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.
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.
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.