Thursday, 29 October 2015

I want an appointed second chamber (kind of!)

Given the recent events in the House of Lords regarding 'fatal motions' and delays over tax credits, and so on, I though now was as good a time as any to build a little on my previous post 'Time For a Coherent Constitution', and flesh out some of the details of what I would like to see a Second Chamber look like. Obviously this fits in with the overall vision of a fully Federal UK with regional/national parliaments, as outlined in the aforementioned previous blog post (indeed, the kind of system I am describing here could not possibly exist without that).

So, to repeat myself a little, I am a big fan of having a Second Chamber. I think it is an invaluable part of the democratic and governmental process to have a separate 'Revising and Advising' chamber that is not answerable to the first, and has a different composition from the first. The House of Commons must, of course, be 'sovereign', and the Primary chamber able to pass legislation as required - to have another chamber able to say 'hang on a sec' seems to be a really good idea, though. It mustn't be able to override the will of the Commons, of course, but it should be able to send any measures back, amended or otherwise, to be reconsidered or delayed before passing them. It's a very good 'safety valve' to prevent knee-jerk legislative reactions or measures being driven through by Commons whipping when even governing party backbenchers are less than satisfied.

As I previously outlined in brief, I do have reservations about a Second Chamber being directly elected, and creating another set of elections, and another group of 'MPs' who are answerable to their central party, and another set of purely 'professional politicians' (as far as 'pay' goes, I would possibly favour an 'expenses' type of system as now, but the current system does need to be reformed to ensure that people are actually doing some work! An alternative might be a 'living wage' solution, but again checks need to be in place to ensure proper activity). That applies even more so in the case of the Commons remaining with a 'First Past The Post' electoral system with some form of 'Proportional Representation' being used to elect the Second Chamber - while PR is a far better system, that particular scenario could end up with a Second Chamber having a better democratic mandate than the Primary Chamber, and I can foresee all kinds of problems created by that.

So what am I suggesting? Well, in the context of a fully Federal UK, with each region having its own parliament across the whole of the UK, it strikes me that there is already a 'second set' of elections happening, and happening in a slightly different contextual setting, which experience demonstrates can have somewhat different outcomes in representation. What I am suggesting is to use that set of elections as, in effect, and 'appointment' system for the Second Chamber of the Westminster Parliament. In other words, after the 'regional' elections across the UK, the 'regional' parties then appoint an allotted number of representatives to the Westminster Second chamber, proportional to the population size of each region and the representation of each party within each regional parliament.

For example, if Wales has (according to population) 20 seats to allocate, and Welsh Labour gets half of the seats in the Welsh Parliament, it would also, as a result, have 10 seats to allocate within the Westminster Second Chamber (and those 10 people would be answerable directly to the Welsh Labour Party whip and mechanisms, not to the party in London).

In short, what is currently known as the House of Lords would become the 'House of the Regions'.

This system has several advantages, in my opinion. Firstly, the representatives appointed by each regional grouping of each party would be answerable to that regional party. They would not be subject to a central party 'whip', nor subject to the same hierarchical structure of their party colleagues in the House of Commons. They would be subject to the 'party whip' in their Regional/National Assembly. That, I think, is key - it allows the Second Chamber members to operate independently from the Primary Chamber, and to explicitly represent the interests of the their Regional Party branch. As can be seen by instances of disagreement and policy difference, these interests are not always going to be the same as those of the National Parties, as represented in the Commons (though of course they will often coincide, and such groups will often communicate among themselves).

Secondly, it still allows parties to 'appoint' former MPs or 'luminaries' from outside of professional politics who they consider to have useful talents and qualities that would help in advising on (and revising) legislation. I don't think it's wrong to recognise that some people could be very useful at such things, but may not necessarily be interested in 'becoming party politicians' as such and going through the direct electoral process. In doing so, though, it still provides a level of democratic accountability, and also a limit on terms - there is still a democratic mandate for the balance of appointments, renewed and revised at each regional/national parliament election, with reappointment therefore being required every few years (no reason why anybody should be limited to a set number of terms, as far as I can see, but it removes the nonsense of people no longer capable of doing anything who still theoretically have a seat). It gives the second chamber a good level of democratic accountability, but without risking the situation where it could try to claim to have a greater electoral mandate than the Primary chamber.

It would also bring a direct 'regional' voice into legislative considerations in a way that doesn't happen in practise in the Commons. Although every MP theoretically represents their own seat, the reality is that their ability to do so is somewhat limited by being subject to a central party whipping operation. They can, of course, choose to 'rebel' if they feel that a measure advocated by their party is contrary to the interests of their own region, by many do not, especially if they like to think of themselves as having a bright future in the upper reaches of their party in parliament - strangely enough, possibly future ministers tend to avoid rebelling quite a lot! I think that direct regional voice could be a very useful tool in ensuring that the full picture is thought about when it comes to how proposed legislation will work across the whole of the UK.

As I said, I'm a big fan of Second Chambers, and as I wrote previously I would like to see them added at the Regional/National parliament level too, according to a similar 'appointment' system. In their case, 'appointments' would be made according to council election results (remembering that I advocate single-layer unitary authorities at that level of government). In the same way as at Westminster, this would provide a direct voice coming from the next level of government and, as well as providing that 'regional representation', also help to highlight any issues where one institution is attempting to 'pass off' things to others (as sometimes happens, with issues like 'cost shifting' or even 'blame shifting').

So to summarise, yes, I am advocating something other than a 'directly elected' Second Chamber. I effect, I am suggesting an 'indirectly elected' chamber (at both Westminster and Regional/National level, in the context of full Federalism, and as responsibilities are increasingly devolved away from Westminster). That might, to some, seem a slightly odd position, but I think it is the most practical solution to the issue of providing advice and revision on legislation (and creating a place within the systems of state for people other than 'professional politicians') without creating a democratic 'threat' to Primary Chambers, or falling back on the current solution of life-term crony-ism.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Coalition Seating Arrangements

So 'Nick Clegg says his biggest mistake as leader was sitting next David Cameron at PMQs' (article here) - was he right?

Well, he might just be slightly underplaying the importance of one or two other issues, like the dreaded tuition fees, for example, but I think he's certainly correct in identifying that this was an important problem of perception. The Liberal Democrats have to recognise this if we are going to build towards a future return to government. The problem does go a little deeper than just PMQs itself, of course.

So what am I calling the 'problem' here? Well, it's the all too common public perception that in forming a coalition government we had 'joined the Tories', as if we had somehow become part of their party, signed up to their party's constitution and aims, and become nothing more than a vaguely irrelevant branch of, or pressure group within, the Conservative Party. That perception is very wide of the mark, of course - we were, and still remain, very much our own party, with our own constitution, aims and ideas. We were never 'Tories', and never 'joined the Tories' - we agreed to work with the Conservatives in a mature and responsible manner to form a joint, two-party, coalition government so that we could both provide stable government (at a time when that was desperately necessary to the UK) and so that we could finally get the chance to enact at least some of our long-held policies and principles (as indeed we successfully did).

Many people don't seem to get that, though. A very commonly expressed public perception is that we 'joined the Tories' and/or 'sold our souls for a ministerial car' - it was during the coalition years, and it still is now. It was never the case, and it should never have happened. However, I'm not going to get lost in recriminations and blame over it. Indeed, I don't think anyone is really to blame for not fully appreciating every one of the potential pitfalls of coalition perception, or for underestimating the way in which other parties and their allies would close ranks to portray us as 'traitors to ourselves' and an 'irrelevance'. Were the Lib Dems a little naive about such things? Yes, I think we were, but you have to remember that nobody had formed a peacetime coalition in living memory, and nobody had ever formed on in the context of modern UK politics, social media, and so on. It's not about laying blame - it's about learning for the future (the only people who never make mistakes are people who don't do anything!).

The seating arrangement as noted by Nick Clegg is one of those issues that we didn't really anticipate fully in terms of how it would leave us perceived. The 'rose garden incident' is another important one. We were, of course, quite rightly focussed on the 'real' business of how to do government business in that scenario, and we were, understandably, concerned about the perception that coaition government couldn't work. We made the mistake of going too far, though, and appearing not only too close, but too integrated with the Conservatives in government.

House of Commons seating arrangements were one of the problems - every time a member of the public saw some footage from parliament (PMQs or others), there our MPs effectively were, sat happily among the Tories. Chatting away with our good friends, sharing common causes with them, and jointly opposing the benches opposite, as if we were one party in all but name. Hindsight is always 20/20, of course, but we, and indeed everyone else in politics, needs to learn the lesson so that the same issues never happen again to any party. 

And that's a key point - it's not just about us as Lib Dems and what we have lost in terms of our MP numbers, it's about politics as a whole. It does a disservice to politics for parties to not be seen for what they are. Any parties. It skews the debate if the perception of any party, especially any smaller party, is based on them just being effectively a part of another party. It actually has an effect on votes cast at the ballot box.

So how should our MPs have sat? Well, the obvious answer is in a separate block of our own MPs, at the far end of the government benches from the speaker's chair, with our government ministers at the front of our own group instead of side by side with Tory ministers. That does create a potential opposite issue, though, with the party not appearing relevant, involved and central to the government program - we really shouldn't allow that to happen either. How do we avoid that too? Well, obviously there is a practical issue with the seating of ministers when they are going to need to speak at the dispatch box - they need to be sat on the front bench in front of it. We can't surround them with their own MPs all the time (and we can't constantly play musical benches around the House of Commons), but we can have a degree of separation between government ministers of different parties at different ends of the bench fairly easily in most circumstances. It's a small thing, but a necessary one if we are going to support multi-party politics in the UK.

How do we deal with PMQs itself? On the one hand, if the Deputy PM had been sat at the other end of the chamber, there would be a danger of the party appearing irrelevant. On the other, there's the issue of appearing to be part of the larger party, which is what has happened. My suggestion would be, as part of an agreement between the parties, that the smaller party MPs and ministers should group at the opposite end when the PM is there, but when the Deputy PM is taking the questions (as they do sometimes when the PM is out of the country) the parties 'change ends', so that the Deputy PM is, for that session, surrounded on all sides (the front bench and benches behind) by his (or her) own MPs. 

If and when this kind of political situation happens again, we need to learn from past mistakes. We need to make sure that the party is seen as an entity in its own right, important and at the centre of government, but not merely as a now-fully-integrated 'sub-party'. House of Commons seating agreements have to form part of an overall agreement to form a government in future. It does matter. While it might seem a trivial issue in the grand scheme of running a country (and indeed it is), the perception it creates can be a massively important part of politics. Nick Clegg is right to identify this as a mistake - it was. A mistake we should learn from, though, not one we should be seeking to blame anyone for.