10 Jun 2009

Constitutional reform: questions for Mr Brown

Gordon Brown will signal today whether the political classes “get it” when it comes to combating the expenses scandal in parliament.

“Getting it” extends well beyond expenses to full-blown reform of our system of governance, as I have written here before.

He is rumoured to want a change in the voting system – delicate in the light of the BNP’s benefit from the hopeless supposed PR system deployed for Euro elections.

However, there must be a fairer system than first past the post. The alternative vote plus voting system may be one.

But there are even deeper principles to be addressed. The direct election of the post Mr Brown holds. Term limits. My own MP is setting out on yet another run for parliament at the next election. Lovely, straight, dedicated guy. But after three decades?

So term limits? Eight years for a PM? 12 years for an MP? Reduction in size of legislature? Wholesale devolution of all domestic power to the local?

A new meeting place for our elected representative – Westminster wholly unfit for modern business? Separation of powers – no-one in the Commons, which is tasked with holding the executive to account and with vetting appointments TO the executive?

An executive drawn from beyond the Lords and Commons. A small, directly elected Lords to vet legislation in Europe, and a last “court of appeal” for local authorities?

The work on all this has been done many times over. Are the Lib Dems right? Should MPs and peers be kept at Westminster for all but a fortnight’s holiday this summer until they have sorted reform out? What on earth are they doing going off for more than three months hols? Who else amongst us enjoys such largesse at our expense?

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16 reader comments

  1. Kate says:

    “What on earth are they doing going off for more than three months hols?”

    And with that Jon, I think you have answered your first question!

  2. Guy Clapperton says:

    8 years for a PM but only 12 years for an MP? Wouldn’t they then have to become PM within four years of entering Parliament? As you say, a lot of unanswered questions – but at least the debate is opening up.

  3. Daniel Bentley says:

    Is switching to an Alternative Vote system just a way to increase the likelihood of Labour holding seats. Meaning people can protest vote but have Labour second choice, or a Labour second choice to Lib Dem?

  4. Britt_W says:

    Term limits – absolutely. From my Swedish background, I find it utterly weird not to limit the time a PM or a government can stay active before a new election beckons.

    And a smaller size, definitely elected Lords with the only purpose to vet legislation – yes. But no lifelong peerships, no perks or murky bonuses. And – call them Mr and Ms/Mrs!

    And as for the venue? Well, as much as I love the actual architecture of Westminster and its symbolism, I think MPs would do a better job away from this glamorous place. How about Excel!!? All concrete, in the middle of nowhere. They wouldn’t have any distractions then – would have to get on with the job, as Gordon puts it.

  5. J B says:

    This could be a important moment for Brown, his back has been against the wall by his own party as the opposition. In this address he has to knock Cameron out of the ball park.

    I have no doubt that Cameron, who over the past 4 months has sounded like a one trick pony will continue on the same vain no matter what Brown proposes.

    I agree with your fixed number of terms for MPs, this would be a fantastic way of no letting the old guard fester in the house and cause the rotting we have be shown over the past 2 months.

    The Lords and privy council should be abolished and a new elected system should be replaced. We could have a system where only MPs who have completed there fixed terms has an MP should be eligible to stand for election in this new democratic upper house.

    And yes Nick Clegg is on the money, no MP should rest until the situation is resolved. Normal working citizens wouldn’t be aloud holiday time during crunch and hectic periods so why should MPs.

  6. Scott says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with most of the points here, with one caveat. Limitation of the Prime Minister’s term should be 8 years at least, but i see no issue with letting an MP carry on for as long as they like. If they are competent, and look after their constituents needs, then why tell them they should go after 12 years? How would Jon feel about being told he has to step down after 12 years reporting on events?

  7. Michael Donnelly says:

    Whatever the reform, Nick Clegg will be rubbing his hands together in anticipation. As far as I am aware it only the Conservatives who are opposed to voting reform…they are the sole beneficiaries of FPTP (there’s an anecdote in their about Tory voters having their ballots counted before the lower classes i think).

    At last there would be a real opposition, as opposed to the format it is now which reflects the Old Firm in Scottish football: one or the other are in the lead and no others get a look in.

    And while they are at it, they could make the Chamber more round to accommadate all who sit in the Commons, unlike the face-off style which belongs in the history books only.

    Out with old, in with the new (except New Labour that is).

    1. Simon Gardner says:

      No. Labour backbenchers have consistently vehemently opposed a change to a democratic electoral system – despite the 1997 manifesto commitment. Tom Harris is one classic example.

      It is because of Labour that we haven’t had a proper electoral system.

      AV has always been a deliberate blind by some in Labour. It is even less proportional than First Past The Post.

      It could have been achieved years ago but Labour squandered the chance to make us into a democracy.

  8. Kes says:

    I feel that it is very dangerous when a government, aware that it faces heavy defeat, begins to tamper with the electoral system. It may be portrayed as “reform” but it is unnecessary and is, in truth, more likely to be an atempt to cling to power.

    First past the post may seem to lack something, but it does produce new political landscape over time.

    I would be highly cautious of changing this. The Lords, on the other hand, is a farce now and needs to be rebuilt. However, this needs careful thought as it has many functions.

  9. robert a. brown says:

    A more modern arena Jon reckons we need,
    An up to date forum for ministers to lead,
    A vessel with no top, mid Thames would do,
    With only enough room for a hundred or two,
    A sump plug with a rope tied to the shore,
    Just in case they pass an unwanted law,
    Then we could have a referendum vote,
    To choose the lucky devil to sink the boat.

  10. Huw Spanner says:

    Can Channel 4 organise a citizens’ convention to discuss the voting system, before the vested interests in both Westminster and the press set the agenda and orchestrate the debate? Get 501 members of the public together, with unimpeachable advice and assistance and plenty of time, and make it hard for either the politicians or the press to ignore their conclusion!

  11. Peter Lloyd says:

    Change based on consultation has a powerful mandate.

    Unless the voters are prepared or motivated to be more active in voting, this debate will remain dead in the water.

    Perhaps, once the taxes start to increase and the cuts in public spending increase, and interest rates increase, perhaps the electorate will be motivated to effect such fundamental changes.

    However, I am not convinced….I suspect the electorate will remain disengaged.

    Population change, the demographics and education are just not producing more engagement from the electorate.

    I suspect swathes of the electorate are either too prosperous, benefit rich, or prospering from the so called ‘black economy’…….think MP’s allowances!

  12. Natasha says:

    Constitutional reform should not mean proportional representation. I do not think this is a proven success. I am also frustrated that the current Government’s answer is to change the voting system, rather than consider why the electorate is unhappy.

    I believe the way forward is that a party is only elected with 51% of the eligible vote. Anything less is not a majority.

    A party and Government should be held accountable if they fail to deliver what they have promised in their mandate. There should also be a review every two years, with the potential to vote the party out if they have not delivered for valid reasons.

    I do not see the above being implemented because it would mean a party being held accountable.

  13. phil dicks says:

    The holidays would be a great chance for a cross-party committee ‘of the wise’ (how you define the criteria, I don’t know); they could get together, maybe with historians, and ask a.What has worked in British constitutional history? b.What hasn’t?

    With a thousand years of democratic evolution behind us, a bit of rational thinking should at least give them a few pointers.

  14. ELAINE says:

    I’m not good at political speak like the rest of you but I do get the overall impression of what you are saying and I certainly know what I feel about the slippery slope our country is heading down. The fact is you can’t give what you haven’t got. And these politicians do not have the honesty and decency to even own up to their crimes so any of our expectations cannot be met by such people.

  15. paul lehmans says:

    Compare Following Reforms to Gordon Brown’s Offering.

    • Replacing outdated first-past-post system of ‘regulated’ democracy, with its unelected, politically appointed Boundary Commission and introduction a form of Proportional Representation (PR) that avoids safe seats and safe blocks of constituencies, (yet to be devises possibly a form of STV) combined with a system that secures strong government.
    • Abolishing House of Lords, replacing it with a PR elected Upper Chamber of 300 seats.
    • Halving the number of House of Commons seats and merging respective constituencies.
    • Providing full professional pay and hours, including holidays, job descriptions, and contract of employment, for all upper and lower house Candidates for election to Westminster.
    • All MPs serve on powerful committees, replacing Quango’s and all Watch-dog and Of-watch bodies and oversee and serve British society and such committees will investigate all matters concerning public and consumer complaints, and devise and recommend solutions to Parliament.
    • Setting up ten or more PR elected Regional Authorities with capped administration limits, responsible for administering their respective regions to the satisfaction of their electorate.
    • All Whitehall ministries undergo value for money, fit for purpose study and all Ministries found unsuitable are abolished, with any survivors transferred to Regional Authorities, other than essential (slim versions) government Ministries and Departments, with senior Posts open to the private sector.
    • Replace outdated Bank of England with UK Industrial Bank, based upon British designed German Bundasbank, which has served Germany well.
    • Introducing a massive reindustrialisation programme, to revitalise Britain’s ailing manufacturing base, combined with trade training, in conjunction with Regional Authorities providing favourable bases and inducements attracting industry, plus providing free fully equipped Innovation Workshops and Advisors.
    • County/Local Councils duties absorbed into Regional Authorities, abolishing senior posts and their astronomical administration and upkeep costs.
    • Introduction of USA style anti-trust laws, prohibiting monopoly and cartel practices, and force competition into markets thereby drastically reducing prices for goods and services.
    • Abolishing premium telephone lines and standing charges of utility companies, and regulating energy companies.
    • Lead the way for the formation of an EU superpower defence force to combat international terrorism, and reduce UK’s defence costs.
    • Introducing a limited form of national service on deferment basis, that excludes further education students and employed people. National service will also include full education and trade training for recruits.
    • Classification of street criminals as, Street Crime Terrorists, and setting up a national Para-military style anti-street crime terrorist Police Force, equipped with sufficient manpower and intelligence gathering equipment, to bring street crime terrorists before special Courts and Correction Camps.
    • Reform MPs’ must serve voter/consumer interests with a mandate to drastically reduce direct and indirect taxes and prices for goods and services, thereby increasing disposal incomes for the general public.


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