Having just read David Cameron’s recipe to restore public faith in politicians I note his glaring omissions. He omits what I regard as a fundamental gravy train that MPs have supped from for far too long. When I got to Parliament in 2005 I was outraged to find that MPs could use public money from the taxpayer for their mortgage and – given the booming house market until recent times – could then sell their property for huge profits and pocket them. That has been a scandal. I have bleated on about this ever since. Nick Clegg has taken up this issue too. The argument is very simple – that no one should be able to make a profit out of public money. Of course – David Cameron himself is profiting from this nice little earner. So – that’s the first black mark.
He also says nothing of the House of Lords – the bastion of privilege and non-accountability or democratic mandate. Failing to even wish to tackle this antiquated anomaly shows again that DC is a conservative who has been forced to flagg up ‘reform’ – but without the heart and commitment of a genuine reformer.
I was pleased to read the small paragraph on bringing the advantages of internet to Parliament. I have banged on about this for some time – and again I don’t think Cameron gets to the heart of what really matters. For example (not in Cameron’s recipe) from the first publication of a Bill – the changes and amendments all come on separate bits of papers.
I remember after leading on my first Bill in Parliament for the Liberal Democrats I went to the Labour Whips office to persuade them to use tracking changes so that we could see the Bill and its alterations all in the same place. You know track changes – the sort of thing the rest of the world has been using for years and years and years. But not Parliament. Instead – something changes, and you get given a block of replacement text without changes marked up. They seem incapable of breaking out of their straight jacket of history and moving to modern online information.
This just demonstrates the inability to move on the tiniest of changes that might help produce better legislation – and also open it up to public comment, scrutiny and feedback without having to be a lawyer to understand the bloody stuff. Make it easy for everyone to see what’s being changed – and I’ve no doubt people will start using that data, lobbying MPs more effectively and even spot things MPs have missed. After all – it’s not exactly news to say that some legislation gets through Parliament with mistakes in the wording. But open up the data – and then there’s the chance for other people to spot the mistakes, highlight them before they become law – and we all benefit.
There is stuff that Cameron’s said which I agree with – as you would expect given that many of the ‘ideas’ he puts forward in today’s Guardian are long-standing Liberal Democrat policies! Fixed-term parliaments, reducing of the power of the executive, cutting the number of MPs, devolving power to councils and empowering individuals. Transparency and accountability – definitely. Shame Cameron has had to be dragged kicking and screaming on these. But – to be fair – at least he is going out there.
DC, however, does not want to change the electoral system – a system that conserves the old ways at its very heart. No surprise there. We need an electoral system that gives real power to the voter to choose – and strips away the comfort of being in a safe seat that leads so many MPs astray, forgetting what they are really there for. (See this excellent analysis of the pattern between how safe an MP’s seat is and whether or not they’ve abused the expense rules.)
At present we have a government that does not represent the people – elected to total power by something like 36% only of voters – and garnered by electoral and financial effort being funneled into swing seats in marginals, largely ignoring voters elsewhere.
If we want politicians and politics to truly change – it isn’t enough to simply change a few rules in the heat of the media spotlight, but we need to change the rules by which MPs get into power – and can get kicked out again.
But at least, this catastrophic and seismic explosion into the body politic – has made even the Conservative leader – and even if for the wrong reasons – say some of the right things. Some – but not enough.
Gordon Brown, mind you, is woefully absent from this debate altogether, off the pace and not addressing the issues that need addressing. Totally explains why Blair managed to out dance him on the leadership in the first place.
What is clear is that this is a moment in time when the political establishment is in crisis. And that establishment has kept at bay the real changes that our needed in our country to make our democracy decent, effective, transparent and accountable. Power to the people is what is needed. Clearly power that rests in politicians hands will not deliver the new politics that we so desperately need.
I remember after leading on my first Bill in Parliament for the Liberal Democrats I went to the Labour Whips office to persuade them to use tracking changes so that we could see the Bill and its alterations all in the same place. You know track changes – the sort of thing the rest of the world has been using for years and years and years. But not Parliament. Instead – something changes, and you get given a block of replacement text without changes marked up. They seem incapable of breaking out of their straight jacket of history and moving to modern online information.As an aside, it would be quite straightforward to automatically generate a summary of changes from the replacement text versions (and produce arbitrarily marked up versions, however you want them). We’ve had the tools since the 1980s. Just because they won’t do it for you doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I always assumed MPs had people doing that sort of thing for them.
One problem I think Andrew is that a lot of stuff is provided to MPs on paper rather than in electronic form, which makes the job an awful lot harder.
What you say here is really relevant. I’m (still) not a (UK) voter, nonetheless I find this analysis really appropriate. I fear that David Cameron will be turning back as a ‘nice face for the old conservatives’.Thanks a lot for this blog post!Giuseppe SollazzoAlexandra Palace