Parliament needs Reform

05/07/2011 12:24 | Updated 04 September 2011
  • Zac Goldsmith Conservative candidate for London Mayor, MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston

Before I became a member of parliament in May last year, my limited experience told me that British democracy was flawed. After just over a year as an MP, I now know that it is utterly dysfunctional. Politicians are already deeply disliked, and the expenses scandal didn't help. But, despite the horror stories, the real scandal has absolutely nothing to do with expenses. It is that parliament routinely fails in its most basic duties.

A backbench MP is paid to do two things - hold the government to account and vote in a way that is good for the people they represent. The present structures ensure they do neither, and the effect is that decisions taken by a very small number of politicians are subjected to virtually no scrutiny at all.

You have only to look at the maths. Nearly a third of MPs are on the "payroll". That includes ministers, shadow ministers and also parliamentary private secretaries, who are not paid, but who are bound by the code of loyalty that requires them always to vote with the government. Of the remaining two-thirds of MPs, most want to join the payroll. That requires a political lobotomy, and unthinking submission to the party line.

Loyalty is one thing, but we have reached an extreme. If a backbench MP speaks out against a government decision, it is seen as an act of aggression. If he tables a minor amendment, it's worse still. And if he votes against his party, it's an act of career suicide.

Consider the vote at the start of the year on the proposed forest sell-off. Many coalition MPs were bitterly opposed. And yet, when the division bell sounded, just seven voted against. Had all those who opposed it used their vote accordingly, the policy would have been buried instantly and the government would have been reminded that parliament exists.

It is tempting to blame the whip system, but that misses the point. The whips have a crucial job to do. They are there to help push through the government's agenda. It is the job of backbenchers to resist that pressure.

That doesn't mean endless gridlock and rebellion. It means creating a healthy tension, so that the executive is required to think before acting and to take on board the advice of the legislature. I do not believe we will have a vibrant and functioning democracy without a more independent legislature. Unfortunately, none of the reforms on offer today is designed to address that core issue.

There are, however, some simple reforms that would help improve British democracy. For example, we should end the ludicrous situation whereby a handful of MPs can kill off a bill by "talking it out" and pushing it off the agenda. We should ensure that, as the number of MPs is reduced as planned, so too is the number of MPs on the payroll. If not, the balance will become still more skewed. The language used in parliament could be much clearer. It's an embarrassing secret that if you were to stand outside the lobby after a division and ask MPs what they had just voted for, only a handful would be able to tell you. Why not accompany every bill, motion and amendment with a plain English explanation before asking MPs to vote on it?

Overall, though, if we want to counter the inability (or unwillingness) of parliament to scrutinise the executive, we need something bolder. A very significant start would be for the coalition partners to honour a pre-election promise made by all of the then party leaders. Following the expenses scandal, each of the leaders made a promise to allow constituents to "recall" their representative between elections. That pledge has, in effect, been scrapped.

True recall, indeed true democracy, allows people to remove their representative if most constituents have lost confidence in him or her, for whatever reason. It is a right that should exist for voters at every level, from councillor to MP. This is not a new idea. There have been failed recall attempts in California, including one against Ronald Reagan in 1968. However, in 2003, voters successfully recalled the sitting governor, Gray Davis, and replaced him at a new election with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

That couldn't be further from where we are today in Britain. Under the current rules, a new MP could theoretically move to another country for five years and leave constituency work to a caseworker. Local voters would be lumbered with a useless representative until the next general election.

Most MPs occupy "safe" seats and are hard, if not impossible, to shift. The pressure they feel is from their party, not from the voters. Recall would keep even these MPs on their toes, because a member of one party could be replaced by another from the same party.

The coalition insists that it will still introduce a version of recall, but the small print makes it worse than useless. Instead of handing the decision to the voters, the government will pass it up to MPs on a parliamentary committee. Its members alone will decide if a member has behaved badly enough to be "recalled".

I have tabled an Early Day Motion calling for true Recall, and so far, nearly 50 MPs from all parties have endorsed it. I hope many more will join them. With enough support, we will be able to facilitate a debate on the Chamber followed by a vote. And if it goes the right way, I have no doubt Parliament, and indeed democracy will benefit.

Zac Goldsmith is the MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston