doing stupid things like wasting Parliamentary time by forcing the Commons to vote on a completely neutered fox-hunting ban on three separate occasions.

Thus the first principle of reform is that bicameralism can, and does, enhance democracy by offering what aspects are inevitably lacking in one specific form. With greater bicameralism, we could see from the Lords an effect similar to that of devolution, with the most stupid excesses of one governing body being checked by a smaller body, inferior in powers but superior in powers of scrutiny. Which leads me on to…

Having seen the effectiveness of the devolution experiments almost in every way and on every level, there is clearly one deficit remaining to address: England. The lack of devolved democracy to England has served to further strain the Union‘s support within England and, indirectly, Scotland. It is clear, therefore, that an English parliament is needed, what is also clear, however, is that a) as the devolution experiment in the Greater London Assembly has indisputably succeeded, further devolution to the remaining regional assemblies is desirable, and this ties in with b) England is a far larger and culturally varied constituent country than either Scotland or Wales, and that the North of the country can, clumsily, be argued to be as different to the South of the country as many parts of Wales are. Thus it would be an idea to have the English parliament comprised of the individual members of the 9 assemblies (all democratically reformed), and operate on the basis that to pass a motion, a majority of both members and Assemblies must be required.

It is also fair to suggest that Wales and Northern Ireland should have the same devolved powers as Scotland.

The second principle is thus that devolution works, and should be more equal.

To get back to bicameralism and Parliamentary reform, as I hadn’t reached my conclusions; and to get away from federalism (as devolution will probably ultimately become known as, if irrational fear of the term is not too great) as it has a reputation of boring nearly everyone; it is clear that a second chamber can be used to democratically complement (note: not “check” or “react against” or anything else so American) a first. And it is clear that the Lords needs to be reformed to do so far more effectively than it does so now; but to maximise on the type of work it does now, not to react against it. (For all the talk of “Tony’s cronies” the House of Lords has probably operated since Blair’s reforms better and more independently than in any other period of its history.) Before I can expand on this, however, I would like to look at the strengths of the House of Commons, after slandering it so much in the beginning paragraphs.

The strengths, having been gone into by countless others can, in my so humble estimation, be summarised as:

· A tendency to produce strong governments

· Having flexible powers of holding the executive to account, such as being capable of forcing elections, despite the dominance of the executive that stems from the merging of the two powers

· An encouragement, on paper, of local, delegate-type, democracy, which would in theory add an individualist touch to our democracy (though it patently doesn’t in practice).

It is worth, of course, noting the fact that two of those are certainly true on paper, but almost certainly not the case in practice – well, the second true in times of incomplete political change, but the third almost never. It is for this reason that I do not support proposals to introduce closed or open list Proportional Representation to the House of Lords. As the Commons does not encourage individualism in politics even with a system that centres around individual constituencies, how much less so would a House of Lords controlled by parties who decide who goes on the list? This does bring me to a third principle of reform, after the democratic strengths of greater bicameralism and more equal devolution: there needs to be greater individualism in politics: IE individual representation and contribution.

To address the practical problems with the democracy of the Commons, one must look towards the prime villain, the way constituencies elect their MPs, in other words: First Past the Post.

People often make the mistake of assuming First Past the Post as the most obvious individual constituency system: it is not. The most obvious one is one which recognises the existence of the principle of anyone being able to stand for election; First Past the Post does not. It assumes that only two will stand – an absurd assumption.

First Past the Post does not require that a majority of the constituency supports the winner, another absurdity, allowing candidates to represent an entire set of people with only the backing of a minority – the more candidates standing the smaller the minority likely to be.

The most obvious system is actually one which gives people the power to truly choose between the candidates and ensures that the winning candidate captures majority support of the candidate. The way many parties achieve this is by knock-out elections, taking ballot after ballot with the person with the lowest support being eliminated, until a person gains a majority of the vote. This, however, is lengthy and expensive, but can be replicated simply by having people vote in order of preference, and having their choices redistributed as each losing candidate is “knocked out”. Of course, this would massively increase the workload of those counting the ballots, but let’s face it: determining the will of the people should not be an easy job.

This would, therefore, give minority candidates at least a positive “voice” in elections even if their chances of gaining actual representative status remain slim. “Big” candidates, IE major party ones would logically be far more receptive of what minority candidates stand for, as they would usually (except for the case of “rotten boroughs” like Bill Wiggin’s constituency) be relying in preference votes. It would certainly remove the negative influence of minority candidates on elections: IE the hated phenomenon of vote-splitting.

This system is actually called single transferable vote as well as preferential vote and numerous other names, but it often gets confused with STV multi-member – which is far more complicated.

STV multi-member has the advantage, however, of ensuring roughly proportional results and favouring independents far more than any single-member system tends to, roughly the strengths of the makeup of the House of Lords at present. Thus I propose reforming the voting system to have the commons elected by STV-single member, and that the first stage of reform of the House of Lords is to introduce elections in the form of STV-multi-member.

Another of the House of Lords’ strengths has often been argued, sometimes by myself, often by others, to be its immunity to the problem of populism, in the fact that Peers are appointed for life. For a long while I struggled with this, and until recently favoured Peers being elected for Life (before that, in fact, I favoured an entirely appointed chamber, though I have always remained firm on the subject of hereditaries); until upon realising the indisputable advantages of greater bicameralism to democracy, I realised that such a state of affairs would do little to help voting apathy and popular involvement in politics, effectively limiting the democracy of the Lords to bi-elections in the event of death (even in STV-multi-member, though that would have the amusing effect of forcing by-elections for other regional MPs in the event of a death, thus making their lives more endangered by the desire to remove a whole section at once). My attention then turned to term-limits. Now it would be unfair not to mention the problems that term limits have often created (particularly as I used to rail against them with regard to American politics, and indeed did so in A level exams), not least the removal of accountability they often result in. But it is a limited problem in a second chamber with inferior powers, in any case (I would not support equal powers for both chambers, having the Commons dominant removes the risk of excessive gridlock), and particularly one intended to address the deficits of the Commons’ democracy, one of which is excessive “populism” or “re-electioneering” at the expense of both efficient government and of true representation of the people’s interests. Until recently I favoured some kind of clumsy “contract” for Peers’ manifestos, where Peers could be taken to court of they truly did violate specific pledges (a negative system, where they could only be legally challenged on the basis of violating pledges rather than simply not pursuing them). But what struck me as far more interesting and far less clumsy – particularly if the Lords’ is to be the “more representative chamber” – was a “description” (I use the word generously; it was more of a loving tribute) of Swiss democracy that I read:

“Citizens have the right to demand that any Parliamentary measure be put to popular vote. For a vote to be triggered, 50,000 signatures are needed … while all constitutional amendments proposed by Parliament must be put to a popular vote.”

Replicating this for our country would be clumsy and liable to abuse: turnout for referenda would be likely to be low with many unaffected or uninterested – or merely not having the time for each of the many referenda that would be called with such a system simply not bothering to turn out, thus the point of such referenda would be nullified, as they could not be said to be truly representative.

Why not, however, have regional mechanisms for such a thing as a check against Peers’ abuse of their lack of re-election accountability? It would fit a system of STV-multi-member far better than a single-member system: the number of signatures needed to trigger a vote need only be the droop quota for the most recent election: the proportion of votes of the people for/against the proposition are then rounded up to the nearest proportion of the seats that region elects: (say, in a 6-seat constituency, 5-1, 4-2, 3-3, etc., etc..); if more than the droop quota out of eligible voters fail to turn out, these “seat-votes” are treated in addition to those of the members for that region, if it is over this turnout quota, then they replace the parliamentary votes of the members of that region.

This gives the people a way of holding their Peers to account, hopefully protected enough to prevent a single faction of a region from dominating and nullifying the votes of their Peer representatives. It is fairly complex, to say the least, but it hopefully has the potential of working in some way similar to the intention.

Thus, after all this, I would say the fourth principle of reform is both of greater involvement with politics and also in breaking down the boundaries between indirect and direct democracy.

The last point concerning the strengthening of democracy by greater bicameralism is regarding legislative abilities – and ties in, incidentally, with both greater direct democratic involvement and greater individualism in politics. The Lords are clearly even now in a position to offer just as “valuable” legislative contributions as the Commons – and hopefully, in a reformed Parliament, such contributions would be far more valuable to the nation than they are at present. Though I support the Commons being the superior chamber in powers, I also support greater independence of the Lords from the commons, and whilst I’m perfectly happy with the Parliament act as it stands, I would suggest one final addition:

If the Lords introduce and pass a bill, and the Commons block it, give the Lords the right to vote whether or not to hold a referendum, which would have the power to override the Commons. This referendum, however, would require 50% of the electorate to be in support, thus in practice requiring a greater majority the fewer turn out, and have no chance of success if the turnout was below 50%, even in the event of a unanimous vote in support of the Lords – this would prevent the Lords from voting for referenda on uninteresting things such as the fox-hunting ban.

Therefore, to summarise (phew), we have:

The four principles of reform:

Greater bicameralism can strengthen and add to democracy, with each chamber making up for the democratic deficits in the other.

Devolution can and has been shown to work, and should be equal to be truly democratic and in the interests of each constituent nation in the Union.

Greater individualism within politics is needed, to weaken the death-grip on power of political parties, both to grant greater power to the people to elect independent delegates, and to grant greater contribution to elected individuals on the legislative agenda.

Greater involvement in politics is needed, not just in elections but in holding their representatives to account for individual pieces of legislation and thus breaking down the barriers that exist between our indirect democracy and direct democracy.

The House of Commons would be reformed thus:

  1. Elected by preferential vote (IE STV-single member).
  2. Greater (IE at least doubled) resources for individual legislation (IE Private Members’ Bills)

The House of Lords would be reformed thus:

  1. Made elected by Single Transferable Vote for multi-member constituencies using the Droop quota.
  2. Members elected for Single Terms.
  3. Voters for each region given the power to trigger a popular regional vote: the number of signatures required being the droop quota for the most recent election. The vote is rounded proportionally onto the number of seats: if the turnout deficit is higher than the droop quota, these “seat-votes” are treated in addition to the vote of the peers representing the region, if the turnout deficit is lower than this, they replace the votes of the peers for the region.
  4. The House of Lords has the right to override the House of Commons via popular vote, but the number supporting the Lords must be over 50% of the electorate.

Devolution would be completed thus:

  1. An English Parliament would be created, comprised of each of the regional assemblies: each themselves reformed to be democratic in the same way as the devolution to London. The English Parliament would require a majority of both members and constituencies to pass a motion.
  2. Wales, Northern Ireland and England would have equal devolved powers, though how such powers would be distributed among the regional and English Parliament level in England would be up for discussion.

I hope this begins to satisfy the demands of interest. : – )