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.

Why open primaries?

They just don’t get it.

As MPs continue to duck (quack!) the public’s wrath over expenses, that’s the mantra we keep hearing. The belief that all that’s wrong with our political system is the people who’ve ended up at the top of it is a seductive one. But the real effect of the public scandal has been to cast light on a problem that has been languishing in the dark corners of our political consciousness for some time: the problem of representation itself.

That’s why today, the Open Up campaign is asking UK citizens to petition party leaders to hold Open Primaries in every constituency in the country, ahead of the next general election. You can sign the petition here. Here’s why you should.

When they get there, we expect the men and women we send to the House of Commons each election to represent us: our views, our problems, our challenges, our hopes. But the simplicity of this system – the authenticity of the relationship between representative and represented – has been under pressure from wider social and political change for decades. In particular, the decline in the relevance that party politics has in ordinary people’s lives has not been mirrored by a decline in power those same parties have over the electoral process:

“The current way of doing politics is killing politics. An electoral and party system which is responsive to the changing values and demands of today’s population should be created. This will allow the development of new political alliances and value systems which will both regenerate existing parties and also stimulate the creation of others.”

Power to the People: The report of POWER, an independent inquiry into Britain’s democracy

If you’re reading this as a UK citizen, then it’s more likely than not that the results of voting in your area in the next General election have already been chosen for you. The vast majority of constituencies in the UK are safe seats. That means that, if you’re an aspiring MP, right now it’s much better to get in with a particular political party (and get selected), than to get in with the electorate (because if you’re in a safe seat, you’ll get voted for anyway). It follows that, once said aspiring MP has got elected, he is more incentivised to stay loyal to his party than to stay loyal to his voters.

This situation breaks representative democracy. In this situation, it’s easy to see how constituents might become a problem to manage, rather than a set of diverse voices to amplify. Witness to this are the solutions proposed by Parliament and Government to “fix” the expenses crisis so far: we’ve had an inquiry or two (funded by the taxpayer) and an independent authority has been proposed (funded by the taxpayer). These are solutions which “manage expectations”. They don’t promote any real change at all.

That’s where Open Up comes in. If enough people join the call for Open Primaries, party leaders will have to listen, and the UK’s voters will see real change as soon as before the next election. They’ll be given a real choice in who represents them, regardless of where they live. And by making that choice, they’ll be helping to mend representative democracy.

For the uninitiated – as I was, when I began to work around Westminster as a grassroots consumer and civil rights campaigner in 2007 – the layer of party politics which sits on top of everyday legislative activity feels deeply alien. What with party whips influencing votes, and party loyalties skewing campaigns for positive change that seemed, to me and my supporters, deeply straightforward, the general impression is of talented, resourceful people who have inexplicably chosen to govern the country through the medium of some kind of game. And not just any game, but a game not unlike that other British export, cricket: the rules are complex, and the logic is hidden.

Our society is facing huge challenges. There’s the economic crisis. Linked to that is a shifting geo-political situation; war, the fear of more war. Then there are all the new technologies we rely on our legislators to nurture and regulate for the good of society – information technology, genetic technologies, nanotechnology. And beyond that, the urgent need, when it comes to keeping our climate human-habitable for our children and grandchildren, for good investment at home and effective cooperation abroad.

To examine these challenges and decide on the most productive way to face them, we need the best deliberative tools possible.  That’s why it’s urgent that we fix Parliament now. Open primaries are not the only way to do this, but they’re a good start – they don’t require legislative intervention, and they will deliver a positive impact to voters across the whole of the UK.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be here tracking the development of the Open Up campaign around the web, and fielding questions, comments and suggestions from petition signers (and potential petition signers!) about how we can take this forward.  From time to time, I’ll be joined by guest bloggers – from constitutional experts to seasoned campaigners – to talk about what Open Up means to them and to lend Open Up their expertise.

One of the reasons I got involved in this campaign was to try and make it as inclusive and creative as possible, and for that I need your help. If you’ve signed the petition, and you’d like to tell the world your reasons why, then do leave a message in the comments to this post. If you have a question about how open primaries might work, or about anything else to do with the campaign, then feel free to voice it here. And if you like what’s being done here, please tell your friends, and help spread the word about Open Up across the country, so we can all have a chance at real change before the next election.

Follow the progress of the Open Up campaign

Welcome to Open Up.

We are campaigning for an honest, effective and modern democracy; a government of the best possible people, who truly represent us.

We want Open Primaries in every constituency, where the people select their own candidates, and where anyone can put themselves forward to be a candidate.

When do we want to see this reform? By the next parliament, that’s when and to make sure this happens we need your support. Sign our petition, watch our videos to find out why we want to reform the current political system.

We’re going to be blogging throughout the campaign and talking to a range of people to hear their opinions on political reform, from celebrities to political experts and you, the great British public. We want to hear what you think about the campaign and how you can help us achieve our goals.

This is the space on the website where you can follow the campaign’s progress and stay up-to-date on key campaign issues and news.

Spooky report of the week: under the current system, we already know what the next Parliament will look like

This is Ben Morgan, from communications consultancy Madano Partnership. Last weekend, Madano released a report which predicted who would be sitting in Parliament after the general elections, based on current opinion polls about the popularity of the major political parties among voters.

Look at him. He looks pretty confident he’s right. I suspect it’s not just the certainty of youth that’s driving him, either.

In any case, the national press were convinced. The report prompted stories in the weekend papers about how after the general election, more MPs would come from privately educated backgrounds, and from private sector professions like management consultancy and political communications.

None of the reports I’ve read questioned the notion of discussing election results in such detail before citizens have been to the polls.

If you’d like to read those newspaper reports, you can click here, and here.

If, however, the idea of pre-destined election results reminds you of something that makes you feel a bit uncomfortable, I’d suggest you click here instead, and sign the Open Up petition for Open Primaries.

My favourite line from the Madano press release:

“Although the report does not cover the latest wave of future resignations from Parliament, the number of likely winnable candidates still to be selected still only amounts to around 10% of the overall number. It is apparent that these selections will take many months to be confirmed. It is not expected that these future additions will radically change the overall characteristics of this new generation.”

Let’s just see about that, shall we?