Wednesday 27 May 2009

Reforming the UK Parliament

The recent disclosures about MPs' expenses and the resulting public wrath has forced our political leaders to come up with some suggestions for reforming not just the allowances but for reforming how Parliament as a whole works. Everyone seems to be getting in on the act and suggestions have included reducing the number of MPs, fixed term Parliaments, giving Parliament more power and so on. As they say up here, I hae me doubts. I am sure that some minor reforms will be enacted, especially covering MPs' expenses, but most of the proposals amount to little more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. To bring about change requires a Parliamentary majority and if you have one, you are less inclined to use it to reduce your powers. As a general rule, turkeys are not known for voting for Christmas.

I do not want to go into great detail about the full range of possible reforms, but rather focus on two issues that any substantial reform needs to address – namely disentangling Parliament from the government of the day and the need for a written constitution. Many of the problems and weaknesses of the current set-up stem from the lack of clarity about the roles of Parliament and the government. Many commentators use the terms interchangeably, which is understandable since the two are so closely entwined. In the UK there is no formal separation of powers. Indeed the Crown, in the person of the Queen, is a key part of both Parliament and government. If you go to the Parliament's own web page you will discover that Parliament is made up of the House of Commons, House of Lords and the Queen. All governments make regular use of the Royal prerogative to rule without Parliamentary scrutiny and of course use this prerogative to make treaties, go to war, dissolve Parliament, award honours etc. The government itself is of course Her Majesty's government and not the people's government. It is a lousy system and needs to go.


Governments need to be separate and distinct from Parliament. Though this at first sight seems akin to awarding an undeserved prize to the government, this is not in fact so. As we will see the main reason for this separation is to make Parliament more powerful. The counterpart to this is the need to place clear limits on what a government can and cannot do. No more Royal prerogative. The other benefit is that this reform would come with a fixed term for the election of a government. Most countries opt for four year terms, though the Scandinavian countries manage with three year terms without descending into chaos. From the government's perspective the reform means that a government is, barring some really, really serious scandal, guaranteed a full term without having to worry about Parliamentary revolts and votes of no confidence. Any legislation and all financial matters will still require Parliamentary approval, but failure to pass a bill would just mean that the particular bill had failed, it would not threaten the survival of the government.

Essential to this proposed reform is how the government is elected. In essence the country would be asked to elect a Prime Minister, who without the need for Royal approval would form and lead the government. Ministers need not come from Parliament, but Parliamentary approval may be required. To minimise the election of a Prime Minister on a very low percentage of the popular vote it would necessary to move away from the simple first pat the post system currently in use for the UK Parliament. One option would be have a second ballot, as they do in France, if none of the candidates won over 50% of the vote. This second ballot, usually a fortnight later, is between the two leading candidates from the first round of voting. The benefit of this system is that in order to win the second round of voting, candidates have to appeal beyond their core support. They may even offer a formal or semi formal deal to other parties. The result is that whoever does win has to have won the endorsement of at least some other voters. The use of a second ballot makes it clear who the final the choice is between, but a similar outcome can be achieved without recourse to a second round of voting, by using the Single Transferable Vote (STV). All is then decided on the one day of voting. Whatever system is used it is important to have a voting system that encourages potential Prime Ministers to reach out for the widest possible support and not just rely on winning power with a minority of the votes.


With the government a separate and distinct institution, Parliament can regain its prime role of 1) passing, after due scrutiny, new legislation; 2) agreeing to or rejecting the government's requests for money and 3) holding the government to account by questioning and probing the actions and activities of the government – this would include decisions about treaties and going to war. The benefits would seem to be obvious. No longer dependent on the government, Parliament can set its own priorities, this would include the power to initiate legislation, which would cease to be something only the government can do, as at present. Parliament can reject any proposal from the government, knowing that it will not bring the government down. This means that all legislation and proposals should be considered on their merits and not on how they might affect the government's standing and prestige. Parliament would have control over its own resources which can be used to staff and support the various select and standing committees who would then have the power and resources to adequately challenge the government. This opens the way to better scrutiny of the government and in turn should lead to better and more effective legislation. Becoming a MP would be an important, powerful and worthwhile career in its own right. MPs would no longer be seen as mere lobby fodder or future government ministers. Members of Parliamentary committees would have as much say in future legislation as ministers in the government. As part of this reform the Royal prerogative would go. All government actions would require Parliamentary approval.

A further benefit of these two reforms is that as government ministers are no longer in Parliament, there is no need for such a bloated institution. There are currently 647MPs, far too many. A reformed Parliament could easily make do with around 400 MPs. This reduction in numbers would make it politically easier to raise the pay of MPs, so that, apart from providing accommodation for those MPs who stay far from Westminster, there would be no need for any allowances whatsoever. Parliament is an extremely important part of our democracy and we should ensure that our MPs are well paid and then let them get on with buying or not buying whatever they want.

For Parliament to act in this way, electoral reform is also necessary. If we continue with first part the post, then the government would still normally have a majority in Parliament and thus less subject to genuine scrutiny and challenge. To become an effective and representative body, Parliament needs to be elected by a form of proportional representation. The exact form is less important than the necessity for the outcome of the election to ensure the greatest degree of proportionality as possible. It is only worthwhile pointing out that the much touted Alternative Vote (AV) is not in any way a system of proportional representation. AV makes such little difference to the overall outcome of an election that it is not worth even considering.

Written Constitution

This is another essential part of the reform package. If these or any other package of reforms is to work then they need to protected from the power of one Parliament to simply overturn what a previous one has done. Changes to the way our democracy works should be meant to last. This can only be assured by writing them down in a constitution which would also include the procedures by which the constitution can be changed in the future.

The overall result of the above reforms is to put limits on the powers of governments and to correspondingly increase the powers of Parliament, while reducing the number of MPs. This proposal therefore suffers from the almost certainly fatal flaw that there are too many losers. And as the biggest loser is the government and only the government under our current system can bring about such change, well the voting habits of turkeys once more springs to mind. I have no great expectation that any of the above will happen, but it is a kind of benchmark against which to judge any proposals that do emerge from our political leaders.

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