Alex Massie

Fixing parliament: We Want 18th Century Men With 21st Century Ethics

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Danny Finkelstein's column in the Times today is very interesting if, perhaps, also a little too neat. On the other hand, I kinda hope he's right.

Large centralised political parties were created because of the existence of the mass media. To make any political impact, an idea or an individual had to find a spot in the limited shelf space provided by the big media giants. This prompted individuals to organise themselves into tight, uniform groupings with a professional staff shaping their message for media outlets. As the mass media became stronger, so did whipping.

From this relationship between the media and politicians arose our current form of closed politics. And not all of its features are undesirable, by any means. It is a highly effective way of organising politicians in order to pass legislation. It enables the business of government to be carried out effectively. It ensures, by and large, that second-rate politicians are dragooned into following the lead set by somewhat better polticians. There's a good deal to this, though I'd argue that making it easy to pass legislation is a major problem for our parliamentary system and that, generally speaking or in ordinary times, there's much to be said for thwarting effective government. Still, Danny argues that this kind of politics is coming to an end. That is, that the break-up of traditional media is mirrorred and, in some way, related to the break-up of politics as we've known it.

In the era of open politics things will be less organised and less efficient. It will be harder to govern and pass legislation. Voters will have the power that information gives them, but only if they pay the price of paying attention. Mavericks will make a nuisance of themselves.

Oh happy day! Such a glad, confident morning! If only! There would, if you undertsand my drift, me much to be gained form such an outcome.

But even then there'd be difficulties. Much as we like the idea of a Parliament of Independence, the truth is that as the system curently works a government could be sustained by its phalanx of safe - or rotten - seats and that the doughty mavericks could only snipe from the fringes, bringing down the occasional weakling but rarely troubling the herd. That, after all, is often the case in the United States where party loyalty is (and this is a good thing) a much more fluid matter than it is here. Certainly British politics would be improved if more MPs rebelled against their leadership more often.

Still, such an ideal is unlikely to be realised for as long as the government have a couple of hundred (or more!) seats in their pocket. Douglas Carswell has pressed for an American-style system of open primaries to select parliamentary candidates and, notionally, this is a tempting proposition. Alas, it begins to look a little less sweet when one considers the calibre of person elected to the House of Representatives in Washington.

So What Is To Be Done? Essentially, you see, we'd like to see parliament be what we like to imagine it was when William Pitt, Charles Lane Fox, Henry Dundas, William Wilberforce et al were in their pomp. The Great Issues of the Day being discussed by Great Men! Only this time, please, without the corruption and the rotten boroughs and the lack of anything resembling a modern definition of a democracy. Also, with women and people who do not possess much in the way of a fortune also having a chance to tilt for a career in parliament.

First things then (and this also answers some of David Aaronovitch's polite* response to my complaints about his column last week) and I'd be quite happy to a) bump MPs pay up to, say, £100,000+ a year while reducing their allowances and b) prune the number of MPs at Westminster by another 50 or so. That's the simple stuff. The bigger challenge is trying to make more votes count while preserving the traditions of the first-past-the-post system. There is no perfect electoral system and custom should count for something in a country such as Britain. So we keep the current FPTP system. However, we can change the way we organise constituency boundaries.

This isn't an argument for absurd US-style gerrymandering (which, as in Britain, helps produce a low quality of representative as well as, essentially, disenfranchising most of the population), rather it's for requiring the Boundary Commission to consider the competitiveness of a seat when considering ech constituencies boundaries. That is, the BC should be required to, in as much as is possible, reconcile these two propositions: seats should be recognised and coherent geographic entities and they should be competitive so that they remain marginal contests, rather than a job for life for some party good old boy.

I doubt that it's a coincidence that the safer an MPs seat the more outrageous their expense claims seem to be. One solution to that temptation - as well as making sure that more people's votes count - would be to increase the number of marginal seats around the country. This wouldn't solve everything, but it would be a decent start in the right direction.

Maybe, anyway.

*Sufficiently polite that I felt a bit of a heel.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePoliticswestminster