The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Posts Tagged ‘parliamentary reform’

Lib Dems Must Remember: We Want To Cut Ministers Too

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 7, 2010 @ 10:37

Too many ministers...

Still dining out on watching a veritable feast of BBC Parliament + a debate on parliamentary reform (the perfect combo) on Monday evening, where Nick Clegg was the star of the show (*pinch*, *pinch*… no, this is not a dream), it has to be worth another blogpost… surely?

An issue that came up a few times during the debate, a very reasonable one, was that if you cut the number of MPs by some 7%, then you simply must cut the executive by a similar amount. Or, better still, more.

One of the problems of Parliament, and the overlap between the executive and the legislature, is that there are over 100MPs who are either on the government payroll, or are a bag-carrier for a payroll MP. In fact, in October 2008, there were 141. It means that no matter what the issue, no matter when, the government of the day has a banker number of votes on its side.

The logical conclusion of this process is that if you reduce the number of MPs without reducing the size of the payroll vote, you are actually strengthening the proportional power of the executive in some votes.

But what I found most irritating about this argument on Monday was the only bit where Nick Clegg let himself down.

The argument was made only by Labour MPs, and though Chris Bryant, who first raised it, did so in a partisan fashion, it was later put in more measured terms by Chris Leslie

If there is a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament but not in the number of Ministers as set out in the Ministers of the Crown Act 1975, there will be an increase in the ratio between the number of Ministers and the number of Back Benchers. Does he understand that point, and will he now address it?

Clegg’s response was wholly unsatisfying

I simply do not accept that there is an imbalance between the number of Ministers and the manner in which they are held to account by a House which will be about 7.7% smaller. I believe that a House with 600 Members will be as well equipped to hold this and, indeed, any other Government to account as the present House is with 650.

Simply put, it does not answer the question. In fact, it is unashamed, wilful ignorance of the issue in order to play the petty-political game whereby everything we say is right, and everything you say is wrong.

After all, the Lib Dems once supported cutting the number of ministers to 73. And I can guarantee that if the Lib Dems were in opposition too, they would be joining it. Attempting to improve the strength of non-frontbenchers, on any side of the House, is a standard liberal argument. We come out of the womb ready to take on the overweening executive.

The tendency of governments to ignore good ideas if they come from the opposite side was something I thought we might get away from in this coalition.

Whenever I watch BBC Parliament, I realise just how naive I am sometimes…


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Cleggy Takes On The House

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 6, 2010 @ 09:30

It still seems weird...

If there’s one thing that makes me reasonably happy about the coaltion, it’s days like Monday when Nick Clegg takes to the floor of the House as Deputy Prime Minister and delivers yet another good performance on the issue of political reform.

Yesterday the topic was a rather convenient bundling of the issues of the Alternative Vote referendum with the concept of equal-sized constituencies. Being the rather sad individual that I am, I watched the whole thing from start to finish. Long live BBC iPlayer!

It was an excellent debate, and Clegg was confident and competent in handling difficult questions from all sides. I am fully in support of both plans, and I look forward to the referendum. Though I have argued in the past that AV is potentially a disaster, I am, nonetheless, going to support it, in the hope that it might encourage a little reforming zeal in the British public, and that it at least brings us to the threshold of good quality proportional representation with STV.

But enough about that…

What makes Nick Clegg so effective in the Commons, at least at the moment, is that he is blessed with the legacy he has been granted. As something of an “outsider” commanding a portfolio that is encouraging “outsider” thinking, he is in his element. He is able to position himself as the man taking over at a time when the political reform agenda had stagnated, contrasting his radicalism with the conservatism that set in in the dying days of the Labour administration.

Furthermore, Labour are playing right into his hands. Their sudden newfound love of opposition, and opposition for the sake of it, is granting Nick Clegg the opportunity to attack Labour relentlessly for their remarkable shift from progressive radicals to conservative pragmatists. Yes, Labour MPs are right to scrutinise the government, but a mere two months ago they were all elected on a pledge to back such a referendum on AV.

Now they look decidedly shifty, and are already preparing the groundwork for their very own u-turn. But, in doing so, they reinforce the very point Nick Clegg enjoys making, that the 13 years in power have transformed Labour from their early days of constitutional remoulding to true friends of the establishment. That’s not a good place to be when the country is feeling so… bold… about what it would like to do to its political system.

The worry I have about Clegg and Parliament is simple. In time, he too will become an establishment figure. In time he will no longer be able to blame the Labour legacy. Indeed, if he gets his way, and likes what he sees, he will become the most conservative person of all, defending the new status quo.

That won’t be good for his reputation, or the reputation of the Liberal Democrats.

But at least it’s a dilemma of power and influence that we’re actually able to have…

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Bercow Pushes For Reform

Posted by The Futility Monster on June 10, 2010 @ 10:02

And sometimes it's even quieter than this...

It seems like Speaker John Bercow has caught the reformist zeal and is getting into the spirit of things

Bercow said it was his ambition to persuade as many as 100 MPs to be in the chamber on most occasions by reordering debate, increasing topicality and trying to throw out time-consuming subjects.

Now, I know Mr Bercow is his own man, and he did promise to push a reform agenda, but I refuse to believe that he could be allowed to go so public with a contribution such as this if he didn’t have some sort of tacit agreement with the government. Speakers never get into a public spat about their opinions of how the House is managed, and so it would be amazing if he went to pick a fight on this issue.

The plans themselves are moderately interesting. While it’s impossible to make MPs attend they chamber, he is right to suggest they are more likely to attend if the issue is topical, for the simple reason that every MP knows if they can get their contribution into Hansard, they can immediately press release it to their local rag showing them “fighting hard for you”.

He is also right that there are “too many general debates which are indeed extremely general and rather lengthy”. House of Commons time is frequently wasted with an entire day’s “debate” on either hugely broad issues like defence, Europe, Wales, or extremely specialised ones like International Women’s Day. The subject matter is too broad to have a real debate, since every contributor comes armed with a speech they’d like to give on the subject, regardless of what everyone else says.

Opposition Days, where the Opposition picks the subject, are sometimes more topical, but it is at the mercy of the Opposition to pick a sensible issue. An Opposition Day motion was what defeated the Labour government on the Gurkhas issue; and government defeats on these are real keepers, since until that one the last one was in 1978. Opposition Days create more of a partisan rancour than usual, and as such rebellions are rare.

The alternative, proposed by the Speaker, is to have the public suggesting subjects for debate based on public petitions. It would be trivial to add such a function to the Parliament website. Whether this would make them more topical is open to question, but I’d be inclined to think even if it didn’t, it would generate topics that are less about embarassing the government, and more designed to elicit a genuine response.

What makes me think that? Well, questions from the public on Question Time, etc. are never as openly hostile and filled with elephant traps like the ones posed by journalists. In a sense, this makes them easier, but if the question is from a less partisan atmosphere, MPs may be more willing to be more honest with their opinions.


Either way, it’s good that change is being discussed openly. Over to the Secretary of State for Political Reform…

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September Sittings

Posted by The Futility Monster on June 2, 2010 @ 10:18

Dry, dusty, deathly dull. Academia: The new fragrance from Calvin Klein.

Being such a bore, I have just finished skimming through a few copies of Hansard relating to all the parliamentary fun of the past week or so. The most interesting part comes here, spoken by the Leader of the House, Sir George Young…

Colleagues will also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise at the end of business on Thursday 29 July and, subject to the will of the House, return on Monday 6 September for two weeks.

That means Parliament’s failed attempt to introduce September sittings many years ago is going to be reattempted this year.

There are many arguments for and against September sittings. The most obvious one against it is that there seems little point coming together for two weeks, only to then bugger off again for the party conference season, before returning once more in October. In normal years, MPs would be returning for the fag-end of a session before the Queen’s Speech. This year, because it’s a long-session, there won’t be.

All a bit silly, but so much of politics is in this country, because we’ve never designed our system from the ground up. Everything is tacked on, modified, adapted, and scrapped in a piecemeal fashion.

In principle I’m not all that in favour of our parliament sitting more, not if it’s merely to pass more legislation. Our parliaments have done quite enough of that in the past 13 years. But if the extra sitting time is used for some more debates, some more private member’s business, genuinely topical stuff, and perhaps a debate initiated by a public petition, it might actually be worth it.


Unfortunately, the last time September sittings were tried most MPs just didn’t bother. Most resented losing their usual constituency time, and the whips only half-heartedly scheduled business. There was nothing interesting going on, and so no one bothered. The idea was quickly scrapped.

I have a feeling we’ll be going this way again. It looks like a new government trying to show how much they want change, and going out of their way to make a token gesture that will affect no one, and might even be made up for by adding bonus recesses elsewhere.

My only hope is this: Leader of the House Sir George Young and his deputy David Heath are both strong parliamentarians. They both want to strengthen scrutiny, both want to make the House more relevant, and make the government more accountable.

It remains to be seen whether they can convince their colleagues that it’s going to need more than just a tinkering with September sittings…

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This Must Be Stopped

Posted by The Futility Monster on May 29, 2010 @ 10:22

All shall bow before the Ermine!

Yesterday’s unveiling of the dissolution peerage lists has to be the last time we see this kind of thing happening.

The list is a veritable Who’s Who? of the failed, the disgraced, the defeated and the meddling ones who had decided they wanted to continue to be in politics but not have to face the trifling inconvenience of facing the electorate by defending their seat.

The Labour list is particularly galling.

  • Quentin Davies: turncoat, couldn’t bring himself to face the certain defeat that was the consequence of his defection
  • John Hutton: couldn’t hack it any more in the Commons, apparently, so send him to the Lords instead…
  • Jim Knight: defeated
  • Tommy McAvoy: Gordon Brown lackey rewarded
  • John Prescott: expenses, so-called class warrior being unable to refuse the temptation of the ermine
  • John Reid: retired, wants to continue meddling
  • Angela Evans Smith: defeated
  • Michael Wills: Gordon Brown lackey rewarded

The Lib Dem and Tory appointments are not much better, but at least there are fewer of them.

The House of Lords is treated as a play-thing by party leaders as yet another weapon of patronage at their disposal. The sad thing is that, at the same time, the country appears to be woefully ignorant of the fact that these very generous gestures are not the equivalent of giving someone a nice title so we can call them Sir.

Oh no. It is conferring on them the potential of a lifelong seat at the expenses trough, and with the potential for continuing to influence government and legislation way after their democratic mandates have run their course.

That should be an embarrassment to our democracy.

The House of Lords has zero legitimacy. Our ancestors recognised that a century ago and tried to do something about it.

A century later and we’re still waiting.

The time for commissions and inquiries is over. If the Lords is not reformed in this first or second session then it never will be. Only a 100% elected House of Lords will suffice, and if that is not the outcome of these first two years, then the Coalition government will have failed its first test to clean up and strengthen British politics.

Or maybe they’ve failed their first test already

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David Miliband: The Radical

Posted by The Futility Monster on February 10, 2010 @ 09:20

Poor David. But will he get a chance when the clunking fist is no longer in command?

Last night a story sneaked out about how a senior member of the Labour party might actually want some real reform to the British system.

The Guardian claimed that David Miliband is in favour of a “reset referendum”, allowing the electorate to cast a verdict on the nature of our political institutions.

The worrying nature of this article is that it’s very thin on detail. I like his language. I like the idea of radical change to our rotten system, but am totally sceptical about it ever actually happening. After all, last night a mere 69 MPs voted for the thing that would revolutionise British politics: STV.

What does David Miliband intend then? He must have ideas of his own about what he’d like to see, but he is hiding behind the idea, I think, of calling a constitutional convention, something the people of England have never had the pleasure of enjoying.

Note the use of the word England. Scotland had a constitutional convention which produced the blueprint towards Scottish devolution. It worked to such a degree that the Scottish political settlement is now firmly entrenched and is playing an active part in the lives of Scottish residents.

Yes, us poor Englanders have always had to accept the status quo. Our institutions have been grandfathered to such an extent that any proposals for reform are invariably seen as heresy. Indeed, it’s only amazing that the AV referendum got through the Commons last night until you realise that most MPs saw it as a free vote for “change” that will never actually happen.

A constitutional convention could be just what the doctor ordered for the entire political settlement of Britain. A chance to start again and look at the way we want our government to be organised through 21st century eyes.

Perhaps we could have a live twitter stream of the thoughts of the voters flashing up within the Commons so they can see the public’s reaction to their behaviour…

Of course, I’m being facetious, but we do need to look at the way in which we communicate these days and make the British polity more responsive to that.

David Miliband may not truly understand the extensive nature of the proposal he has suggested. But I’m at least pleased to see that some of our major political figures are still thinking that recent changes are still only tinkering.

I know the Lib Dems would support a constitutional convention. Of course the Tories won’t.

But maybe a future Labour opposition will realise they have a real battle on their hands, and can harvest the cynicism in the British public regarding politics to challenge Cameron’s Model New Tories…

It’s just a dream, eh.

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The New Breed Of MPs

Posted by The Futility Monster on February 6, 2010 @ 17:03

Here's one tradition that we were fortunate to get rid of...

The upcoming election is both a real threat and a genuine opportunity for permanent change at the epicentre of British politics: the Houses of Parliament.

The extent of the wave will vary, all depending on how big a swing to the Tories Cameron can muster, but even without that, the unprecedented numbers of retirements – voluntary and involuntary – and resignations are going to bring a minimum of 150 new faces to the Commons. I predict we could be looking more around 200… which is nearly 1/3 of our so-called predominant chamber.

Add to that other MPs who have still only recently been elected, in 2005, and you’re looking at a new Parliament that will be new in every sense of the word.

The opportunity this presents is unprecedented. MPs with no institutional memory. MPs with fewer pre-determined constraints about the way things have been done. A Parliament that has a chance to reshape some of its most ridiculous rules and traditions, making them more practical and accountable.

But then there is the threat, and it is a serious one at that. New blood is all well and good, but the new breed have a very different view about what Parliament is for. It’s all about delivering the goods for constituents. Getting answers to their local issues, meeting ministers, pressing the flesh for useful PR purposes. Getting your soundbite in at PMQs which will have been pre-released to the local press regardless of what the actual answer from the Prime Minister is.

Whenever people ask me why I don’t go into politics, I invariably reply with “but most politics doesn’t interest me”. There is a world of difference between debating the principles and laws by which we’re governed, and trying to hold your government, or local council, to account for their actions; and being some sort of social caseworker seen as the key to resolving problems people have with the authorities.

While that is a very noble role, it is probably far better suited to local councillors, or a professional organisation with trained advocates. The Citizen’s Advice Bureau do a good job in this respect, but not all of their staff are professionals. Most are ordinary people hoping to give something to their community with their time.

A new Parliament, with hundreds of new MPs scampering to make names for themselves, looking to make the first step up the career ladder, could make for very cringe-worthy times ahead.

But at some point we need to ask ourselves: is this really what our foremost political institution is supposed to be doing?

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Probably The Most Important Political News In A While

Posted by The Futility Monster on November 24, 2009 @ 09:16

A remarkable photo of our new Hero of Parliamentary Reform. When he had more hair.

Forget the Iraq War inquiry today. It begins taking evidence. So what? The damn thing is going to take years, and will probably still not tell us what most of us already know: it was criminally negligent, illegal and strategically the dumbest thing we could have ever done. Oh, and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Nice one, George.

The problem though is that this little event is going to outdo the most important bit of political news there has been for some time.

Today, a parliamentary committee, chaired by one of the Commons’ most ardent reformists, Tony Wright, will deliver its damning verdict on what’s wrong with the Commons and what can be done about it.

Those of us who’ve been following politics since we were in short trousers, and even younger, know most of these arguments inside out. Debates are poorly attended. MPs parliamentary duties could be fit neatly into two days at most. Whips have too much control. The government shouldn’t have complete control of the Commons’ agenda. Backbenchers need more powers of scrutiny and alternative career paths. And so on, and on and on…

And so the Wright committee have come up with a range of solutions, all of which sound pretty good to me. Stronger, more independent select committees. More time for petitions. A business committee with no government control. More topical relevance.

We’ve heard them all before, and most of them were even in new Speaker John Bercow’s manifesto. So we know he’ll be fighting for them. That’s a good start, but there is one critical part of this equation…

“Never allow a crisis to go to waste”
Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s Chief of Staff

The big question is time.

The response from the government has hardly been very welcoming. Harriet Harman has said they will “consider” it, before going on to praise the wonderful reforms they’ve already done, in typical Labour-drone fashion.

Unsurprisingly, the response from the Tories has been to say, “it’s marvellous and must be done immediately”. Paraphrased, of course. And no doubt the Lib Dems will love it, but say it should go much further.

But so what, you might say. The Tories are going to win, and they will implement reforms even if Labour don’t.

Not so fast. The list of governments being elected with huge promises of parliamentary reform is long and boring. The list of governments that have actually carried out these plans can be scribbled on the back of a postage stamp.

Yes. Power corrupts. New governments soon realise that it really would be rather inconvenient for them to be subject to the kind of scrutiny powers they once desired in opposition.

And so they get kicked into the long grass.

We can but hope that this time is different. That enough MPs realise that these long overdue reforms must be implemented quickly before the appetite for reform from the public drops off the agenda.

This time, I would like to be pleasantly surprised by our politicians.

But I suspect most of them will be more concerned about preparing for a nice, long, happy retirement.

God bless Labour MPs!

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Bercow “Gets It”, But Do Other MPs?

Posted by The Futility Monster on September 25, 2009 @ 06:33

See? I told you he's been waiting. He's been standing there all summer, parading with the Mace. He told me he wants to get the Speaker's Procession "just right".

See? I told you he's been waiting. He's been standing there all summer, parading with the Mace. He told me he wants to get the Speaker's Procession "just right".

At last! Having enjoyed a nice summer, thank-yew-very-much, Speaker Bercow has decided that it probably should be the last.

I can just imagine him in Speaker’s House, sitting there all summer, “smart but unfussy” black gown hanging neatly in the wardrobe, twiddling his thumbs waiting to get back into action, laying the smackdown on errant MPs and ministers. Seeing all this political activity buzzing around him in conferences up and down the country, and yet powerless to do anything about it.

But it’s not just the summer recess that he wants to truncate. No, he’s got big plans.

The good news for those of us who like manifestos and mandates is that Bercow was elected on a pledge to try to bring these into action. In other words, he’s going to attempt to keep his promises.

“Attempt” is the strongest word we can use, though, as it’s all going to be down to whether his fellow MPs take his lead and bring about some of these changes.

They’re nothing too revolutionary… but they are a very welcome start to try to make the House of Commons more relevant in the modern age. Tacked at the end of the above linked article is probably the most important one: the chance to give backbenchers the opportunity to call a vote. This was a power they used to have, but one they desperately need if we’re to avoid a debacle like the one we saw which eventually led to the demise of Speaker Michael Martin.

Following that too would be the institution of a business committee, like the Scottish Parliament, that would mean the government no longer controls the agenda of the Commons. That is important to strengthen checks and balances.

But the other reforms are just as sensible, and will do an excellent job of at least bringing the Commons into the 20th century, e.g. bringing peers before the Commons is just “common sense” – forget the arcane rules that currently don’t allow MPs to hold Lords Mandelson and Adonis to account. He also listed other reforms, but the level of detail is dull. Suffice it to say that each one on their own is useless, but as a package they will improve the ability of MPs to do the job they should be doing: i.e. holding the government to account.

It is good to see the Speaker using his mandate in this way. He promised he would get out in public and make speeches, even appear on television. That is absolutely right in this modern age. The people aren’t going to come back to the politicians willingly. Alas, they are going to have to go out and re-earn the respect they once had.

The big question is as I said earlier: will the government and opposition frontbenchers (because they’re going to be the next government!) be willing to subject themselves to more scrutiny? Do turkeys vote for Christmas?

And will those Tories who think Speaker Bercow was just one big Labour conspiracy support this agenda?

Cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face is a remarkably popular behaviour in Parliament. I wouldn’t bet against it.

(Bercow’s speech to the Hansard Society is not yet available, but most of the key points have been twittered)

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Purnell: “Send In The Goats” (apparently)

Posted by The Futility Monster on September 24, 2009 @ 06:34

What does he look so happy about? He's jobless isn't he? Oh no, hang on, he was magically given the job as director of "Open Left". The result of a free and fair selection process, I'm sure.

What does he look so happy about? He's jobless isn't he? Oh no, hang on, he was magically given the job as director of "Open Left". The result of a free and fair selection process, I'm sure.

… says James Purnell:

British politics is better for the appointment of Mervyn Davies, Stephen Carter, Mark Malloch Brown and indeed Baron Mandelson. We should make such appointees accountable to the Commons so that this becomes an accepted way of attracting people with recent real life experience of politics.

One might think this is James Purnell coming out in favour of more appointments to the House of Lords who then become ministers, which is an entirely undemocratic process for our political system, especially when those same ministers later resign/retire and then become a burden on the House of Lords for the rest of their days thanks to cronyism. But wait…

peers should be elected and given the task of amending legislation

Well… it seems the Guardian headline doesn’t quite match the story. As usual, suckered in by the media.

Instead, what Purnell’s article in Progress Magazine is actually about is the question of democratic renewal and the best ways to achieve it. Number one on his list is my old friend, the open primary. He reckons that this is the way in which we will usher in a broader range of people from different backgrounds into politics. He moans about it being:

almost impossible to get selected as a candidate of one of the main parties unless you’re a political lifer. As an ex-special adviser and councillor, I’m not against people who’ve worked in politics becoming MPs, but we should be a smaller share of the total.

… which is an easy thing to say but rather difficult to achieve in practice. I’m not so sure the trend towards “professional” politicians is that bad; as long as our MPs are extremely empathetic individuals with a great deal of emotional intelligence, they will be good at seeing the world from the perspective of others no matter where they come from. That’s not to say I want a Parliament of career politicians, but they do have their role to play.

So what is Purnell’s real point? Coming out in support of an elected House of Lords is always welcome, but Labour won’t be delivering it any time soon. Neither will they be ushering in an era of open primaries, or party funding reform (Purnell suggests parties should be state funded), and suggesting the era of collective responsibility for Cabinet is dead and may it rest in peace.

All very nice. But Labour have had 12 years to do all this and spectacularly failed. The obvious conclusion is that there is clearly no appetite for his ideas in the party.

In other words the only way any of this is going to happen is if: a) Cameron does it; or b) Purnell becomes the leader.

So is that the real point? Is this merely a little piece of fluff to rebuild his reputation with the dying breed of radical reformers on the centre-left? A long term plan to not be the next leader, but the one after that?

Or should he just defect to the Lib Dems now, where it sounds to me like he’ll be more at home?

Well, we are supposed to be the party of all the talents. POATTs doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, though.

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