Political reform in UK and Ireland is no quick fix for public trust

In the throes of financial crisis, government is desperate to seem to be in charge and the opposition to be different. As there is no radical difference between them on emergency measures apart from a blame game, they reach out for political reform. Not surprisingly given the extent of their shared political culture, this is true in both the UK and Ireland. The problem is, political reform – more accountability, transparency, better scrutiny in Parliament etc -rather than increase trust, can just as easily reduce trust by exposing new depths of skulduggery and depths of complexity. In politician’s boilerplate prose, Enda Kenny’s recipe parallels an agenda in Britain which right enough, brings reform a few steps nearer. In each State, the big ticket item is a smaller and more effective Parliament. (Far be for me to be parochial, but NI parties be warned).
Enda Kenny says

Our New Politics plan will reduce the size of the Dáil by 20 and seek public approval for the abolition of Seanad Éireann. We are determined to bring more women into politics and new Dáil committees will have strengthened powers of investigation so costly tribunals become a thing of the past. The Dáil will become the forum of accountability to the people.

The Constitution Unit has assessed the likelihood of UK reform based on party positions that will inform their manifestos, on Monday to Wednesday next week. This is my own view of the politics of UK reform.

The raft of political reforms on the agenda for this election is the biggest for a century but is not as substantial as it seems. Very little of it will increase public trust in politics. Too many ideas to put to referendum can suggest weak resolve and an each way bet, rather than reaching for the ideal of greater democracy. Different Conservative and Labour reforms are likely to figure in some pretty blatant wooing of the Lib Dems for a hung parliament.

The eye catcher of a power of recall to allow voters to sack their MP is backed by all three main parties but has almost never been used in countries where it applies and could be exploited to destabilise governments. Some ideas are solid enough. The most promising is the Conservative pledge to reduce the number of MPs by 10% from 2015. This echoes a Lib Dem Dem commitment to go further. The Tory plan to hold simultaneous referendums for elected mayors in big English cities packs a bigger punch than the usual pieties to increase the power of local government.

Other Conservative ideas would fail to make a permanent mark. Their flirtation with English votes on English laws is likely to fade as the idea is basically unworkable in practice. Although loudly trumpeted, their promise to hold referendums on all future EU treaty changes cannot commit future Parliaments.

Labour’s pledge of fixed term parliaments removes the chance of opportunist early elections, an option Gordon Brown dithered over in 2007 and from which his reputation never really recovered.
Although partly unfair, scepticism has greeted Labour’s disinterring of old plans for electoral reform for the Commons. Labour’s support for AV clashes with Lib Dem preferences for either STV or AV+ and would run into the implacable opposition of the Conservatives who are wedded to first-past- the post. A smaller Commons elected in constituencies of roughly equal size would reduce the Tory deficit in seats.

The tangle of competing bids which the Constitution Unit analyses strongly suggests that party consensus remains necessary to achieve significant reform. A closely fought election is not the best way to achieve it. Bargaining in a hung parliament could be a different matter. Here on big medium term themes, the Lib Dems could impose their will in a way they have been unable to do for generations. Labour and the Conservatives might move faster on an elected Upper House and on reforming party funding at last, because the Lib Dems are keener than they are on both.

The slow grind to improve Parliament’s reputation may be best served by implementing the broadly consensual Wright committee reforms, to increase the power of Parliament in relation to Government, and to pass fewer and better laws.

  • slug

    You didn’t mention House of Lords where most parties now support elections.

  • slug

    I see the constitution unit argue that HoL reform would not be a priority under a Conservative government.

    E Kenny’s reforms to reduce the Dail by 20 TDs is interesting. Does anyone know if they still plan to have a list system or have they dropped that idea?

  • Michaelhenry

    how many millions would be saved if they got rid of the house of lords, what good is it anyway, money has to be saved some where, i propose that the house of lords should go, plus any new laws would be passed more quicker and more cheaper.

  • slug

    Fine Gael seem to have dropped the idea of a list system. 20 fewer TDs from 166 is similar to the Tories idea of dropping 10% of MPs. Both are good ideas. We need to reduce our number of MLAs by 18%.

  • I think its good to reduce the number of MPs and TDs, but I also think we need to rid ourselves of these ‘career politicians’. The ones who could not organise the proverbial in a brewery, have never had a real job, and yet have no trouble whatsoever telling the rest of us how we should live and how much we should live on.

  • LabourNIman

    For politics and democracy to improve a two things have to happen –

    An english assembly – It baffles me that my party has got away with this injustice for so long.

    House of Lords to become a senate with 72 elected officals (like the euro parliment) from the whole of the UK.

  • LabourNIman

    I completely agree.

  • On one level, as Brian Walker’s headpiece says, this is premature. We do not have the manifesto commitments; and are extrapolating from past utterances. What’s on offer so far is as soft as over-ripe Camembert (all those hypothetic “efficiency” savings), as full-of-holes as Emmentaler (which applies to most of the political “reform” stuff), even as whiffy (e.g. the “marriage” allowance) as Limburger.

    Next: there has been considerable reform over the last dozen years. The hereditaries have been reduced to a rump (and could easy be culled to extinction, by not filling dead ermine). The Law Lords have been translated across Parliament Square as the Supreme Court. Next up: the bishops? After that, the end of patronage.

    A unicameral legislature (which once was Labour policy) sadly ain’t gonna happen this side of the proletarian rising.

    Nor am I entirely sure about the arguments for reducing the size of the lower House (in either jurisdiction). What that means is reducing the number of backbenchers, on both sides.

    Fewer chairs at the cabinet table means less sharing of status. Status is still measured by the size of the entourage (read Chris Mullin on the subject). So chopping the number of elected members, while not proportionately reducing the numbers on the pay-roll, the toady wannabes, the ones panting for patronage, simply cuts the number of malcontents. And those “below the gangway” are the ones we want: bloody-minded, dissident, opinionated, often plain wrong, but the best check on a runaway executive. If Labour in 1997 set out on the wrong road, it was because there were too many young, new, ambitious hacks willing to kow-tow for a kick-up, now or later, the greasy pole.

    No way are cuts of that sort one of the “big-ticket items” (for those read this week’s Economist). A minimal amount is saved, in terms of global governmental expenditure. It doesn’t address the “democratic deficit”.

    So, we are back to what used to be the policy of the old Liberal Party: devolve wherever possible, and PR everywhere. Since that means giving real power and financial control to the devolved assemblies and local authorities, it isn’t going to happen under a centralising Tory government, will be severely constrained under a Labour one, and probably unaffordable anyhow.

    And an “English” parliament? You’ve got to be kidding.

    Best prognosis?

    Under a Cameron government distraction therapy by contrived rows with Europe. With anyone else, glacial modification of the present structures.

  • Malcolm Redfellow

    Are you serious. what is wrong with an English Parliament. If there were Ireland would be united very quickly, and Scotland and Wales would have all the independence they could ever dream of.

    I am totally in favour of English independence and think it is long overdue.

  • Alias

    Kenny is just being a good europhile and preparing Ireland for its smooth integration into the emergent single European state. Its constitution is redundant, and its second chamber passed into redundancy when the amount of new laws that originate in the EU passed the 50% mark and has now passed the 80% mark. The government is just a glorified county council anyway, but as the EU don’t want to run county councils, I guess we’ll still have to elect these muppets…

  • pippakin @ 12:01 AM:

    Because an English assembly (call it that for differentiation) has a natural Tory majority. Simples! (Tsk!)

    As long as the UK parliament persists (which I take as a given), with a Tory national government the second-tier “English assembly” is either a rubber-stamp or a departure point for intra-party disputes. Neither good politics. No Tory parliament could tolerate that.

    With a non-Tory parliament, of any description, it represents an alternative power base, as entrenched, reactionary and subversive as the pre-1911 Lords. No non-Tory parliament could tolerate that.

    For a test case, imagine the toing and froing there would be over a re-run of the Hunting Bill, which was the context in which this daft notion was floated most recently.

    Further: what is the separation of powers? Especially on matters of finance?

    Where is the community of interest across 50m population, across counties, unitary authorities and boroughs? Have a look at how the relations between Westminster and the London area (population 7.5 million, more than Switzerland) of the old LCC + metropolitan boroughs etc, then GLC and now London mayorality have rarely been less than troubled.

    Consider an analogy: New York State (pop: 20M). Do you really want the complex tensions (not least over taxations) that exist between NYC and the 61 other cities, Albany and the 62 counties (which include the five boroughs of NYC), and DC? No fewer than 4200 different elective and representative bodies exist in NY state, without overcoming, but largely magnifying, that problem of “democratic deficit”. Please convince me that is “good governance”.

    * Why add a further (and expensive) layer which does not improve the “democratic deficit” but merely leaches even more responsibilities away from the existing institutions?
    * Why not devolve powers to our existing bodies? (Short answer: because that leaves Westminster and Ministers with responsibility and answerability but without power.)
    * Do delegated bodies (police authorities, health authorities, etc) defer to the assembly or to parliament? If so, why?
    * What responsibilities, except tax-raising powers, military and diplomatic functions are properly left at Westminster? Yet, when things go wrong, who has to clear up the mess? Again, responsibility and answerability without power.

    Finally, look at the — at first sight quite sensible — regional councils that were proposed. When the electors in the NE (perhaps chosen for the trial as the region most sympathetic to a Labour parliament) were polled, 78% said “phooey”. No more was heard.

  • Panic, these ones like it up em.

    To introduce some level of democracy in Britain these virtually no democracy safe seats have to be dealt with.

    Where is the democracy when there is a large proportion of seats that have no chance of having a contest.

    Is it any wonder that some of these MPs behaved as mini dictators and deemed it their right to claim for everything and anything.

    A smaller fully elected body is desirable in my opinion (in both Ireland and Britain)

    The elections for such a “senate” should be held midway between the projected length of a parliament. This would be another reason for having fixed parliament terms. I believe that in this modern era 4 years is sufficient length for a parliament.

    I like democracy unlike many of our politicians.

    Just as an aside is anyone that wishes(or willing) to be called a “Lord” or a “Lady” really suitable to be in a powerful position in a so-called democratic system. How quickly they forget that they are the “servants” of the people.
    Don’t encourage them with this “Lording and Ladying”.

  • Panic, these ones like it up em.

    Apologies ( I hope this edit makes my thoughts clearer on the senate and house of L***s)

    “A smaller fully elected body is desirable in my opinion (in both Ireland and Britain)”

    A second(senate or house of “senators”) smaller fully elected body is desirable in my opinion (in both Ireland and Britain)

  • Malcolm Redfellow

    The Brits have been ruled by Scotland since 1997, most English have no problem with that but take exception to carrying the can back (as usual) for the appalling track record of the labour govt.

    Scotland got a Parliament.The north and Wales each got a real power Assembly, and the English were offered regional quangos, even the English spotted that one.

    The main reason it is not likely to happen is because Westminster is the power base of the big parties, and that shows why it should happen.

  • Cynic2

    “new laws would be passed more quicker and more cheaper”

    Yeah ….just what we need. More and more laws quicker and cheaper. Wal Mart Government

  • pippakin @ 06:36 AM:

    The Brits have been ruled by Scotland since 1997

    Ah, yes! The predictable adolescent’s sub-ethnic gybe!

    It’s funny how it gained currency, greatly helped by that great political stinker “thinker” Paul Staines (by name and nature). Yet it didn’t equally apply to the Major government (Lamont, Rifkind, Mackay, Lang, Forsyth, MacGregor all in the Cabinet). Or to Macmillan, Home of the Hirsel, MacDonald, Bonar Law, Asquith (MP for East Fife), Campbell-Bannerman, Balfour … and, look!, we’ve not got beyond the 20th century, yet!

    And that usual derisory “Brits”. Laugh? I nearly yawned at the predictability. And so precise a descriptor, too.

    As for the devolved Assemblies, let’s see … Yeah, sure, Wales and Scotland are quite satisfied with limited and no-taxation powers. Just ask Dewi when he come along here. Nor did the “Brits” have any problems at all foisting on NI the same sort of policing powers “enjoyed” by Kent and other middle-sized counties. And NI still hasn’t worked out how to run a water board. All round, then, Is everybody happy? — You bet your life we are!

    Now kindly address yourself, for once, to serious aspects of your own proposition:

    1. Why is an English assembly a better solution to the real democratic deficit than devolving powers to local government? How does it bring executive decisions and administration closer to the administered?

    2. Why does running a local authority the size of London or or the West Midlands or Greater Manchester (all of which dwarf NI) have less clout than a mere Westminster back-bencher.

    3. Those back-benchers, the arses on which everyone has sat except a man [e e cummings], are constitutionally “the power base of the big parties”. Since “Dave” has been so assiduous in ensuring that his new intake are all party loyalists, curry-combed for the least tick of dissent, how will that improve the accountability of parliament?

  • Reader

    Malcolm Redfellow: No non-Tory parliament could tolerate that.
    An English assembly would be devolution like any other devolution, with a devolved set of powers and a budget devolved from the national Government.
    You expect a Tory Assembly – but that gives them an option to screw up at a devolved level just like Labour did in Scotland. Even from your point of view it’s got to be better than just banning the Conservative party.
    Now – down to the nitty-gritty – what extra powers were you proposing to devolve to local government? Anything remotely comparable to what has already been devolved to the 3 Assemblies?

  • Reader @ 08:40 AM:

    Since I’m not the one who proposed the English Assembly, why am I expected to defend the mad notion or other alternatives?

    As for local government, we might well start by restoring some, or all of the powers that applied at local level before Margaret Thatcher took the hump and quelled them.

    Except for BIG projects (Heathrow third runway, energy , a high-speed train link …) why should planning ever be the remit of national government? Do local authorities (at least at the county council and metropolitan level) not know their housing needs? Not want to attract and retain industry and commerce? Have some clue about transport, and even hospital provision in their locality? Even the Tories (who were so hot on “national curricula” and “national Standarads”) now reckon schools should be local, even down to hedge-school level.

    Why should local authorities not be allowed free rein to raise local revenues? It used to be possible when they were permitted to set their own rates, domestic and business. Ah! yes! Another great extension of freedom by the Thatcher government, at the behest of the Tory party paymasters in business and commerce. In those old days, local government paid for going on half its needs: now it is dependent on hand-outs from Whitehall.

    How did Labour “screw up” Scottish devolution? There has never been a one-party majority in the Scottish Assembly/Parliament: indeed, the whole electoral machinery was geared to that end. If you are using “screwing” in its other sense, my historical perspective suggests the juiciest sexual scandals tend to be of the Tory persuasion. Anyway, who said I’d “ban” the Tories? On the contrary, shooting is too good for them.

    Now, address yourself to your proposal. How does an English Assembly bridge the “democratic deficit”, bring government back closer to the people? Do we elect this Assembly on the same basis as Westminster, with 533 MPs and 533 MLAs (thus creating two representatives for Mid-Numpyshire with different powers)? Even if we go the Rifkind route, and have an “English Grand Committee” of Westminster MPs, we are not out of that wood. Do we have two Ministers of Dishwashing (because one happens to sit for a non-English seat? [Try blog.federalunion.co.uk for the whole set of problems.]

    A footnote to all this:

    We’ve been this way before.

    In August 1910, when the Third Home Rule Bill was working up a head-of-steam, Lloyd George cooked up a proposal (intended to stymie the extreme nationalists) for “Home-Rule-all-round”. That, a century back, looked remarkably like this “modern” notion of an English Assembly.

    Around the same time, the Unionists began to recognise they couldn’t stay Irish devolution, and needed to look for some provincial arrangement.

    Lloyd George’s abortion wouldn’t fly then, any more than it will now; and for many of the same reasons.

    So Churchill, no less (then still a Liberal minister), sophisticated the proposal by suggesting something like 40-odd federated units across the whole UK. That, at least, had some merits of balance.

  • Michaelhenry

    cynic2, 15, without the burden of the tesco house of lords laws would be passed quicker and cheaper, plus these ones who would get a p.45 are loaded anyway, take a huge slice of what is supposed to be democracy, the people cheer when what is removed is un wanted bureaucracy.

  • Brian Walker

    Slug, the House of Lords there, via the link to the full Constitution Unit assessment. These are not past but current items contained in the published Conservative reform agenda. They all only await confirmation in the manifestos between Monday and Wednesday. Our issue over an English parliament or English votes on English laws at Westminster is not a matter of mere preference; it rests on the difficulty of separating out English from UK laws. The Tories recognise this. Their constitution task force under Ken Clarke opted for English-only amendments and voting in the committee and report stages, and with all MPs voting on the final stage, the third reading when no amendments are allowed. Difficulties would remain over what exactly an English only law is be and drawing the Speaker into controversy over classifying it. Politically if the Cons won a majority would it be necessary? In a hung parliament, is it important enough to risk all in a vote of confidence? The Cons will look at it again, and report back next year.

  • articles

    My reforms are so minimal that no decent wannabee politician could refuse. Quite simply:

    • Guaranteed job description and contract of employment (including conduct clause)*
    • Guaranteed new job description and contract of employment (including conduct clause) on becoming a Minister.
    • Guaranteed fixed term contracts (alongside fixed term parliaments)
    • Guaranteed treble the average salary , no allowances necessary
    • Guaranteed receipted expenses reimbursed
    • Guaranteed six weeks holidays a year plus public holidays
    • Guaranteed *** hotel accommodation in central London
    • Guaranteed working hours, Monday to Friday 8.00am to 6.00pm with TOIL for extra curricular working
    • Guaranteed small employer status with three staff and guaranteed budget
    • Guaranteed provision for secondment of successful candidates from their place of work with employer recompensed
    • Guaranteed job back or similar as necessary

    *Successful candidates at the polls are expected to put in place
    • Contingency arrangements for constituency, to be met from own pocket, if absent for more than one week e.g. abroad
    • Contingency arrangements for constituency, to be met from own pocket if made Minister.
    • Work and activity recording arrangements including enhanced register of interests to include meetings with individuals and organisations

  • Malcolm Redfellow

    The English are not the ones who spent eighteen years whinging about being ruled by the English! Alec Salmond is still whining about being ruled by the English, apparently you have to be in Scotland to be a Scot with a voice! All that has happened is Alex Salmond has more supporters among the English than he does among the Scots, similarly with Wales and the north of Ireland.

    The English do not care about any of them but they have been rediscovering their English and they do not like what has happened to England. Try telling the Scots they cannot put their ethnicity on a census form!

    I remember when it would have been unthinkable for
    a member of the BNP to be elected to anything, now they have a dozen or more on councils and, I think, two MEPs The English are angry and as someone who is allowed to be proud of Ireland I can understand why.

  • Michaelhenry

    the english do not care about them, pippakin 22, but them do not care about the english.

  • pippakin @ 11:49 AM:

    I take that as sufficient seeing eye-to-eye to invite you to join with me in the official Slugger O’Toole Fan Club Song:

    Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
    And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
    And the Hindus hate the Moslems,
    And everybody hates the Jews;

    But during National Brotherhood Week,
    National Brotherhood Week,
    It’s National Everyone-Smile-At-
    One-Another-hood Week.
    Be nice to people who
    Are inferior to you —
    It’s only for a week, so have no fear!
    Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year!

    Also on YouTube.

  • Michaelhenry

    seamus heaney has nothing to worry about malcolm redfellow, the great bard will sleep easy tonight.

  • Michaelhenry

    You know I really am impressed! I make mistakes with my English all the time, mostly its because I type what I am thinking and rarely ‘preview’. So whoever the unfortunate trying to decipher my comment is, he at least is getting the real deal.

    As for the ‘they dont care about us, so we dont care about them’ thing, that sounds like progress at long last. I can remember when it was pretty much hate, hate all round.

    If the Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman and Welshman could not find anyone else to fight, why they would just fight each other. Stand back now child and wait for the storm to break!

  • Malcolm Redfellow

    Perhaps, in view of Mr Henry I should just say:

    Oh the Gift the Giftie gie us

    To see ousels as others see us…

  • articles

    Thanks for the you tube clip, it reminds me of that great political slogan:

    I’m right, I’m folky, I’m Lehrer

  • Michaelhenry

    englishman, irishmman, scotsman, welsman, pippakin 1, what about the women do they not count, your not one of those muslim types are you.

  • Michaelhenry

    Fortunately most of the fighting the above refers to happened when women were not allowed to fight.