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Parliamentary reform - back to basics

The expenses fiasco has generated huge public anger and cast a pall over both the Labour Party and parliamentary politics more widely. Here Duncan Bowie presents some options for change as a contribution to discussion Chartist is keen to promote.

These proposals have been discussed by the Chartist Management Board. This is however essentially a personal note put forward for discussion. There is a widespread view that 'something should be done' but differing views on exactly what. Within the Chartist Collective there is considerable disagreement on specific points. Politics has however never been so fluid. The note was originally drafted before Gordon Brown's statement on 10th June. A number of Ministers are now floating different versions of Proportional Representation (PR).

Some members of the Chartist Collective support PR - others don't. My own view for what it is worth is that PR in itself does not solve many of the defects of the parliamentary system which have become so exposed over the last few weeks, and in some ways is being floated intentionally to divert attention away from other systematic deficiencies. Specific forms of PR tend to be technical fixes rather than necessarily based on fundamental and incontrovertible principles of democratic socialism.

In drafting this article, I was also considering not just what was best to reinvigorate the Labour Party but what was necessary to reinvigorate the democratic process as a whole. Whether the Labour Party is able to respond to the challenge is a secondary issue and a matter for the members of that party. As is clear from Chartist's statement printed on the inside front page in every issue, the journal is not an exclusively Labour Party journal and the editorial board is split roughly 3-to-1 between socialists inside the Labour Party and socialists outside it. We have always regarded that as a positive feature, and there is perhaps no more important time than the present to maintain those links.

1. Annual elections

The one unachieved point from the original Chartist six points from 1837. This would mean continuous political engagement between MPs, political parties and the electorate. An alternative would be a right of recall - that is, a new election in a constituency based on a recall being demanded by a specified proportion of the electorate - for example 10%. Justification: Either option would require fundamental changes in the political process. It is essential however to move away from the perception that parliamentary democracy only allows the exercise of a vote for a parliamentary representative every four or five years. This would require political parties to be active in their localities on a continuing basis, rather than just limiting their activity to occasional pre-election periods. It should be noted that in some areas there are in practice elections every year for one tier of government or other and that in some district councils, councillors are elected in thirds, with a ward councillor retiring every third year. This was the case when I was a councillor - admittedly thirty years ago - and did not seem to cause any problem.

2. Parliamentary candidates would need to be on the electoral roll for their constituency and resident for 12 months minimum - as primary residence

This could be 12 months before election or 12 months before selection. Justification : This would mean MPs would need to be genuine representatives of their constituents. It would stop the imposition of 'national candidates on local constituency parties and reduce the mobility of 'career' politicians. It should lead to more working class MPs and more activists with local experience, for example on local councils or in local trade union branches, getting into parliament. in addition there must be tight limits on election expenses and party political donations.

3. No redundancy payments for sitting MPs defeated at election or retiring and pension rights must be related to term of office

Justification : This would reduce the domination of parties and policies by rich individuals. It would also increase the importance of face to face contact and political meetings during elections given it would require a reduction in advertising and printed propaganda.

4. No state funding of political parties

Justification: It is anomalous for the taxpayer to fund political parties and individuals to whom they are opposed. Political parties should be financed by people who support them.

5. MPs salaries based on national average

Justification : There are two options here - either salaries set at the average for an equivalent job - no doubt fixed by an independent review body, or salaries at the national average income. The argument for the former is that we need to attract representatives who are competent in terms of 'professional skills'. There is a contrary view that MPs should be representative of the electorate as a whole - and not just the professional class. An MPs main function is to be representative rather than a professional executive, and consequently a parallel with an average 'professional' remuneration may not be appropriate. The main attractions of being an MP should be the opportunity to serve the electorate, and the potential to have the authority to make political decisions with major impacts on society. It should not be necessary to have an enhanced salary as a third attractor - this is bound to attract individuals with inappropriate motives.

6. Restrictive expenses regime. Publication of all expenses claimed

There must be an allowance for lodging in London for MPs with constituencies outside London and the Home Counties and no payments for mortgages or improvements or fittings and fixtures costs on any home. Justification: It is reasonable for the taxpayer to pay housing costs arising from an MPs need to live a significant distance from their constituency while parliament is sitting. Genuine expenses related to parliamentary duties need to be funded, including travel and accommodation. The system needs to be transparent and no more generous than other public sector expenses regimes.

7. MPs on election should surrender all forms of outside employment and should rely on parliamentary salaries

Justification: This would remove potential conflicts of interest, and ensure MPs focused on their parliamentary duties as a full-time job.

8. All MPs staff to be employed on House of Commons contracts

No employment by an MP of their relatives or partners. Justification: Removal of one of the more obvious examples of abuse. It is inappropriate for the system to be used to provide additional income for family and friends of elected representatives.

9. Paid lobbying of MPs and members of House of Lords should be made illegal

Justification: Parliamentary democracy should not require third party paid intervention. It is essential that individuals and organisations have access to MPs without payment being required. Paid lobbying is one of the most corrupting components of our political system.

10. The House of Lords to be wholly elected and should be limited to a scrutiny role

Ministers should sit in the House of Commons. Election of members of a second chamber could be either directly, for example on a regional basis, or indirectly from representative interest group, regional or local statutory private sector or independent sector bodies within civil society. Its primary function should be as a 'house of experts' to advise the House of Commons and Government. Justification: The House of Commons has to be the primary body. There is no democratic justification for a system of either inheritance or appointment. Members could best be called MSC (Members of the Scrutiny Chamber) rather than peers. This would also mean that members used their own names rather than created feudal ones for themselves.

11. Removal of ritual

Justification: If parliament is to have restored credibility, its processes should be based on what is appropriate for a modern legislative body, rather than operating operating as if it was an historical reenactment society to entertain tourists.

12. Removal of prime ministerial patronage

Justification: This includes the Prime Minister's role in appointing bishops as well as junior Ministers. The payroll vote should be reduced. There is an excess of junior minsters relative to genuine Ministerial responsibilities and no need for PPS's.Cabinet Ministers should be bound by collective cabinet decisions and not by prime ministerial dictate. Collective responsibility should not apply to junior Ministers who are not party to the cabinet decision making process. Cabinet Ministers should appoint their own junior ministers.

This is not a complete democratic reform package. Such a package would include for example reforms to the civil service, the replacement of the monarchy by a fully republican system, reforms to judicial processes and the complete separation of church and state and no doubt changes to the voting system to ensure a more proportional outcome. The 12 points above are aimed to respond to the current crisis of credibility in the parliamentary system.