Tuesday 29 October 2013

The Harrogate Demands

A relatively short interview by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair with the Independent, rather cheekily titled "how I became PM of the world" - echoes of Gordon Brown's "I saved the world" - highlights a great deal wrong with how we are governed. It begins with an acknowledgement from Jack Straw that our constitution is fundamentally broken:  
JOHN RENTOUL: Jack Straw said that he thought that the Prime Minister had too much power in the British constitutional system, and I was hoping you would respond to that.
Quite so. The Prime Minister does have too much power because they are only accountable to a small number of people - their constituents and to party members who elect them as party leaders. Naturally this means that MPs of the ruling party, when elected, owe their job and career to the Prime Minister – indirectly if not directly.

Thus proper scrutiny of government cannot take place when there is a conflict of interest between service to one’s constituents and loyalty to one’s government. This is a conflict that Witterings from Witney knows only too well – Cameron in effect has to scrutinise himself. An MP for Witney but also the Prime Minister.

One of Harrogate’s six demands deals with this conundrum by making the Prime Minister directly elected by the people. In essence, and as a consquence, we separate out the executive from the lawmakers (MPs). 

Despite some criticisms that it leads to an American Presidential type of system, in truth not a lot changes yet a lot changes. The Prime Minister still appoints a cabinet - the same is done now - but crucially those appointments do not come from those within Parliament. So at a stroke it removes the conflict of interest.

The Prime Minister does not become head of state unlike a President so in that sense all remains the same.

And by having the Prime Minster directly elected removes the current system where they are effectively elected by proxy. How many people vote for a local MP because of a good job they do or because they like, or do not like, the potential Prime Minister of a certain party?

This is a very unsatisfactory position which not only was illustrated most clearly by the party leader debates during the 2010 elections but the oft criticism of Gordon Brown that he was not "elected".

Another intriguing part of Blair's interview was this:
... I think there is a general problem in politics, not just in our system but in Western democracy – I mean, it’s a far bigger topic this.  But, I do think it’s really important.

I advise any young person who wants to go into politics today: go and spend some time out of politics.  Go and work for a community organisation, a business, start your own business; do anything that isn’t politics for at least several years. And then, when you come back into politics, you will find you are so much better able to see the world and how it functions properly.
See what he did there, he is arguing that being in politics - being an MP - means being special. To be an MP means having to "qualify" in other aspects of life.

Essentially it's putting MPs on a pedestal, at 18 you can own property, run a company, raise a family but you can't become an MP...unless you "qualify".

This sentiment ironically from the man who was Prime Minister at a time when the Labour Government lowered the age for standing for Parliament from 21 to 18 in 2006 via the Electoral Administration Act 2006.

Being able to vote at 18 and not being to stand until 21 always caused me a great deal of consternation. Society essentially said you're fit, responsible and adult enough to vote for a criminal, adulterous and lying tosspot like Chris Huhne, but said you're not fit, responsible and adult enough to be able to vote for yourself.

There should be no previous qualification on standing for Parliament – implied or otherwise – and if our democracy worked properly it would not be needed. The people would vote for whom ever they thought appropriate, regardless of age. If you're old enough to vote, you're old enough to stand.

Thus Tony Blair’s words are merely confirmation that it’s all gone wrong.


  1. Normally agree with much of what you say here but this bit:

    "See what he did there, he is arguing that being in politics - being an MP - means being special. To be an MP means having to "qualify" in other aspects of life."

    I'm not so sure.

    Much of the criticism of our main politicians at the moment is that they go through Eton, through Oxbridge and then straight into politics and so have no "real life" experience.

    They have no idea what it's like to actually run a business, for example.

    If ever capital punishment is brought back, I'll supply the rope for Bliar any day of the week but on this one, I think he's right and you've possibly misinterpreted it.

    1. The point I'm trying to make, albeit in a rather cumbersome manner, is that “career politicians” is a symptom of a broken democracy. Politicians with a lack of ‘outside experience’ are a symptom not a cause. What Blair is proposing is precisely the problem now – a qualifying mark of which then comes the problem of where to draw the line. At the moment it’s Eton, he’s proposing age and experience. Effectively it’s a new form of elitism. If our democracy works properly it would not be needed.

  2. Three points, TBF.

    "Mr Cameron scrutinises himself" . The same thing happened with John Prescott in the North East referendum of 2004. He deliberately broke the law that ministers should not campaign during the immediate run-up to the vote. When the NEsNo campaign complained to the Electoral Commission and cabinet secretary, it became clear that there was no way of restraining him for this breach of section 125 of the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act and that there was no sanction or redress - other than Mr Prescott reporting the fact to Parliament. Campaigning organisations, on the other hand, can be heavily penalised for breaches of the rules( I happen to have come across this in the course of researching facts for a letter to the Electoral Commission - Watch this space!)

    Also - There used to be a wholesome tradition that an MP who was invited to join the government had to stand down and submit himself to re-election. This was a sort of recognition of the points you make. Of course, governments were much smaller in those days, not taking up one third or more of a party's MPs.

    Dumbing Down.
    I believe it was Harold Wilson who not only reduced the voting age from 21 to 18 but put the names of the candidates' parties on the ballot paper. Prior to that it was assumed that voters were intelligent enough (a) to know the name of their party's candidate and (b) to be able to read it. After Wilson, all they needed to read was Labour, Liberal or Conservative.

    Now we have party logos on ballot papers, so they don't have to read at all. Presumably this is a response to declining educational standards or immigrants with inadequate English.
    The first time I saw such things was on the ballot papers in elections in Third World countries with high levels of illiteracy.

    Now Mr. Salmond is reducing the voting age for the Scottish independence referendum to 16.
    How much lower can they all go?

    1. Wait a while and you'll find that they can go a lot lower than they have so far, simply because by then they will have done so, when the question will inevitably be asked again, meaning that it can never ultimately be answered.

    2. Good points Edward; the issue of votes at 16 is another contentious one. At the heart of the government’s power is money – taxation. No taxation without representation is the heart of democracy.

      The current situation of 16 year olds paying tax (if they go out to work) and not being able to vote for the government who taxes them is unacceptable in my view. So either they should reduce the voting age to 16 or 16 & 17 year olds are removed from the tax system. The latter is my preference.

      Worth noting also though in response to party logos that the reason we put crosses on ballet papers is due to historical concerns of illiteracy, the issue is not a new thing.

    3. When the voting age was 21, most people would have been working for 6 or 7 years by that time (I can't remember when the school leaving age was raised from 14 to 15). Those fortunate enough to go to university would be nearing the end of a 3 year course.

      So all would have acquired some maturity and most would made an economic contribution to the community . Apprentices would become tradesmen.

      Until the early 1960s, young men would also have done two years national service. I am not in favour of compulsory army service except when it is militarily necessary - but again, it was certainly a maturing experience. In some Swiss cantons, it used to be the rule that the men took their bayonets to the polling station to show that they were doing their bit and therefore worthy of having a vote in affairs.

      I am sure that Mr. Wilson lowered the voting age because he thought that the less mature voters would favour Labour - just as Mr. Salmond calculates for his purpose.

  3. Notwithstanding that elected PMs are a bad idea, the ability to vote for a similarly mediocre and self-interested candidate representing another party, as a protest against the performance of an incumbent MP, once every five years, is not accountability.

    Accountability requires, if not actually the right to haul the bastard before the mob and string him up, then at least the power to submit him to the judgement of the constituency, at any time, should a local consensus demand it.

  4. I think you are on the wrong track here.

    In some ways MPs are special and should be special, like all sorts of other roles, and a minimum age qualification is quite reasonable.

    Now the difficulty with age qualifications is that you can always find exceptions, so they are crude and obviously unjust in a few cases. However, we can't judge each of a huge number of cases one by one. Also, in different areas most people reach maturity and senescence at different ages.

    Personally, I can see no good reason to have dropped the minimum voting age from 21, and I'd suggest a minimum age for being an MP of 28.

    Come to that, I think this whole discussion about fine tuning MPs is on the wrong track. It's like talking about how you set the points on a Mini to get it to run like a Lotus. You can't. You have to have a new design.

    The fact is that parliamentary democracy as we have it, is outliving its usefulness and we need to move to a more direct form of democracy.

  5. One of Blair's worst acts was what he did to the Lords, thereby creating a rubber stamp.

  6. Actually - and it sticks in my throat - Blair is right. MPs should have made their way in the world before standing for election. They damned well should qualify and having to live with the polices created by parliament would give them some insight before engaging in binge legislation themselves. If I had my way, no one would be eligible until they have had a proper career outside politics - twenty or thirty years at the very least. The last thing I want is to be bossed about by some wet-behind-the-ears teenager barely out of school who knows fuck all about the world of commerce and industry passing laws that adversely affect both.

    1. I agree that some experience of life, in both success and failure, is desirable in a member of parliament, and a lower age limit is desirable, as is a cap on the number of times an MP can sit there. There are an awful lot of geriatrics clogging up the constitutional machine.

  7. Hell, how did I miss this post? Very belated thanks for the link TBF!