Reform Is for Anoraks: ... on an Elected Second Chamber, Essential Citizens and Esther Rantzen

By Wilby, Peter | New Statesman (1996), June 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Reform Is for Anoraks: ... on an Elected Second Chamber, Essential Citizens and Esther Rantzen


Wilby, Peter, New Statesman (1996)


Those who quote Cromwell's "In the name of God, go!" miss an important point: Cromwell replaced the Rump Parliament with an assembly of nominated placemen, setting himself on the road to dictatorship. Is that what we want now?

In fact, both Houses of Parliament are already composed very largely of nominees, with democracy providing just a veneer of legitimacy. Membership of the House of Commons is heavily determined by the parties' lists of "approved candidates", with neither party members nor voters in general having much of a say unless they strain themselves to make trouble. Most active members of the House of Lords are similarly nominated without anyone even pretending to consult the electorate. Shouldn't we have at least one house free of party machines and beyond executive control? If, as widely advocated, the Commons is reduced to some 400 members, that need will be greater because ministers and PPSs will be a larger proportion of the whole.

The trouble with the Commons is that we expect it to perform a role for which it wasn't designed. MPs originally ensured that governments didn't raise taxes without good cause or adequate account of how the money was spent. Their function as intermediaries between constituents and central government--sorting out the myriad ways in which each now makes demands on the other--is almost entirely a development of the past 50 years. That explains why MPs think they are overworked and require two homes.

The answer is to leave the Commons, though probably reduced in size, much as it is, first-past-the-post and all: an assembly of pushy middle managers who nearly all aspire to office. We should, meanwhile, abolish the Lords and create a second chamber--elected by constituency on the alternative vote or instant run-off system--which will acquire the "pastoral" role that MPs now perform for constituents, as well as powers to scrutinise and ultimately reject legislation. A typical member would be part social worker, part consumer advocate, a role ideally suited to Esther Rantzen, with the added benefit that, as members of my new chamber would be barred from ministerial office, the wretched woman wouldn't get to run anything.

Elections to the two chambers would be held simultaneously. We should also hold a national poll to choose the Speaker. The present convention, whereby an incumbent stands in his or her constituency unopposed by the other parties, is an outrageous absurdity that, in effect, disfranchises constituents who, in Michael Martin's case, are among the poorest in the country. If the Speaker were somebody like the ascetic, God-fearing and gaunt Frank Field--who, in the present climate, would surely saunter to victory--he could perform the monarch's ceremonial roles at a fraction of the present cost, thus allowing us at last to become a republic. Though I'd have fixed-term parliaments, I would happily give Field emergency powers of dissolution, if he thought MPs had become a bunch of money-grubbing incompetents. …

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