It was in 1865 that John Bright used the phrase ‘the Mother of all Parliaments’. The full phrase is “England is the Mother of all Parliaments”. It was used in a speech in support of reform of the electoral system, which culminated in the much delayed Reform Act of 1867, and gave the vote to urban working class men. Far from complimenting Westminster, Bright was saying that England, not Westminster, was the Mother of all Parliaments. Westminster then was a deeply corrupt body, and as reluctant to embrace reform as it is today.
Bright’s misquoted phrase has stuck. In people’s minds Westminster is the ‘Mother of all Parliaments’. And so revered has Westminster become that to criticise it, or even suggest that the dear old lady is in need of reform, is to blaspheme against democracy itself. And therein lies the problem. Why? Because the Westminster model is broken. Today, unreformed and suffocated by meaningless and cumbersome procedure and ‘tradition’, ‘Westminster’ answers the selfish needs of political parties and personally ambitious politicians, and ignores the best interests of the electorate.
After years of manipulating and ‘modifying’ the system to meet their needs, the political class has succeeded in marginalising the electorate and has effectively shut them out of the democratic process.
Traditional institutions of government, including Parliament itself, have been ignored or side-stepped by the new political class. ‘Government’ has become one enormous PR exercise conducted through the media. Powerful lobbies twist and influence major decisions, and politicians and political parties are ‘bought’ by corporations and the wealthy elite. The consequences of all this is dysfunctional politics, a marginalised electorate and a deeply divided society.
I would suggest there are three major reforms that need to take place:
First, money needs to be taken out of politics. The Kelly report of November 2010 recommended donations to any political party should be limited to £10,000 and that the state should increase its funding of political parties. In real terms, his recommendation would mean that it would cost each member of the electorate 50p per year. I would go further. In Germany, the state funds political parties and elections. I would advocate the same should happen in Britain. The state should increase its funding of political parties significantly, and the public purse opened to pay for election expenses. I believe £2 per elector per year would not be untoward. Private donations to political parties should be capped at £1500 per year, and donations should be limited to political parties, with donations to individual politicians outlawed. These changes are a very small price to pay for honest politics.
Secondly, lobbying as a means of informing politicians is a useful part of the political process. However, it can also be a gross distortion if only one side of the argument is put forward, or if excessive amounts of money are spent by one side in putting across their case. Lobbying should be done on a level playing field with no side able to out-spend or out-lobby the other. I would suggest a lobbying website where any person or company can lobby a minister or a politician. The format should be simple and limited. If the minister or the politician wishes any further information he can request it electronically, but again the format should be one that does not allow the availability of funds to improve or amplify the case of any lobbying party. Face to face meetings should only be allowed when there is an opposing view. These meetings need to be formal with equal representation and recorded minutes. There should be a heavy penalty for any person or organisation who lobbies outside these rules.
The third reform is probably the most important of all: the reform of the executive, both national and local. One of the main reasons for the ‘great disconnect’ in British politics is the outmoded way we organise local and national politics and allocate political responsibility. The current system of local authorities is expensive and inefficient. England needs to be split into regions and have regional assemblies with an ability to play a part in national politics.
Nationally, I would suggest that the number of constituencies should be significantly reduced to 300 and based within the new regional boundaries. Voters would have two votes. The first vote would elect an individual candidate .This would be on a first past the post system. The second vote would be cast for a party list. This would determine the relative strengths of the parties in the House of Commons. 300 seats would be allocated based on the number of votes a party had received. Each parliament would have 600 MPs. This system would allow voters both to support able individuals to represent them and to support the party they felt would act in their best interests. This voting system is similar to the one used in the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies.
Regionally, each region would have a regional assembly headed by a first minister. There would be 50 wards or constituencies per region. Voting would be on a similar basis to the national model; 50 individual candidates and 50 party candidates.
The House of Lords would be abolished and replaced by the House of Representatives. This would be made up of the First Minister of each region, (including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and 10 members from each regional assembly. These representatives would be chosen by the Assembly cabinet. Voting in the House of Representatives would be by region and not by individual.
This system envisaged is fundamentally different to the current system in that the principle role of those elected to the House of Commons would be to act as legislators and managers of Great Britain plc. The work of Regional Assembly members would be to manage the region efficiently and serve the everyday needs of constituents.
The effect of this new system would be to reconnect the voters to the political process. Not only would they elect MPs to the House of Commons and members to the Regional Assemblies, but through the House of Representatives they would have the power to exercise their influence over government.
Adopting this system or something similar might just save the Mother of all Parliaments being sent to the care home. We need to act now. The taxi has been ordered.