Thursday 19 July 2007

Re-invigorating our democracy

In the third section of "The Governance of Britain" we are treated to the governments ideas about "Re-invigorating our democracy" with Parliament "at the core of this effort."
First up is accountability and strait out of the trap we are onto the House of Lords, for openers they try and contrive to convince us that the messing about with the upper house has been a step forward. Worry not I am not about to defend the hereditary house, but I don't understand how anyone can suggest that the current make up is any better. The green paper says very little about what is planned, merely acknowledging the report of the Joint Committee and the free vote in the House of Commons. Personally I feel the country needs something radical that gives us at least a simulacrum if not a full analogue of the stability that the old House gave us. How can this be achieved? Well perhaps we could have a system of election by thirds like we use in a number of our council elections, or a similar system to the United States Senate with 2 people per "constituency" each being up for re-election every 6 years. Obviously that kind of system has inherent fixed terms; personally I would support the idea of fixed terms for both houses of Parliament.
The equivalent section for the Commons, pretty much in its entirety, refers the reader to another committee report, I will try and get to reading it and if it has interesting points their may well be another blog post on this subject.
Sadly the section on "Westminster and devolution" doesn't even bother to mention the West Lothian question; I obviously wasn't expecting anything substantial on the matter the government has stated that it won't be addressing this issue, but acknowledging the issue would have been a nice touch. As expected the document then goes on to quote the Phillips review which effectively supports All Women Shortlists and then questions whether similar measures could be used to improve the number of members from minority ethnic communities.
Frustratingly we then get three times as much coverage on whether election day should be a week day or on the weekend or a public holiday (given we get so few of these I would support declaring an election day bank holiday, this of course dovetails with my support of fixed term Parliaments) than we do on voting systems. Given the various and on occasion confusing, see the last set of elections to the Scottish Parliament for example, electoral systems in use in the UK today, we should try and come to a consensus on this issue. All we get in this document is a review of the various systems in use.
The success of the ultimately futile 10 Downing Street website petition system leads to suggestions on making it as easy to petition Parliament on similar matters. What practical formal effect such a system would have is glossed over somewhat.
Many commentators have welcomed the next provision, which puts forward a review of the current restrictions on protests in the environs of Parliament that were widely seen as a vindictive effort against on man that has ultimately proved futile.
The next three paragraphs simply put out a sensible point that could lead to a potential minefield. How can charitable organisations be allowed to operate in the political campaigning arena without risk to their charitable status. While I can see the point that change needs to happen so that specialist organisations can influence legislation in there area, it is true that measures are needed to protect against charities which are simply political animals.
The last part of section three is a disappointing collection of waffle and buzzwords, that reads more like something we would have got from John Major's government than anything. While I am a firm believer in interaction between the people and their elected representatives; the fact is the councillors have far less time and resource to deal with correspondence than MPs. Any attempt to meaningfully increase involvement in local politics by the wider populous would require major investment in support for the council members and therefore increases in local taxation. On top of this the suggestions for local charters, citizens' juries and other consultancy bodies the suggestion is made that local democracy can be improved by providing more real time data. What providing real time statistics at tremendous expense to one or two interested people will do apart from foster comedy fantasy leagues I don't know, but I don't see it improving community involvement in democracy.

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