Archive for the ‘Question Time’ Category

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.]

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A manifesto for European Democracy

[Imported from Facebook; a collaborative project]

We hear an awful lot day in day out about these “unelected bureaucrats” making our laws, costing us far more than we get back, not listening to us and denying us a say when we say the ‘wrong thing’, etc., etc.. What I want to see from people now, regardless of party affiliation, regardless whether they like the EU or not, is practical suggestions to increase democracy in the EU and to turn some of these ‘expensive unelected elitist’ people into accountable, elected down-to-earth ones.

I want this topic to be purely focused on democracy – not whether or not we should be in the EU, not whether we should pay as much into it, but simply what practical ways there are for us to make it more democratic. I want the ideas wherever possible to be ones which our national government can implement, but I want to hear all EU-wide suggestions for reform as well. Just bear in mind that the most achievable ideas for the time being are ones that can be achieved on a national basis.

(Inspired by the wonderful people of Question Time, 28th May 2009)

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The Manifesto for European Democracy

[Tagline: Turning a culture of British moaning into a manifesto for British action!]

So far we have:

Proposition 1) That the post of European Commissioner nominated by this country be subject to democratic election.

Proposition 2) That the Regions currently used to elect EU legislators by means of closed-list PR be split up into districts responsible to each individual MEP elected by the region, districts being allocated to MEPs by the boundary commission. For example, districts in the West Midlands could be Herefordshire, Woucestershire, etc..

Proposition 3) That MEPs be given district offices, which they are required to pay for with their constituency allowance, which the government offers a return on for a minimum amount of time spent in the district office liaising with constituents. Such a return would have to be great enough to create an incentive not to stay in Brussells and claim the attendance allowance for this time instead.

Proposition 4) That MEPs should be required to account for how they spend the allowances granted to them by the European Parliament, particularly that granted to them for constituency work, online, to create an incentive for prudent spending of public money. This will enable their constituents to hold them to account democratically for their use of public money, not just for their voting record, with each election.

Proposition 5) That we should introduce an Annual or Bi-annual event wherein all United Kingdom MEPs are scrutinised by a cross-representative panel that includes politicians, representatives from different sectors of the economy, and Union representatives. Such an event would be televised live, and be an important time at which we would engage with our representatives. Possibly entitled “EU Liason Committee” or “MEP Liason Committee”.

Proposition 6) That the European Parliament should be given the power of legislative initiative, bringing it in line with other lower chambers of legislatures around the world. MEPs would have the power to draft legislation, with the most widely supported bills heading the legislative agenda.

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Lastly, if you wish your proposal(s) to be credited to you, then please make that clear. In the absense of confirmation of this, anonymity is assumed.

Third note.

[And continued…]

This week’s question time is a beauty. It’s turning into a politician’s cliche week, a public’s cliche week and no-one seems to be having a pleasant time. It’s difficult to feel sorry for MPs sometimes, but the level of heckling going on can’t have been pleasant. But then you get the most stereotypical dodge of “if what you’re saying is…” followed by something completely different to what the person in the audience was saying, you wonder whether you should feel sorry.

On a more deeper level, I think this has turned into a chance everyone has grabbed at to express the frustration at our politics that has been building up for some time. The voices of the 40% of people who feel no reason to vote any more. The feeling of unavoidable apathy that irritates so many people, the feeling that they can never be represented in politics. The “they’re all in it together” image that the scandal has conjured up has only served to confirm this, for many of these people and has led to this boiling over. I was wondering quite why MPs expenses has provoked so much anger with this set of politicians in particular – after all, it’s been going on since the 80s at least. I believe I understand more now – it’s because it’s confirmed an already-existing opinion, just as much as it is because people are disgusted by the revelations specifically.

What cannot help is the papers encouraging the impression that this is Yet Another Reason Not to Vote. It’s entirely the opposite – it’s more reason than ever why we need to get out there and not just vote, but participate in the election campaign process, let the candidates know how we feel and pressure them into knowing that they have to change things for our benefit, not just expenses, not just parliament’s divorce from the afllictions on the public, but our wider system of representation that leads to this divide being so acute to begin with.

Question Time 2.

[Following on from the previous note on the same Question Time]

I’m still only 10 minutes into Question Time, and I’m already writing my second note on it. According to Steve Easterbrook:

“I think what’s unfolded in front of us over the last couple of weeks quite frankly is a national disgrace”.

Of course, I’m quite sure that we’re all well aware of the life of moral luxury Mr. Easterbook must have been living in with his job as UK chief executive of McDonald’s!

I think what strikes me, quite frankly, is that someone who works in management of a company that took out the longest, most pointless, most discriminatory and most prejudicial libel case in British History need give us no lectures concerning national disgraces.

Question Time

[This is an archive of an note written about Question Time on Thursday, 14th May 2009]

Benedict Brogan, deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, asks the question on question time:

“How do you find ways of holding MPs to account, when their own system seems to be so grey and so fluid that there doesn’t seem to be a way of getting them?”

Umm. Well, I’m well aware that there isn’t a way of actually prosecuting most MPs who have abused the system, but surely they are subject to the traditional means of holding them to account? Clue: it involves elections.

Another comment he makes:

“I think the challenge for the party leaders is how fast will they get to the point where they decide [that] what they have to do is put those MPs who have been found wanting in this regard up for reselection before the next general election, in order to clear them out and give the electorate the chance to elect decent MPs”.

Aside from highlighting the important point that too much power is wielded by the party machines over the public in terms of selecting candidates for each constituency, I find it hard to believe that the deputy editor of the Telegaph is wholly unaware of why the party leaders cannot put their “wanting” MPs up for reselection. One cannot govern or lead an opposition without a cabinet, and half the cabinet and shadow cabinet have already been found “wanting”!

David Starkey and Constitutional Reform

[This is an archive of an note written about Question Time on Thursday, 23rd April 2009]

I gained much entertainment from watching David Starkey on Question Time. I had heard that he was quite barking, but I hadn’t quite realised the extent previously. Fabulous powers of speech.

However, I wasn’t as impressed by his analysis of the US system. From a historical perspective, of course, he was unsurprisingly right. The US system was modelled on the structure of the British system of the time.

However, his argument that the US system means that the US legislature operates far more respectfully than Britain’s due to its rather over-zealous separation of powers (sorry, prejudices getting ahead of me there) rather baffles me, because it’s demonstrably not true. Rather amusingly, he sums up his tirade with a cherry on the cake: “constitutional reform. In one word: constitutional reform”.

American legislators are always being derided for “pork-barrel politics”, in the House in particular. In the Senate, the power of the filibuster is most renouned for being used as an obstruction to some of the most essential of reforms in history.

Neither does Starkey’s argument that the US Congress “actually hold[s] the government to account” hold much water after the rather catastrophic failure of it to hold George W. Bush properly to account over the last 8 years. But what is particularly baffling is why he thinks the reason that the British parliament’s ineffectiveness is due to the lack of such a structural sepration of powers.

It really has nothing to do with it. In theory, the British system could potentially be a lot better than the US one in holding the government to account, and certainly more flexible. Structurally, Parliament is sovereign, with the Executive subordinate, which means that in the case of fundamental disagreement between the two, such as the voting down of a budget, the sensible thing happens which is that the matter is put to the people, rather than what happened in the USA in 1995, where the federal government just shut down.

Essentially, structurally, the Parliamentary system has the clear advantage, as a Parliament can dismiss an Executive if it deems it unfit for service. Of course, this doesn’t happen, and the reasons are a number of things, mainly separating into two categories, the first being an accumulation of informal powers of influence over the House of Commons (and Lords, for that matter) that the government has generally up its sleeve to retain control, the second arguably being the voting system, which gives it a more fundamental on-going domination.

But really, this has nothing to do with the structural division of powers. Seperation of Powers in the USA results in neither branch being held to account, as much as it results in responsible accountability. It’s a system which divides accountability as much as it strengthens it. It’s a rigid, inflexible system that is also more difficult to reform fluidly over time. All this Starkey passes over for a piece of cheap rhetoric.

But his rhetoric is good, I’ll give it that. And very entertaining.