Why have members of parliament lost their sense of purpose and self-respect? Why do so many of them apparently see elected office as a means of enriching themselves rather than improving the lives of their constituents? The reason is that ordinary MPs in Westminster have very little power: they are in a very real sense a waste of space, superfluous, lobby fodder. Many have become self-centred careerists, happy to do the bidding of the party whips, provided they get to put their snouts in the trough.
We need to make give MPs a proper job, with real responsibility. There is a fundamental deficiency at the heart of our democratic system which is the source of much of what is wrong in Westminster: the unfair electoral system. We do not have democracy in this country, but elective dictatorship by prime ministers given inflated majorities by a fundamentally unsound and unrepresentative method of voting in general elections. This allows the executive to ride roughshod over parliament and ignore the will of the people.
To revive parliamentary democracy we must first of all make parliament democratic. In 2005, Labour won an overall majority of 66 seats on just 35.2% of the vote. No government in history has rested on a flimsier base of popular support. In England, the Conservatives won a majority of the votes but Labour won 92 more seats in parliament than the Tories. I don’t know what you call this exactly, but it isn’t democracy.
It’s not just Labour governments that have benefited from artificially inflated majorities. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher brought near revolutionary change to Britain – destroying the power of trades unions, privatising state assets, selling council homes – yet she never won more than 43% of the vote. In Labour’s largest landslide in 1997, Tony Blair won a 179 seat majority on the basis of only 43% of the vote. And it was very much a personal victory for Tony Blair, who proceeded to run the most centralised and personalised administration in modern times, ignoring parliament – he rarely turned up apart from Prime Minister’s Question Time – and ruling through a cabal of trusted advisers from his sofa in the den of Number Ten.
The electoral system is not an abstract issue but a very real cause of bad government. Consider Iraq, when a million people demonstrated against the invasion and the government faced the two greatest backbench rebellions in Labour history. Because of his artificial majority, Tony Blair was able to ignore parliament and the people and launch an illegal war without a second UN resolution. Tens of thousands of lives lost, billions wasted simply on the whim of a Prime Minister who seemed to believe that his judgement was based on divine inspiration. Yet the war would never have happened had the composition of the legislature in Westminster reflected the votes cast in the country at the 1997 and 2001 elections. Tony Blair would not have had a majority for the war because he would have needed the support of the Liberal Democrats and his own backbench to govern. He would have had to come to parliament and argue his case, as in the Scottish Parliament where votes are finely balanced.
Critics of electoral reform say that PR leads to instability. But we have seen in the Scottish case that a minority government elected on a proportional system can govern very effectively, and above all responsibly. Alex Salmond has had to bend to the will of parliament on issues like local income tax – an SNP election manifesto pledge which the Scottish government has abandoned because it could not win the support of the house. That is surely better than a system in which the First Minister had been given unlimited power to get his way. If the Holyrood had been elected under the Westminster system, Alex Salmond might have delivered a unilateral declaration of independence by now, even though a majority of Scots oppose separation. I don’t see how that can be seen as more stable than the balanced and
But this isn’t just about Prime Ministers. Consider the position of MSPs in Holyrood. In almost every significant vote, they have to examine their consciences and study the issue at hand before they vote. This is because every one of them in the governing party knows that their votes matter, and that they could bring down the government. Similarly, opposition MSPs in Holyrood realise that they can’t simply indulge in for opposition for opposition’s sake. If they vote against the government they have to accept the possibility that the government might fall and that they might have to step up to the plate. This gives MSPs a clear existential purpose, a profound sense of responsibility as stakeholders in a truly democratic assembly where they and not the executive hold the ultimate power.
Westminster will only be reformed when it grasps the nettle of electoral reform. Tony Blair promised a referendum on the electoral system in 1997, but after he won a landslide majority he conveniently forgot about it. The two party duopoly is underpinned by the electoral system which locks out minor parties. The entire focus of politics becomes the need to win the support of some 800,000 swing voters in key marginal constituencies. Hundreds of MPs in safe seats get a job for life and forget about their constituents. Voters stop voting because their votes don’t seem to count for anything.
No one can be in any doubt now that our parliamentary system requires urgent reform. We need openness and transparency at Westminster so that the public can see how public money is spent. We need more powerful select committees and a reduction of the power of the party whips. The unelected House of Lords needs to be reformed following scandals there, and the power to set the date of the general election needs to be taken out of the hands of the prime minister of the day. But before any of these changes can work the balance of power in Westminster must shift fundamentally and irrevocably to parliament and away from the executive. Only fair voting can achieve this, and spark the revival of democratic culture that Britain desperately needs.