In the wake of the failed AV referendum, and further suggestions to reform the House of Lords it seems appropriate to jot some thoughts down on constitutional reform. My instinct is that many people are open to constitutional change, and even see it as necessary. The problems that led to the expenses scandal have not been resolved, safe seats & party patronage continue to promote placemen, and the central executive continues on its merry way. AV would not have fixed these though, leaving aside the botched ‘Yes’ campaign that felt the best argument was Stephen Fry.
What needs defining is the central problem, of which all the above are symptoms. That problem is lack of accountability. This lack of accountability pervades are dealings with private companies, public bodies, local Government, banks and the law. It is likewise a problem here. Each MP is accountable not just to his local constituency, but to the party organisation that ensures his election and provides patronage following the election, and in safe seats is only accountable to the party. Likewise the Government, not being directly elected by the people but produced as a result of the same election that elects a local representative, is not truly accountable, as can be seen by the disproportionate results thrown up by general elections over the years, with huge and unassailable majorities. And because the Government is held to account by the very same individuals who are dependent upon it for reelection and advancement, the executive can escape true accountability easily.
Thus any reform needs to establish this accountability. Elections based on party systems such as the various systems of PR, while apparently fair, do not restore accountability, since popularity within the party structure can usually ensure political survival. Responsibilities should be clear, for as seen in local Government, where responsibility is shared it is easily denied. Above all, it should be possible for the electorate to reject any particular individual easily, to fire an errant public servant. Thus any election should be simple, clear, and elect one individual. Party influence also needs to be minimised, as does any other situation where accountability is diluted.
Thus my suggestions for reform as as follows:
1) Make the office of Prime Minister directly elected. This is necessary to separate the executive from the legislative, so that we don’t have one election for two things and restore proper accountability to the electorate for both branches of Government.
2) Forbid the providing of any funds from outside the concerned constituency or area for any election. This particularly has implications for constituencies, ensuring that in any constituency funding cannot be obtained from party or other sources outside the consitituency. This would lessen the power of political parties in controlling the nomination and election of MPs.
3) Forbid Members of Parliament from holding ministerial positions. Thus lessening patronage as a tool of the executive to control the legislative.
4) Ministers to be approved by Parliament. This is to assure their accountability.
5) Taxation, borrowing and use of armed force to be permitted only with express consent of Parliament. Thus ensuring the accountability of the central executive to parliament. Borrowing is an essential inclusion, otherwise the executive could just borrow funds and leave the country indebted as well as slipping its leash.
I suggest these five reforms would do more to restore genuine democratic accountability then any switch to AV or to PR or any other electoral system. Admittedly this leaves the process unfinished – reform of the Lords, now a vast body of place men, urgently needs reform, as does local Government, but I think this would be a start.