A briefing on Parliamentary reform

Posted by Richard D North under 'Power To The People!' / Dare to be dull / Death of ideology / Post-Bureaucratic world on 6 June 2009

Here’s a quick guide to Parliamentary Reform

It’s in two parts (after v brief remarks by MBG editor):
(1) Current proposals for the reform of Parliament
(2) Some shakers and movers on the reform of Parliament

MBG editor RDN remarks:
I have elsewhere argued that the House of Commons in principle is supreme and has total command over everything it does. MPs could grab control of Parliament and the Government any time they had the cohesion and courage to do so. The MPs (and the public) need not wait for Government or party initiative on any of this.

There is a rather circular argument that the current MPs have too little moral authority to initiate reforms. On the other hand, if they don’t it will be all the more arguable that they are showing no leadership.

It is great that almost all current proposals want MPs to have more power – discredited as they are supposed to be by a tinpot scandal over small sums of allowance money rather badly-paid legislators were told to pitch for anyway they liked.

(1) Current proposals for the reform of Parliament

MPs to elect Select Committees and chairmen
This is a high-impact low-risk way to increase MPs’ scrutiny of and power over Ministers and ministries

MPs to initiate legislation
It is hard to predict what this would achieve though it would presumably weaken the Government, which has the power of taking the initiative in legislation.

MPs to control parliament’s time-table
This would very much weaken the government’s power to get its way over legislation – which might be seen as weakening or strengthening democratic control and authority.

Fixed term parliaments
At the moment the Prime Minister has the power in effect to dissolve Parliament, provided he can command a majority in the House of Commons. This change would weaken the Prime Minister’s current power over the Government’s supporters and the opposition. There would need to be new rules to determine how to get rid of a very unpopular government before its due term.

MPs to face re-selection
This would weaken the power of the sitting (incumbent) MP but also of the party machinery which currently acts as gatekeeper. The Tories are already experimenting with “primaries”.

MPs face recall by constituents
This would strengthen the power of constituents over their Member of Parliament – and that would weaken the MPs’ ability to speak freely as a representative (rather than as a mandated delegate).

Smaller Parliament
This would make Parliament more manageable but it would increase the size of constituencies and increase the number of constituents each MP is representing (arguably making it harder for each MP to identify with a neighbourhood or take each constituent complaint as seriously).

PM by direct election
This would tend to the “presidential” aspect of the premiership and raise issues of accountability. At the moment, the PM is in the end a creature of Parliament and this approach would weaken that.

Ministers from outside Parliament
This would increase the “gene pool” for the top jobs but reduce Parliamentary control over the executive. It would also reduce the likelihood of MPs becoming ministers which might reduce their subservience to their party and Government managers. It might also reduce the attraction of becoming an MP.

Proportional Representation
In general this produces “fairer” representation, makes forming a government more a matter of party negotiation in private, increases the turnover of governments, weakens the MPs’ connection with a constituency and increases their dependency on a party (though it increases the number of parties in play).

Citizens to trigger referendums or debates in parliament
This would complicate politics, possibly in a good way, though it would increase the likelihood of populist “flair-up” issues taking a disproportionate amount of Parliamentary time.

A new less confrontational chamber for Parliament
Arguably British politics stuck in an unproductive tribal shouting match and the present chamber encourages that. Perhaps a post-class  and post-ideological needs a less confrontational chamber to express and allow an new consensualism to emerge. It might be even more boring to too may people, though.

Elections to the House of Lords
It is hard to see how to avoid making this into a new vehicle for party power, or for show-off independents. It is easy to imagine more imaginative selection processes, free of party power, to find talented, experienced people for the revising chamber.

(2) Some shakers and movers on the reform of Parliament

The time has come for Spectator readers to save the constitution from politicians
Fraser Nelson
3 June 2009
(with PoliticsHome)

Voter recall of MPs
MPs reselection by constituents (every 4 years or whatever)
Office for Budget responsibility (being considered by David Cameron)
Annual departmental justification of spending
Larger MP salaries, maybe with no expenses
Whether the existing parliament ought to frame reform
PM to be directly elected
Some/all ministers appointed from outside parliament
Smaller parliament

The real cure for Britain’s political malaise

Philip Stephens
Financial Times
2 June 2009

Gordon Brown considering voting reform
David Cameron wants “Massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power change”
DC “thinks about” fixed term Parliaments
DC considers constituency recall of MPs
Stephens on decentralising: “They would prefer to strangle local democracy than risk their own popularity.”
Local business taxes to increase local democracy

David Cameron leads Alan Johnson in the new battle to be the boldest reformer

James Forsyth
30 May 2009

How DC has a very radical reform rhetoric and less solid actual plans
Brown’s John Smith Memorial lecture, 1996: “New Labour wants to give power to the people”
Brown began premiership “proposing changes that will transfer power from the Prime Minister and the executive”
DC to Power Inquiry, May 2006: Power has gone to bureaucrats in Brussuels, judges and
Cameron’s “speech on Tuesday” proposed “Citizen’s Intitative” and a 5 percent trigger for referendum
Proposed transfer of power “from Brussels to Britain; from judges to the people; from bureaucracy to democracy.”

This is a constitutional crisis. Dave dare not blow it
Fraser Nelson
16 May 2009

Hansard Society say: Only 19 percent say Parliament is working for me
20,000 voters or 0.05 percent of voters hold power, an insider remarks: “It’s the swing voters in swing seats who decide the balance of power. We have computers to work out where they live. We can love bomb them.”

Why we need separation of powers
Andrew Turnbull
(Former cabinet secretary and head of the Home Civil Service)
Financial Times
2 June 2009

“Vernon Bogdanor’s important new book, The New British Constitution
“More radically, we could follow French practice, which requires any deputy appointed to the government to stand down from the National Assembly. Or we could adopt the German/Swedish model of politically appointed, but non-elected, ministers.

“The Commons does not control which committees are established, who chairs them, who can table legislation and how time is allocated. All this is controlled by the government through the Whips office.”

The Plan by Daniel Hannan and Carswell:


The Power Inquiry
chaired by Helena Kennedy

(Conservative) Democracy Taskforce, chaired by Ken Clarke
(A summary)
by Hélène Mulholland
The Guardian
14 January 2008

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