MPs’ expenses: a call to action

I’m angry that MPs have been defrauding the public by using their expenses as an unofficial second salary. Most of you are probably angry too.

Anger can be useful if it inpsires people to effective action. But if it doesn’t, it can just fester and people might get so cynical about democracy that we lose it. I’m not the only one who thinks this:

The Archbishop of Canterbury has warned the “systematic humiliation” of MPs over their expenses is a threat to democracy in Britain. Dr Rowan Williams said the daily press revelations could erode people’s confidence in the political system.

The problem is wider than expenses

So what can be done? We need to reform the system, not just to satisfy people’s righteous anger about parliamentary expenses, but to put a system in place to prevent MPs from getting so out of touch with the will of the people. It’s no good just to exhort MPs to behave better: if we do that, they will comply for a short time, then slowly they will go back to their old ways when they think we’re not looking.

How did MPs get out of touch and lose the trust of the people? They’re our servants aren’t they? In theory they are — we elect them — but in practise they are not. We only get one opportunity every 4 or 5 years to sack them, and in most constituencies in a normal year, a donkey would win if it was wearing the right colour rosette. This means that in practise it’s the party hierarchy that decides who becomes an MP, not the voters. MPs know this, which is why they are more responsive to their party leaders and to the voters in their constituency.

We need to change the system so that, in practise, it’s the voters who can make or break a politician’s career, not the party leadership. Then the politician will do what we want, not what the party leader wants. Democracy means it’s the voters who are the boss not the politicians.

I suggest three proposals, listed in order of importance.

Three proposals to reform politics

(1) Recall elections for MPs

The voters of a constituency should have the power to force a recall of their MP if enough of them sign a recall petition. The sitting MP would be allowed to stand at the resulting by-election. Recalling an MP must be easy enough that it is a credible threat to the MP and hard enough that it isn’t happening all the time, and therefore disrupting parliamentary business. I suggest that an appropriate threshold be 1/3 of the voters who voted in that constituency at the last general election. And maye there could be a provision that no MP has to face more than one recall per parliament.

For example, the voters might decide to recall their MP if he[1] is behaving unreasonably (such as putting a duck pond on expenses), reneges on a manifesto promise (e.g. the recent income tax rise to 50%), is pressing for unpopular policies (the Iraq war or the poll tax would be examples in recent years).

(2) MPs expenses to be completely transparent

MPs are far less likely to make unreasonable claims if they know we’re watching them.

One way to achieve this would be to require that all expenses claims and payments go through a computerised system that is published on parliament’s website, as they happen. If MPs feel that such transparency would be an invasion of their privacy, they are at liberty to resign and get another job; and frankly given all the CCTV cameras, email and phone monitoring, databases and ID cards they’ve imposed on us, it’s about time they are paid back in the same coin. The government keeps telling us “if you’re got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear”, so let’s apply that principle to MPs.

(3) Parliamentary elections to use the Alternative Vote instead of First Past The Post

AV has a number of advantages over FPTP. But the main one I’m thinknig of is that it makes it easier for the electorate to get behind a challenger to an incumbent MPs, particularly if the challenger is an independent, instead of the anti-incumbent vote being split between several candidates. As with recall elections, there needs to be a credible threat that an MP will lose his seat if he don’t do what his constituency wants.

Getting these (or similar) proposals implemented

The exact details of these proposals are not too important, but I do think it’s important that something like them (especially the first one) becomes law. For similar proposals see Matthew Cain’s Charter 2009 (also discussed on Amused Cynicism).

But how do we achieve this? We can assume that the political elite will not welcome these proposals, since it will erode their power (indeed that is their entire purpose: to take power away from the politicians and return it where it belongs, to the people).

A call to action

So we need to create a mass movement to push the proposals through. Fortunately the Internet makes this much easier.

First we need to decide exactly what set of proposals we are going to push for, and we need to mobilise as much support behind the proposals as we can. How we do this is up for debate, but it could involve petitioning the government to accept these proposals (using the Number 10 petition system). At the same time, we could get people to pledge that in the next general election they will not vote for a candidate who doesn’t endore the proposals — we could use Pledgebank and Facebook for this.

UPDATE: Paul Evans has suggested a worthwhile idea that’s in a similar spirit to these proposals, but complementary to them:

It is time for us to think about how we can reinvigorate widespread participation in political parties – old and new. For this reason, I’d like to propose that we – the voters – offer the political parties a new deal. It runs like this:

“We will double the membership of the local party that we support – but only if they will let us re-select our candidate.”

I’ve outlined how I think this can work on a new website – www.reselect.org and I would urge you to do anything you can to promote this initiative.

Footnotes:

1. I’m using the male pronoun here because “he/she” is cumbersome, “they” would be ambiguous, and there is no gender-neutral pronoun that everyone agrees on.

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7 Responses to MPs’ expenses: a call to action

  1. Letters From A Tory says:

    I haven’t heard of the Alternative Vote system, and it sounds interesting. My only concern is that tactical voting would become a huge factor in electing MPs, which could make things a bit cynical?

    • cabalamat says:

      My only concern is that tactical voting would become a huge factor in electing MPs

      Actually it’s more the other way round — with AV there would be a lot less tactical voting than there is currently with FPTP, because voters would know that if their 1st choice didn’t win, their vote would be reallocated to their lower-priority choices.

  2. George Carty says:

    In the 1970s the Labour and Conservative parties had close to two million members each – now they have less than a tenth of this. Isn’t it necessary to get the masses interested in joining political parties and paying subscriptions, so that said parties are less dependent on wealthy donors with their own agendas?

    • cabalamat says:

      The masses will get interested in joining parties when they are interested.

      British people are not uninterested in politics, but they are uninterested in the political parties, who are seen (rightly) as being corrupt, incompetent, and more interested in getting/retaining power than actually running the country competently.

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