John Leonard: We don't need fewer MPs - but we do have to wrestle control of the political system away from them
John Leonard, an IT consultant, argues here that those wanting to reduce the size of the House of Commons will only be punishing the electorate for MPs' misdeeds. Parliamentary reform can only take place, he asserts, when the power to control Parliament and the political system is taken away from MPs.
I have previously written articles defending the size of Parliament when those of the ‘Westminster Politerati’ have proposed reductions here and here. The latest call for a reduction (the most radical so far) came from the Telegraph's Iain Martin, subsequently supported by The Spectator's Peter Hoskin.
And the latest ConservativeHome members' survey found yesterday that 58% backed a reduction in the size of the Commons from 650 to 500.
Now I have great sympathy for their desire to reform our wayward Parliament, but reducing the number of MPs is simply wrong headed.
Iain Martin argues that by reducing the number of MPs, weaker MPs would be weeded out. He says:
"Better would be to increase the size of constituencies, to cut the number of seats to around 400 and bring down the cost. Supply and demand would ensure there were fewer seats for weak MPs."
He puts forward a fairly standard argument for meritocracy which is something I believe in. However, as has been highlighted on ConservativeHome numerous times, the political parties do not select candidates on a purely meritocratic basis. Incumbents are protected, single sex lists are imposed, BME lists are imposed and also there is a perception of nepotism and celebrity infatuation. How is that meritocratic?
This is the problem with Iain Martin’s ‘the cream will float to the top’ argument; it will only occur if it is allowed to by the party machines. It has little to do with the numbers of MPs and much to do with party selection procedures. It seems to me that in such circumstances reducing the numbers of MPs provides no guarantee that the quality of politicians would improve.
Furthermore, in shedding MPs how can we be sure that MPs are removed because they are incompetent? I certainly wouldn’t put it past a political leader to arrange for the removal of MPs who were politically embarrassing, no matter how well they represented their constituents.
In addition, there is an underlying inference throughout his piece that there is not enough work to go around and that MPs are sitting idly by just enjoying the lightly loaded day. Is that really the case?
How often have we read or heard of legislation that has not been scrutinised properly and indeed how often in the last decade has the legislation been badly drafted?
How often have we heard or read of the opposition parties being denied debates on critical issues?
How often do we hear or read of a bill being timed out on purpose? How often do we hear or read of complaints that there is insufficient time to discuss or scrutinise EU directives?
Beyond that, there is the consideration of powers that could be returned from Brussels in the future, the ever increasing complexity of modern Britain, and its ever growing population.
It seems to me, especially in the aftermath of this recession, that there will be plenty of work to go round. So if the workload is there, why did Parliament and Government seemingly fail so abysmally and leave the electorate with such a dreadful perception of them?
Now there are many views that could be expressed about this and I will not go into them in detail. Instead, I think there is one fundamental factor that should be considered. Who controls our political system and the way our Parliament works?
The answer of course is the Government (MPs), Parliament (MPs) and the political parties (led by MPs). What would we think if the players of the Premier League had control of the rules of football? What would we think if Andy Murray could dictate the laws of tennis to the Lawn Tennis Association?
There would be an outcry. Yet that is exactly what is allowed in our political system.
It is the Government who decides the agenda (or lack of it) of Parliament. It is the political parties who select the candidates. It is MPs who decide their terms and conditions. This is the problem and until it is addressed it doesn’t matter whether we have 400 or 4,000 MPs: the performance of Parliament will not get better simply because the problem will not have been addressed.
First and foremost, before anything else, the control of the systems of Government and our political system must be taken out of the hands of our MPs and the political parties in order that they can no longer abuse the privilege they currently have. What is required is a second democratically-elected non-political independent (no whips, no parties) body to manage our political system and the performance of our political institutions. Then, perhaps, we can start to consider what reforms are necessary once that body has made the system work as well as it can.
However, none of this actually justifies a reduction in the numbers of MPs and indeed unless someone can prove without a doubt that there is no longer sufficient work to do there never will be. As I have tried to demonstrate in the previous articles, within our democracy the concept of elected representation is the most vital and precious right that the voter has. It is not for party politicians or journalists to interfere with that democratic right or to propose to punish the electorate (by diminishing that right) as a result of the sins of politicians. After all, the electorate has done nothing wrong!