Ten thoughts on the UK Parliament vote on Syria

1. You can totally understand why the British public is where it’s at. Last time they heard about WMD from the JIC, it was the 45 minutes claim. They’ve also drawn pretty much the correct conclusions about the net effect of our interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

2. But it strikes me as crazy for Parliament to have ruled out all military action without having either all the facts or all the options in front of it.

3. For once I agree with Dan Hodges – Ed Miliband comes out of this looking terrible.

4. I also agree that this is a tipping point for British foreign policy. Maybe Suez / Iraq order of magnitude. Coupled with where the Tories are taking us on Europe, our approach seems be not to have alliances with anyone anymore.

5. That said, foreign policy people always obsess about influence for its own sake (being ‘in with the cool kids’), rather than on what we’re trying to achieve with it. Show me a concrete win we’ve secured on an issue that matters (climate, development, human security) that we’ve secured by being in the EU or having a ‘special relationship’ with the US.

6. I take the point that way more people have been killed with conventional weapons in this war than chemical weapons. But chemical weapons are different. Same way that landmines are too. Rory Stewart’s post on his blog this morning was good on this.

7. I can totally understand why many internationalist friends of mine are in a state of despair. I feel it too. We really are watching the last gasp of the idea of the Responsibility to Protect for the foreseeable future.

8. (For which we have Tony Blair to thank. Yeah – that guy who wants to bring democracy to the Middle East while applauding the coup in Egypt as a positive development.)

9. But what’s our theory of influence here? “Something must be done” as a response to humanitarian crises has rarely led to good outcomes – from Somalia in 91 onwards. No-one’s willing to consider boots on the ground (and it’s totally unclear that it would be helpful to peace anyway). I can’t see that missile strikes will achieve much beyond making us feel better, and they’re by no means risk-free either. I’m sceptical of all the people on Twitter saying we have to find a political solution (thanks, Einstein). I honestly don’t know what’s the right thing to do.

10. But ruling out all military action wasn’t it.

After the vote – time for Democracy Day?

Given the chaos in voting during the General Election, here’s how to do it better, while making elections a more televisual, social media-friendly experience.

As I argued in October:

Some thoughts on elections, which are – as things stand – the epitome of everything people hate about the public sector (inconvenient, confusing, dingy, etc). With a little redesign, we could make them so much more entertaining, user friendly, and festive: fit for the modern media age.

Consider. We live in the age of live. The online revolution has destroyed many business models, but it is driving the value of one-off events through the roof. Rock stars release albums to promote their live shows (ten years ago, it was the other way round). Sky’s business model is based on the capture of live sport, especially football.

Master manipulator, Derren Brown, understands this better than anyone. His recent series was structured deliberately as a series of events – designed to provoke and gel together a stream of frenzied media and online coverage.

To be sure, a British general election is gripping, but almost inspite of itself. We’ll soon be having the first British general election of the Twitter era, but as always the results will dribble in the middle of the night (thus ‘were you still up for Portillo?’).

That didn’t matter a jot in the print era – and television has learned to make the most of the bad timing. But it’s surely wrong for the new media age. When we next go the polls, most of the British public will be asleep when we get to the climax.

My suggestion:

  • A Democracy Day, either every two and a half years – with a general election in June and a mid-term in November, or every two years, moving British politics onto a fixed four-year cycle.
  • All elections – Westminster, devolved government, councils, European parliament, referenda, etc – will be held on one of these days (by-elections would be the only exception).
  • Voting would be as easy as possible, with polls open throughout the week before, and voting could be made compulsory (with a ‘none of the above’ option, of course).
  • Democracy Day – a Monday – would be a public holiday – with polls closing at 6 o’clock.
  • Sunderland would then do its usual party trick and gets its result out within the hour. The rest of the action would then unfold across prime time; even in the closest years, the result would be clear before the nation went to bed.
  • The TV audience would be huge; Twitter and its ilk would go berserk (think of all the local coverage from counts); while election parties and victory rallies could happen at a sensible time.

Some advantages:

– Fixed terms: a predictable, harmonised electoral cycle, with a clear rhythm for politician, bureaucrat and public.

– The creation of a consistent democratic system, even as devolution leads to confusing fragmentation.

– Economies of scale for electoral commission, political parties, media, etc, from running fewer, bigger elections.

– Opportunities to expand the role played by direct democracy in British political life, by running more referenda, elections to quangos and other public bodies, etc.

– More time to vote – which seems pretty important today.

– An unmissable media event.

Details:

– The June election might need to float slightly, depending on the date set for European parliamentary elections (though hopefully Europe will settle). But – before Eurosceptics start frothing at the mouth – there are great advantages to having national and European elections in the same cycle. The party in power in Westminster would also lead in Brussels, providing a much more consistent voice for the British electorate in Europe, while turnout would be much much higher, ensuring a better reflection of UK opinion.

– The general election would cover the House of Commons, Europe, and the devolved administrations, plus some councillors and seats in the (new) House of Lords. The minor election would be just local government, the Lords, and any odds and sods (referenda, quangos, etc).

– In a remodelled Lords, I’d like to see elected members able to serve only a single 10 or 8-year term – staggered, so a small number of members would be elected each Democracy Day (a small enough list for people to vote for individuals, not parties).

[Read the rest of our After the Vote series.]

On the web: hung parliaments, Iran, the Euro’s plight, and the Queen as horizon scanner…

– With the UK election campaign under way in all but name, the FT’s Martin Wolf explains why he doesn’t fear a hung parliament – arguing that it might be just what’s needed to achieve fiscal restraint. “So poorly has single-party despotism governed the UK”, he suggests, “that I would welcome a coalition or, at worst, a minority government.” The Institute for Government, meanwhile answers all your hung parliament-related questions here, placing things in international and historical perspective.

– The Cable highlights the Obama administration’s key people on Iran. Richard Haass, meanwhile, suggests that the West’s strategy must do more to help the Iranian people – with the US and EU acting to “energise and lend rhetorical support to the opposition, helping it to communicate with the outside world”.

– Elsewhere, Der Spiegel profiles the five main risks to the Euro – namely Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, and Italy – assessing their economic woes. Charlemagne, meanwhile, interviews Cathy Ashton. And The Economist also has news that Dominique Strauss-Khan, current IMF head, is considering running against Nicolas Sarkozy in France’s 2012 presidential elections.

– Finally, this week saw a group of British Academy experts writing to the Queen about the failure to foresee the credit crunch – a follow-up to a question from the monarch at the LSE last summer. Their suggestion: the need for a better-coordinated government horizon scanning capacity – something that could take the form of a monthly economics briefing to the Queen, which would serve – as Professor Peter Hennessy has commented – to “sharpen minds” of officials. Read the full letter here (pdf).

Parliament: more global, less local (part 4)

In the first three parts of this series (1, 2, 3), I have suggested reforms to make the British parliamentary system better equipped for what could be an especially turbulent period in our history. I proposed: greater devolution; a slimmer, punchier House of Commons; and a House of Lords with a mix of elected, co-opted and politically-appointed members.

Now: some thoughts on elections, which are – as things stand – the epitome of everything people hate about the public sector (inconvenient, confusing, dingy, etc). With a little redesign, we could make them so much more entertaining, user friendly, and festive: fit for the modern media age.

Consider. We live in the age of live. The online revolution has destroyed many business models, but it is driving the value of one-off events through the roof. Rock stars release albums to promote their live shows (ten years ago, it was the other way round). Sky’s business model is based on the capture of live sport, especially football.

Master manipulator, Derren Brown, understands this better than anyone. His recent series was structured deliberately as a series of events – designed to provoke and gel together a stream of frenzied media and online coverage.

To be sure, a British general election is gripping, but almost inspite of itself. We’ll soon be having the first British general election of the Twitter era, but as always the results will dribble in the middle of the night (thus ‘were you still up for Portillo?’).

That didn’t matter a jot in the print era – and television has learned to make the most of the bad timing. But it’s surely wrong for the new media age. When we next go the polls, most of the British public will be asleep when we get to the climax.

So I suggest:

  • A Democracy Day every two and a half years – with a general election in June and a mid-term in November.
  • All elections – Westminster, devolved government, councils, European parliament, referenda, etc – will be held on one of these days (by-elections would be the only exception).
  • Voting would be as easy as possible, with polls open throughout the week before, and voting could be made compulsory (with a ‘none of the above’ option, of course).
  • Democracy Day would be a public holiday – with polls closing at 6 o’clock.
  • Sunderland would then do its usual party trick and gets its result out within the hour. The rest of the action would then unfold across prime time; even in the closest years, the result would be clear before the nation went to bed.
  • The TV audience would be huge; Twitter and its ilk would go berserk (think of all the local coverage from counts); while election parties and victory rallies could happen at a sensible time.

Continue reading

Parliament: more global, less local (part 3)

Prompted by Bracknell’s open primary, I argued in part 1 and part 2 of this series that:

National politics is increasingly dominated by complex international issues, but today’s MPs are usually selected based on their views on local issues.

Local government should be given more powers (to tax as well as to spend), enabling MPs to be more nationally and globally focused.

We should slim down the House of Commons, probably by as much as half, with fewer MPs given more power, pay, and a greater media profile.

So… on to the Lords. I am in favour of radical reform to the upper house, with a design that is as different as possible from the Commons, and a structure that aims to inject relevant expertise into British political life.

The Commons – my proposed reform notwithstanding – will still be geographically based, with MPs representing their constituents in Westminster. The new Lords, in contrast, would not have local roots, but be a nationally-based chamber.

One – simple – option would be for a wholly elected upper house, with members drawn from national lists. I don’t favour this approach. The Lords would end up too much like the Commons – but with added political hackery (due to the need to smarm ones way to the top of a party’s slate of candidates).

Governments would also be robbed of a mechanism that allows them to bring expertise onto the front benches – often at short notice. Some think this is undemocratic. I think it is an essential adjustment to a system based purely on elections.

(David Cameron seems to agree, recently recruiting Sir Richard Dannatt to the Tory front bench to help the Conservatives ‘rebuild the military covenant’ with Britain’s armed forces.)

So here’s an alternative plan. It’s a mixed model – a fudge even. But aren’t compromises an integral part of the British constitutional tradition?

Again, as with the Commons, we’d hack the Upper Chamber down to size. The precise number can be argued over, but I favour 160 or so (around half the size of a remodelled Commons, and comfortably bigger than the US Senate which manages with only 100 members).

I’d split the Upper Chamber into three parts:

50% directly-elected members. I’ll go into more detail on length of terms in part 4 (yes, there’s more!), but if elections were held on a rolling basis, a relatively small list would be up for the vote each time round. Voters would be able to pick named individuals, rather than party slates, putting independents and party grandées on a level playing field.

25% appointed by political parties. Parties would use these seats mainly to draw talent from outside the Commons onto their front benches. I’d be quite happy for them to chop and change these members as they wished – allowing them maximum flexibility to govern or act as an effective opposition.

25% co-opted by the Upper Chamber itself. Purists won’t approve, but I’d give the new Lords the power to co-opt members for fixed terms. The system would mirror the upper house’s committee structure – with committees nominating individuals with expertise relevant to their areas of work, for approval by a full vote. The upper house would thus be provided with a mechanism to improve its overall relevance and quality.

So what to call the new Chamber? I’d suggest… the House of Lords, with members still given a life peerage. Becoming a Lord should be a big deal – an important job while actively serving, a lasting mark of respect thereafter… (Part 4 – on elections, tomorrow.)

Parliament: more global, less local (part 2)

In a post yesterday, I discussed the failure of either Iain Dale or Rory Stewart to get selected for the Bracknell parliamentary seat, arguing that we need to create incentives for our MPs to focus more on global issues, and less on the hyper-local bread-and-butter of constituency politics.

(Local GP, Phillip Lee, who won the Conservative Party’s open primary was roughly handled – but I want to underline this is not an attack on him personally, more criticism of a system that favours a ‘local, local, local’ candidate, rather than ones with international experience.)

There’s never been a better moment to reform Parliament – with the expenses scandal continuing to fester. Probably the status quo will prevail, but if it doesn’t, here’s how we should prepare our political system for what looks like being a very rocky period for globalisation.

First, we need to get serious about subsidiarity. Resilient societies devolve powers down to the lowest possible levels, but the British system is still highly centralised. As a result, MPs spend far too much time dealing with issues that should be handled by local councillors. Re-draw the lines and we can improve both local and national government.

At the moments, councils spend a lot, but central government raises much of the cash (a disastrous mismatch). National taxes should be cut. Local taxes raised. And national spending on local government made purely redistributive – aimed at areas with a low tax base but high social need (according to an algorithm that is tweaked to reflect the priorities of the government of the day).

We should then tackle reform of the House of Commons. With MPs  workload pared back, we’d be able to drastically cut the size of the lower chamber– aiming for fewer MPs, with bigger constituencies, higher media profile, and a much stronger committee structure to allow them to hold government to account.

At the moment, we have 645 MPs – that’s roughly one for every 100,000. By contrast, the US has only 435 members of Congress – one for every 700,000 citizens. We need a bigger lower house than the US, of course, as it’s where most members of government are drawn from.

But I’d happily have half as many MPs as at present (and wouldn’t mind paying them double what they get now, too). Backbench MPs, in particular, would have a far greater opportunity to gain national, and even international, profile. The job would become much more attractive to those who could make use of the platform Parliament provided them with.

Next, we need to grasp the nettle of House of Lords reform. More on that in part 3 of this series.

Parliament: more global, less local (part 1)

Over the weekend, the Conservative Party held an open primary in Bracknell – the second time (I think) they have selected a candidate for the general election in this way.

The final three candidates were:

Iain Dale – doyen of the Conservative blogosphere.

Rory Stewart – an ex-diplomat who wrote a book about walking across Afghanistan in 2002 and the governed part of occupied Iraq .

Phillip Lee – a local GP.

I would have voted for either Dale or Stewart. Parliament badly needs people like Dale, who understand social media. Prospective MPs with direct experience of the two wars we’re fighting (especially the much-neglected civilian dimension) are at even more of a premium.

Bracknell, however, chose Lee, who ran on the platform “Local,  Local, Local”. Primary voters were, I imagine, won over by his commitment to “making both the town and the surrounding villages better places to live in the future.” No coincidence, I think, that a local GP also won the Totnes open primary in August.

Let’s be clear – I am absolutely ignorant of Phillip Lee’s qualities. He may end up a fine Foreign Secretary, or a future Prime Minister, as well as being a dedicated constituency MP. But I am worried by the incentives that led him to stand on, and triumph with, such as local platform.

Look at his policy ideas presented to the primary and and you’ll find impressive, almost obsessive, detail on acute healthcare in East Berkshire. In contrast, on those ‘national issues that I know concern constituents’, there’s nothing more than a few bromides.

Lee wants the UK to pay off its national debt; reduce public spending; cut the state down to size; and get tough on Europe; while also delivering better education and health, and spending more on kit for the armed forces.

This is the wrong way round, I think. He’s running for a national parliament, not a local one. And if elected, he will arrive in Westminster at a time when the British political agenda is increasingly dominated not by local events, but by a morass of complex, interlocking global risks (discussed in more detail here).

In the first decade of this century, his prospective constituents have seen their lives shaped largely by global events, with three international emergencies (9/11 and the wars that followed, the energy and food price spike of 2008, and the worst economic crisis since the thirties) shredding cosy assumptions about the stability of contemporary globalization.

The next decade will be no different. Whether or not Bracknell is a ‘better place to live’ in 2020 will be influenced by what happens in Karachi, Lagos or Washington, as much if not more than it is by what happens in Berkshire itself.

So how do we increase the chance that MPs with global vision and experience will compete for, and win, Parliamentary seats? How do we select more politicians like Vince Cable (immensely popular less for what he does in Twickenham than for his grip on the world’s economic woes)?

Some thoughts on this in part two, tomorrow.