Our democracy needs a refresh - the last week proves it.

14 Sep 2017

Over the course of the past 7 days I've been spending quite a lot of time watching what's been going on in Parliament. On Thursday last week, and then again on Monday, Members of Parliament (MPs) debated and then voted upon the EU Withdrawal Bill. On Tuesday there was a motion put forward by the government to change the arrangements for the select committees, and then on Wednesday was Prime Minister's Questions, followed by two Opposition Day debates: one on the public sector pay cap, the other on tuition fees.


I love Parliamentary process. I love all the "Right Honourable Friend" business, all the interventions, all of that sort of stuff. 


What I don't love (and often get quite angry at) is the distinct lack of accountability. I don't like it when politicians (of all parties) deliberately avoid answering the question. I don't like it when politicians manipulate the system to get their own way. This was something that I was very conscious of whilst I was President of the Students' Union at Southampton. I always ensured that I answered the question, and I also always ensured I gave people asking the questions the opportunity to ask a follow up question. 


I knew that if I dodged the questions that were being asked of me, then I would get pulled up for it - if not by the students themselves, then certainly by my colleagues. For the PM, and indeed most if not all MPs (again, of all parties), there is very little that can be done to compel them to directly answer the questions that are being put to them. This needs to change, otherwise PMQs and all other situations where MPs are answering questions (whether in government or not) becomes a meaningless farce. Ultimately that will inevitably erode the public's trust in politicians. 


Take, for example, Prime Ministers Questions on Wednesday afternoon. In his third question, the Leader of the Opposition asked Theresa May:

"Can the Prime Minister guarantee no more police or prison officers will be lost as a result of the decisions she has made this week?"


To you or I, that is a simple question (the implications are not so simple, granted) with two possible answers: Yes, I can guarantee that; or No, I cannot guarantee that. 


She did not answer that question at all, instead choosing to only respond to the point about police pay. Even her answer to that point has raised more questions than it has answered, with the Police Federation describing her argument as a "downright lie". Full Fact has done some fact checking on this, the results of which can be found here.

I could very easily describe all the occasions where a politician has failed to directly answer a question, but then this post would be ridiculously long, and we'd all get very bored.


Instead, let me move on to my second issue - the point about politicians manipulating the system to get their own way. For this, I'm going to use the explicit example of the debate on Tuesday. Here's the background:

The Conservative Party does not have a majority in the House of Commons. Therefore, in order to get legislation through they have got a "confidence and supply" arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whereby the DUP backs the government on key legislation in return for £1billion in funding for the devolved administration of Northern Ireland. By doing that, it enabled PM Theresa May to form a minority government. 

The proposal was essentially an update to guidance for the selection committee, which decides how many MPs from each party represented in the Commons (and who) should sit on each select committee, so that in the event that a committee has an odd number of positions, the Conservatives (i.e. the government) would have a majority.


In my mind, there are BIG problems with this. The main one being that the select committees are meant to be representative of the entire House. The Conservatives has 316 out of the 650 seats (it was originally 317 seats but the whip was withdrawn from one member) and so has 48.7% of the seats. In effect, this is the government ignoring the result of the election (which was that no party has a majority). 

Over the course of the debate on this, there were a lot of speakers and interventions. One particular point that kept on being made by the Conservative MPs in the chamber, was that "if the government doesn't have a majority, this won't pass". This is a flawed argument, because the DUP were obliged to vote with the Conservatives (some sources indicate that this proposal was discussed explicitly during the negotiations of their deal), and so the vote was going to pass anyway. So although the proposal secured a majority of votes in the chamber, its passing gave a majority to one party who categorically do not have a majority in the chamber.


Of course, after what happened on Monday in Parliament, the government has got form for subverting Parliamentary scrutiny. On Monday we saw a debate on the EU Withdrawal Bill, which repeals the 1972 European Communities Act which took Britain into the EU, ends the precedence of EU law over British law, and also converts all EU laws and regulations into British laws and regulations, in order to ensure certainty once we leave.


It sounds pretty straightforward (or as straightforward as law gets), and sounds like it is simply enacting the will of the people as per the result of the EU referendum. This would be entirely and perfectly agreeable IF it didn't also hand sweeping powers to Ministers and the executive to change laws as they wish. As Sir Keir Starmer, the Shadow Secretary of State for Brexit put it:

"You could entrench important EU rights on Monday, and take them away on Tuesday without primary legislation."

The Bill went through unamended thanks to the Conservative and DUP MPs teaming up, and will now go to a committee stage where there will be line by line scrutiny of it, and further amendments will be discussed. There is a real possibility that the powers handed to Ministers in the Bill will be significantly reduced before its' third reading in the Commons. If not, then there's a strong chance that a good number of Conservative MPs will rebel against the whip, and as a result the Bill could fall. 


From a personal point of view, I voted Leave for Parliamentary sovereignty. This means handing powers back to Parliament, and not to Ministers. I stand by the way I voted, but I will not stand by whilst the government engages in a power grab and turns into an elected dictatorship


I also want to touch on what happened on Wednesday during the Opposition Day debates. Labour had tabled two motions - one on the issue of public sector pay calling on the government to give public sector workers a fair pay rise (i.e. in line with inflation which is now 2.9%), and the other on tuition fees calling on the government to revoke the rise of fees planned for this year. 


Opposition Day motions are non-binding - they are merely an expression of the will of the House on the issues put forth by the Opposition. That being said, the government would have to think carefully before it chose to ignore such motions. What happened on Wednesday was that the DUP backed the two motions being proposed. This meant that the government would have probably lost both of the votes, therefore they chose not to divide on the motions, and instead abstained. Hence the motions passed. 

 More concerning was this revelation midway through the second debate...

It would seem from this that the government appears to have zero intention of taking notice of any Opposition Day motions. 


So overall, it's not been the best few days for the government. Sure, they have largely succeeded in doing what they needed to in order to progress their agenda, however in doing so they have exposed how far they are prepared to go in order to push through their programme. After the last few days, I now regard the government's approach not only to be undemocratic, but also anti-democratic


You might say "oh well a Labour government would be different". That may be true, but we cannot guarantee that. The precedent has been set, and unfortunately, future governments (of any party) may see that as an opportunity. We as a society have to learn from the past week, and implement changes to prevent the events from happening again. That will, unfortunately, only happen when we have a government that is truly committed to democracy. 


The reality is that I could have detailed a lot more that is flawed and outdated within our democracy: the unelected House of Lords, voting and the electoral system, the role of the media... All of these are areas that need radical reform to ensure that they are both modern and fit for purpose. 


That is why I am calling for a refresh of our democracy. If we as a society want to take back power through Brexit, then we have to ensure that our democracy can handle that power in the first place. Based upon the events of the last week, I don't believe it can. 

Note: I acknowledge that I am being quite critical of the Conservative government in this post. I am sure that, if I had the same level of interest in politics as I have now during the time of the Labour government, I would have had similar frustrations. 

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