How should politics be reformed?: Part 1

The crisis currently facing politics in the UK is massive. Citizens feel detached from the political process and trust in politicians is rock-bottom. It’s been widely noted that this is a perfect opportunity to reform the rotten system.

I only want to briefly cover the main ideas for reform, so I will use The Guardian’s “A New Politics” supplement (PDF link) as the basis for this article. It gives a good overview of the most common suggestions for political reform in the UK.

One thing before I start though. Ten years ago in Scotland, when the Scottish Parliament was set up, there was a lot of talk about what the “new politics” would look like. I think it’s fair to say that most of us have been disappointed with what the political elites came up with.

On with The Guardian’s suggestions.

Written constitution

For a while now, I have been sceptical of the desirability of a written constitution. I’m sceptical about rules in general. After all, it was rules that got us into this expenses mess in the first place. Politician after politician lined up to excuse their behaviour: “it was completely within the rules”. In many cases, their behaviour was in the rules. The overwhelming message to the voters was: screw the morals, I only care about the rules!

Think to yourself, why is murder taboo? It certainly isn’t because murder is against the law. It is because murder is absolutely abhorrent. You don’t need rules to tell you that. So what would a written constitution do? It might give people with dubious morals a set of loopholes they can exploit, with a ready-made excuse for their behaviour.

As for Timothy Garton Ash’s suggestion that every schoolchild should be taught about the importance of such a constitution, can we not leave that sort of cheesy crap to the Americans?

The monarchy

I am no monarchist, and I really wouldn’t mind if the monarchy was abolished. But who really believes that doing away with the Queen would restore trust in politicians? The Queen is probably the one person involved in the government that anyone has a modicum of respect for at the moment.

Electoral reform

As you may guess from my previous post, I have a strong interest in electoral reform. For several years I have felt that the voting system is the most important part of the system to get right.

For me, the First Past the Post voting system is the thing that stinks the most about Westminster. As I pointed out, it is the sort of system that allows a party to gain a thumping majority having gained the votes of just 16% of the population.

It also means the creation of safe seats, the modern equivalent of rotten boroughs, where voters are utterly neglected. Incidentally, there appears to be a correlation between the safeness of an MP’s seat and their likelihood of being implicated in the expenses scandal.

John Harris seems happy to settle for the Additional Member System currently used in the Scottish Parliament. But this system has enough problems to merit its own post. His other suggestion of Alternative Vote Plus is not ideal as it has the same problems as AMS, but with the added “bonus” of being rigged in favour of the larger parties and having a relatively low level of proportionality.

For me, little other than Single Transferable Vote will suffice. STV vastly reduces the number of safe seats and places more power into voters’ hands, and takes it away from the smoke-filled rooms of political parties. I am quite perturbed that John Harris neglected to mention STV at all.

Parliamentary protocol

Here, Hugh Muir seems most concerned with the quaint traditions such as Black Rod and “blather about “honourable” and “right honourable gentlemen”?” As with the monarchy, though, I see little harm in these things, and it really isn’t the issue at hand. I would certainly like to see a less stuffy approach though, and I think the Scottish Parliament has just about got the balance right on this sort of thing.

House of Lords

Jonathan Freedland wants an elected House of Lords above all else. But I think more elections and more elected politicians are the last thing we need. Of course the present system is unacceptable in many ways, but there is no denying that it has saved our skin a number of times by holding the government to account in ways which I doubt an elected House of Lords would ever be able to do.

One possibility would be for people to be appointed for a term at random, like doing jury service (this is also one of The Guardian’s separate sections, so I consider it further below). Perhaps it would be good for Lords to be appointed, but by a wider range of bodies, not just the Prime Minister.

Local government

Simon Jenkins suggests that MPs have a dual role, and they must do a lot of local work in their constituencies which would have been “unheard of 50 years ago”. He suggests that there should be local mayors to relieve MPs of these duties. Again, I would be reluctant to introduce more elected officials. Surely the answer is to strengthen the already-existing local authorities.

The speaker

I have no firm views on how the role should be reformed, but none of Jackie Ashley’s suggestions sound undesirable.

MP numbers

Given some of what I have written above, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I would be in favour of reducing the amount of MPs. 400-odd sounds about right to me. Again, the increased workload of each MP should in fact be absorbed by local government.


I would not be against attempts to increase, say, the number of female MPs. But stunts such as quotas have no place in a truly meritocratic system. Moreover, it is well known that voters tend to see such initiatives as an insult, and a backlash ensues. This is certainly not one way to restore faith in politics.

Direct democracy

Julian Glover says, “use the jury system as a model”. That is one suggestion for reform of the House of Lords, so I wouldn’t be totally opposed to that idea. I doubt many would be too keen on that idea though, and I don’t think I’d be up for taking five years out of my life either.

Mr Glover seems to think there is something fundamentally wrong with the concept of representative democracy, but I really do not think so. The role of such juries should be limited, and I wouldn’t give them much of a role in the House of Commons.

I will consider The Guardian’s other proposals tomorrow


  1. I agree with you about written constitutions. I would add that they limit democracy in that they often are very difficult to change and therefore rules which are deemed appropriate at one point in time remain in place even when society no longer agrees with them. ie if the US decided to revoke the right to bare arms, the constitution would prevent them from doing so. To me there should be a constant evolution of governance and so a written constitution should not be enacted. Unless is was easily amended or very loose in its interpretation, but that would render it pointless. No doubt thats what will happen and it will be presented as a great leap.

    I also agree with limiting the size of the commons, would you allow a PM to bring in ministers from outwith the two chambers? im not sure, but i think with US still committee’s it could be made to work and be accountable.

    On the Lords, now i consider myself a strong democrat, however, i like appointed Lords as i think it brings to the table experts who simply wont be there if it becomes fully elected. Perhaps, either half or three quarters elected is the answer? The Lords must retain its ability to hold the govt to account without being able to trump the govt at all times.

  2. That’s a nasty little self-satisfying system you have there “If you are posting your first comment, I will have to approve it before it is displayed.”
    So if you do not approve it, my comment will not be displayed and none of my sunsequent comments will be displayed either?
    Prove me wrong and publish this unedited, on your stagnant blog.

    The speaker
    I have no firm views on how the role should be reformed, but none of Jackie Ashley’s suggestions sound undesirable.

    What the heck is the point of making a comment with no comment and then backing an MPs suggestions without quoting them and justifying the argument? Flacid stuff.

  3. Buzzard Cock, The point of not displaying someone’s first comments is to prevent spam.

    The point of this post was to go through the suggestions made by Guardian columnists in a recent newspaper supplement.

    I haven’t backed any MPs’ suggestions. Assuming you are talking about Jackie Ashley, she is not an MP, she is a Guardian columnist.

    Better luck next time.