We must become Parliamentarians again

I have just finished reading a fascinating book about the collapse in September 2008 of Lehman Brothers. Well informed and informative, it describes in vivid and authentic detail how that banking house careered towards the biggest bankruptcy in history dragging much of the world’s financial system into chaos with it. The book is titled A Colossal Failure of Common Sense and is a study of the deadly interplay between personal and institutional greed for both money and power, the desire of those in power to maintain the status quo, the reluctance to recognise inconvenient facts and the willingness of those with “common sense” to become complicit and not ask the key “what if?” questions. It should be required reading for the leaders of our political parties.

It is our political parties that have become a necessity in, but also the kidnappers of, our representative democracy. And it is they that are leading us headlong towards the collapse of public confidence in our parliamentary system. They are doing this, as they have for some time, in three main ways.

They exercise substantial control of parliamentary candidacy by deciding at central or local level who is allowed to put themselves up for election as representatives of constituencies.

They are the self-appointed guardians of the rule that all holders of ministerial positions sit in one of the two houses of Parliament and are members of (or, in rare cases, supporters of) “the party”.

They make clear to “their” MPs (via the whipping system and other more subtle pressures) that the realisation of any ambition to have a political career including ministerial office is dependent on supporting “their” government and not “rocking the boat”.

By these means the political parties have captured our freedoms and largely destroyed the notions that Government should be subject to the control of Parliament and that Parliament should consist of the people’s representatives freely elected. We are, in effect, forced to vote for a party which will create the next government with our MPs reduced substantially to cannon fodder in relation to national matters and encouraged to focus on “constituency matters”. Test this by asking your MP two questions, one relating to a purely local matter and the other to a national matter. You will get a prompt response to the former but, very likely, will have to wait for a response to the latter until someone on the MP’s staff has checked with “central office” what the party line is.

No wonder that Parliament has become a rather self important cosy club in which intelligent people, forced to engage in a ritualistic death dance with its own arcane rules, are exposed to the temptation of taking concealed reward for accepting a largely frustrating and intellectually sterile role in life. Hardly the centre of a people’s democracy! This is not what those who have fought for our liberty over the centuries, and particularly in the 17th century (not so long ago!), intended.

There is a little known event which started us on the path to domination by political parties and the mess they have got us into.

The Act of Settlement of 1701, best known for securing the occupancy of our throne in protestant hands, was also intended to be the final nail hammered into the coffin of royal executive supremacy by the parliamentarians. Following on from the thinking underlying our Bill of Rights – the expression of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 – the Act of Settlement laid down the principle that no person with an office under the Crown (i.e. no minister) could be capable of serving as a member of the House of Commons. Since the House of Commons already had secured control of “supply” (money needed by government to carry out its policies) this principle was designed to ensure that Government was not only separate from Parliament but also controlled by a Parliament with the means of quickly and directly imposing its will.

That provision of the Act of Settlement was to come into force on the (protestant) Hanoverian succession but long before that happened it was changed in 1705 into a provision that only the holders of offices created after that year could be barred from being MPs. Since all the great offices of state already existed, this change neutered what the parliamentarians wanted.

Had the provision in the Act of 1701 stood, no ministers would have been in and able to manipulate the House of Commons. There would have been no party whips controlled by ministers and no members on the payroll of ministers and “expected” to vote with government – the payroll vote. What would have been the consequence of this? One possibility is that we would have moved to the structure adopted by the rebelling American colonies later in the century with the head (Mr President) of an appointed executive (the ministers) elected separately from the legislature. A true and democratic separation of the powers!

Who pushed for the change of 1705? Surprise! Surprise! It was the emerging political class already organising themselves into the political parties which were to become the Tories (the King’s party) and the Whigs (the large landowners’ party). Those politicians, with deeply undemocratic instincts, saw and seized the opportunity to take the power which the parliamentarians had wrenched from the Crown. And by ensuring that sufficient of them were embedded in the House of Commons they could claim that they had democratic legitimacy (”we have been elected”) and ensure that those with political ambition were required to become first a member of a House of Commons which they substantially controlled.

This was the essence of what they (in horse racing parlance “the nobblers”) did and was precisely contrary to what parliamentarians had fought and died for. It was a dreadful defeat and ensured both that Parliament, representing the people, would have a very limited control of Government and that we would only ever have a pale shadow of a truly representative democracy. The situation was made worse by the cynical use the Tories (the King’s Party) made of the remaining royal prerogative to create peers (who could be ministers also) and obtain control of the “upper house”. This eventually caused a series of constitutional crises culminating in the curbing of the Peers’ powers nearly one hundred years ago and a “promise”, still not kept, by the political parties to reform the House of Lords.

The political parties have not served the cause of democracy and “we the people” well. They could have done much better – and would have done – had their leaders been less interested in the power that goes with governing us and more interested in helping us to govern ourselves. The right thing for them – the parties and their leaders – to do is to support the cause of popular reform and start by liberating our elected representatives. The primaries route for which Open Up is campaigning is a very attractive way of doing just that.

It is my hope that Open Up, and other reforming campaigns such as Power 2010 which have derived much energy from the hugely successful Convention on Modern Liberty, will succeed. A truly reforming House of Commons consisting of independently minded members should consider carefully why the creators of our Glorious Revolution wanted Government separate and excluded from our Parliament – a Parliament with the last word. I believe that those creators were right and that we should fight for what they wanted. Whether the politicians and their parties like it or not it is time for us, we the people, to become parliamentarians again. This time we must win and make our victory permanent.

“Duck house MP” Peter Viggers will be replaced using primary

This morning, Conservative Home reported that Gosport – home to Sir Peter Viggers and his ducks – would be the next constituency to run an “all-postal” primary to select the Conservative candidate for the next general election.

Conservative party chairman Eric Pickles has now confirmed the news, stating:

“I hope this will build on the success of Totnes. It’s vital that we continue to empower local people and allow them to have the final say. I hope this will encourage people in Gosport not previously interested in politics to get involved and get their voice heard.”

Sir Peter announced he would be stepping down at the next general election at the height of the expenses scandal in May. We’re delighted that his party has chosen to put the issue of his replacement to the people of Gosport.

Open Up Campaign Update: 27th October

Last week we launched the Open Up campaign calling for open primaries in the UK. There’s been a huge reaction already with both offline and online media covering our campaign and encouraging the public to sign the petition.

Here’s a snapshot of the buzz about the campaign so far…

For starters there was a really positive and detailed discussion on open primaries over at the left-leaning blog, LabourList.

The author of the LabourList post was then invited to take part in a discussion on BBC 5Live’s Simon Mayo show with blogger Iain Dale political reformer, Antony Barnett, and our very own John Lloyd.

This gave us some great coverage with the argument for open primaries being heard by about 6.5m members of the population.

The 5Live coverage also helped increase awareness of John Lloyd’s awesome campaign videos, Tales from the Duck House, which you can view over at Open Up’s YouTube channel. Current views stand at more than 30,000!

More online coverage which helped boosted campaign awareness was secured by high-profle blogs Boing Boing and Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish as well as being tweeted by Stephen Fry!

Both blogged positively about the campaign and helped drive additional further coverage which includes: Frank FieldIain DaleJason KitcatHarry’s PlaceLiberal ConspiracySky News Online and the Times.

We rounded off the week with a fantastic Guardian Comment is Free blog post by campaign supporter, Peter Bennett-Jones.

These are but a few of a long list, and as if that doesn’t demonstrate how wide reaching the campaign currently is we’ve been the topic of hundreds of tweets on Twitter and the Facebook Page now has over 280 fans.

Join us if you haven’t done so already and sign our petition to make UK politics more open and democratic!

Open Primaries: Who pays?

Yesterday, Frank Field MP answered the Open Up call for open primaries. Mr Field says that as a sitting MP who’s been shaken by the expenses scandal, he would welcome the opportunity to go back to put his case to his voters. He writes:

“[Sir Thomas Legg’s] letter bangs around in my head incessantly. This is the basis of my renewed interest in an open primary. Such a move would allow my constituents to pass a specific judgement on the question of my expenses, but also my record as their MP. They would have a choice between me and other candidates wishing to stand in a safe seat. This is not a choice that my constituents get in a general election. Whenever that occurs they also have to consider how their vote will affect the formation of a government and who will be Prime Minister.”

We’re delighted that a high-profile figure like Mr Field has become the first MP to rise to the Open Up challenge. He has also issued a challenge of his own:

“The Totnes open primary cost £40k. Does your campaigning extend to raising the money to put your idea into practice?”

So who should pay for open primaries? It’s a question that has come up rather a lot since we launched the campaign. We’re not going to duck it. But we also can’t foot the bill ourselves, and nor do we think we should (even if we had the money to run one open primary, if we say yes to this one, we’d have to say yes to all of them). So what are the options?

There look to be two choices when it comes to who funds open primaries: the political parties, as the Conservatives did in Totnes; or the taxpayer, who funds the running of the ballot in a general election. Some have already pointed out that, even conservative estimates based on the cost of Totnes put the total bill for holding open primaries in every constituency at around £20million. And there’s also the question of whether any extra money raised by political parties to run open primaries would count as campaign spending, which is capped by the Electoral Commission during a general election. We’re consulting with the Electoral Commission right now to understand what the issues might be here, and will keep the blog updated on what we find out.

£20million is a big number, but it’s not stratospheric. Let’s remember that large amounts of public money, as well as party funds, go into general elections at the moment. In 2005, more than £71million of public funds was spent on administering the general election. On top of that, the three major political parties spent in excess of £40million on campaigning.

Given that we’re already able to predict the outcome of the general election in 2010, it’s fair to ask whether this money could be made to go further, and give voters a real choice. There’s already so much cross-party endorsement for primaries, as well as emerging popular support for the Open Up campaign for open primaries, that the cost of running them simply can’t be used by opponents to change as a quick way to dismiss the issue.

And if public funds were used to cover some, or all, of the estimated £20million cost of open primaries, would that be a bad thing? Our democracy is worth investing in. We’re already spending millions on elections. Open Primaries will result in a better democracy, that could well reduce government spending in the long run, and save us all money.

And let’s put £20million into context. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, the so-called “arm’s length” body set up just before the end of the last Parliamentary session to regulate MPs’ expenses claims in response to the expenses scandal, is estimated to cost the taxpayer £1.1million in set up costs alone. Across 2007-2008, MPs claimed over £11million in second homes allowances. And the Olympic velodrome, which was slated to cost £20million in 2005, is now more likely to cost £105million.

Finally, if Douglas Carswell MP gets his way, it’s likely that funding open primaries before this general election would be a one-off cost. Legislation he proposed at the beginning of this month carries a provision for Returning Officers to include ballot papers for open primaries when constituents vote in local or European elections, letting primaries “piggy-back” on the costs of running these polls. This could reduce costs dramatically in the long-term.

Here at Open Up, we don’t want to duck (quack!) the costs issue. But we also know it’s not one we can solve on our own. Here’s what we can contribute. As voters, we can make it clear to political parties that we would respond positively to investment they make in democratising their candidate selection process. As taxpayers, we can ask the state to look again at how they are spending our money on elections, and see if there are ways to spend it that would improve representation and help permit open primaries to happen. And as campaigners, we can continue to provide a platform for promoting change, a platform that opens up the difficult challenges to debate, and helps spot the opportunities to overcome them.

Peter Bennett-Jones talks Open Primaries

Over the weekend, the Guardian’s Comment is Free published a piece by Peter Bennett-Jones on why he backs the Open Up campaign, and how comedy (of the sort employed in the Open Up videos) can lead to public engagement and real change.

Peter is chair of Comic Relief. He writes:

“When Comic Relief was started in the 1980s, it faced similar challenges about engaging people. People knew and were moved by the heart-breaking effect desperate poverty and environmental challenges were having on their fellow men and women at home and abroad. They saw it, in some form or another, every day on the news. But they felt powerless as individuals to change the situation. Back then, people questioned the juxtaposition of comedy with serious issues, the seamless televisual segue from stand-up to starvation. But experience has shown that, done right, the power of entertainment to engage people to think deeper about issues that are of common concern and to act in concert to address them can work and work well. Comic Relief has played a vital part in changing the attitude of a generation towards their own ability to change their world.

The Open Up campaign hopes to harness this power once again.”

You can read the full piece here.

Professor Bogdanor answers your questions

Earlier this week, we asked people to put their questions on open primaries to Professor Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at Oxford University and one of the Open Up campaign’s technical advisors. We’ve gathered together your questions from the Open Up blog and from other blogs and forums around the web. Here, Professor Bogdanor has sought to answer them.

Question: Primaries sound good but I have a doubt. If in the general apathy of politics people are not moved to vote for anybody other than the major parties, why are they going to energise themselves to think about who they would vote for in a primary? People tend to complain about politicians but they do not find out enough about the non-aligned candidates to know who to vote for. Independents only ever get elected for niche reasons.

Professor Bogdanor: The evidence from the primary for the Conservative candidates for the London mayor and the Parliamentary candidate in Totnes is that sufficient people will turn out to vote to make the exercise worthwhile. As they come to be accepted, primaries could well increase interest and turnout when ordinary people appreciate that their votes will make a difference.

Question: Won’t open primaries vastly lengthen and increase the expense of the electoral process, and make life more difficult for minority parties, independents and candidates from disadvantaged circumstances? Won’t they increase the problems surrounding campaign funding, many of which are evident from the US system?

Professor Bogdanor: To avoid this outcome, I think there should be a spending cap administered by the Electoral Commission.

Question: Could open primaries lead to a further entrenched two-party system, where the largest parties become the easiest option for those seeking to enter politics, to the detriment of pluralism and diversity; and the smaller parties find it impossible to compete, having insufficient candidates to make primaries feasible?

Professor Bogdanor: The truth is that nobody knows. The most likely outcome is that it will increase enthusiasm for democracy and so help all parties.

Question: Open primaries are an American idea that was designed to solve specific issues with the political process in the USA. In the US they don’t have the same organised political structures that exist and campaign all year round. Instead they come together around elections and focus on candidates rather than parties. That’s partially because of the clear division in the US constitution between the executive, legislature and judiciary. In the UK we don’t have a written constitution that makes that split. We vote for the party that will form the government. Open primaries in the US were also partially a response to the graft and corruption associated with Tammany Hall politics. We don’t have the same issues in the UK, so the open primaries solution won’t fix it.

Professor Bogdanor: I agree with the excellent description of the American political system here. The problem in Britain is, admittedly, different: that of the safe seat e.g. Macclesfield, which has elected just two MPs since 1945, both Conservative. Open primaries can help to give voters a say in choosing candidates in safe seats. Otherwise, the MP is in effect chosen by a small party caucus.

Question: Wouldn’t it be better if we kept the shortlisting stage inside political parties, that way, we could make sure all candidates had at least signed up to the party’s manifesto and loyal voters could maintain their confidence that the candidate they eventually voted for was one who shared their values?

Professor Bogdanor: Surely, the wider the participation of ordinary voters the better? Voters are perfectly able to judge for themselves whether or not candidates share their values.

Question: How do we stop people gaming the system?

Professor Bogdanor: It was argued before the primary for the London mayor and for the Totnes Parliamentary candidature that voters would game the system. That did not happen. There will always be a few people who may try to do this. But most people will be grateful for the opportunity to help choose their Parliamentary candidate.

Question: Should there be a maximum set for how many people can stand in a primary?

Professor Bogdanor: Yes, perhaps.

Question: What about smaller parties? Should they have open primaries too? Won’t their comparative lack of funding put them at a disadvantage?

Professor Bogdanor: Yes, smaller parties should have open primaries too. The question of whether they will be at a disadvantage raises the whole issue of whether there should be state funding of political parties, on which views legitimately differ.

Question: Is there any evidence that open primaries will lead to the better government?

Professor Bogdanor: “Better government” is in part a subjective matter. Open primaries will lead to more participation and therefore better democracy.

Open Up campaign on Radio 5 live today

Update (22-10-09): You can listen to the show here. You can skip direct to the section on the Open Up campaign – it starts after about 2 hours 29 minutes.

A quick note to supporters that John Lloyd and Anthony Barnett will be discussing the Open Up campaign with Simon Mayo on Radio 5 live today at 3.20.

You can listen to the show here (or on a radio, of course).

We’ll be Tweeting during the broadcast.

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Questions? Ask Vernon

Day 2 of the campaign is drawing to a close and I’m pleased to say that we’ve already stirred up lots of debate.

On Friday, Professor Vernon Bogdanor – a long-term advocate of Open Primaries – will be blogging here. He’ll be answering questions raised so far – about why open primaries are a good idea, about what they mean for political parties, and about how they might work.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University. He is a constitutional expert and has written extensively on reform issues, including open primaries.

If you’ve got questions for Vernon, please leave them in the comments at the bottom of this post. I’ll be gathering them together to send to Professor Bogdanor on Thursday morning.

We are not a true democracy until we have information and real choice

Democracy is made up of an informed electorate.

It sounds simple but let me deconstruct this. We need information to be informed and we need the ability to exercise our vote in a meaningful way to be a valid electorate. In the current set up we get neither and thus we cannot honestly call the UK a democracy.

Our public servants hoard information with a stubbornness last seen when Charlton Heston addressed the National Rifle Association saying the day he’d give up his gun was the day it was prised from his cold, dead hands. It was about that difficult prising from MPs their expense receipts.

Part of the reason I battled for the release of MPs’ expense claims was that I believed the public had every right to be informed about how their elected officials were spending public money in the course of their public duties. I wasn’t seeking state secrets, just expenses which can only be claimed “wholly, necessarily and exclusively in discharging their duties as Members”.  However, MPs and their civil servants thought such transparency was beyond the pale and they spent even more public money fighting for four years to stop me.

I remember sitting in an Information Tribunal hearing back in February 2008 listening to Andrew Walker the head of the Fees Office trying to explain to my lawyer how he thought constituents could in any way be making an informed voting decision about their MP when they lacked the most basic information about their MPs accountability.

“MPs should be allowed to carry on their duties free from interference,” he told us.   There you have it – you pesky constituents – in the world of Parliament you are an annoying interference getting in the way of the important business of being an MP. He honestly seemed to think that voting once every five years for someone pre-selected and without even the most basic information was enough.

It’s not. Not by a long shot. We need public bodies to understand they work for us and the information they collect in our name and at our expense belongs to us not them. Only then can we make any kind of informed decision.

Now that we’ve seen what lay behind MPs’ cries of ‘privacy’ and ‘security’ we are in a much better position when it comes time to casting our votes. That so many MPs have chosen to stand down reveals that what they’ve done will not stand up to public scrutiny.

But will we get the new kind of MPs we want to see: A new generation of technically savvy candidates committed to the people and not a political party? That’s unclear because unless the system of choosing political candidates is changed it’s just the same old favouritism and patronage that parachutes people from the strategy unit to a safe seat.

Currently candidates are selected not because they’ve built up a reputation as leaders in particular constituencies or proven themselves as sound leaders of merit, but because they’ve sucked up to the right politically powerful people. These people then give them the nod and the MP is put forward to be voted on by a tiny, totally unrepresentative party elite. As it was the party that put the MP in position, it is to the party to whom the MP is ultimately loyal. If we want MPs to work for us then it must be us who selects them. We need a role in the selection of candidates. That’s why I’m supporting the campaign to hold open primaries for all MPs.

I have one final suggestion for reform. Publish all party whips. These are the party’s instructions to all their MPs telling them how to vote. A one-line whip offers a suggestion on how to vote but a three-line whip is an outright threat and if the MP rebels his career will effectively be over.

Reform in a nutshell: freedom of information, open primaries and publishing the party whip. If we get that right then we might actually get MPs working for us and not political party bosses.

Day 2: Open Up gets Fry-ed

We’re ecstatic with the support we’ve received so far for the Open Primaries petition. Thanks to Stephen Fry (and to everyone else as well) for tweeting about the campaign – and for nearly breaking the website! Hopefully, we’re now back to normal service, so if you weren’t able to sign the petition first thing this morning because of traffic levels, please have another go.

Later today, the Open Up blog is revealing its first guest blogger, campaigner and journalist Heather Brooke. Heather was the woman responsible for kicking off the expenses scandal way back in 2004 when she filed what she thought would be a routine Freedom of Information request to see how MPs were spending taxpayers’ money. You can read more about Heather’s campaigning work here.

To stay in touch with all the happenings on the Open Up blog, just grab the RSS feed. You can also follow the campaign on Twitter and Facebook, and watch the campaign videos on Youtube.