Tag Archives: democracy

The election happened, what next for the left?

Since last week’s general election, many have been quick off the mark with writing the post mortem, suggesting what went wrong and a few early hats have been thrown into the ring for the vacant party leadership roles.

I hope you’ve not become bored of reading such articles. I’ve written this over the course of the weekend; so I’m sorry that’s not been as quick off the mark as others have been. The plan is to look at the disparity between what was widely expected to happen and what did happen, try to look at some of the reasons behind this, suggest how the UK political left might start the fightback and what the ordinary citizens of this country can do in the meantime.

What was expected to happen?

With the opinion polls that were published prior to the election, there was no clear winner. It seemed likely that the Conservatives would win the most seats but fall short of an overall majority. Labour were expected to suffer heavily at the hands of the SNP in Scotland, but that they might gain a fair few from the Liberal Democrats, meaning an overall small loss in the net number of seats.

My own particular guess was that in the Lib/Con marginals, the Liberal Democrat voters would, in spite of their party’s betrayal, remain loyal. After all, their sin was to go into coalition with the Conservatives, so it would make no sense for voters to go from Lib Dem to Conservative. I thought they might lose some voters to Labour, ultimately diluting the Lib+Lab vote and allowing the Conservatives a few wins, but not many, as they would vote with the Lib Dems as a tactical manoeuvre.

I also thought that, given the cuts the Conservatives unleashed in the last 5 years that Labour would pick up some Lab/Con marginals. Further Labour gains would result from the rise of UKIP which would dilute the Conservative vote.

The result would be that the Conservatives wouldn’t be able to win a majority and that another attempted coalition with the Liberal Democrats would still fall short. The other possibility was that Labour would try to form a coalition with the SNP but that too would fall short of a majority. Yet crucially, Lab+SNP would be greater than Con+Lib.

As a result, I thought that we would end up with a minority government. Such a government would not last long, being unable to pass a queen’s speech and losing a vote of no confidence, triggering a second election this year. Given a quick failure, whoever formed the minority government would likely lose the subsequent election, making this May a good election to lose. My hope then was that since the Conservatives had the most seats, they would be the ones to drink from the poisoned chalice.

What happened?

My estimate was wrong. I’d bought in too much to the published opinion polls prior to the election and when the exit polled showed a clear lead (though not quite a majority) for the Conservatives, I didn’t believe it.

The expected windfall of seats for the SNP did happen, with a number of high profile people losing their seats, including Douglas Alexander, Danny Alexander, Jim Murphy and Charles Kennedy.

The first real warning sign, though, was in Nuneaton. It was a target Labour seat that they needed to win if they were going to beat the Conservatives. But instead of that happening, the Conservatives won the seat with an increased majority. This happened in several marginals, though Labour did take some (and the Conservatives won a few Labour-held marginals). This was not a case of a significant victory (though I would say it was a notable victory) for the Conservatives; more a stern defence of that which they held most precariously. Also, the success that UKIP had in the last round of local elections was not replicated, meaning that they did not dilute Conservative support as much as had been expected. A case in example was my incorrect prediction about what would happen in Crawley, where I lived for 7 years.

The real surprise was what happened in the Lib Dem dominated area of South-West England. Here, contrary to my (and others’) expectations, the Lib Dem voters did abandon their party in droves, and went to the Conservatives. It was these wins that really helped to ensure the Conservatives won a majority.

Why it happened?

We have to acknowledge that this is now a highly divided country. Scotland is undoubtedly the country of the SNP. London is predominantly a Labour city. In England, outside of London, the Conservatives are the dominant party except for in former mining communities. Wales is predominantly Labour, by population, at least. As with London, their support is greater in more urban areas, though the constituencies with larger areas are more mixed, so the Labour majority doesn’t show up well on a map. Northern Ireland has a quite different politics altogether, which has a far deeper and more painful history than I can reasonably go into here.

I would need to add: the SNP ensured that Labour had a bad night. But the SNP are not to blame for allowing David Cameron back into Downing Street. If they had increased their share of the vote, yet not won a single extra seat, then David Cameron would still have a majority. The difference would be that Labour would have a greater share of the opposition benches.

I have long maintained the idea that governments are not so much voted in as they are voted out. In 1997, the Conservatives had lost any shred of credibility and all Labour needed to do was present a credible alternative. They did that successfully and won the election with a landslide. At the time, people asked if it was the end of the Conservative party. It wasn’t. It was damaging, yes, and they were unlikely to win the next election either. But then Labour took 418 seats, with the Conservatives on 165. Compare that to last week, when the Conservatives won 331 and Labour won 232. So I think one cannot say that 2015 was as bad for Labour as 1997 was for the Conservatives.

In 2010, Labour were the ones who had lost credibility, so it should have been a cake-walk for the Conservatives to win a majority, but it was a reflection of their electoral failure that we ended up with a hung parliament, resulting in a coalition. A part of this may well be due to the fact that the Conservatives came off worse than Labour did in the expenses scandal. Though trust in both sides was severely dented by that episode.

They key thing that happened in electoral terms was where the disaffected Lib Dem voters went. In London, having looked through some of the constituency results (I haven’t done a full numerical analysis yet), they seem to have gone largely to Labour and the Greens, with some to UKIP and a handful to the Conservatives. This is what I expected to happen nationwide, but elsewhere, particularly in the south-west, the largest chunk of Lib Dem voters went Conservative. I confess, I don’t understand why they would really do this. It’s not a part of the country I live in and I haven’t been able to speak to anyone who did switch their vote that way.

Beyond that, though, my view is that the Labour message was too piecemeal. They were chasing the agenda set by the mainstream media (see below), coming up with policies in response to what others had said, instead of leading the way with an alternative vision. Much of the discussion over the last few days has asked whether they were too far left (which doesn’t wash with Scotland, nor with the opposition to their ‘control immigration’ mug) or too far right (which doesn’t explain why they didn’t take the English marginals that were ripe for the picking).

How to fix it?

There has to be a long term strategy from the left. Ideally, this should be a 13 year strategy, starting from now. Why 13? Well, there should be 3 phases: the first starts now and needs to establish a plan for bringing down the Conservatives at the next election, replacing them with a credible, progress and egalitarian government. But it would be too short term to say the aim is to be elected. The strategy has to include a full 5 year plan for government. Yet we know what the Conservatives have done in the last 5 years of coalition, and we have some idea about what they will do, untethered, in the next 5 years. Will a single term be enough to unwind the legacy of the David Cameron, George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith? Maybe not. So we need to think about how to start undoing the damage they’ve done as well as the further damage they will do; this will entail fixing the country and preparing for a 2nd term.

The strategy has to be two-fold: national and local.

On the national level, there has to be a whole, coherent and credible alternative. The first thing is the substance of the message, be it on business, on housing, on debt, on immigration, on debt, on taxation, on education, on defence, on health, etc. More than that, though, any election strategy has to incorporate the media. While there has been some progress with social media, it remains the BBC and the newspapers who set the agenda. Given these are largely Conservative biased (the BBC’s main political team of Nick Robinson, David Dimbleby, Andrew Marr and Andrew Neill being the most notable of the pro-Tory group) then an infiltration strategy is partly what’s needed. One can combat the right-wing hegemony head on, to sing a different tune. Yet one can also attempt to change the tune from within the choir. In the wake of the election, people have been joining both the Liberal Democrats and Labour. Yet party members are unlikely to find employment in press run by Murdoch, Dacre or the Barclay brothers. A little more subtlety is required. In short, to be as clever as a fox, whilst remaining as innocent as a dove.

Then we have the matter of the Independent’s betrayal, as they encouraged a continuation of a Conservative-led coalition, while the Evening Standard, owned by the same tycoon who runs the Independent, backed the Conservatives. My proposition is that we need a new left-leaning national newspaper. I suggested this on social media on the election and was subsequently trolled for saying it. Amongst the irrational rantings that were aimed at me, they said that the Guardian and the Mirror were sufficient and that there was nothing wrong with the over-arching dominance of the newspaper market by a very small number of very rich men with a vested in interest in keeping the Conservatives singing their tune.

On the local level, the obvious answer is to set about targeting the seats to win. However, there has been a strong suspicion that to counter this, the Conservatives will attempt to rig the next election by changing the constituency boundaries so as to favour them. I’ve read comments from Conservative supporters saying that their primary aim is to make sure than Labour are locked out of government for decades. As an example of how this could be done, they might enlarge the London constituencies (making sure they are larger both in terms of population and area), thus reducing their number; or they might take two adjacent Conservative constituencies and make them into three.

For the Liberal Democrats, they have space to come back. First of all, though, they need to acknowledge their responsibility for helping to introduce the bedroom tax, for Sure Start centres, for cuts to disability benefits, for targeted sanctions against the unemployed. They can’t say that because they were in coalition they were forced to do those things. They need to acknowledge that they were wrong. Then, depending on how the majority Conservative government play things out, they can (as some have before the election) list out the things they prevented happening during the coalition’s reign. Things like the Conservative plan to repeal the Human Rights Act, to change the boundaries, to make even deeper cuts or further and faster privatisation of the NHS. If they can do this, then they stand a chance of taking back some of the Lib/Con marginals they lost, particularly those in south-west England and south-west London.

In the mean time

I am not a politician. I am not a journalist. I am someone who cares. Someone who is worried and fearful of the harm that this government will do.

On Saturday there was protest held in Westminster. I had looked around to see if I could find any plan for a protest but could find none. The first I heard about it was on Twitter after it had begun, by which time it seemed a little late to go and join. I supported that protest, and let me say why.

Democracy should not be an event that happens one day every five years. Democracy should be woven into the fabric of the society we live in. When we’re not at the ballot box, we can protest, we can petition, we can march, we can write letters, we can go and see our MPs at their local surgeries. Such expressions of democracy can be firm, they can be loud and at times, they can be disruptive. There are lines to be drawn, though. I do not advocate violence, nor do I advocate inappropriate protest, such as the graffiti that one person put on a war memorial.

Protests against austerity or against the removal of human rights are not, as some Conservatives have been saying, moaning or whinging about the result of the election. While there is a debate to be had over the effectiveness of our current democratic system (c.f. the referendum debate and the outcome of every close election – my particular favourite example is 1951), I do not dispute the Conservative’s right to govern. It has been suggested to me, by several on the political right, that accepting the legitimacy of the result means that we shouldn’t protest. I cannot agree with that.

When Labour won the 1997 general election and sought to introduce a national minimum wage, Conservatives would have been well within their rights to take to the streets to demand that employers should be allowed to employ people for as little pay as they saw fit.

Nor do I agree with the accusation that protest is in any way sanctimonious or self-righteous. To speak out against the Conservatives is an act of compassion; of standing up for those who have been, and will be hurt, by the acting out of Conservative policy. To turn one’s back or adopt an “I’m alright, Jack” attitude is an act of wilful negligence. There will be a time for gentler persuasion, but right now the time is right to give Conservative voters a metaphorical slap across the face, show them what they have allowed to happen. So that, like the end of The Bridge On The River Kwai, they may realise what they have done. I do not wish to demonise Conservative voters. Instead, my prayer for them is “Father, forgive them. For they know not what they do.”

A Voter’s Manifesto (part 1 of 5)

With the general election not terribly far away, it seems like the right time to think through who to vote for. The main parties have yet to publish their official manifestos, though the rhetoric and negative campaigning has already begun. I have tended to be a tactical voter, depending on what constituency I have lived in over the last few general elections. This is not my preference, however. I would want to vote for someone I can believe in, whose policies I can endorse and who I could trust to fulfil their promises and be of sound judgment to make the right decisions as and when they are necessary, but which cannot be anticipated.

So what would I want to see in a manifesto? This got me thinking. Why not just write a voter’s manifesto? I’m not aiming to have anything the length of an actual party manifesto, so this is more a sketch than a detailed proposal. No doubt I will have made some omissions which may be close to someone else’s heart. That is why this is a voter’s manifesto, not the voter’s manifesto.

I had planned to get this posted before the party conference season, but as you may find, it has gotten rather long. So while most of it was drafted before they got underway, I will admit that the section on tobacco was influenced by the Labour party conference. Any other similarities are purely coincidental, though you may well see some policy areas that would not be out of place in a Conservative, Green, Labour or Liberal Democrat manifesto (and yes, there is one area where I agree with UKIP – see if you can spot it).

My aim is not to present a panacea, but to start a conversation so that others may take up the plan I outline here and expand on bits, put some more flesh on the specifics and, if they so wish, disagree with my points and present alternatives of their own. I do this because of a belief. It is a belief that the people, the demos, are those who should set the agenda in a democracy. We should not wait for the political elite to tell us what they think and then ask us to vote for them. We should be telling them what we think and ask if they will fairly represent us.

Because of the length this has expanded to, I will spread this out over 5 days. After the opening 2 sections below the plan is as follows:

Wednesday: Environment, Employment, Inflation, Transport and Healthcare

Thursday: Company Law, Corporate Tax, Personal Tax, Loan Sharks and Regionalisation

Friday: Welfare, Europe, International Aid, Housing and Utility Costs

Saturday: Education, Immigration, Tobacco & Gambling, Culture and Defence

There is no strict rationale for the ordering. Some sections depend on others, so I’ve tried to include the more foundational first, but as ever, I may well have made mistakes. So without further ado, let us begin…

Democratic reform

I include this first because it has become one of the hot topics following the referendum on Scottish independence. I make no bones about the fact that I supported the AV referendum, but the fact that we voted no on that issue should not be taken as an indication that there is no appetite for electoral reform. So while the current first past the post system should remain in place for the election of the House of Commons, I would advocate decreasing the minimum voting age in all elections to 16.

Party whips will be made illegal. I have made the case on that before, so shan’t expand here.

Funding for political parties will be made more transparent, with all donations greater than £100 being declared and made available in a public register. Any donations made on behalf of a democratically elected body must disclose the number of people represented by that body and what proportion of the membership voted to approve the donation. Any donations made by a limited company, limited liability partnership, trust fund, charity or other similar corporate body must disclose the names of the directors and/or those individuals responsible for instigating and authorising the donation.

MPs should be dedicated to their role as a representative of their constituents. As such, they should not hold 2nd jobs, with a 6 month grace period after taking their seat in Parliament. This includes any directorships or non-executive appointments. They should also be prohibited from holding shares (pension funds exempted) during their time in office so as to minimise the risk that they could be compromised by acting in Parliament in such a way that benefits their commercial interests. They shall also declare any and all commercial interests they had in the 5 years prior to their taking their seat in Parliament, which shall be a matter of a public record. If there arises any possibility favouring any of these previous commercial interests, then they shall be deemed ineligible to vote. For any matter which does favour a commercial interest (e.g. a transport infrastructure project which uses a private company) then any MP shall be banned from taking up employment or acting as an advisor to that company for a period of no less than 5 years after leaving Parliament.

Similar restrictions will also apply to members of the House of Lords. However, this will apply after the Lords has been made a wholly elected chamber, elected on the basis of proportional representation.

Debt, Deficit & Austerity

There must be an open and honest recognition of the responsibilities held by successive governments and of the private sector which was subject to inadequate regulation from October 1986 onwards which contributed to the banking crisis, which was part of a global problem caused by laissez faire fundamentalist economics.

To reduce the deficit and bring down debt levels require some level of austerity. The coalition’s measures to attempt to reduce these, which have largely failed, have been misdirected on the grounds of an ideological attack upon the poorest in society, while letting off those who were most at fault for causing the crisis.

As a matter of principle, then, measures to reduce the debt and deficit should be borne by those who bear the most responsibility. This is not to victimise portions of society or to engage in any kind of “banker bashing”. Rather it is about restoring a balance to the economy through restitution levied upon those who created the imbalance.

Many of the measures elsewhere in this manifesto are directed towards this. Some spending will have to be pared back and further taxes raised. Anyone who tries to sing a different hymn is selling a fairy tale. Spending on those who are in need will not be subject to austerity measures, for those who cannot afford to lose more should not lose more. Instead, the spending on areas which cause harm must be pared back.

Tax revenues must be raised, with a marked differentiation needed to distinguish between small business owners and large corporations, which is not currently recognised to a suitable extent in the tax system. Some of the details of this will come later, but there will be a reduction in taxation for the smallest business, but this will be more than countered by a large increase in the taxation on large corporations. This is not to be punitive, but to ensure that those organisations which have historically enjoyed the privilege of paying less than their fair share shall begin to do so. Yet measures will be put in place to ensure that corporations cannot reduce the size of their workforce in order to preserve or grow their profits. Taxation must also not be passed on to the consumer.

A question about UKIP and the left

Is it really such a good idea for those of us on the left to urge people not to vote for UKIP? 

A lot is made about the publicity that UKIP get these, not least the amount of airtime they are given in proportion to their current level of representation in the House of Commons. This is often contrasted with the Green Party (though oddly not so often with Plaid Cymru, the SNP or the Democratic Unionists).

With the European and some local elections coming up, things are getting ever more heated and partisan. I have seen people urged to mail bricks to UKIP’s offices on the basis that they use a freepost address and so will be made to pay for the delivery costs, rather than the person posting the bricks. Though amusing, it strikes me as rather childish.

One could examine their policies, as some have done, and point out areas of disagreement with an apparent sense of ridicule. One tactic I haven’t seen and wondered “why not” is to point out the contradiction that they don’t want the UK to be a part of Europe and yet they still put candidates forward for the European elections!

But so what? Those who have a tendency to stick to the left of British politics are never likely to vote for UKIP anyway. Who are we trying to persuade?

After the failure of the “Yes to AV” campaign to reform the voting system, we are stuck with the less democratic First Past The Post system. The downside of this system is that where you have multiple parties standing on similar principles, the vote can be diluted so that an overall less popular, but very different, view may win.

If UKIP were to gain a majority in the House of Commons (or be part of a coalition) then one might have a genuine cause for concern, but that really doesn’t seem like a probably outcome. One asks, where are the UKIP supporters coming from?

Some may be protest votes, but it seems reasonable that quite a few are coming over from the Conservatives. This is why David Cameron should be worried. The loony right wing section of racists and xenophobes who helped put him into number 10 are one of the legs upon the Tories stand. Take it away from them and you get the right wing vote diluted, which will favour the likes of Labour, the Greens and even possibly the Lib Dems (though I believe their credibility has been dashed by their role in the present coalition and that after the next election Nick Clegg will be a pariah, resigned from the party leader leadership and will be blamed for the next decade of poor outcomes for the Lib Dems).

So if we persuade those who are currently tempted to vote for UKIP not to do so, where might they turn? I would posit that the obvious place is to go for the party which has the most similar policies, the Conservatives. And do we really want to encourage people to vote Tory? I think not!

An open letter to my MP

After my recent time unemployed, I have finally been able to have the time to write to my MP about the failures in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Below is the body of the email which I sent to him. Any links are inserted into this blog post, but were not included in the letter, though URLs which have been typed, were.

I am writing to you with reference to the failures of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) which I experienced recently. At the end of January, I was informed that I would be made redundant from my role as an accountant in a recruitment company in London. This redundancy became effective near the end of April. I am happy to report that I have now found work, being employed by a different company in London, from the start of July.

In the meantime, however, I had to claim job seekers’ allowance (JSA). However, my experience of dealing with DWP has shown some significant failures which I think ought to be brought to your attention. If it possible, I would ask that you raise these concerns directly with a minister responsible for the DWP, or even with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan-Smith.

My experience was that of a department is in disarray, had terrible communication and very few internal checks. As part of my claim, I was asked to provide some documentation on my savings. These are, as are many people’s, held in ‘e-savings’ accounts that do not provide monthly statements. I stated to the job centre that I was perfectly willing to provide proof of my savings, by logging on to the online bank and showing them. They were, however, unwilling to accept this as evidence. Even though I explained that these bank accounts didn’t provide statements, I was asked for statements nonetheless. This demonstrates an inflexible approach that has not yet caught up with modern technology and ways of personal banking, which the DWP ought to be attuned to.

It took an extra couple of days for my building society to provide printouts that they were willing to stamp. I duly took these into the Crawley Job Centre Plus as requested. Interestingly, when I asked for a receipt, I was denied. This seemed extremely odd, as it would have been no significant effort on their part, but it denied me written evidence that I had the provided the documents on a timely basis. As it turns out, this was very important.

I continued to apply for jobs, attend interviews and sign on every fortnight as required. However, I did not receive my JSA promptly. Three weeks after my handing over of the relevant documents, I received a letter from the Worthing Benefit Office stating that my claim would be closed because they had not received my bank statements. Upon enquiry, it emerged that the Worthing Benefit Office did receive my bank statements, but it happened to be exactly one day after they closed my claim. This was two weeks after I had submitted the documents. Whether the fault lay with the Crawley Job Centre Plus or with the Worthing Benefit office, I cannot say. But between them, there was an evident lack of communication. I saw computer records at the Crawley Job Centre Plus where they recorded receipt of the statements, yet the Worthing Benefit Office was unaware of this. Either an integrated computer system or even something as simple as a single phonecall could have prevented this, yet this didn’t seem to occur to the staff.

Having discovered this, common sense would dictate that the claim could simply be reopened at the touch of a button. Common sense, though, is a quality severely lacking in the DWP.

The upshot was that I was asked to make a brand new claim. I was also asked to do a “rapid reclaim” to backdate to when I was first made redundant. I carried on applying for jobs, attending interviews and signing on. When I was eventually offered a job and accepted the role, I still had not received any payment at all. The first payment was not received until after I ended my claim and asked for a P45 from the DWP. This payment was allegedly at the full rate of £71 per week, but was only backdated as far as the second claim. Consequently, for the 10 weeks I was unemployed, I only received an equivalent of £41.59 per week. Given that my monthly rent (on a 1 bed, unfurnished flat, property band B) is £750 per month, I question whether the coalition government consider this enough to live on. I would have to receive 19 weeks’ worth of JSA in order to afford 1 month’s rent. That is, of course, before council tax, food and utilities.

I know that I am much more fortunate than the vast majority of JSA claimants, as my previous job paid more than the average salary and I was subsequently able to build up savings. It was these savings that I lived off during my unemployment, with effectively no help whatsoever from the DWP. Instances of those less fortunate than me are well known, and I’m sure you are aware of http://calumslist.org which documents the deaths in which DWP decisions have played a crucial role.

Being unemployed is a very stressful time in one’s life. The DWP should be providing services that help to minimise this and to ensure a decent standard of living for those who are seeking work and those who are unable to work. But this ideal is far from reality. Consequently, I would like to propose some recommendations, based on my experience, that could be easily implemented to make others’ experience less stressful and would help to DWP staff to demonstrate a greater level of professionalism:

1) The Job Centre Plus should be permitted to provide receipts to benefits claimants, detailing what documents have been provided and when;

2) The Job Centre plus and the Benefits Office need to talk to one another. If a claim is being considered for closure due to a lack of documentation, it is plain common sense for the benefit Office to phone the Job Centre and ask them if they had received anything;

3) Payments need to be speeded up. Waiting more than 10 weeks for the first payment is not sufficient;

4) Payments need to be increased to reflect the cost of living. As it presently stands, they are not sufficient to provide even the most meagre of livings. This results in considerable financial and emotional stress which is not conducive to either good health or to employment prospects.

5) When a claim has been closed erroneously, and it can be easily demonstrated that the DWP were at fault, as in my case, then the bureaucratic form-filling that currently exists should be lifted, with an authorised manager given the ability to reopen the claim immediately, with no need for additional claims to be made.

So that you aware, a copy of this letter will shortly be published on my blog, which is publically available at https://sipech.wordpress.com where I have further documented my experience of being unemployed.

I’d be interested to know what you think of my letter…

Bishops and Lords reform

On an almost seasonal basis, there are calls for the end of bishops in the House of Lords (HoL). At present, there are 26 Church of England (CoE) bishops who have places reserved for them in the upper house of Parliament. In total, there are786 members of the HoL (as of the 1st of April this year, according to Wikipedia), so the bishops only make up 3.3%. Opponents of the bishops posit that there should be no place for religious privilege and that therefore they should be kicked out. Such is the position of the British Humanist Association (BHA).

While I largely agree with the BHA on this issue, I think it misses the point. As I understand it, the historical reason for the bishops was that they could represent the people of their respective dioceses. So while members of the House of Commons would be elected on a regional basis, the bishops would have that same regional sense via their presence in the HoL, albeit their geographical areas spanned much larger regions than constituencies. This may once have been a reasonable basis, but it is now just one of the many aspects of the upper house which is outdated.

Since I started to become more politically aware of things in the early/mid 90s, I have heard talk of “Lord’s reform” crop up on a regular basis. While Tony Blair’s government instigated some changes, I don’t think they went anywhere near enough. The very existence of an appointed HoL flies is evidence which contradicts the claim that Parliament is a democracy. For that reason, I would welcome the proposal in the queen’s speech to reform its make-up.

My proposal to change the HoL would involve removing the places that are specially reserved for the bishops, but not to necessarily remove the bishops themselves. That is, they should not be given any place of special privilege but neither should they be discriminated against on the basis of the “religion”. But this would only be one tiny part of the reform and which I think the BHA focuses on far more keenly than an organisation which claims to value ‘reason’ ought to. As I have pointed out above, the bishops are very few in number, do not exercise their votes uniformly and the amount of influence they have is massively exaggerated by most of those who simply want to rid Parliament of them, without having a positive agenda for Parliamentary reform.

My view is that the whole HoL needs to be overhauled in the way that its members are determined. There are a few different ways this way be done and to be honest, I’ve not made up my mind on which would be better. I don’t have a complete hypothesis of how each would work, but I am confident that it would be an improvement on the modern system.

1) Wholly elected 2nd chamber. The number of members of the Lords should be fixed and then elections should take place as per elections for the House of Commons. To try to ensure independence (though by no means an absolute guarantee, that would be impossible) candidates who are or have been members of a political party would be barred from standing.

2) Mirror the jury system. Anyone who is on the electoral register may be called up for service. Each member would have to serve for a set period of time (maybe a year?). Again, anyone who had been a member of a political party would be exempted from selection.

3) Proportional representation. You may recall that I advocated the AV system in last year’s referendum on electoral reform, outlining why the first past the post system is not the best way of determining democratic will in an election with more than 2 candidates. So if we could not ban members of the Lords from having membership of or association with political parties, we could at least ensure that the proportional make-up of the Lords reflected the proportional casting of votes.

To take a hypothetical (and admittedly, slightly unrealistic) example let’s say that at the next election, where Labour were to win seats, they would them by a small majority, but the Conservatives win their seats by a large majority. On a constituency by constituency basis, Labour may win 55% of the seats in the Commons, but it’s conceivable that they might have only achieved 45% of the total votes cast. In such an instance, Labour would only be allowed 45% of the seats in the Lords.

I’m sure you can think of plenty of other possibilities, or even have a combination of measures. Yet either alone or together, these proposals would make the upper house more democratic than it is now. Some commentators in the wake of the queen’s speech were arguing that making the upper house democratic would put it on a par with the lower house and so undermine the authority of that latter house.

I don’t think this is a wholly bad thing. The idea of the upper house should be, in my opinion, the place where the lower house is challenged and held to account on individual bills. The act which enables the Commons to push through legislation regardless of the Lords abhors my sense of democratic fairness. Of course, the lower house is accountable in general elections, but these only occur once every 4 or 5 years, thus negating the idea that we actually live in a democracy. In truth, democracy is only a sporadic visitor to these shores, while hegemony is ordinarily resident.

What would then become of the bishops? Well, I don’t think an awful lot would change. Because when I had a flick through Hansard, what we find is that they don’t really participate much (though they are by no means unique in this). While they kicked up a fuss, and rightly so, about the government’s victimisation of the disabled in the form of the Welfare Reform Bill, even had those bishops who voted against the bill voted the other way, the result would have been the same. There were also many more secular peers who voted against the bill.

For those that may have spent some time in the Lords, taking them back to their local areas would allow them more time to do the job with they are tasked: making disciples, baptising them and teaching them about the life and work of Jesus.

The argument of needing them as a moral voice is a void one, as bishops are only representative of one denomination of one religion (however we might define that), and as I have argued before, religions do not have a monopoly on morality.

So by backing a reform of the House of Lords, my hope would be that we can make Parliament more closely resemble a democracy and free up the bishops to preach the gospel.

Of course, whether any change will actually occur is a wholly different matter…

Political whips

This should be a fairly short post, hopefully. I’m working on a few others where my lack of brevity is causing a significant delay, particularly as they have been promised for many months now.

The news was abuzz over the weekend and Monday with the news of a vote that was to take place in the House of Commons. The proposition was to hold a referendum on whether or not to remain part of Europe. At the time of writing (Monday evening) this vote has not yet taken place. This should change by the time this goes live on the web.

I have my own opinions on Europe, but that is not the point of this post. I wish to concentrate more on the relation between referenda, democracy and party whips. The Conservative party said they would impose a “3-line whip” on MPs to ensure that they opposed the bill. It was estimated that up to 70 Conservative MPs may rebel and vote for the motion. It seems unlikely that the motion will pass, due in part to this whip. The meaning of “3-line” as I understand it (as ever, please correct me if my facts are wrong) is that if an MP holds a ministerial post, that they will either be expected to resign from that post, or be sacked, should they choose to go against the party line.

The job of a Member of Parliament is to provide representation in the House of Commons on behalf of their constituents. The job of a party whip is to ensure that an MP of a given party follows that party’s policy, regardless of whether or not it was in a manifesto on which it was elected. It is easily conceivable that the interests of the party to which they belong are different from the interests of the constituents they represent. So the MP is left with a fundamental quandary. In such a situation, they have to choose between two mutually incompatible choices.

If they value democracy, and consider it to be the heart of our system of government, then there can be only one choice: to represent the constituents. If they think it is more important to toe that party line than it is to provide the people of this country a voice in government, then they should obey the party whip. This clearly demonstrates that party whips are inherently opposed to democracy. It is shame on our Parliamentary system that this anachronistic post is allowed to continue to existence.

If party whips were banned then we would lose nothing of value. What we would gain would be MPs who are more accountable to their electorate than they are to their party. This is what democracy should look like. It doesn’t fix everything. There are other problems we have in our system. But this would be one change that would improve the status quo. I am not a revolutionary; I believe most progress comes gradually, but this would be an easy improvement to make that would pave the way for further improvements.

I know that referenda are expensive and it is simply impractical to use them for every decision. Personally, I would welcome a referendum on Europe, given how wide-ranging it is. The question of EU membership is no less relevant today than it was when we last had a referendum in 1975. I wasn’t even born then. My grandparents who had the vote then have all since passed on. Though I am not certain of the statistics (if anyone can provide a source for the numbers, please do!) I think it is reasonable to suppose that those who were eligible to vote in 1975 now form the minority of the electorate today. 36 years of life in Europe may also have changed some opinions. I am not saying what way I would necessarily vote, I merely point out my belief that having the opportunity to have a democratic vote on the matter is more welcome than a dictatorial stance of “this should not be talked about.”

Update: It is now early in the morning and the news is that the motion was defeated as expected. A full list of the rebelling MPs (which, I am glad to say, includes my own representative) may be found here.