Politics

It doesn’t take a great deal of intelligence to see that the political system is completely fucked – it has been for a while, as I mentioned in a story I wrote in 2005. Well, things haven’t got any better. (Did you realise that in the 2010 elections, the percentage vote split was 36/29/23/12, but the percentage seat split was 47/40/8.5/4.5? Turnout was 65%, so less than a quarter of the voting population actually voted for the Tories, but more than a third of the voting population, and more than half of those who voted, voted for either the LibDems or Labour.) The one semi-serious attempt at electoral reform, the referendum on changing to a crippled form of proportional representation, was itself crippled by the vested interests who want nothing to change.
(Wait, crippled by vested interests, what do you mean? I mean, that the question we were asked to vote yes or no on was hideously weighted against change unless you’re used to thinking about things. We, the voting public, were asked whether we wanted to change to the alternative-vote form of proportional representation, a somewhat complex and ineffective form of PR. Most people voted “no”, on the basis that they didn’t want to change to something else that didn’t work, which kind of missed the point. I voted “yes”, because a) anything was better than FPTP, and b) once AV was adopted we’d get a better chance of further reform to a better system of PR. But since most people voted “no”, the government, the majority of which don’t want anything to change, because if the system that got them into power changes they probably wouldn’t stay in power, read it as the voting public saying, “we like FPTP”. And since that referendum result was what the government wanted, the government won’t give us another referendum on changing to a more effective form of PR. Ever. So, if you voted “no” in that referendum, I hope you’re suitably ashamed of yourself.)
By this point, the worlds of politics and big business and big media and big finance are so inextricably linked, that the only chance of real reform being introduced is if it’s imposed from the top down. Which is weird, because the system needs completely reforming from the bottom up. And yes, I mean COMPLETE reform. Here’s my idea:

Basics
First, we need a new parliament building. The across-the-floor layout of the Palace of Westminster naturally leads to an adversarial-style of thinking, when we should be encouraging a co-operative mindset in our governors. Build a completely circular building with two floors, no offices, and lots of seats with an attached data terminal. The ground floor will be for the Commons, the first floor for the newly-renamed Upper Body. Each chamber will have a front door, an entrance vestibule, an inner door, a corridor to get from the doors to the chamber, and some toilets. No-one except Members of the Chambers and journalists and protesters will be allowed onto the property. No lobbyists (because there’s no lobby), no old-school-tie-friends, no skiing-holiday-buddies, no little rooms for quiet meetings with people from vested interests. The chambers will be laid out in a spiral, with only one way in. The outer rank of seats will be higher than the others, so the path spirals down to the middle, where the “leader” sits. This not only lets everyone see the person “in charge”, it reminds the person in charge that if they fuck up, they’ve got to walk past all the other members on their way in and out, and face several hundred reproving stares, hard looks, insults, or assaults. I think we can keep the law of Parliamentary Privilege, where you cannot be prosecuted for saying or doing something inside the chamber, so that should keep the people inside in healthy fear of reprisal from their disgusted peers if they do anything stupid or underhanded. The Upper Body chamber will have the same layout as the Commons chamber.
Each chair will have an attached data terminal, with three purposes. Firstly, to vote with. A simple and standard number keypad can be used for an MP to register their presence at their seat, and a green-white-red set of buttons below it can be used to register a vote (yes-abstain-no). For security, the MP will need to log-in when they sit down, so they can use the terminal for other things, and again immediately before they vote. Secondly, the terminal will be used as the primary means of communication and debate in the chamber. If you have people talking, you have to wait for one person to speak at a time if you want any clarity. This leads to a slow debate schedule, with many MPs not getting a chance to express their opinions or point of view on an issue, which means they don’t get a chance to persuade others to vote with them on it, and some issues not getting enough (or any) time to be debated. The terminal can allow an MP to type their argument, and have it seen, unhurriedly and with time to digest it and examine it, by every member of the chamber (each piece being debated will have its’ own flag, and members can filter their debate window using the flags, so they don’t get flooded with arguments, or confused about what subject the argument relates to). Once that’s done, they can use the terminal for interpersonal communication with other MPs, in order to try and persuade undecideds or wavering voters to vote with them. Each issue being debated will have 72 hours in the chamber, and after 71 hours voting will be enabled. Anything after 72 hours will be ignored. Thirdly, the terminal can be used for research into the issues being debated. This means an internet connection, with no filter or restrictions, because we want our MPs to be well-informed on the things they’re voting on, and not just being fed pre-approved propaganda by vested interests. That means that pre-approved propaganda from both side of the debate must be available, as well as neutral analysis.

Organisation
End the Party system. The Party system just leads to cliques, adversarial thinking, and an unbalanced system of governing. No Parties, no whips, no orders from the leadership. MPs can vote however they like, based on their preferences, their agreements with other MPs, and the platform upon which they got themselves elected.
“If there are no Parties, how can they have a platform?” the hard-of-thinking will ask. “How can they afford to campaign to get elected without a Party backing them?” Simple: Two months before an election is due, anyone who thinks they would make a good MP applies to the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission assesses whether they are allowed to stand (resident in this country for x years, legally an adult, never been convicted of fraud, theft, plagiarism etc, and no income that can be traced to an inter- or multi-national company, or a domestic one with a turnover of greater than £1million, and so on. If they really want to stand, but don’t meet the criteria, they must change their circumstances to meet the criteria), and if they are, sends them a simple questionnaire on what their policy positions will be on key areas. One month before the election, the Electoral Commission launches the campaigns of all candidates in the country, with equal funding per head of population. This will basically amount to a leaflet being sent to every household for each candidate, with their questionnaire responses on it, plus a small amount for door-to-door campaigning. On election day, the ballot papers are marked only with the candidates’ names and a summary of their position on the political compass (authoritarian/libertarian vs capitalist/socialist) and policy positions.
Now, you can’t possibly have all the candidates in the country on the ballot paper, so you need to divide the country into electoral areas. The current electoral areas are based on serving the antiquated FPTP system that we currently have, so they need to change. The UK has a population of roughly 63million, and a land area of roughly 240,000 sq km (92,665 sq miles), which is an average of 262.5 people per sq km (680 per sq mile). Dividing it up into equal sizes of land is plainly stupid, so we have to try and divide it into areas of equal population, and try and have more than one representative per area. If we divide the country into areas of roughly 200,000 people each, and require three MPs per area, that gives us 945 MPs – up on the current total, but totally worth it. The three candidates with the most votes in each area go through to Parliament.
Since there are no Parties, there will be no overall policies, and no defined leadership. The first thing that happens upon a new parliament being elected, is that the all the new MPs have a mixer party somewhere. Just a mixer party – no speeches, no leaflets, no slideshows, no promotional videos. The next day, those who are interested in leadership positions put their names forward, and they have a week to convince the rest of the chamber that they are the best person for the job, whether that job be Leading Member or Member with Portfolio for Defence/Education/Environment/Shoes/whatever. The one with the most votes for the position gets the job, and the one with the second most votes is made their Adversary.
Okay, yes, I’ve mentioned that adversarial thinking in government is not good, and here I’m giving people the position of “Adversary”. This is not hypocrisy or contradictory, it is simply the provision of checks and balances within the system. Members with Portfolio will get first shout on policies and ideas relating to their portfolio, and they’ll be in charge of implementing the things that get voted for in the chamber. The Adversary for Education (for example) will have the job of critiquing any ideas or policies the Minister with Portfolio for Education makes, and seeing if there are any flaws in the plan to (for example) provide funding to rebuild all schools to modern building standards. When it is submitted to the chamber, the Adversary will get first shout at providing a “no” argument. If the idea gets a majority “yes” vote in the chamber, the Adversary’s job will then be to critique etc the Minister’s plan for implementation.
“But how will anything get voted through without Parties?” the vested interests are now whining. The word Parliament is derived from the French verb for talking. Members will talk to each other (via their data terminals on their chairs). They will talk to each other, try to persuade each other on the strength and validity of their arguments to vote for their idea or policy. And they can make vote-swap arrangements with each other (ie. Member#246 offers to vote for Member#618’s proposal to paint lampposts white, if Member#618 votes for their proposal to put bus lanes on every road in the country). Pretty soon you’ll find out who can be relied on to honour their arrangements, and who is generally good at presenting a convincing argument.
After four years, new elections are called, and anyone can stand again. But no-one will be automatically returned to a leadership position, and no-one may stand for the same leadership position twice in a row. And once someone has been the Leading Member twice, they may no longer stand for any leadership position.

Finance
In recent years, it has become apparent that politicians cannot be trusted to look after their own finances or those of the country. Second homes, the expenses scandal, austerity measures that are making the rich richer and the poor poorer, these are all indications of a broken system. The solution is simple:
MPs, of both the Commons and the Upper Body, will not be paid anything except their salary as an MP. No salary, shares or bonuses from companies they’re employed by in any capacity (whether regular employment, a consultancy, a seat on the board, whatever), no publicity fees (so no income from books they’ve written or anything), no kickbacks or free holidays paid for by vested interests – nothing except their MP salary. And here’s the clever part – make the salary of an MP the same as the national average salary of everyone at or below the level of branch manager, headmaster, etc. If someone has authority over more than one site where their business takes place, their wages cannot be taken into account. What does the headmaster of your local secondary school get paid? Between £40k and £100k, according to the Dept of Education. What does the janitor get paid? Probably less than £15k. Average all those out, and that figure, which will probably be in the £20k-£25k range, will be an MP’s salary. If MPs want a pay rise, they have to make the economy good enough to give a pay rise to everyone else in a 9-to-5 job.
Yes, being an MP will be a 9-to-5 job. Five days a week, forty-nine weeks a year, the same as the vast majority of the people they represent. Attendance in the chamber is compulsory Monday to Friday (except for one day a week they spend in their constituency holding surgeries and talking to the people who elected them), and they get the same amount of holiday a year as all the other 9-to-5ers. There will be no three month summer recess – the world does not stop turning, things do not stop happening, so they do not get to stop governing, except when on suitably-booked annual leave.
When they have finished debating for the day, they either go to their constituency home, or they go back to their government-funded accommodation, aka The Houses of Parliament – turn the Palace of Westminster into flats for the MPs. Have on-site shops so they don’t have to go far to buy things (and they’ll be places like Tesco and Wilkinsons, not Harvey Nichols or Harrods), and they can live in relative comfort near to their workplace at relatively little taxpayers expense. If they want anything more, they can pay for it themselves, just like everybody else in the country.

The Upper Body
I’ve mentioned an Upper Body before, and not really gone into any details. I believe any governing body needs built-in checks and balances – the Adversary is one of them. But that is only the micro or individual scale, a government needs a macro or overall check and balance. This is where the Upper Body comes in.
The Upper Body will have a chamber directly over the Commons chamber. It will be a largely unelected chamber – but not in the sense that the current House of Lords is. The Upper Body will be made up of some hereditary and life peers, some religious leaders, some business leaders, but mostly of well-regarded ordinary citizens. How do you find them? The honours system is designed to honour people who have made a contribution to society – those who have donated a lot of time or money to charity or the local community, for instance, or those who have invented something really nifty, or those who have campaigned for a worthy cause, or those who have run faster than everyone else over a certain distance. Those are the sorts of people who, I think, deserve some sort of say in the running of the country. So if you have a CH, ISO, OM, MBE or OBE (which cover the low-level contributions to society, arts, sciences, the military, and civil/civilian service), then you can apply to join the Upper Body, which will have a fixed number of seats to match the number of seats in the Commons. Why the lower orders, why not the higher orders like the KBE, MVO or CMG? Because they tend to be awarded to can either bribe their way to getting it, or are for things like diplomatic or outstanding military service, and the people who end up with them tend to be unrepresentative of the population at large.
The Upper Body will will cycle out its’ members every four years, the year after a general election. Their remit will be to act like a benevolent headteacher to the Commons – if a piece of legislation passes the Commons that, upon examination by the Upper Body, appears to be unworkable, the Upper Body will send it back with a note saying, “unacceptable – redo,” and an explanation and suggestions. If legislation passes the Commons that is, upon examination, stupid, the Upper Body will pass it back saying, “this is stupid, F-,” and so on. They will act as an Adversary to the whole chamber. They will not be able to permanently block a piece of legislation, but there will be no limit to the number of times it can be sent back to the Commons for re-working. If stupid legislation is passed back enough times, the Commons will eventually get the message and stop trying to pass it. The Upper Body will have the power to repeal policies and legislation that has been passed by both Chambers, but in practice is proving to be stupid, unworkable, unfair, or just plain detrimental to the country (so, most of the policies enacted by the current government, then).

That’s about it. Thank you for sticking around this long. What passes for normal service will be resumed next week.

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2 Responses to Politics

  1. Pingback: Coming soon… | Arranging Reality

  2. Eric Jarvis says:

    Some nice ideas in there, but some big problems too.

    I’ll start with PR. Largely it’s a red herring. It’s very easy to set up a system of PR that more accurately reflects voters’ choices of party, but at the expense of giving the central party administration more control over who actually ends up elected. I don’t think that’s a good thing. If we were to make one single change to the electoral system we’d be better off using something akin to US style primary elections. The problem we have isn’t that we have MPs from the wrong parties in Parliament. The problem we have is that in all the main parties the people who get to be MPs are the ones who are nakedly ambitious to the extent that they will do whatever the party leadership asks in order to get advancement. Those also tend to be the most avaricious. Potential MPs who have a genuine wish to represent their constituents and make the country a better place have almost no chance of selection and absolutely no chance of attaining senior positions in Parliament.

    Secondly you make the mistake of treating the small scale corruption on things like expenses as being important because it’s had media coverage. Frankly it’s tiny in comparison to the serious corruption in the current system. Grant Shapps, who was housing minister from 2010 to 2012 received six figure sums from the National Housebuilders Federation and from a large property development company. That’s even more serious, especially since his reaction to having the conflict of interest pointed out was to simply try to hide it. Which still pales in comparison with the simple fact that a number of companies that have been given very generous government contracts have also made large donations to political parties. It is that level of corruption that has to be tackled.

    However you can’t simply abolish party politics. Party politics is inevitable, it either happens in the open or it will happen in secret. Even one party states effectively have party politics within the one party. So what we actually have to do is create a framework in which political parties are constructive. Firstly that means limiting expenditure. There are no limits on national spending by political parties, only limits locally at elections. We need to end the current situation where in order to compete the main political parties have to solicit massive donations from vested interests. Then we also should have rules that force parties to have some internal democracy in terms both of choosing candidates and in terms of deciding policy. We would be far better off with open and democratic political parties that weren’t dependent on vested interests than with covert parties.

    The main thing though, the system IS broken, and needs fixing PDQ.

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