Jul 252009

They have decided that reforming the British parliament is the only way of distracting us from the expenses scandal. Pretty good scheme as parliamentary reform is well overdue, but what makes them think that we would trust politicians (said in the same tone of disgust as you would say child molesters or investment bankers) to do an honest job? We are supposed to passively sit back whilst they thrash out the ideas and eventually vote yes or no on a reform referendum. It is our parliament and we should be telling them how it will be.

Fewer MPs?

The Conservatives have come up with the idea of reducing the number of MPs in parliament, and the idea of fewer politicians involved in government sounds pretty good. At least at first.

After all, fewer MPs means that parliament costs less. But are we really bothered by the costs ? Assuming that each MP costs £200,000, and as we currently have 646 MPs, then the total cost is £130 million. That sounds quite a lot, but in terms of the total cost of government it is not so much. The suggestion is to reduce the number of MPs to around 400, which would cost £80 million.

But why do we have MPs? It is to represent us the public. And reducing the number of MPs is effectively telling us that our voices are less important. Each MP represents a parliamentary constituency containing a number of us; given the total population of 61 million and averaging out the number of people per MP, each MP represents 94,000 people. So they do not get much time to talk to us!

In 1801, we had a population of 10.5 million with 658 MPs meaning each MP represented just under 16,000 people. It would (in theory) have been a great deal easier to bend the ear of your local MP! If we were to have the same ratio of MPs to people, we would have nearly 3900 MPs! Perhaps that is too many especially as the cost would work out at £763 million! But I believe more MPs would be better …

Why do the politicians want fewer MPs ? What fringe benefits are in it for them? Given our current crop of politicians, we should always look beneath the surface to see what advantages their proposals have for them rather than us. Sure fewer MPs will cost less, but is that the real reason behind the proposal?

Perhaps it is instead that fewer MPs makes a parliament more easily controllable by the party whips. Fewer rebelious backbench MPs to upset what the government wants to do. Do we really want that ?

I want my MP to feel rebelious and to ignore the party whips on occasion because they represent me and not their political party.

End Of First Past The Post?

There has even been a hint that some politicians without a yellow hue have expressed an interest in ending the first past the post electoral system. The current system where the person with the most votes in a constituency wins is undoubtedly the simplest possible voting mechanism.

The big problem with our archaic voting system are the millions of people whose voice is effectively ignored. If you are a fan of a smaller party, or live in a constituency whose MP is someone you did not vote for, then your views are effectively unrepresented. If you look at the last election in 2005, Labour held onto power retaining 55% of the MPs, with only 35% of the popular vote – a majority of those who voted did not vote for a Labour government.

And the raw statistics do not necessarily tell the full story. Many people (myself included) will not vote for an MP they really want because they know that their preferred MP has no chance of being elected. Instead we vote for an MP who has a chance of getting in whose views we dislike the least. This tends to favour the large parties.

I could ramble on for ages about the weaknesses of the current system and highlight possible alternatives. But without the time to model the behaviour of alternate voting systems I don’t have the right to go into too much detail. Remember that – anyone who advocates a particular voting system needs to have spent time modelling their voting system so they can have some form of evidence for the expected behaviour.

I can tell you what features a new voting system should have :-

  • It should end the travesty of “safe seats” where a particular party can almost expect their candidate to win. And let’s see an end to situations where political parties choose not to put up candidates to allow one particular candidate (like the speaker) a “free run”.
  • It should break the close association with the geographic area to allow minority views to be “grouped” in a larger area.
  • Constituents should have the right to recall their MP and fire him or her. This would have to be constrained in some way – perhaps a 3 month cooling off period after a motion to fire has been started.

Why London?

I am sure those Londoners reading this (all two of you!) will be horrified at the thought of the mother of parliaments moving elsewhere, but why is it necessary for the parliament to be located in London?  Whilst it has good transport links, it is really only convenient to get to if you live in the South. Moving it to Birmingham would make it more equally inconvenient to get to, and Birmingham has pretty good transport links itself.

But why do we need a physical parliament at all? This is after all the 21st century, and there is nothing stopping MPs from taking part in debates and voting from their constituency offices. This would solve the problem of travelling and second homes, and give us greater access to our MPs.

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