Richard North, 14/07/2019  
 


Amid all the negatives, there is one possible positive outcome from the selection of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson as UK prime minister. Once the full horror of this creature hits home, people may rebel against the system that put him there and move towards a directly elected prime minister.

Before we get there, however, we have a lot of thinking to do, from which needs to emerge a degree of clarity about the nature of democracy which currently does not seem to exist.

A classic example of the muddle we're in comes this weekend from Nick Cohen who writes a piece lamenting the decay of democracy. In this, he puts much of the blame on what he calls "party democracy", asserting that it is the "enemy of representative democracy".

In this, I am of the view that the moment you have to qualify "democracy" with an adjective, it is no longer democracy. Thus, I have long asserted that, as wooden is to leg, representative is to democracy. The same must be said of party democracy – neither can qualify as a meaningful form of democracy.

To that extent, the UK is not and never has been a democracy. Rather like Brexit, which I defined as a process rather than an event, way before anyone else thought of doing so, democracy in the UK has never been a fixed state. It is more a direction of travel, an aspiration to higher things that we will eventually achieve.

Nick Cohen, in his dissertation, relies heavily on historian Robert Saunders to guide him through the matrix, thus displaying the bad habit of many contemporary columnists and journalists in hiding behind the opinions of others instead of asserting his own.

Thus, after a dissection of the demerits of the role of political parties – and especially with reference to the election of our next prime minister – Cohen still manages to confuse himself with the contradictory assertion that, "we are a democracy and power should flow from the people, not from a privileged caste in a private club".

The contradiction, of course, is that unless power flows from the people, we cannot be a democracy and if – as is most definitely the case with the selection of the prime minister – we are in the grip of a party clique, we cannot by definition be a democracy.

It is there that Cohen brings in Saunders to suggest remedies. Either, he says, we return to MPs choosing leaders, and thereby accept that no one can become prime minister without first holding an election, or we move to a presidential system with a directly elected prime minister.

For our money, though, all we're getting is another element of confusion. Like so many, Saunders seems to believe that the process of electing a prime minister somehow turns it into a presidential system.

Yet, as I keep pointing out, presidents are heads of states. Prime ministers are heads of governments. To directly elect prime ministers does not miraculously turn them into presidents. If we have a system of directly elected prime ministers, then that is what we get – a system of direct election, not a presidential system.

As to having our MPs elect prime ministers, this goes back to the electoral college system. And if that has some merits, they are vastly overrated. I cannot see the need (at least in the UK) to interpose another layer between the people and the leader of their government. If the prime minister is to be elected, let the people do it, and cut out the middle man.

But there is more to the process of direct election than simply the selection of a prime minister. With this system comes something we do not have in this country – a proper separation of powers, where MPs are elected to scrutinise government, not to become part of it. A prime minister should not be an MP and neither should ministers. Government should govern, and parliament should scrutinise.

In his attack on the party system, though, Cohen does have a point, where he calls in aid Saunders once more to say that control of politics has passed to unelected and irresponsible members of the respective political parties. Says Saunders, "Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt needs the support of about 70,000-80,000 Tory members to become prime minister. That's roughly the size of one parliamentary constituency".

The thing is that political parties are primarily election-fighting machines. Without them, we would be even more prone to the situation where money buys elections, with the rich being the only people who could afford to stand. If one is to reduce the role of parties, therefore, we need to change the way elections work.

For my money, I would abolish general elections altogether, as a means of choosing MPs. The big electoral event should be directed at picking the prime minister. For MPs, I have argued that there should be a means of tying constituency boundaries to those of local authorities, allowing local communities to take control.

It should be for each local community to decide the terms and conditions of the appointment of their MPs, and the money to pay their salaries and expenses should be raised locally rather than paid from central funds.

For accountability purposes, MPs should be required to publish annual reports and (audited) accounts, which would then be subject to a vote of approval from the constituents. If the report or accounts were rejected, then there should be a by-election. Otherwise, the MPs continue to stand for as long as they get affirmative votes.

For by-elections, one possible antidote to party dominance would be to have prospective candidates vetted by an independent (or cross-party) panel, appointed by the local authority. A finite number who pass the selection process might then be awarded grants from public funds, with which to fight their elections, that becoming the absolute spending limit. Party sponsorship should be prohibited and candidates should not be allowed to join political parties.

The intention here is to turn MP elections into local events. The big weakness of the current system is that people tend to vote for the party rather than the person, thus cementing in the dominance of the parties. But when there is no party to vote for, and the election is for an MP rather than for a government, one hopes that the focus would be on the people standing for election.

Here, there is also another element. Currently, many of us are appalled by the low grade of MPs in the Commons, typified by their inability to grasp the technical issues of Brexit – and much else. Yet, if we have learnt anything, it is that the scrutiny of government is a tough and demanding job. Before standing for election, candidates should at least show evidence of an ability to perform the necessary functions.

This, though, cannot be all. In his earlier piece, Saunders argues that other changes are needed. Like the buildings it inhabits, he says, parliament needs urgent renovation. The first priority, he thinks, is a new voting system that more accurately represents the spectrum of national opinion. The second of his changes is to replace the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, which allows zombie governments to linger on when they can no longer pass their major legislation.

Thirdly, he says that parliament should radically reduce its workload, distributing more of its powers to local and devolved government. Party members are right to prize the immediacy of a smaller, more responsive democracy; but that should be open to all, and not just to a fee-paying minority.

It is interesting how many people think that tinkering with the voting system is an answer to anything - as if other systems have solved the dominance of political parties elsewhere in the world. But Suanders's third idea is very much a core part of The Harrogate Agenda (THA), where we see central government doing far too much. The larger part of the system of government could be devolved to local authorities, with the spending ambitions of local politicians constrained by annual referendums on local authority budgets.

And that was the key lesson we learnt from our work on THA – that piecemeal measures were not enough. We crafted a package of six demands which work together as a whole. The last one, incidentally, was the creation of a constitutional convention with a view to drafting a written constitution. No longer is it safe (not that it ever was) to allow either governments or MPs untrammelled power to decide on constitution issues.

If power is to flow from the people, so that eventually we get closer to being a functional democracy, then the people must be the constitutional authority who decide on the allocation of powers in this land.






comments powered by Disqus











Log in


Sign THA





The Many, Not the Few