How We Choose MPs: Responding to Nick Nuttgens.

Dear Nick,

You have given thought to the way in which we select MPs in the UK and suggested that we might exchange some ideas about their role and the qualifications that they should have to enable them to carry out their work.

In 2017, Professor Meg Russell @ConUnit_UCL and @DanielGover published their book “Legislation at Westminster” concluding that parliament works better than it is given credit for in having an impact on policy development but there is plenty of room for improvement.

On 15 November 2017, a seminar was held in parliament to discuss their findings, during which David Natzler, Clerk of the House of commons said, “Most members of the UK parliament do not come to Westminster expressly to legislate, but to support their parties.”

In “What do MPs do?” it says that MPs work in parliament to support their parties. I can find no definition of MP’s duties and responsibilities as legislators. This seems odd to me and I feel that, before the way in which MPs are chosen is considered, serious thought should be given to what exactly they should be asked to do as legislators; how their duties and responsibilities should be defined.

Of course, that is a potentially complex task that must be undertaken by constitutional experts but, in simple, layman’s terms it seems to me that measures should be taken to make it clear that MPs are, first and foremost, independent lawmakers. And in that capacity they should not be told what to do by a small number of political party managers. On behalf of all their constituents (not just the members of their local party associations) and in the interests of the country as a whole they should be able to consider all the facts surrounding a particular issue and vote freely according to their consciences. The facts should be presented to them, together with the pros and cons of viable options, by an independent civil service.

When we consider the complexity of modern day issues, the task facing our legislators in parliament and the associated responsibility is awesome. And, it follows that those chosen to represent us and make laws on our behalf should be of the very highest quality, highly respected, beyond reproach and thereby trusted by all of us as citizens. In all probability suitable candidates will:

  1. Be very well educated, probably with a first class degree(s).
  2. Have demonstrated success in a professional capacity.
  3. Have sufficient professional expertise and experience to return to a professional career after serving as a lawmaker if necessary, thereby ensuring complete freedom of thought.
  4. Be of sound, well balanced character, capable of objective thinking and not ideologically biased.

All of these characteristics, but particularly the latter, are subjective and the question arises, “who should do the assessment and compile a short list of prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs) who might be put before the electorate?”

As Isabel Hardman has pointed out in her book “Why We Get the Wrong Politicians”, there is a strong case for finding a better process for the selection of PPCs. It should not be left to a tiny number of people on political party panels.

Once again, this is a complex subject that should be examined by constitutional experts in due course, but there might well be a case for establishing a system (supervised by a reformed Electoral Commission(EC) with new powers) whereby aspiring PPCs make application initially to the EC in their own right, not as representatives of a particular party or organisation. After vetting by the EC (necessary to ensure good character and the capacity to handle sensitive information in due course) a suitable number of candidates might then be put before a citizens panel that would, in turn, produce a short list of candidates to be put to the electorate. Then the short list might be sent by post to those on the electoral role together with the CVs of the candidates. There should be the opportunity for voters to put questions to candidates in writing but there should be little need if any for widespread campaigning which we know can be manipulated.

We know by now, I think, that dirigiste or command economies do not work, individual and group needs are too complex to be managed by highly centralised states. At the same time we know that markets are not perfect and if they are not regulated to some extent they can descend into chaos. In the UK, we can also identify the major problems that we face, and have to be managed, such as the establishment of a sustainable health and care system. So we can see that those we choose to address these issues in parliament have no need for old ideologies of the left and right but they need to be the best brains that we can find to consider relevant facts, objectively, on our behalf before reaching a consensus and setting out viable plans for the future.

The Brexit crisis has demonstrated, for all to see, that the UK’s governmental systems are failing to address the issues of the day. Parliament has become dysfunctional. Part of the fix is to ensure that we have the right politicians functioning properly as legislators in parliament and it is to be hoped that an appropriate assembly of experts will be able to consider the issue before making recommendations for reform of the MP/Legislator selection processes that are now needed.

What the Prime Minister Might Have Said in 2015

I would like to speak to you all this evening about our relationship with our neighbours in Europe. For a long time now, many in our country have argued that the European Union is becoming too powerful and imposing restrictions on our way of life. Others disagree and feel that we have a strong voice in Europe that enables us to shape the future for the good of all the citizens of Europe. Some feel that being part of a common market is a good thing but worry about the European Union becoming a super state. All of these varying opinions are legitimate and sincerely held. But, I am afraid, because they are now so strongly felt, there is a grave danger that this issue will divide us as a nation and damage our society.

So I believe that we must now address this issue together. We must decide what sort of nation we wish to be and what role we want to play in the world before adjusting our relationships with our European neighbours, either as a continuing member of the European Union or as a nation outside the Union.

I cannot pretend that the choice ahead of us is an easy one. Indeed it would be wholly irresponsible for me or your government to do so. Our relationships with our European friends have been developed over the decades since the last, terrible, world war. They are necessarily complex and it will take time to work out exactly what our options are.

But, I hope you will agree that we cannot allow the issue to fester. We should consider all the facts together and make a decision about our future. To that end your Cabinet has unanimously agreed to bring forward legislation to enable us to hold a referendum on 23 June 2016. In preparation for the referendum, so that we are all properly informed, our Civil Service has begun the complex process of gathering all the relevant information necessary to consider and set out all the options that might be available to us, together with the associated advantages and disadvantages. It is a major task that we in your government believe will involve between ten to fifteen thousand officials working in three hundred different work streams. Nevertheless, we believe that the work can be completed by the end of May 2016. Then, your representatives in parliament, using free votes, will be asked, through a process of elimination, to decide on a preferred option for leaving the European Union. And finally, we will all then have the opportunity, in the referendum, to choose that preferred leave option or to remain in the European Union.

There will be no need for any sort of political campaigning in relation to this process. I wish to spare us all from that because, as we all know, political campaigning can be misleading, if not deliberately manipulated by individuals who do not have the best interest of us all as citizens at heart. Instead, as we proceed, you will receive progress reports at regular intervals direct from our Civil Service so that you are fully informed as we move towards the referendum. You will also receive a summary of the final findings and recommendations arrived at by the Civil Service before they are presented to parliament. And on top of that you will be able to access more detailed information, if you wish, and ask any questions that you might have by using the Referendum Website that is now up and running.

(Website address on screen)

Finally, I should say that the decisions we are about to make are profoundly important. They will effect us and future generations for decades to come. The responsibility on us all is enormous but I hope you will all agree that we must face our responsibilities together and deal with the issues as soon as is practically possible through this open, fair, and democratic process.

I wish you all good fortune in this national endeavour, and earnestly hope that we can resolve these issues together before moving confidently forward, after the referendum, in pursuit of our agreed national objectives.

Thank you all. Goodnight.

(Prime Minister David Cameron speaking from No 10 Downing Street on the 28th May 2015.)

BREXIT: Truth, Reconciliation and Reform

On the 11th of April 2019, the Prime Minister (Mrs Theresa May) made a statement in the House of Commons relating to the Europe Council Meeting held on the 10th April 2019, (Hansard Volume 658, columns 510 to 512).

In that statement, the Prime Minister said:

The choices we face are stark and the timetable is clear. I believe we must now press on at pace with our efforts to reach a consensus on a deal that is in the national interest. I welcome the discussions that have taken place with the opposition in recent days and the further talks that are resuming today. This is not the normal way of British politics and it is uncomfortable for many in both the Government and Opposition parties. Reaching an agreement will not be easy because, to be successful, it will require both sides to make compromises….. I hope that we can reach an agreement on a single unified approach that we can put to the House for approval, but if we cannot do so soon, we will seek to agree a small number of options for the future relationship that we will put to the House in a series of votes to determine which course to pursue.”

So there we have it, in British politics it is not ‘normal’ for senior legislators on both sides of the House to come together, to consider and deliberate on the facts before reaching an agreement on a course to pursue in the interests of all the people of the United Kingdom.

It may be that the current cross-party, front bench negotiations will be successful but from the Prime Ministers statement it would seem that confidence is not high and thought is already being given to solving the issue by voting on options in the House. It seems that, even in the face of this major crisis, our politicians cannot bring themselves to break out of the ‘normal’ mould of adversarial, majoritarian, tribal politics to seek ways of building the consensus that is necessary.

Perhaps now is not the time, but in the not too distant future, it would be sensible for the country as a whole to consider what has become ‘normal’ in British politics and what might be done in future to; improve a system that is demonstrably failing, consider a fundamental reformation and restore faith in the institutions of our representative democracy.

Even ordinary individuals like me can identify areas in which improvements might be made, and scholars have written extensively on the subject, but the complexity relating to parliamentary and constitutional reform can only be addressed by experienced men and women assembled in an appropriate body, such as a Royal Commission or Constitutional Convention, working over several years in conjunction with parliament.

As far as I know, nobody has recently suggested that such an assembly should be formed but several sensible back benchers have already broken away from major political parties in recognition of the fact that change should be brought to the UK’s political arrangements and it may be that we might look to them to work towards the establishment of a process of parliamentary and constitutional reform. The leaders of the UK’s political parties will first have to be persuaded that change is essential to make the system more consensual. To that end, they should first of all agree, jointly, to set up an inquiry to examine exactly what has gone wrong with the UK’s governmental and political arrangements. With the findings of such an inquiry in the public domain, the country might then embark on a process of Truth and Reconciliation and Reform.

Brexit: Post 29 March 2019 Reform.

The weaknesses of the UK’s two-party political system have been known and written about for years but the pressures of the Brexit Crisis have laid the fault-lines bare for all to see. It is now more clear than ever that the UK needs to initiate a process of parliamentary and constitutional reform if it is to achieve the cohesion necessary to deal with the complex changes that lay ahead.

That, of course, is easy to say but difficult to do bearing in mind the current “toxic and irrational politics that Brexit has spawned” described recently by Professor Chris Grey, ( 8 March 2019).

The members of the recently formed Independent Group of MPs have correctly identified that the two old, major political parties are failing. The Group members are calling for fundamental change in the way that the UK does its politics. As yet, they have not proposed that a suitable body, (assembly, convention or commission) should be set up to work on the complexities of reform but they may be prevailed upon to do so.

Such a body would have to include very experienced men and women from a variety of walks of life, including perhaps; ex prime ministers, constitutional lawyers, political scientists, philosophers, senior members of professional bodies, captains of industry and heads of business. Their principle objective would be to devise a model of democracy that would be truly representative, deliberative and consensual. As Lord Hailsham envisaged over forty years ago their work, in close cooperation with Parliament, might last for many years.

Given the scale of failure and the lack of trust in the UK’s governmental institutions that the Brexit Crisis has brought to a head, a process of reform should start with an inquiry into exactly what has gone wrong, not to lay blame since it has to be acknowledged that there is collective responsibility for the failings, but to to find reconciliation and accurately identify those areas in which improvements might be made in parliamentary and constitutional arrangements. The process might lead to a new settlement in the UK and a written constitution.

Whilst experts, highly qualified and experienced people will inevitably have to consider the complexities of change over a lengthy period of time, it is possible right now for ordinary citizens like me to discern that all is not well in the UK and for us to identify aspects of current arrangements that might be considered for change. They include:

  1. The nature and role of political parties. (Primarily power-seeking and driven by old ideologies.)
  2. The electoral system. (Currently unrepresentative.)
  3. Political party campaigning. (Vulnerable to corrupt practise.)
  4. Political party funding. (Causes undue influence by major donors.)
  5. Political party manifestos.
  6. Selection of prospective parliamentary candidates.
  7. Support for MPs becoming Legislators.
  8. Electronic voting in Parliament.
  9. Independence of legislators.
  10. Abolition of the ‘Whipping System’ in Parliament.
  11. Reduction in numbers of parliamentarians.
  12. Improved support infrastructure for MPs in their constituencies.
  13. Appraisal of parliamentarians by citizens panels.
  14. Involvement of Select Committees in development of legislation.
  15. The Executive- Parliament relationship.
  16. Modification of the Prime Minister’s Questions session.
  17. Government control of parliamentary business schedules.
  18. Executive/Royal Prerogative powers.
  19. Free votes for Legislators in all debates.
  20. The role of the devolved assemblies in the UK.
  21. The re-establishment of an elite and trusted Civil Service.
  22. A possible written constitution.
  23. The use of referendums.

At a time when it is extremely difficult for ordinary citizens of the UK like me to understand and follow what is going on in British politics and as the current situation is bewildering, if not deeply depressing, it is somewhat therapeutic to write down some personal thoughts that might perhaps be shared with others. So, over the coming days and weeks, from my limited personal perspective, I will try to expand a little on the complex subjects listed above.

BREXIT: Breaking the Mould

There is hope. Perhaps only a glimmer, but at least a number of parliamentarians have taken a courageous stand, resigned from their parties and come together as a group to break the mould of the corrosive, tribal, two-party political system that has dogged the UK for many years.

The group is not yet a political party but might grow and develop into a centrist party that would, at least, introduce more plurality in parliament and provide a counter to the extremes of left and right. In doing so the centrists might be able to introduce more deliberative and consensus-building processes in Parliament. But will that be enough?

Many of us agree, with them, that the way in which the UK does politics has to change (Currently, there are 190,000 people signed up and following the Independent Group on Twitter) but the problems inherent in the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy have been described before. Forty one years ago, Lord Hailsham described many of the weaknesses in the system in his book “The Dilemma of Democracy”. He called for a period of respite from frantic left versus right campaigning and fighting, a pause for thought, and it is worth reflecting on some of what he said:

“In the field of doctrine, the period of respite should be used for a clear consideration of the path which we wish our nation to be treading. What are our moral values? What place do we allow to religious or spiritual experience? What part in the world do we wish Britain to play? What sort of democracy do we wish to practise? What is nation-hood, and what is our nation? Until we have a picture of the things we really believe in we shall go on blundering about in the City of Destruction, until one day we find that the kissing has to stop, either because we discover that our main policies spell only disaster or because disaster has overtaken us owing to the fact that they add up to absolutely nothing at all.” 

To help define what sort of democracy Britain should be, he said:

“I am sure that Britain needs a new constitution. I am sure that it should be of the ‘written’ or ‘controlled’ variety, and that it should therefore contain entrenched clauses if it is at all possible to bring this about. The object of such a constitution should be to institutionalise the theory of limited government. The method adopted should have the effect of giving more power to the people nationally and locally in order to prohibit their supposed representatives from passing unwanted legislation. So far as it is necessary to protect minorities or individuals against mob law or populist politics from left or right, judicial remedies should be provided. But these are the least important part of the whole package. The root of the current evil lies not in an excess of democracy but in too little, too much power in parties, whips, officials, cabinets and a House of Commons elected in the present manner for a period terminable by dissolution and possessed of all the powers of Parliament. In short too little power is given to the people.

These being the desired purposes, I do not wish to be dogmatic about any particular set of proposals. Changes should be undertaken after discussion…”

Lord Hailsham felt that it was necessary to set up ‘machinery for constitutional reform’, a commission, and felt that its work might take years. But he did highlight a problem related to the way in which prospective parliamentary candidates are chosen by political parties:

“ becomes necessary to discover how candidates are chosen by their parties, in what manner members are elected by voters, and how their powers are exercised once they are at work. The results of such an enquiry are not altogether reassuring. The selection of candidates is in the hands of a caucus… But the caucus, necessarily consisting of a tiny minority of the electorate, has a disproportionate amount of power, particularly in a so-called ‘safe’ seat, where, in selecting a candidate, they virtually select a member.”

The unsatisfactory method of choosing prospective parliamentary candidates has been highlighted recently by Isabel Hardman in her book “Why We get The Wrong Politicians” (Over 80% of MPs currently serving were selected by a tiny number of people on the panels of the two main political parties in the UK. It is not representative.) and, over the years since 1978, many distinguished people have called for wholesale reform of the UK’s parliamentary and constitutional arrangements, as well as the specifics of electoral reform.

So the weaknesses, the frailties, the fault-lines inherent in the UK’s governmental arrangements have been known and written about for many years but nothing has been done to address the issue of reform. This, I think, is partly because when a party has a large majority in parliament, it simply does not care about reform. It is more than happy to pursue its agenda, to dictate or rule rather than govern, safe in the knowledge that Parliament has   limited powers with which to participate in the legislative process. Then when there is no large majority, the British system tends to get log-jammed in crisis and there is no time to consider the complexities of reform.

But the Brexit crisis has thrown the weakness of the British system into stark relief. We do not really have to argue about it. Over the last three or four years, it has been demonstrated that the tribal, two-party, adversarial system has failed to deal with the complexities related to defining Britain’s future political and commercial relationships with Europe and the rest of the world. To illustrate the point, just recently (Spectator, 22 Feb 19) Louise Mensch, who has been in favour of leaving the European Union, has come to the conclusion that the process needs ‘deliberation’. It will take time and departure should be delayed so that the UK can figure out exactly what it wants to become. One might be forgiven for asking why the issue was not deliberated upon before the referendum but the explanation is that the British system is not deliberative, or used to consensus-building, so it was possible for the process to be initiated by the party in power at the time without adequate consultation.

It is clear, more clear than ever, that the system has to change and it may be that the Brexit Crisis will prove to be the catalyst for the initiation of a comprehensive programme of parliamentary and constitutional reform. The members of the  Independent Group of MPs have correctly identified the problem and, of course, in recommending that the UK  changes the entire culture of political discourse, they are not just talking about Brexit. In due course the UK’s Legislators will have to deliberate on the complexities relating to issues such as the establishment of sustainable health, care and welfare systems in the UK, amongst many more profoundly complex problems. The members of the group have made a start in attempting to break the mould of the old  tribal politics and it is to be hoped that they can build a consensus in parliament to initiate a process of reform that will enable the UK to re-define itself and prosper.

BREXIT: Rays of Hope.

“There are rays of hope. As tribal loyalties break down, thoughtful MPs have been emerging  through the fissures of all parties, stepping over the wreckage and talking to each other.” 

So wrote Camilla Cavendish in her article “Glimmer of hope as MPs attempt to step over the wreckage to avoid no deal.” (FT Weekend 19/20 January). Baroness Cavendish, journalist and senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, sits as a non-affiliated peer having resigned the Conservative Party whip in 2016.

In the article, Baroness Cavendish describes the way in which ‘reasonable people’ are now tabling amendments to government motions in an attempt to enable parliament to have a meaningful role in determining the UK’s future relationships with the EU and the rest of the world. She points out that the amendment process is a somewhat ‘tortuous mechanism. But the outcome of this whole debacle now rests heavily on mastery of parliamentary process.’

After reading the article a few times, I think that a number of points emerge:

  • Tribal loyalties have broken down.
  • The two-party, adversarial system that has evolved, without codification, over centuries is broken and failing us. Not just in dealing with Brexit but in our ability to deal with serious domestic issues such as the establishment of sustainable health, care and welfare systems.
  • There is a need for cross-party deliberation or, more simply, deliberation amongst free-thinking (non-affiliated) Legislators, unfettered by political party diktat.
  • A constitutional crisis has arisen to the point where the Executive-Parliament relationship needs to be reviewed and clarified.

With only sixty six days to go before we leave the EU, by law as it currently stands, there is obviously no time to fix the ‘system’. Nobody knows what the outcome of the current machinations in parliament will be but, whatever it is, it will be divisive. Which means that we cannot hope for a proper settlement of UK affairs in the short term. However, because the Brexit crisis has thrown the faults and weaknesses of our parliamentary and constitutional arrangements into stark relief, it may be possible for our political leaders to finally wake up and agree that there must be, at some point in the not too distant future, a fundamental reform of our governmental arrangements. In that sense there may be a glimmer of hope.