Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Food for constitutional thought.

The Guardian’s ‘A New Politics’ debate has been running for the past week or so, featuring submissions of varying merit and practicability. This morning, pre-empting a speech to be given in Milton Keynes on the topic of constitutional reform, David Cameron outlined, in some detail, the changes his party intends to make in order to shape British politics for the better. Clearly, whilst the paper is seeking to instigate an open dialogue around this subject, a contribution from the man likely to lead the next government carries special weight. Cameron conceivably will have the means to realise the alterations which he advocates in the article, which is divided into four parts for the purposes of Comment is Free.

Many of the themes which he touches upon form familiar territory for the Conservative leader. The idea of distributing power to localities, rather than centralising it. The notion that the United Kingdom should assume responsibility for its own laws and judiciary, rather than allowing a maximalist interpretation of European edicts to copperplate a substantial body of legislation or unduly influence its interpretation by judges. The insistence that social justice is better pursued by empowering communities and encouraging responsibility, rather than by imposing ‘one size fits all’ solutions from the centre. The article’s final instalment talks about the information age complementing “the progressive Conservative philosophy: sceptical about big state power; committed to social responsibility and non-state collective action”.

It is also a wide ranging article and some of its sorties are a little speculative and would sit more easily in a policy document, rather than in a treatise for action being placed before the British public, a year or less before a general election.

Cameron’s localist instinct is sound enough. If communities are to be persuaded to take responsibility, then they must have the means available enabling them to do so. Distributing decision making about schools, policing, housing and health locally, as far as is practicable, is a worthy aspiration. Even the ‘general power of competence’ makes sense, so long as local authorities are clearly accountable and the task of bailing out various failed local initiatives does not repeatedly fall to national government. However I do wonder about the merits of a mooted ‘power of initiative’ which would instigate referendums wherever 5 per cent of the electorate demanded it. If this is to be a serious power then it raises practical problems in terms of costs and implementation. If it is desperately difficult to invoke then there is little value in introducing it in the first place. I appreciate that the expenses scandal has precipitated public disillusion which must be addressed, but introducing widespread populist referenda seems less to me like constitutional conservatism and more like new Labour gimmickry.

For similar reasons I have reservations about the proposal to introduce a fixed term for parliament. There is a strong argument, which Cameron makes well, that the House of Commons has become emasculated in recent times, in favour of the executive. He suggests a range of measures which would restore its historic role and enable it, once again, to make a thorough job of scrutinising legislation and holding the government to account. I applaud the notion that the balance of power should be tilted away from the prime minister, towards MPs. But there is a difference between restoring the best aspects of parliamentary democracy to the House of Commons and depriving the prime minister of a prerogative which he has historically possessed. There should be compelling evidence adduced to demonstrate that stripping the prime minister of this power will contribute to more accountable democracy, before such a move is considered. And the repercussions it would have in a range of possible scenarios, should a government fail to be formed, should a government’s position become untenable, should the country resoundingly lose confidence in a particular parliament, need to be scrupulously evaluated.

In contrast I believe Cameron may have dismissed the issue of a new voting system too lightly in his Guardian piece. He argues that proportional representation is not a good voting system because,

“Instead of voters choosing their government on the basis of the manifestos put before them in an election, party managers would choose a government on the basis of secret backroom deals.”

Which is, so far as it goes, an entirely justifiable contention. Larger, multi-member constituencies would deliver a fractured House of Commons, from which a government would have to be fashioned by agreement between parties. The list system, if it were introduced, would further cloud politics’ transparency. But other voting systems do exist which need not enervate democracy or compromise the two party system. Alternative vote allows the electorate to express its preference in a more nuanced fashion than first past the post, but it prevents the diminution of power associated with proportional representation. Although I believe that Cameron is right to discard PR as an option, he should keep an open mind to a replacement for first past the post which might offer voters more scope to articulate their choices.

If the detail of the proposals which the Conservative leader has laid out can, in a very few instances, be questioned, their instinct cannot. By reacting to the current crisis by committing to genuine movement towards accountability, transparency and participation, Cameron is demonstrating that he is a far more responsive politician than the current prime minister. Indeed he has been skilful enough, in his Guardian article, to illustrate that the progressive conservative principles which he has been communicating during his leadership can be extrapolated to offer the type of political change for which there is such public hunger. A message of decentralisation and empowerment does not need to be adapted to the challenges which have been publicised over the past number of weeks. Its precepts already offer the transformation which is required.

All of which means that Cameron does not need to cast round for 'radical' ideas to capture the electorate's mood. He need only keep faith in the strength of his existing programme and argue its merits on the basis that it will deliver what the public wants.


wildgoose said...

The best voting system for MPs is also one of the simplest: Approval Voting.

This is a simple modification of First-Past-the-Post whereby instead of only voting for a single candidate, you may vote for ALL the candidates of whom you approve. Whoever gets the most votes (i.e. approval) wins.

Simple. Easy to understand. Does not result in enormous multi-member constituencies that lose any semblance of locality. And for those with a mathematical bent who are aware that all electoral methods have trade-offs, Approval Voting in a single member constituency has been mathematically proven to be as "fair" a voting system as you can get.

It allows voting strongly for a single candidate, it also allows voting against a candidate (by voting for all others). It allows a vote of no confidence in any of the candidates (via a blank ballot).

Ranking candidates 1, 2, 3, etc. is a pointless forcing of people to express preferences they may not even have. Furthermore, due to the vagaries of preferential systems you can even cause a preferred candidate to lose by ranking them more highly. (Yes it's an extreme case, but it is mathematically possible).

Incidentally, if I remember correctly Approval Voting is used to elect the Secretary General of the U.N.

Dinamo said...

Did I tell you the story of one Pieter Robinov and his wife Irina?
Pieter attended the Duma 50 days a year and had excavated a massive larder underneath his apartment in order to store grain and caviar which he had ordered in excessive quantities when staying in Moscow. Eventually the cache was discovered and Robinov and Robinova were taken from their dacha on the Black Sea and unable toanswer questions began a new career in northern russia in rock excavation and timber haulage!

Chekov said...

A tale of justice if ever I heard one.