Credit: Karoly Lorentey - http://www.flickr.com/photos/lorentey/1438477358

An Encompassing Parliament

The UK Parliament, in its current form, is anachronistic, and needs to not merely reform, but transform entirely. Parliament needs to change from being composed of two separate chambers, to being composed of three distinct but collaborative representative bodies: national politicians, nonpartisan civil society envoys, and regional envoys.

The House of Commons is elected through an archaic, and in many regards arcane, electoral system which fails consistently to reflect the political and social fabric of the country. The system also makes it immensely difficult for political movements to produce substantial change outside the scope of the two primary parties.

The introduction of mixed member proportional representation (MMP) to the House of Commons would fundamentally alter and enhance the tenor and character of politics in Britain. It would empower every single voter, as currently millions are left essentially disenfranchised. This is owing to the nature of first-past-the-post elections and safe seat constituencies, wherein the votes of those who opt not to support the predominate political party within their constituency have virtually no effect on the wider national election result. MMP would also herald in coalition politics as a mainstay of our democracy, and in doing so ensure that a greater cross section of our society is represented in government than would be the case under a majoritarian electoral system. Majoritarian governments almost invariably represent a minority of the population, while coalition governments generally represent over half of all voters.

The House of Lords is, quite simply, not elected at all, and has virtually no substantial democratic mandate. While its nominal role as being a measured and nonpartisan collection of specialists, experts, and leading lights in all walks of life is an admirable and vital one, its composition must have democratic foundations which can only be achieved through democratic elections. The recent phenomenon by which governing political parties seek to, as it were, “pack” the Lords with partisan peers is also deeply disobliging in relation to the Lords’ aforementioned nominal role.

Owing to the immense dislocation in legitimacy experienced by the Lords, it should be abolished and its responsibilities assumed by two new representative bodies: nonpartisan civil society envoys, and regional envoys.

Civil society, in the form of charities, pressure groups, think tanks, and other similar organisations, have never been truly represented in the legislative process, and are often sidelined by governments. The transformation of Parliament would allow us to address this problem directly, with the most favourable solution being the creation of a representative body of civil society. This body would be elected nationally, preferably under the single transferable vote (STV) electoral system, possibly with staggered elections, with each candidate being a nonpartisan organisation. It could potentially be the case that individuals, alongside organisations, could be elected, with a share of the seats being allocated to organisations, while another share is allocated to individuals; for instance, a 75/25 allocation of the seats between the two types (organisation, individual) of candidate. In the allocation of seats to individuals, decision makers would need to be acutely aware of the dangers of personality politics. The imperative should be to ensure that this body effectively represents civil society in a measured manner.

Devolution has established a seismic shift in British politics, placing much more power in the hands of regional representatives. Devolution will almost certainly be extended in the future to the remaining English regions which currently lack the same degree of regional representation that their fellow Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish, and London counterparts enjoy. However, there is no institutional representation of regional interests at the national level. This should be resolved by the creation of a representative body of regional envoys, each acting as a delegate for their regional government. This body of delegates would be similar to that of the Bundesrat of Germany.

Ultimately, the Commons would preserve its legislative supremacy, with the other two bodies scrutinising legislation emanating from the Commons, just as the Lords does currently. It could also be the case that legislation pertaining to devolution would require consent of the regional delegation body, though this is an area where discussion will be needed.

Significantly however, this model of Parliament would depart from the traditional concept of there being two bodies residing in two separate chambers. Instead, this model would establish ubiquitous and extensive interbody and intergovernmental collaboration. All three of the bodies would, for instance, attend Prime Minister’s Questions, rather than only the national politicians. Moreover, the bodies would often share the same chamber and debate. This would cultivate a much more fluid, flexible, and open legislative and deliberative process.

It is vital that we recognise that we have long passed the point of reform in Parliament. We cannot simply tinker around the edges in a piecemeal manner. We must tackle the issues and anachronisms of Parliament directly, in a cohesive and cogent manner. Anything short of a total transformation of Parliament will fail to produce the change in politics that is desperately needed in Britain.

(Featured Image Credit: Karoly Lorentey)

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Credit: The Prime Minister's Office - http://www.flickr.com/photos/number10gov/4600963461/

The coalition has, inadvertently, made the case for proportional representation

If, for one moment, we divorce the coalition government from its oft-controversial policies, and assess the government’s political stability, we unearth a startling discovery. British politics, having had a modus operandi of two-party majority politics for the better part of a century, is fully capable of dealing with the complexities and shift in political culture that is intrinsic within coalition politics.

It’s very easy now, after three years of coalition politics, to forget the challenges faced by the coalition as they entered government in the summer of 2010. Coalitions are never easy, and there are innumerable examples of them crumbling and fracturing political systems throughout the life of Western democracy, such as Weimar Germany’s troubled fledgling democracy and the more recent difficulties in Greece and Italy. The coalition’s survival, and its apparent strengthening as time goes on, is remarkable. The last time Britain was governed by a coalition was during the Second World War, and to stack the odds against the coalition further still, the junior partner, the Liberal Democrats, had not walked through the corridors of power since its predecessor’s (the Liberal Party) decline during the 1920s. The ideological chasm between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats is also, arguably, notably greater than that between the Liberal Democrats and Labour.

Against the backdrop of such daunting odds, the coalition remains and has persevered through challenging episodes of disunity which would even be discomforting in political systems where coalitions form part of the status quo. The Liberal Democrats, lacking any experience of Downing Street prior to 2010, are now able to boast a showcase of truly ministerial personalities such as Vince Cable and Danny Alexander. And while not all elements of the coalition agreement have been achieved, the central tenets upon which the coalition was founded remain at the heart of government policy, with little prospect of this changing in the future. The coalition’s stability must also be seen as a crowning testament to the truly world-class nature of this country’s civil service, without the quality of which the coalition’s survival would have been much more tenuous.

In terms of the political reality of support for the coalition’s policies, the atmosphere is patently less rosy, and rightfully so. But the coalition’s political stability is hugely significant for British politics. Coalitions form a central part of proportionally-elected parliamentary systems in practise, and as a result the coalition’s political stability is a ringing endorsement for introducing proportional representation into British national politics.

(Featured Image Credit: The Prime Minister’s Office)

Parties should be funded by the state

Ed Miliband’s recent foray into Labour’s funding by trade unions has brought the question of state funding of political parties to the foreground, once again highlighting the reluctance on the part of the political class to consider state funding, due to fear of public opinion.

While it is true to claim that money yields far lesser clout in British politics than the infamous multi-billion dollar campaigns of the United States, our current system of party funding is not ideal.

State funding of political parties is commonplace in countries like Sweden and Germany. The amount of funding that parties receive from the state is usually relative to the share of the popular vote which they receive in elections. State funding helps parties in these countries focus on reaching out to the electorate and crafting policy for the population, rather than spending time chasing around and attempting to entice and impress potential donors.

Some commentators strongly deplore the concept of state funding, as they believe that parties with public support should be capable of raising funds independently. As for the public’s apparent disdain for state funding, it is understandable. The idea that technically a small fraction of your taxes will be helping to fund a political party you do not support appears rather unfair and unpalatable.

Funds raised through membership fees and average member donations account for only a small fraction of the total expenditure of modern political parties. The shortfall is primarily made up for by wealthy donors such as Lord Salisbury and Lord Ashcroft, alongside funding from groups such as businesses and trade unions. While British politics is by no means corrupt, the current system of party funding could be said to be democratically disproportionate in some cases (the Conservatives have greater campaign funds than Labour, even during Labour’s time in government between 1997-2010), and to some degree exposes parties to minor influence from individuals and organisations with considerable sums of money.

Parties are a pivotal and essential component of functional democracy. They organise broad but similar standpoints into cohesive groupings with clear agendas. The modern political party is in a near-constant state of campaigning, participating in elections for public office and also supporting local movements and issues. They mobilise activists, hire advisors and political staff, craft comprehensive policy, and commission and conduct opinion polls and studies. These are all crucial aspects of any liberal democracy, but all come with a hefty price which must be paid for by someone.

Of course, smaller parties such as the Greens and UKIP would receive minimal state funding due to the fact that our national electoral system is majoritarian, rather than because of state funding itself. Within a proportional system, smaller parties would enjoy greater representation in Parliament and subsequently receive proportionate state funding.

To conclude, in the grand scheme of things, no other scheme rivals state funding in its ability to tackle, and depending upon the extent of the funding provided, eliminate the role of monetary influence in the political process. There really are only two options when it comes to party funding: either continue to have parties rely upon wealthy donors, or have the state support electorally-successful parties, thus establishing a neutral revenue stream and greater transparency in policy-making.