Thursday, May 28, 2009

Summertime - and reforming is easy

I have to say I'm impressed that a group of politicians, particularly in some ways Lib Dem politicians, have come up with a quick, easy and achievable way of carrying out at least some of the reform to clean up politics that is so badly needed. I know how much Lib Dems love to discuss the minutiae of the relative merits of electoral systems and other sorts of geekery, so this clearly and briefly worded programme is even more of an achievement than it looks.

All it takes is a good dollop of political will and a willingness to postpone their Summer holidays and look what could be achieved by the beginning of September:

1. Commitment to accept Kelly expenses reform in full
Come on, that should be a no brainer. They could decide to do that now with the briefest of debate. It's time to take decisions on expenses out of the hands of politicians and give that power to an independent body.

2. Recall power for MPs suspended for misconduct
This gives constituents the power to sack MPs if, and only if, they are found guilty of misdemeanours by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. The process of determining guilt is thus carried out by an independent body. Then it would take something like 3 or 3,500 voters in the constituency to trigger a by-election. I'm slightly concerned about this proposal on 2 levels: that the process for implementing this is too quick - does there need to be a right of appeal, and should the threshold be higher? I think that there would also have to be a way of checking that the people signing the petition were who they said they were which would mean that they would probably have to be administered by the local council otherwise the system is open to total abuse.

3. House of Lords reform
Long needed - how ridiculous is that we have a chamber of our parliament which is made up of political appointees? We need to have a system where we can have confidence that the members are there because the people put them there and not because of what they may or may not have done for political parties.

4. Party funding reform
This badly needs cleaning up. It's not right that big business and unions can buy themselves so much political power through massive donations to political parties. Everything must be transparent and the proposals include a cap on donations from individuals per year and, importantly, caps on the amount of money political parties can spend in total over the course of a parliament. That latter cap would be set at £100 million which would cover Council, Scottish, Welsh, Westminster and European elections. There would also be a spending limit per constituency. That would effectively curtail parties sending voters in target seats loads and loads of mailings which don't count against election expenses.

5. Fixed term Parliaments
Another no brainer - why on earth should the PM have the total power when to call an election?

6. Enabling legislation for a referendum on AV+
Ok, STV is better, but AV+ is better than what we'e got, it's the system that was arrived at by an independent commission and it's the best we can get agreement on at the moment. I think the top up list system for electing the Scottish Parliament is pretty much an abomination, but it's still better than First Past the Post. We can campaign for STV at a later date, but I wouldn't turn down the opportunity for electoral reform that could be put to the electorate in a referendum soon and implemented for the next but one election.

7. Changes to House of Commons procedure to reduce executive power
This again is very important - the Committee system is very strong in the Scottish parliament and we want that for Westminster to make sure that the Government listens to MPs and doesn't completely dominate the parliamentary agenda. Backbench MPs would be given more powers too and Parliament should effectively have the final say on the appointment of ministers. These measures give a much needed check on the power of the Executive and increases the power of elected representatives.

There's no way on earth that any of this goes as far as Lib Dems want. There's so much more that needs to be done, but politics, as they say, is the art of the possible - and this lot really is possible if all parties get their backsides in gear and show willing.

What are the chances? We'll wait and see but if Labour and the Tories refuse the opportunity to take action to clean up politics, then they will have to justify themselves to the electorate when they finally do have their say.

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