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Good idea: Thinkers unite

Earlier this month, just as Sir Christopher Kelly's report on MPs' expenses was launched, reigniting the righteous indignation of the British public, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) published its response to the scandal.

Actually, what it published was a collective think-tank response. A Future for Politics brings together essays on the reform of Westminster by seven major think tanks across the political spectrum, from Policy Exchange to CentreForum to the Fabian Society. The resulting paper reads as if Britain's wonks have forgotten their differences and joined together to rise up against the ruling political class.

However, it's a very civilised revolt. "Fascinating as all the squalid detail of expenses is, we should be able to rise above it and maintain the momentum for democratic reform," insist Tim Finch and Carey Oppenheim of IPPR in their introduction.

Many of the ideas for "fixing the essential plumbing of our body politic" in these essays aren't especially revolutionary. There is wide support for open primaries to select candidates, while the need for greater transparency, for a better balance of power between parliament and the executive, and for more power to be placed in the hands of local authorities, are taken as givens by everyone involved.

But on other issues, the tanks directly contradict one another. Proportional representation is one of the most important reforms for most. The think tank Reform, however, is not convinced, and Policy Exchange argues that PR would "exacerbate the root problems" behind the recent troubles, because MPs would be less accountable to "local people". Demos calls for a public accusations system based on the Roman model, in which a jury of randomly selected citizens could hold politicians to account.

CentreForum argues that too much public engagement can lead to "democratic dysfunction" and incoherent policy. And while IPPR criticises "career politicians" for making parliament look like a "parlour game", CentreForum stands up for those specialists, such as the Milibands, who know Westminster inside out.

So IPPR's contribution is less a future for politics, more a collection of incompatible variations on a revamped political system. In terms of setting out a programme for reform, it's essentially useless. But it's a well-timed reminder that the expenses scandal represents a "seminal crisis" in British politics, equally shocking to right and left, and that there are plenty of causes to fight for in order to change Westminster.

Agenda-setting? Maybe not. But it's a (polite) call to arms.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End