The unfinished revolution

The steady decline in the status of parliament must be reversed.

The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions raise questions, not only about the tide of democracy surging through the Middle East, but also about evolutionary change and the quality of democracy elsewhere, not least in Britain. In the past few years we have had the expenses scandal and the collapse of trust in the political class in the wake of frequently broken electoral promises. Bad though those are, they are not the root of the problem.

Far less sensational, but more insidious, has been the steady and continuing decline in the raison d'être of parliament, the fundamental purpose for which it exists in the first place. Over the past 30 years parliament – partly because first Margaret Thatcher and then Tony Blair deliberately overrode it – has become ever more subservient, more sycophantic, more tribalistically loyalist, more careerist. It failed utterly to hold the Thatcher-Major governments to account over arms to Iraq, the Blair government over the Iraq war, and the Brown government over capitulation to the City.

Then at the nadir over expenses it was agreed by all three parties that the rock-bottom reputation of parliament could be salvaged only by regenerating a new, forceful, democratic role for it to become a properly effective scrutinising and decision-making chamber for the nation's business. The Wright committee was appointed to put flesh on this aspiration, though only after the government delayed for five weeks before setting it up, then gave it just two months to complete its report, and then dithered again about how to handle its modest recommendations. The "forces of darkness" (as the whips of both parties are genially known) rallied to block any change that undermined their own power, but were defeated by a vote of the whole House just before the May election.

That vote ushered in two important changes. One was an elected backbench business committee, which wrested back some limited control of the parliamentary agenda from the executive (the government, largely No 10 alone), which had monopolised it for decades. The other was to secure that the chair and members of select committees, by far the most effective mechanism for holding ministers to account, should in future be elected by the House to ensure their independence. Previously they were chosen by the whips – the agents of the Prime Minister, which was anomalous when the whole purpose of select committees is to hold the government and the Prime Minister to account.

But valuable as these reforms are, they scarcely begin to redress the balance of power that has subordinated parliament over the last several decades. Its power has been drained away by the assertiveness of No 10, by the dominatrix model in the case of Thatcher and by the Napoleonic regime that Blair favoured. Its power is continually seeping away to Brussels as the EU mandate spreads ever wider. And the judiciary increasingly encroach on the parliamentary prerogative, no doubt prompted by judges' view that if parliament can't hold the executive to account, they will.

A parliamentary revival needs to be tackled at several levels. At the lowest level it must drastically overhaul its existing procedures. At present, bills at committee stage, after dozens and even hundreds of hours of scrutiny, can often end up with no or minimalist changes because a whip-chosen majority of the governing party can block any amendments. At report stage, when significant changes can be made by votes of the whole House, the government can prevent later amendments it opposes being reached by "talking out" earlier ones, and members who have not followed the bill on committee often vote in accordance with their whips without realising what the vote is about. There is also little or no involvement of the public in the passage of bills that will control their lives. There should be a pre-legislative stage for bills where outside experts can give detailed evidence and where members of the public can make their views known.

Then there is a further range of reforms where parliament can assert its authority as the elected voice of the people. On matters of overriding national importance (eg, the Iraq war), parliament should have the right to set up its own commissions of inquiry, not depend on the executive or No 10 to do so, since it is usually the latter's actions that are being investigated. The House should also be empowered to scrutinise and approve the appointment of the chair, members and terms of reference of committees of inquiry set up by the Prime Minister. Select committees should routinely carry out confirmation hearings (as in the US Congress) of leading quango appointments and perhaps also some ministerial appointments, with a vote on the question of approval at the end. Parliament should also be served by its own legal counsel if it is to be an effective check on executive power.

Since annual government expenditure of £650bn is such a key exercise of power, parliament should establish a framework for contemporaneous monitoring and cross-examination of major expenditure programmes (not just after the event via the public accounts committee), aided by a cadre of expert external advisers, whether through the existing select committees or a new specialised estimates committee.

Given that professional lobbyists have now now hugely increased their influence over the political process, parliament should require that a public register be kept, including the scope of their activities, the source of their funding and their meetings with ministers. And to bring parliament closer to the people it represents, petitions signed by a high threshold number of electors should be able to be debated and voted on in the House. A new constitutional settlement along these lines will be debated in parliament this Thursday.

Beyond this revival of parliamentary power, there is a further relevant agenda. For three decades, the world has been ruled by the neoliberal capitalist model, the Washington consensus, and the US hegemony. It requires great political courage to defy these forces, and Blair and Brown made the Mephistophelean deal with them not even to attempt defiance, but rather to go to endless subservient lengths to placate them. It led to a decade studded with Brown's annual lyrical paeans to the high priests of finance at the Mansion House, Blair's sycophantic efforts to win the approval of a right-wing press and especially Murdoch, and a general glorification of bankers and FTSE-100 CEOs as the measure of all things.

When this political-financial nexus was fissured irreversibly in 2008, the way was finally open for a new political and economic order. The measure for a resuscitated parliament will be how far and how effectively it rises to the challenge of that fundamental debate.

Michael Meacher is MP (Labour) for Oldham West and Royton.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Power-sharing and devolved rule are under threat. What's going on? Ciara Dunne explains. 

The UUP will formalise their decision to withdraw from the Northern Ireland executive on Saturday. The DUP then announced that it may consider voting to remove Sinn Fein from the executive effectively ending or at least suspending devolution. This is due to a statement by PSNI chief constable George Hamilton stating that former IRA member Kevin McGuigan may have been murdered by people connected to the Provisional IRA (PIRA). However Hamilton also stressed that there was no evidence to prove that the murder occurred due to PIRA orders and there are claims that it was a personal vendett.

The UUP declaring that they will withdraw from Westminster is not particularly destructive. They only have one minister and their vote share has been steadily declining since they signed the Good Friday Agreement to the benefit of the DUP. By acting so dramatically, they run the risk of this seeming like the death rattle of a party trying to remain relevant in a world so different from its heyday rather than a principled stand to protect the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement.

Nesbitt voiced disgust that the IRA was still in existence. However the IRA is not one group and many of its splinter groups such as the Continuity IRA (CIRA) and Real IRA (RIRA) didn’t sign up to the Good Friday Agreement and have been active since it. They were not the only paramilitary groups that did not sign up, fragments of extremism have existed since the PIRA decommissioned and it seems likely that they incorporated those who had been PIRA members who were disillusioned by the agreement. Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach and Good Friday Agreement negotiator, explained while the PIRA had to decommission as part of the agreement, for various reasons it was allowed to exist in a non-armed state. News of its existence shouldn’t come as a shock to the only major unionist party that engaged in Good Friday Agreement negotiations. If the PIRA were proved to be armed and active then this response would be understandable but that is not the case.

What this stand does however give the UUP is a unique selling point compared to their rivals the DUP and it can somewhat tackle the perception some have that the UUP betrayed the unionist community when it agreed to work with Sinn Féin in government.

The DUP has been less drastic. Although they have stated that they would consider pulling out of government, they have described it as temporary suspension of government rather than a total breakdown of trust. Jeffrey Donaldson, a DUP MP, said that if they are to continue to power share with Sinn Féin, they must ensure the PIRA issue dealt with ‘in terms that gives everyone the reassurance that this isn’t going to happen again’. This is a reasonable request and something Sinn Féin must do. They should be unwavering in their condemnation of any paramilitary organisations. However so far they haven’t done otherwise, several senior figures have denied that the PIRA have rearmed. Pearse Doherty, a prominent Sinn Féin TD, insisted that when it came to the IRA “the war is over, they’re not coming back”.

The best way to tackle paramilitaries is to tackle the reasons people joined them. This can be done not by threatening to withdraw from the government but standing together against sectarianism. Parties must ensure that there is a functioning government that works for the good of everyone and gives people a genuine stake in society. It is important that representatives of both communities condemn paramilitaries, in actions as well as words. All parties will soon have the opportunity to move away from old associations, as the old guard age and move aside and the younger members who are untainted by such associations, take charge of the party.

However, it is vital that parties take a considered stance in anything controversial for this to work. In this case, it is not yet certain whether the connections are historical or current. Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan has stated she has no reason to believe that the PIRA are active in the military sense. Bertie Ahern pointed out that it is possible that ‘these atrocities are being done [by those] who might have been on the inside but are now long since on the outside?’ Political posturing could have terrible consequences for the Good Friday Agreement, especially if results in a party with a large electoral mandate being removed from government when there is no proof it has broken the agreement.

If the UUP and the DUP are truly concerned, a more constructive reaction is to push for the reintroduction of the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC). The IMC monitored paramilitary activity from 2004 to 2011 and its final report stated that ‘transition from conflict is a long slow process’. This latest incident shows this is true and it is likely that the IMC was disbanded too soon. Reconvening the IMC would offer a way to monitor paramilitary activity and to find patterns and evidence rather than allowing a single incident to destroy progress. If reconvened however it should address the issues that resulted in Sinn Féin’s criticism of the body. A more balanced panel, one agreed by all parties, would address this, the previous one was described as three spooks and a lord, but would still add value to the peace process.

If political parties pull out of the power sharing agreement over an incident that the police have not yet connecting to a sophisticated paramilitary organisation with political connections, they are handing extremism a victory while taking democratic choice away from the people of Northern Ireland. The majority of people in Northern Ireland have been clear, both in referendum and in their actions, they want peace and stability. If the parties of Northern Ireland don’t fight to protect this then they are betraying everyone who believed in the Good Friday Agreement and reconciliation.