The House of Commons is not, technically, the ‘mother of all parliaments’. This phrase was coined in 1865 by the radical MP John Bright, who was referring to England. She was, he said, the ancient country of parliaments: men had held these august gatherings for 600 uninterrupted years, even before the Conquest. So of course, he argued, the vote should be extended to the urban working class: anything that took greater account of English opinion would necessarily enrich our political system.
In this spirit, The Spectator has been asking readers over the past six weeks to make proposals for constitutional reform. It is, we have argued, too important an issue to leave to Gordon Brown or to any committee the Prime Minister might be tempted to convene. In 2009, we have technology at our fingertips which would have delighted Bright a century and a half ago: the ability to consult hundreds of individuals submitting ideas and then to subject their proposals to a mass survey of public opinion conducted by PoliticsHome.
In aggregate, the results amount to an agenda for change that may not please any of the parties. They disclose a series of public priorities that are rather distinct from those one encounters within the Westminster village, where the various parliamentary reforms under discussion tend to reflect thinly disguised party political strategies. The Tory plan for cutting the number of MPs, for example, would trigger a boundary review, expected to yield David Cameron as many as 40 seats. Likewise, proportional representation would yoke together Labour and the Liberal Democrats, effectively institutionalising a formidable centre-left bloc.
Hundreds of proposals were sent to The Spectator by post, email and via our CoffeeHouse blog. We selected the 30 most popular themes, and put them to a smaller group of 430 readers who gave their opinions via email. From this list, we drew a top ten — which were, finally, put to an opinion poll of 1,110 members of the general public and ranked in order of preference. Our aim was to tap the innate wisdom and sound sense of Spectator readers, pick the most popular and serve these findings on a plate to whichever political party is bold enough to embrace them and translate them into legislative proposals.
First, let us run through a few of the 30 suggestions which failed to qualify for the top ten. The least popular of these, one which has been bandied around for the best part of four decades, is a form of proportional representation. ‘Not full PR,’ ran the suggestion, ‘but a system where votes for smaller parties are not wasted.’ This was rejected as a ‘red herring’ which ‘may seem superficially fairer’ but ‘isolates the MPs from the electorate’, thus compounding the problem. ‘We tried PR here in Tynwald (the grandmother of parliaments),’ wrote one contributor from the Isle of Man. ‘It didn’t work, so we got shot of it.’
Other top 30 proposals which failed to make the shortlist included the requirement that MPs have ten years’ ‘real life’ experience before entering parliament (and sorry, Mr Cameron, public relations would not count). Then that MPs should live in their constituency for five years before standing, thus preventing outsiders from being parachuted in. It was also suggested that no MP serve more than four terms. A third of current MPs have already passed that milestone — the average length of service is currently 14 years.
Once our 430 readers had their say, we presented their top ten proposals to a cross-section of the general public, weighted to reflect the British population at large. Least popular was the flagship reform proposed by Gordon Brown when he became Prime Minister: the transferring of crown prerogative powers to parliament. This involves a little tying-up of some medieval loose ends — such as conscripting men into the service of the Royal Navy — but also the power to deploy armed forces abroad and to ratify treaties. This measure was always meant to mark a symbolic break with the era of Tony Blair, who had scant regard for parliament. Yet still, the idea was only ranked tenth out of ten in our poll of the public.
A proposal for a new Bill of Rights which would ‘enshrine the rights of the individual and the powers of parliament’ attracted much support with 74 per cent saying they ‘agree’ or ‘very strongly agree’. But many readers pointed out in the written submissions that, 37 years after the European Communities Act, Westminster may have precious few real powers left to enshrine. Great tranches of sovereignty have long since been transferred to Brussels by (as one reader put it) ‘guile, deceit, equivocation and downright dishonesty’.
Mr Cameron does propose a British Bill of Rights — but one that would be subordinate to the European Convention on Human Rights. For all its noble intentions, such a Bill might end up as little more than a constitutional wish list: a jurisprudential minnow beside the European whale.
The next proposal is addressing the West Lothian Question: that is, the imbalance which exists after devolution. Not because of chauvinistic resentment of the Scots and Welsh, but because of the implications of this transfer for England. Ranked seventh by the public is the proposition that ‘action should be taken’ to address a ‘democratic imbalance created at the time of devolution which disadvantages the English by comparison’. This had far more backing from Tories than from Labour supporters — predictably, perhaps, as ‘English votes for English laws’ is a Conservative policy and the Tory heartlands are still south of the border.
Our poll also revealed that a clear appetite exists for more referenda, which is something of a departure for Britain. Unlike the Irish (who have held one, on average, every three years), we have been happy for government not to bother us between elections, and there has traditionally been a suspicion of plebiscites in this country (Attlee famously described them as a ‘device of dictators and demagogues’). But attitudes have changed, not least because of Labour’s outrageous breach of its manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on the EU constitution — or, in its repackaged form, the Lisbon Treaty. Strikingly, our readers argued, in written submissions, that this episode did even more damage to popular faith in parliament than the bath plugs, duck houses and moat-dredging.
The whipping system is widely unpopular and, our readers believe, ripe for reform. The notion that ‘whips should only force MPs to vote on manifesto issues, and hold free votes otherwise’ was the fourth most popular choice among the general public. The same exasperation inspires an appetite for more independent-minded MPs. As one of our readers puts it: ‘I would like the opportunity to have a say on the candidate for each election. I don’t want a candidate foisted upon me by the party elite. Bring on open primaries.’ It is the fifth most popular proposal in our poll — albeit one coming a little late, as almost all candidates for the next general election have now been chosen.
Giving these future MPs more power, through far more powerful select committees, is a proposal that features twice in the top ten. Secret ballots to elect both the committees’ members and their chairmen is the second most popular idea among Spectator readers, and ranks ninth in the general poll. And — intriguingly — the chief recommendation made by our readers is to give the committees more money, experts and power so that they are more minded, and better able, to hold the government’s feet to the fire.
Specifically, the pr oposal is the ‘introduction of much more powerful parliamentary oversight committees, properly financed in order to allow expert analysis of government policy with power to compel the Executive to attend hearings and give evidence under oath’. Committees would be able to subpoena anyone they chose, and have a budget sufficient to conduct their own research — far more closely resembling US congressional committees.
Fixed-term parliaments excite the general public more than our readers. The current system was prescribed under the parliament act of 1911, giving the Prime Minister the power to call an election at any time within a maximum of five years. A private members bill to change this eight years ago came to nothing. But thanks perhaps to the spectacular fiasco of the election-that-never-was in October 2007, there is strong public support — 83 per cent — for removing this prerogative power and holding elections every four years.
The winning recommendation is one which will cheer neither main party: the ‘ability to remove, immediately, MPs found guilty of a misdemeanour’. At present, voters have no power of removal over their own MPs. Once elected, an MP can switch sides, criminally abuse his expenses or even emigrate to Bermuda while still drawing a salary. By buttering up his constituency party (which has the power of deselection, but only when the next election comes), a lazy MP in a safe seat can become untouchable.
Noticeable by its absence is any strong desire to reform the House of Lords. This subject greatly excites MPs — but not our readers. The structural crisis in the Commons seems — understandably perhaps — to be a much more urgent priority. The prescriptions are clear: a parliament which party hierarchies find a lot more difficult to control, and MPs conducting themselves with greater respect for their constituents.
This is not a remedy that politicians themselves are likely to propose. But there’s the rub. Tories want reform that snookers Labour, and vice versa. Depressingly, to the politicians themselves, it is all still a partisan game.
Above the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem stands a ladder which has stood there since Bright was rousing radicals in Manchester. No one has moved it because none of the seven Christian groups who share the church can agree where it should go. The Palace of Westminster suffers from a symmetrical problem: it is a parliament whose antiquated habits and defects survive precisely because no one can agree what to do about them.
Here, then, are the recommendations of our readers and the public: clear, direct, sensible. If the next Tory government is serious about breaking this wretched stalemate, it need look no further.
|Proposals for reform: the Spectator List||Readers||Public|
|Introduction of more powerful parliamentary oversight committees, properly financed to allow expert analysis of government policy with power to compel the Executive to attend hearings and give evidence under oath.||1||3|
|One reform to bolster the effectiveness of the House of Commons would be secret ballots to elect members and chairmen of select committees.||2||9|
|I live in a ‘safe seat’ constituency. I would like the opportunity to have a say on the candidate for elections, and not have a candidate foisted upon me by the party elite. Bring on open primaries.||3||5|
|Ability to remove immediately MPs found guilty of a misdemeanour.||4||1|
|Whips able to force MPs to vote only on manifesto issues, otherwise free votes.||5||4|
|Action taken to correct the democratic imbalance created at the time of devolution which disadvantages the English by comparison with the Celtic nations. I’m not opposed to either the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly or Stormont.||6||7|
|Fixed term parliaments so that the government cannot gain an advantage by timing the election to suit it.||7||2|
|Bill of Rights enshrining the rights of the individual and the powers of parliament.||8||8|
|Remove powers of the royal prerogative from prime minister and subject them to parliamentary control.||9||10|
|There should be referenda more often on subjects that matter to the whole population.||10||6|