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Feb 292016
 

So the Euroskeptics want a divorce between us and the EU; or in other words they want to go back to a time when we would protect our interests in Europe by going to war every generation or so. Which is a far more expensive proposition than EU membership fees, and far riskier.

Because the continent has always been there. And throughout history we have had to keep an eye on what the rest of Europe is up to, and intervene whenever France, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, or Germany has been involved in actions that interfere with our interests. Being part of a club that can discuss contentious issues and tell a member to stop behaving badly is far preferable than the old way of doing things. And yes that involves giving up a bit of sovereignty.

When you come down to it, that little loss of sovereignty hurts the politicians more than the rest of us, and the rest of us are more likely to be the ones killed off in European wars.

Does it seem a little far fetched that leaving the EU will cause the return of European wars? Perhaps, but one of the reasons it seems far-fetched is that we do have an EU where we can go and argue. Without that safeguard, there is not a great deal to stop the return of the old ways.

Immigration

There is an assumption that leaving the EU will lead to fewer immigrants arriving in the UK.

Perhaps. At least in the long-term assuming we ignore the UN directives on refugees, but in the short-term there is a good chance that immigration will increase.

For a start, all those refugees and economic migrants from outside the EU won’t suddenly stop coming just because we leave the EU. Sure we’ll set up new border guards, but that will take time. And guards don’t stop everyone.

And what incentive does France have to co-operate over that migrant camp outside Calais? None of course; their interests would be best served by giving all the refugees a Eurostar ticket to move the refugee camp to Britain.

And what happens to all those Brits who have set up homes in the EU? Are they going to want to return to Britain? Is the EU going to force them? After all there is no natural right of residence for citizens of former members of the EU. Perhaps you would not count such returnees as “immigrants” but they would have all the same problems – needing a place to stay, and often needing income support.

And most of them would be rather annoyed.

Trade

The “outers” would have us believe that leaving the EU is an opportunity to make trade deals with the rest of the world to more than make up for the trade lost with Europe. Half our trade is with Europe, which in monetary terms is very roughly 230 billion a year.

In other words the “outers” want to put that 230 billion of income at risk in order to gain an unknown amount of trade through new trade agreements.

And what stops us making those trade agreements now anyway?

Regulation and Justice

Of course one of the big weapons the “outers” have is to claim that we would be freed from all that tedious European regulation. Well, perhaps but remember that 230 billion of trade with Europe? The EU isn’t going to let us export stuff to Europe if we don’t follow the EU regulation; it has always been the case that if you want to sell something in a market you have to meet the regulations of that market.

It is one of the reasons why the EU started regulation – to harmonise regulation across Europe so that you could meet one set of EU regulations rather than 28 different sets of national regulations.

And as soon as we get rid of EU regulation, we’re going to start getting British regulation instead. It won’t be a one-for-one replacement of course, but we won’t be losing as much regulation as we think.

There is a whole set of EU regulation that business universally loathes – the EU regulations that protect workers (such as the Working Time Directive). Well I for one think that European protection for workers is valuable; certainly our own government isn’t interested in protecting workers!

As to the European Court of Justice, the politicians are all up in arms about their power to overturn decisions made by parliament. Which must be very irritating for them, but ignore the whole “sovereignty” thing for a moment – don’t you secretly think it’s a good idea to have someone overseeing parliament? After all, it’s not as if politicians are trustworthy, so having some oversight is not a bad idea at all.

And people overlook just how useful the European Court of Justice has been to us – it wasn’t such a long time ago that France was blocking British beef imports on the grounds that British cows used to have this health issue. Of course what they were really doing was protecting French farmers. And the ECJ forced the French government to repeal laws that prevented British beef being imported.

And there are plenty of other examples where the ECJ has been helpful.

Unelected Bureaucrats & Democracy

You will often hear the phrase “unelected bureaucrats” (or even “eurocrats”) in association with the EU. You could almost imagine that politicians are volunteering to do some real work.

In reality government is run by unelected bureaucrats – when a farm inspector visited a farmer and told her that she needed to paint blue numbers on her cows and not red numbers, he would blame the bureaucrats; in the 1940s it was the civil servants in London; today it is the eurocrats in Brussels. It’s just a different flavour of bureaucrat.

And as for the EU being undemocratic, well the EU Parliament is trying it’s hardest to change that. And it’s the heads of national governments who are blocking such reforms. So when a national politician is complaining about undemocratic Europe, she is speaking with a forked tongue (how can you tell if a politician is speaking with a forked tongue? Their mouth is open).

The Edge

Fin

If you hadn’t already guessed by now, I’m in favour of staying within Europe. Sorry I meant staying within the EU. The EU is the future of Europe, and for better or worse we’re part of Europe, so if we want to have our say on the future of Europe, we had better stay within the EU.

 

Mar 102010
 

If you are unlucky enough to catch our representatives in parliament during Prime Minister’s questions (Wednesday lunchtimes), you are probably aware of the MPs making loud noises during the questions and answers. When a new election looms, the noise gets louder to the point that many ordinary MPs find it difficult to ask their questions and any answers become difficult to hear.

Personally I’m of the belief that shouting and screaming whilst someone else is trying to speak is impolite in the extreme; the MPs come across as a bunch of loud-mouthed louts who would rather shout down an opponent than actually take part in an intelligent debate. In other words the kind of yob that would be thrown out of any decent debating society for disruptive behaviour.

It is quite possible that their behaviour is a great deal better in ordinary debates, but we do not see those as often as we see PM’s questions. Part of the image problem that MPs have is probably down to this loutish behaviour.

The Speaker of the House is supposed to keep control and stop the worst excesses of this sort of behaviour, but he fails to do so properly – simply because he isn’t prepared to exclude the noisiest members for their behaviour. Perhaps it is about time he did ?

Feb 092010
 

Gordon Brown has announced plans to reform the electoral system in the UK after the election – if Labour is elected, and they do not change their minds. Of course they look likely to give us one choice of reform – choose Labour’s preferred option or no reform. What kind of choice is that ?

We should be telling Parliament what kind of electoral reform we want and not just calmly expect what suits the government of the day. If you look at what Gordon Brown is proposing, it probably represents the minimum possible change to our present system. The Alternative Vote (what GB is suggesting) consists of people voting by listing their preferred candidates in order of preference; if there is no overall majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is excluded and the votes of those who voted for him or her are shared out amongst the other candidates according to their second preference.

The idea is that no MP is elected without representing the majority view of his or her constituency. Ok, sounds better than the current system, but is it as good as one of the following :-

Or even the zillions of other possibilities out there – Wikipedia has a good selection.

There are certain advantages to Gordon Brown’s preferred system – it is a relatively small change and does make things a bit fairer. I would myself prefer a more radical change, but I am quite willing to let the people decide and not have our choice restricted to a simple yes or no to choose some politician’s choice. After all, how sure are we that this is actually best for us and not best for the Labour party ?

Of course as you might expect, the Tories are against any form of electoral reform, and the Liberals are in favour (although this isn’t their preferred system).

What I would like to see is a referendum giving us a proper choice amongst a range of options. That would be complicated to difficult to do properly and would be more complex for us people to decide – we would have to spend some time thinking about what we want. We would need a neutral group reviewing possible systems and keeping the list of options down to sensible numbers. We would also need a neutral group coming up with a list of advantages and disadvantages for each, and ideally stop the politicians from making recommendations (asking a politician to keep quiet is wildly unrealistic I know).

The key thing is that we should be making the choice and not the politicians.

Feb 062010
 

Now we are rapidly approaching the election that has to happen this year, it is time to think about who we should vote for. It is also time to review the past few years to see if there is anything that should affect our choice of whom to vote for – and yes there is something blindingly obvious (because it is still in the news) – the MPs expenses scandal. The MPs have made some efforts to put their house in order, and expect to carry on as normal.

Well perhaps we should not let that happen – the political establishment has become too complacent, as shown by the fact that the MPs allowed their corrupt expenses regime to continue. Not one MP ‘blew the whistle’ on how easily the expenses system could be abused – it took a journalist waving a freedom of information request to get a crack in the door. Given the MPs are supposed to be looking after our interests first and their own next, why is this ?

Who cares? Whilst we cannot change the political system ourselves without a bloody revolution, we can give the complacent political establishment a bloody nose. There are those who at this point are assuming that this means voting out the Labour party. Nothing could be further from the truth; all three main political parties need to be given a bloody nose.

At the time of the expenses scandal, there were those saying that they would stand as independent candidates. Let’s (wherever possible) vote for them. Not vote for “alternative” political parties, but for the genuine independent candidates. We want to send a message not just to the Labour party, but the whole political establishment that they need to remember who their employers are – and it is ourselves. Switching to other political parties doesn’t quite have the same effect.

Besides, I like the idea of being represented by an independent – someone who is more interested in my interests, than in placating the party machine.

There are those who claim that protest voting like this is dangerous because it is more likely to give a voice to extremist views (such as those BNP reprobates). Funnily enough those that say this tend to be from the political establishment and members of one of the three main parties. But there is an element of truth to what they say, some minor parties do have extremist views and voting for a minority party does risk giving a voice to extremist views. Of course picking a minority party because you agree with their views is a whole different matter.

Which is why I am suggesting that we vote for independents – there might be one or two with extremist views but their voice will be lost in the clamour of more moderate voices.

Feb 062010
 

It appears that the three MPs and one Lord who are facing criminal charges (Jim Devine, David Chaytor, Elliott Morley, Paul White – I’ve removed their honourifics because these repulsive creatures do not deserve such) may be attempting to use the 1689 Bill of Rights Act as a defence. Or more specifically a provision within the Bill of Rights that granted immunity from prosecution to MPs in certain circumstances. Specifically any speech made within Parliament could not be questioned by any court nor the speaker impeached. My reading (bearing in mind that I am not a lawyer and I have not read the full act in great detail) of “That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament;” (the relevant section), tells me that there is nothing that gives MPs immunity from prosecution for theft (which “fraud” is merely a polite word for).

Now even if I am wrong and the Bill of Rights Act does give the rogue MPs immunity from prosecution more generally than just for what they say in Parliament – and it may do given the act is a little “poetic” in places – the intention of the relevant clause in the Act is obvious. It is to allow completely free debate in Parliament, and not to allow corrupt MPs to feather their nests at the expense of the nation.

It seems to me that only a man so desperate to get off the hook, he would gladly prostitute himself, his wife, his daughters, and throw away any principle he once had, would use the Bill of Rights as a defence in this case. The most honourable way through this, is of course to shut up and plead “Guilty”. After all at a certain point you just have to stop protesting and accept the fact that you are in the wrong.

In fact any attempt to use the Bill of Rights in this way is surely so far beyond the pale, that it is surely grounds for instant and permanent expulsion from Parliament. Judging from the reactions of just a few MPs, the general reaction even amongst them is revulsion. Well this time do something concrete and expel these four.

The Tories have announced plans to reform the Bill of Rights to clarify parliamentary privilege – sounds good. But it is suspicious that this is announced just before an election, and I suspect it is not really needed anyway. The law as it stands is perhaps somewhat vague, but as mentioned before the intention that it applies only to speech is indeed clear.

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.

May 152009
 

So we have had a week since the Daily Telegraph stretched out the entrails of the mother of Parliaments for the public to pick over, and what has happened ? Not a lot.

A few MPs have paid some money back as though they had been caught sneaking biscuits out of the jar from their mother’s kitchen. A tiny number have lost their second job.

Has anyone been fired ? Has anyone been suspended pending an investigation ? Are the allegedly corrupt MPs still able to vote in Parliament ?

The majority of MPs who previously sat idly by whilst a few were riding the gravy train as hard as they could are now just standing around whinging about how the public is assuming that all MPs are corrupt. They are not actually doing anything constructive like refusing to cooperate with the Parliamentary process until the “corrupt” ones are excluded.

The key here is quick action … not waiting for some careful review to come up with something in a few months, but action now. It does not have to be permanent action – simply exclude those “corrupt” MPs and appoint a bunch of real vicious individuals as a review board, and make the “corrupt” MPs explain their mistakes in front of the board and explain why they should be allowed to continue as an MP. Sure that is harsh on the border-line cases, but being harsh in these circumstances is good.

And if at the end of the review process everyone is still an MP, the political system may never recover.

More ridiculously, the Tories seem to have decided that what really gets up the nose of the public is the cost of the political system. It is really rather amusing to watch the Tory leadership run off down the wrong road as fast as they can for political advantage because it is not the cost that is annoying the public, it is the tendency for some MPs to milk the expenses system for as much as they can get.

One of their suggestions to reduce the cost of the political system is to reduce the number of MPs … this sounds to me like an attempt at reducing the amount of democracy we have in this country. With our ‘first past the post’ system, the more people an MP represents, the less representative he (or she) is of their constituents. If you compare (using some very rough figures) the number of people each MP represented in 1800 and today, you get one MP for every 15,000 people in 1800 and one MP for every 100,000 people today.

That sounds to me like a gradual erosion of how democratic Parliament is supposed to be (and yes I know that the 1800 MPs were probably more corrupt and less representative than today’s). We need more MPs not less.

May 102009
 

British MPs have managed to make themselves look corrupt in a spectacular way with the leaking of the details of purchases made on the second home allowance. It is particularly amusing that the biggest fuss is about somewhat trivial items such as loo brushes (that’s not a real example) and the like.

It is worth pointing out that the whole second homes allowance was introduced by the Tories in the 1980s to supplement MPs salaries during a time when Thatcher was grinding away at public sector salary increases. So this is not strictly speaking a Labour issue.

There have been a number of excuses floating around as to why MPs need a second homes allowance, and because MPs are so good at spinning rubbish it is easy to start to think that they may have a point. But lets compare things with not just the private sector but everyone else …

Normally when you take a job, you are expected to live within a reasonable distance of work. It’s not usually explicitly stated but you are expected to turn up to work every morning at a reasonable time, and stay for a reasonable length of time. Whilst you may get a more or less generous “bonus” to making moving easier, you don’t get money to pay for a home near work.

So MPs might have a point about a second home allowance but until such an allowance becomes common place outside of Westminster, they are going to look like pigs in the trough if they do have one. Under the existing system it does make sense to make some sort of arrangement for providing accommodation to MPs whose constituency is some distance from London.

But that can simply be provided by a block of flats close to Westminster – perhaps something on the river.

If MPs had sorted this all out before all this fuss, it would have been quite reasonable to abolish the second home allowance, spread the money used for it previously amongst the MPs as a salary increase. But because this was not sorted out previously the MPs should lose the money completely.

It would seem that many of the items coming to light are strictly speaking “within the rules”, but that is not good enough. We have to trust MPs to be honest and honourable as they make the rules that govern us. If they are apparently eager to exploit a system that is not quite as rigorous as it should be, what is to blame ? The MPs of course.

In any position of power, there are ways of abusing that power. It is the responsibility of those with power to not abuse that position. Can we trust MPs not to abuse their position ? Apparently not; at least not those MPs who have abused the system. Parliament needs to identify the 10 worst offenders and expel them for a minimum of 5 years.

Or if they do not have the courage to do this, perhaps we should identify the top 50 most serious offenders and refuse to re-elect them at the next election.

One of the dangers of so much concentration on the second homes allowance is that we are in danger of overlooking worse things. For instance, why are MPs allowed to take on jobs in addition to their job in Parliament?

In many situations (at least in the public sector), if you are in any sense in a senior position, you are effectively prohibited from taking additional jobs. At least without getting permission to do so. In the case of MPs, I see no reason why they should be allowed to have additional jobs – they already have an important and well paid job and any other job will take them away from what they are supposed to be doing.

There’s a tired out old excuse that MPs like to trot out whenever the second jobs question gets asked – that they need second jobs to keep in touch with the outside world. It is really an excuse to rake in fat cat salaries – after all how many MPs with second jobs work as nurses in hospitals ? Or anything that does not pay ridiculous amounts of money for trivial amounts of work.

Time to refuse to elect part-time MPs.

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