In the short term, the principal political objective for this country must be to remove Gordon Brown and New Labour from power. When the house is burning, the first step is to get rid of the arsonist. Nothing in this post is intended to suggest otherwise, or to detract from the efforts to secure this end.
However, starting from the premise that the repute in which this country's politics is held has declined hugely over the last decade or so, there is clearly much that needs to be done in addition to sorting out the financial hole in which we find ourselves. This post is an attempt to look at this, and (perhaps somewhat precociously) suggest a way forward.
The first task is to stop the development of politics as a profession. That one single development is responsible for most of the decline in our system. I recall distinctly the students at my university who saw a life in politics as their only ambition; they wanted to become an MP's researcher on graduation so that they could start their climb up the greasy pole, in the hope of reaching the point where they were in charge of a wide range of things - things of which they would have gained no experience or knowledge. I also recall the general intellectual quality of those students; it was not high.
The first phase, therefore, is to convert politics from a career done for personal benefit into a voluntary sabbatical done for the benefit of others. In six steps:
The simplest way to stop politics being a career is to sack any career politicians. The easiest way of doing that is to impose term limits; I would suggest a maximum of two Parliaments, although a specific number of years may be a fairer method. The usual criticism of this is that it weeds out the experienced politicians, but my other proposals (below) will deal with that. I would envisage that the PM would be the only exception.*
- To get rid of career politicians, require a mandatory open selection process for every party in every constituency for every election. There will always be safe seats, but they should be safe for the party that holds them, not the incumbent MP. Every MP must know that, come the next election, they will have to justify their continued tenure of their seat.
- Each MP's salary should be their income prior to being elected. I have suggested this before, to a mixed response. Essentially, the argument is that if they could survive on it then, they can now. It re-inforces the argument that politics should become a temporary period of your life when you leave your previous career and devote yourself to the country instead. It should be neither a well-paid profitable move, nor such an expense that it is ruled out for any.
Candidates for party selection must not have been MPs before, to prevent the term limits from being side-stepped.
- Candidates must have lived in their constituency since the previous election. An MP is a local representative and should know the locality.
- MP's expenses should be limited to HMRC-allowable expenses only. Those rules apply to us, and are indeed imposed on us by MPs. If there is a problem with those rules, MPs should change them for all of us. In the same vein, just like the rest of us, the taxpayer should retain ownership of any tangible item that is expensed, be it a duck house or a second home.
These measures should change the nature of an incoming Parliament. It should move politics away from people who see politics as a means for self-advancement, and towards those willing to give up maybe 10 years of the life to the common good.It then remains to change the way in which that Parliament operates. This requires several adjustments, which are probably just the start. I (personally) do not have the necessary knowledge or experience to go further, but these are the start.
- The Lords should remain, but as an amending chamber only, its purpose being to offer expert scrutiny on any subject. Hereditary peers are an embarassment and should not be able to sit. To provide the chamber with the necessary experience, the heads of the various professions should be nominated to sit for a term. To avoid conflicts of interests, they should perhaps gain their seat after they have retired from active work in their profession. The Lords Spiritual and Legal are there to offer expert guidance; in the modern world it is right that they should be supplemented with Lords expert in the worlds of business, commerce, plumbing, building, HR, medicine, forestry, and so on (and maybe even intellectual property). Members of the Lords would be expected to attend, on the same pay & rations as the Commons.
- There should be no Ministers in the Lords; their primary task is to scrutinise and criticise government bills. If they need the Minister to attend to explain why the bill is needed, they should summon him/her to give evidence in committee.
- PMQs should be twice weekly, and for a hour. Half an hour is not long enough to develop any reasonable discussion. Questions must be answered, if possible, with the session being extended by the Speaker if the PM prevaricates. The only acceptable definition of "impossible" should be if the PM admits there and then that he doesn't know the answer and needs to look it up.
- Ministers need not be MPs; anyone selected by the PM who has the necessary experience can be appointed by the PM. It is, after all, his or her job to form a government. Having entrusted that task to the PM, we should grant the PM the freedom to select the people that the PM thinks will do the best job. The pool should not be arbitrarily limited to whoever happens to have been selected for a sufficiently safe seat; we should have the best candidates for the job. To provide scrutiny, incoming Ministers must be presented to Parliament and ratified within a set period after their apointment.
Then, there are a number of major issues that have been shamefully ignored as a result of the staleness of our political system:
- There should be an in/out referendum on the EU. The issue is a running sore in UK politics, because it is never addressed. It is long time that it was put to bed; debate it, ask the people, and then live with their answer.
- Given the rate at which the EU's policy changes and progresses, there should be a periodic renewal of an "in" vote - say every 10 or 20 years. The aim here is to place a check on the EU's ambitions and on the willingness of UK Ministers to negotiate away things that we regard as important. The message should be simple; engage with the EU, but do not go too far as the people will be getting a chance to vote on it.
- Tariffs shold be set at zero for any country that offers reciprocity to us. This would allow us to trade on equal terms with the third world. At the moment, for some of the goods that the third world are able to produce, they have to pay higher EU import tariffs than do US exporters. This is, quite simply, insane. We should take a lead, and say that if any country is willing to drop all import tariffs on all UK goods, then we will do the same for their goods. This is, I realise, inconsistent with EU rules; that is what lawyers are for, though.
- In return, there should be no more foreign aid. If such aid was ever going to work, it would have by now. It hasn't. They're still poor. Trade with them instead.
- Benefits should be a safety net. They are essential for that purpose. They should provide the minimum necessary on which to survive and look for work. If they have reached the point where they equal or exceed the (market-determined) salary achievable in employment, then they are too high. Harsh, but true.
- Instead of paying people to stay at home on benefits, we should encourage employment by lightening employment regulation. This needs a counterbalance, which should be in the form of more widespread union membership. We should encourage the establishment of new unions, one for each employer if necessary. Government could, for example, provide funding for the establishment costs of any new union in the first 'x' years, for any group of employees who wished to set one up. The TUC should be required to allow all the new unions in, on equal terms.
- And finally, implement "The Plan" in full.
I should also add that I have little confidence that Cameron will do any of this, necessary as it is. Nor do I seriously believe that any Westminster party will do it. The only way that I think some of these reforms could happen is by way of an entirely new party, composed of candidates new to politics; a Democratic Reform Party (or the like).
At the moment, Cameron is the best chance of ousting Brown and therefore nothing should be done which imperils this. However, if he does not, if Cameron fails, then it will be time to think about alternatives. It will be time to give up on the Conservative Party and establish something new. Those who are interested in being ready to help build such a party if Labour do not lose convincingly, let me know.
(*Update: Items 1 & 4 of the "Career Politicians" list amended in the light of persuasive comments below. Item 2 edited to take account of this)