Leader: Sleepwalking politicians must wake up to constitutional reform

Much has been said about the unprecedented nature of Michael Martin’s enforced departure as Speaker, the first such defenestration since 1695, when Sir John Trevor was forced to step down for taking a £1,000 bribe. What is different about Speaker Martin’s fate, however, is that it comes as the effects of a fast-moving public scandal sweep across Westminster. This must be the first time a House of Commons speaker has featured as front-page news and across the television networks. By Tuesday, everyone, not only politics junkies, could see that the Speaker was part of the problem – a block to reform of a rotten system.

Speaker Martin’s allies complain, with some justification, that from the start of his nine-year stint in the chair he was the victim of prejudice and snobbery. But in the end he had to go. So far, so good; but we should not fall into the error of thinking that the conflict over the Speaker represents in any way a reparation of parliament. It is only a start, and a small one at that.

First, MPs must elect a reformer as his successor, whether Frank Field or John Bercow, as James Macintyre reports on page 12. Calls – coming largely from Tory MPs – for an interim speaker are misguided and send the wrong message. Second, and more importantly, parliament must now embark on a reform agenda that goes well beyond the immediate issue of expenses. Belated as they may be, we strongly welcome the historic reforms agreed in the wake of the Speaker’s resignation, and Gordon Brown’s declaration that the days of the “gentleman’s club” House of Commons are over. We welcome, too, the abolition of the Fees Office that was complicit in the abuses; the introduction of regulators to oversee new claims; the end of the seedy practice of “flipping” second homes. These are moves that may restore at least some trust in Westminster.

Following its own recent controversies, the Scottish Parliament’s reformed expenses system requires receipts for all claims, presents those claims on a website where the electorate can see them, and will abolish the practice allowing some MSPs to claim interest on mortgages for second homes in 2011. Westminster would do well to follow Holyrood’s example.

But more fundamental change is also necessary. Parliamentary legitimacy is unravelling not because of expenses, but because of the weakness of the institution. Over the past two decades, parliament has shrivelled into little more than a rubber stamp for the diktats of an overmighty executive. The Thatcher governments of 1983 and 1987 and the New Labour governments of 1997 and 2001 were little more than elected dictatorships. As a consequence, most MPs have had little incentive other than to remain loyal and keep their noses clean. Add to that a first-past-the-post system in which a million voters in marginal seats in Middle England determine the results of general elections, and what you are left with is a thoroughly disaffected electorate.

It is not that the public is apathetic about politics; it cares about fundamental issues. But it feels no affinity with an outdated Westminster system and feels that its votes, and the MPs it votes for, make little difference to people’s lives.

For years, as leading Labour ministers such as Jack Straw have blocked meaningful constitutional reform, Britain’s political class has been sleepwalking into a crisis – one that runs far deeper than the expenses scandal, which is merely the symptom of a more comprehensive dysfunction.

While the next Speaker must instigate reforms to the expenses system, the Prime Minister must also act, and lead the way on wholesale if belated constitutional reform. He should revive parts of the liberal agenda of Roy Jenkins, who sought to break the mould of British politics. He should reform the House of Commons so that there are alternatives to climbing the greasy pole to ministerial office. That will involve electing the select committees that scrutinise legislation, and paying those who chair them. He won’t, but he should open the way for proportional representation.

A good start has been made, but the stakes could not be higher. As we show in this issue (page 10; from page 22), a crisis of confidence in mainstream politics threatens to translate into an upturn in votes for extremist parties or in people refusing to vote at all. It was the government and complacent MPs themselves who allowed this crisis to unravel. Now they must offer a new way forward.