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.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide