15 Nov 2010

Does size matter in British politics?

It’s been a hot news period. Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest and the freedom of Paul and Rachel Chandler from their kidnap ordeal in Somalia. So spare a thought for the future governance of the United Kingdom…or not.

The House of Commons has already effectively rubber stamped the Coalition Government’s plans to reduce the House of Commons by 50 seats, and to subject the electoral system to a referendum.

Tonight it’s the turn of the un-elected House of Lords to pass judgement on the views of the elected House of Commons as to how it should be elected and what it should actually be.

In theory, the House of Commons is supposed to hold the ‘Executive’ to account. But the Executive itself – the happy band of Ministers represents 20 per cent of the entire House of Commons.

In 1900 the Cabinet had 19 members. In 2010 it has 24. But Ministers outside the Cabinet have gone up vastly since 1900 – from 41 to 96 in 2010. What is particularly fascinating is that in the last 10 years, when Westminster is supposed to have devolved power to London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the number of Ministers at Westminster has gone UP by 20 Ministers! (And don’t begin to mention powers transferred to Brussels!)

So, if you push the number of MPs DOWN by 50 and the number of Ministers stays the same, or even goes on going UP, then the stranglehold the ‘payroll vote’ has on the Commons becomes ever stronger.

No wonder the un-elected are considering pursuing the elected with the prospect of referring the entire reform to a Lords Committee – ergo – no referendum for months, possibly years, to come.

Labour appears to have been discombobulated by the debate. ‘Just say no’, seems to have been the Party’s preferred option. What nobody seems keen to discuss is what sort of reform might actually improve Britain’s governance and the Government’s accountability.

How refreshing if a party would step forward with a coherent plan that would embrace a proper size for the Ministerial ranks, for the Commons, and a role for a reformed House of Lords itself.

Having lived and worked in the United States, I find it hard to imagine a viable Commons that needs to be larger than the 400 seat House of Representatives, nor a functioning House of Lords larger than the Senate’s 100 Senators. As for Ministers, who seriously believes that we need the present 119? What on Earth do they all do? Given devolution, and the need for much more to come – perish the thought – did the Victorians perhaps have it right at 60 Ministers in 1900?

As for the electoral system, and the size of individual Parliamentary constituencies? Please God, could I leave that to another blog?

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28 reader comments

  1. adz says:

    As Jon suggests, the victorians may have had it right. The largest and saddest problem, is that with all these MPs & MEPs our national & international issues only seem to be getting worse by the hour. The house of lords should no longer exist in my mind. We are past it. They do nothing for us infact only make “things” worse as far as i’m concerned.
    So what are these ladies & gents doing for the people? No where near enough and they should be doing completely the opposite which in an ideal world would be more than enough.
    I’m attending a greenpeace course very soon which should show me how to approach these ladies & gents with correct and polite ways of trying getting answers to the many unanswered questions with all live with on a daily basis.
    adzmundo TVP

  2. maragert brandreth- Jones says:

    I am a little discombobulated with all this and I promise I won’t mention powers transferred to Brussels.

    Change and reorganisation needs vasts amounts of money and of course jet set project managers need to earn large salaries whilst executing it.

    Then of course setting up a referendum is an expensive pursuit and will have to be overseen by the Lords for legal exactitude. Just think three readings for all entailed.

    The public will also have to be made fully aware of their rights and responsibilities if the proposals are for proportional representation and I suspect that with Clegg there they will be.

    The concept of PR is elite, but the practical application of it will be disastrous.It seems only yesterday that my ex husband said that this Country was “going to the dogs ” With optimism I fought that negative claim…but now well.

    It’s great to see the Chandlers alive and well and KUI’S release from physical captivity , although she is already being ‘touchy feely’ with what she says.

    1. Saltaire Sam says:

      Margaret, touchy-feely is in. Apparently Mr Cameron has asked the statistical departments to start measuring how happy we all are. (I’m happy with most of my life but apoplectic about bankers, politicians and obscene differentials in wealth)

      While I’ve long been an advocate of PR, I’m beginning to have my doubts based on the current coalition. If we assume a number of parties who would eventually come together in a coalition, how are we to judge their pre-election promises? They could all do a Cleggy and say they’ve had to do the opposite to what people voted for ‘in the national interest.’

      This is no time for the referendum anyway because even those of us who support PR will find it hard to put a tick in the box that Clegg is supporting.

      I think keep the same number of MPs but save money by 1) reducing the number of ministerial posts and 2) restricting HoL to 100.

    2. Tom Wright says:

      Loving the reaction Saltaire. I imagine your support for PR has dimished because you fear it might lead to still more Tory/Lib Dem coalitions?

      If the referendum does produce an ATV system, I think this fear (if indeed you have it) is well placed. Tory voters are very likely to give their second preference vote to a Lib Dem, and if they think a Lib Dem is more likely to win the primary so to speak, to vote LibDem first and Tory second. Sybiosis.

      As for keeping the number of MPs the same, by this you really mean keep the rotten boroughs of Scotland and Wales: the constituencies which should be merged to fairly reflect the actual number of voters – a vote in Scotland or Wales should not count more than a vote in England.

      I’m all for ATV. Bring it on. Coalition is good for us. As we’ve seen, all parties are potentially in power, so all have to be realistic in policy instead of promising the unattainable. Parties get the chance to ditch stuff they know their core cote wants but the country doesn’t. You get to see what stuff the rulers are made of. Let’s give it a chance.

  3. Saltaire Sam says:

    How interesting that politicians who are quick to find ways of sacking civil servants maintian a high level of ministerial posts. Couldn’t just be another way to give some of the lads a bit extra in salary and exes, could it?

  4. Citizen Smith says:

    So if there is no coherent plan then isnt it a waste of time. Is there a document available in the public domain on the rationale?

  5. Mudplugger says:

    You are, of course, completely correct, Jon. Our governmental system is not only top-heavy but corrupted by influence throughout.

    However, direct comparison with the US is a tad unfair, as they have far more devolved power at State level, but it helps with the message.

    The key irony of the moment is that, while reducing the elected MPs by 50, they are also about to appoint around 100 new unelected Peers, largely made up of redundant and failed MPs, good old pals, party donors and miscellaneaous neer-do-wells with money !

    Why are we tolerating that outrage ? We should be out on the streets showing them that we care about it – but we won’t, so they will, because they can. That’s politics in X-Factor Britain.

  6. Meg Howarth says:

    Iluminating blog, Jon. Made me ‘do the math’ and the figures are truly astonishing:

    UK has a population (60m) only one-fifth that of US (300m) yet has more unelected powers-that-be (738 HoL) than the combined (elected) total of the US upper and lower houses (500). With 658 MPs, that’s a UK total 1396 publicly funded politicos (how many second homeowners amongst them?).

    Regarding answers from members of the outdated self-reinforcing HoL, Adz (for whom I sense too much respect?): instead of attending training on how to ask these unelected placewomen/men, suggest you use the time-saving democratising media at our disposal: – snappy question on twitter, email, always with ccs in evidence. Empowerment, not third-hand representation, is the basis for a healthy developing democracy. Let’s deflate the many bloated egos who arrogantly think we’re happy paying for them to speak on our behalf. Our political representatives are but paper-dolls, bit-players only in the real power-house of economics/finance. That’s why cuddly Cameron chose Osborne to ‘fix’ the capitalist mess we’re in, and why we need to educate ourselves without delay about the system that’ll otherwise crush us.

    1. Citizen Smith says:

      As i said a week or so ago… immediately after your electoral vote you have no influence whatsoever as an individual. Letters to your MP and one to one surgeries are useless and taking to the streets in violent demonstration is equally fruitless.

      I say we have a monthly Town Hall meeting in each constituancy so that the electorate can call each MP to account. This will also double up as the thermometer for ‘happiness’ which i read about today in the press.

      After all we are all ‘in this (big society) together’.

      All those in favour?

  7. Peter Stewert says:

    Don’t fight the political current, use the flow. We really need a parliament that actually has some teeth, where ministers can push for legislation for mandates they won and where MPs can get on with the job of running government.

    It always struck me as odd for people with little experience (certainly little specialised/hands-on experience) to be made chairperson for a very large and important organisation, but this is what is asked of ministers. Better to make use of committees to give MPs a taste of a ministry and a chance to prove they could run a department. MPs can run the government (and maybe we can finally return to legislating beyond each election), while ministers are only allowed to work drafting legislation in relation to manifesto promises.

    Experienced (and hard worked) MPs to run an effective government and ministers to win a mandate and then work with the established MPs to enact change.

  8. the-Richard-of-Nottingham says:

    “Does size matter in British politics ?”

    I don’t think it’s a question of size Jon, it’s more a question of quality.

    We have far too many PR savvy politicos parachuted in to safe seats based purely on their televisual-spinning skills. We need fewer ex-lawyers, ex-PR, ex-media/journo/TV/luvvie types and a few more ex-doctors, coppers, builders, industrialists, etc. errr people who have actually done something in life, as opposed to having worked in MillBank all their life.

    Here’s a crazy idea. Treble an MP’s salary and reduce the numbers by 25%. Reduce an MEPs salary and perks by 50% and the numbers by 50%. Replace the HoL with the lottery m/c’s. You just might find a bigger queue of better minds wanting to make a pitch at being an MP.

  9. Kris Jones says:

    A comparison with the US is difficult because so much legislation is passed at State rather than federal level. We may have shed an Empire since 1900 but universal suffrage and population growth mean the electorate is much bigger now. Our lives are more complex too, with a much more significant national infrastructure requiring greater regulation.

    I’ve worked in Whitehall and the number of ministers in my department doubled from 2 to 4 in my time there (plus a House of Lords spokesman). Much time was taken on the mundane such as answering voluminous correspondence from MPs and other worthies that couldn’t be delegated to officials. I don’t any were underemployed but if a minister proves difficult to have in the office a typical civil service trick is to encourage them to go on visits.

    The EU hasn’t lightened the load on ministers, quite the reverse. The main decision-making body of the EU is the Council of Ministers, which various ministers may have to attend ahead of meetings of heads of State.

    1. Mudplugger says:

      Again, we have key differences with the US in the relationship between the executive and elected members.
      A new US President imports his own ‘executive officers’ from outside to run the operation, whereas a UK Prime Minister draws his executive officers (mostly) from his elected MPs.
      In the UK, this creates the massive ‘payroll vote’ of ministers, all locked-in to supporting policies via collective responsibility – in the US, the whole membership of Congress is still free to hold the ‘executive’ to account.
      Over the past 100 years, most UK Prime Ministers have quite shamelessly expanded the ‘payroll vote’, with the result that the House of Commons has been effectively emasculated from doing what should always be its principal role.
      In any proposal to improve our governance, this is an area which would warrant close attention in order to reverse that process and give back a little ‘democratic Viagra’ to our largely impotent MPs.

  10. adrian clarke says:

    The point of parliament is to run the country,but how many people are required to do that?What is the point of an MP who can make debating points but then toes the party line.An MP who is elected by the citizens of an area , but never consults them for 5 years,and certainly doesn,t represent the views of the majority of his constituents.An MP who no matter what decisions he takes can be over ruled by unelected European Commissioners or European judges.It is time for a complete change in the way parliament is run.Less MP’s,but people who represent their constituents by taking constant soundings and then supporting the majority view of those they represent.They should spend more time in their constituencies and less in Parliament,for whenever they are in Parliament they seem to have to produce legislation .We already have far too much legislation,far too many laws.They want to take a leaf out of salesmens books.(KISS)
    Take back control of our powers and use Europe as a trading enterprise

    1. Peter Stewert says:

      Indeed Adrian; past time for the “representative” part of our democracy to take on a functional meaning. While cutting might not help — it all depends upon how effectively constituents can connect with MPs following (re)election to office — all need to be doing a better job than providing a phony dog and pony show once every 5 years.

    2. Kris Jones says:

      “The point of parliament is to run the country,but how many people are required to do that?”

      Actually it is for the government to run the country and for Parliament to hold the government to account by scrutinising its actions and legislation.

  11. bdbcks says:

    why not just remove the right of being able to vote from the lords and the commons?

    put the vote in the hands of the great unwashed via the oh so wonderful internet.

    i can find a multitude of voting opportunities already on the net. soul searching questions like “is britney still hot?” and “do you want another late night series of hollyoaks?” are ready for my informed views.

    sure everyone in the uk isn’t on the internet right now, but we can work to change that. and surely some boffin can rustle up some sort of secure as possible peer2peer voting software.

    oh am i forgetting that the power of votes in the hands of the masses would be a nightmare. you know, pediatricians hanging from every lamp post, immigrants housed in concentration camps, simon cowell- prime minister.

    guess we best re-educate every one first then, and reformat the media, perhaps banning anyone not british from the ability of being able to own a uk newspaper for starters.

    the reality is, it isn’t just the uk that needs to make profound changes, it’s most if not all of the entire planet as well.

    discombobulated bonkers… yay or nay?

  12. anniexf says:

    IMHO, there are far too many levels of government ( the lower case “g” is deliberate) for anyone’s real good or benefit. The whole shambles needs to be rethought and streamlined, with defined objectives and proper line management, as in successful businesses. For far too long we’ve endured MPs who know little about their specific briefs (if these ever were correctly defined) and cared less, because they all had eyes on the next re-shufle. It’s scandalous. My last MP, Sion Simon, seemed to spend a lot of his time on Twitter and YouTube.

  13. Citizen Smith says:

    see my ‘reply’ to a previous comment above…… monthly Town Hall meetings required.

  14. Citizen Smith says:

    why not pull in a few of your bloggers and create a ‘focus group’ / ‘think tank’ to come up with a plan for ‘how to rightsize parliament and govern the country’

  15. Tom Wright says:

    The comparison of the UK parliament’s central role in governing a relatively small state, with that of a much larger Federal Republic comprised of 52 individual states is neither appropriate nor accurate.

    Come on Jon – the powers of US state governors and legislators far, far, outstrip those of our local authorities or the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly, not one of which can raise tax!

  16. Jim Flavin says:

    The only right size of Parlaiment for UK or most any of Western countries – is ZERO . Does anyone really think that meddling around with a a totally failed system is going to do any good . The Great Unwashed have had the vote now for some considerable time – has it changed anything – well a little for the good at times eg Welfare State in UK in 1945 – but the Rich Rule now . The whole situation is a farce – an expensive farce – whether it is Uk , USA , Greece , Ireland .
    The poor pay for this massive disaster cused by the Bankers and the Super Rich – and they insult us to the last – eg Snowmail the other day reported that Clegg thought it was a pain to have to keep an Election promise – these millionairs stooges who rule us . Throw them and their bosses out. Until then u get waht u desrve – hardship .
    Changing electin systems – all waste of time and money.
    The only thing our rulers are ineterested in is — Themselves – We should speak to these in the only language they understand .

  17. Paul Begley says:

    Parliament exists to create legislation. No-one could accuse it of producing too little.

    As an example, the regulations for Jobseekers Allowance refer to no less than 66 statutes and 134 statutory instruments, all of which was presumably discussed formally in one or both Houses of Parliament.

    The question is, has all that parliamentary activity delivered an effective, easily administered way to support unemployed people? Or has it delivered a system so complex (currently described in 838 pages, including 288 defined abbreviations), that neither claimants nor, apparently, administrators can understand it?

    Personally, I’m less concerned about about the cost of having 650 MP’s rather than 600, than the costs their activity (legislating) impose, because whatever the intentions of Parliament, the process seems to deliver a costly over-complicated way of achieving them. My own suspicion is that the party whip leads to badly framed law being pushed through unedited.

    1. Saltaire Sam says:

      Paul, are you trying to put lawyers out of business :-)

      I’m all for fewer MPs but only if the balance between backbenchers and ministers leans heavily towards the former.

  18. Saltaire Sam says:

    Off topic: I’ve found a way of saving the government money – stop employing people to send out meaningless letters.

    When the univeristy tuition fee increase was announced I wrote to St Vince with copies to Cameron, Osborne and my local MP with a specific question: If it is fair for modern students to pay towards their tuition, why is it not considered fair to revisit people of their generation who enjoyed free university education and get some money back from them?

    No 10 thanked me for sharing my concerns.

    Someone from BIS ministerial correspondence unit (I kid you not) sent me a two page letter explaining the new policy and how they thought it was fair.

    Neither addressed my particular point so they needn’t have bothered writing.

    In several years of writing such letters I have occasionally had a direct response from my MP Philip Davies, but never once from a minister. The standard reply to anything seems to be just to reiterate their policy rather than answer a direct question.

    Millions could be saved if they just stopped the pretence that they care what we think.

    1. Kris Jones says:

      There is a standard Whitehall protocol for dealing with public correspondence. If you write directly to ministers letters are passed to officials to respond. If you write to your MP and he or she passes it on to a minister then the MP will copy you the ministerial reply.

  19. Phillip Edwards says:


    No, size doesn’t matter.

    What DOES matter is a sensitive, democratic system respected by the elected leadership. Most Western nations are bereft of this.

    The United States, for example, has an acceptable constitution, as did the Weimar Republic. In both cases extremist politicians simply ignored it or rode straight over it – for which see the history of the USA since the murder of President Kennedy.

    Essentially, the British have a humbug system manned by humbug individuals and a fearful electorate who care only about their bank balance. All of which suits the real managers of the country……people we didn’t vote for and who the British people have happily handed their nation to – for which see the current repeat financial scam.

    Which is why most “news” reporting is little more than infotainment intended to dupe or divert serious analysis of power centres and the individuals who control them.

    Nothing new there, then.

  20. Saltaire Sam says:

    Two things from tonight’s news.

    1 If ever an industry needed nationalising it is the drug industry. We help fund the research and then they rip us and patients off.

    2 Remember all that political hand wringing at the time of the expenses scandal? We must restore faith in politics and politicians? Since then the coalition has embarked on policies with no mandate; MPs continue not to answer direct questions directly; and as we now see in Scotland, they won’t tell the public the truth about their plans until after an election.

    Why do we put up with them?

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