Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Thoughts from the Train: all the change in the world won't help without cutting out the anger

A new Speaker, more enquiries, independent or otherwise than you can shake a stick at, talk of reform of our Parliament, electoral systems and political parties, it has certainly been all go for those interested in our constitutional settlement in recent weeks.

I suppose that I should be included in that number, as someone who entered politics through an interest in democracy and how it works - I was the Deputy Returning Officer of my Students' Union at the University of East Anglia before I joined the local Union of Liberal Students branch. Indeed, I retain an involvement through my membership of the Management Board of Unlock Democracy (the place where James Graham works his campaigning magic).

However, I'm not going to address the many issues floating around for debate at the moment. Instead, I'm going to mull over the phrase 'peace, love and understanding' as it pertains to where we are.

There has been a lot of anger, initially provoked by the expose by the Daily Telegraph of the weird, wonderful and occasionally fraudulent expense claims of various Members of Parliament but amplified by some of the reactions of those so embarrassed. However, the seeming desire to throw the kitchen sink and smear a number of innocent bystanders made it look as though our Parliament was predominantly crooked rather than fairly foolish.

It is all very well creating that sense of anger, but just when sensible reform might have dealt with the issue, that blanket sense of anger made things rather more difficult. Being a Member of Parliament now gives you the social standing of a racist leper, leading to abuse not only of Parliamentarians but of their spouses, partners and children. I hear stories of individuals who are talking of giving up, decent people with no stain on their character but tainted by the cry of 'they're all crooks'. Indeed, why put yourself through that when even the people whom you've served faithfully turn on you? There are doubtless Parliamentarians of all parties who are reconsidering their decision to run for another term, people who will be a loss to their communities and to our country.

In turn, those people who form the talent pool of the various political parties will be wondering if they really want to do that to themselves. Their husbands, wives and partners will be somewhat less enthusiastic and thus less supportive (and never underestimate how vital a supportive family can be for a politician). Women in particular, who tend to need more encouragement under normal circumstances, will be more reticent about putting their names forward.

It is time that we had a proper debate on what is necessary to support and maintain a representative, inclusive and effective democracy, and I am less than convinced that forcing Parliamentarians to don hairshirts is the right first step. What do people actually want from their representatives? What would be needed to provide that service? Is scrutiny more important than debate? Should we provide better research support for our policy makers? Indeed, if this costs more, is it appropriate or necessary to cut the number of MP's? Do we need to change the working week, allow for remote participation, timetable votes formally so as to avoid the ludicrous necessity for MP's and Peers to hang around in case a vote is taken? All of these things have their implications for 'terms and conditions'.

Unfortunately, until we get beyond the desire for punishment, we will be unlikely to get real change that deals with anything more than the headlines. Given that Sir Christopher Kelly's recommendations have been signed up to without any knowledge of what they might be, there is a real risk that a chance for genuine, positive change will be lost for a generation. It would be terrible if, having created the opportunity, it was squandered by a political class interested only in saving their own skins in the short term whilst sacrificing future generations.

I hope that the Daily Telegraph is proud of itself...

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