The issue that will not go away

Geraint Talfan Davies on the storm over MPs’ expenses:

In responding to the crisis generated by the row over MPs expenses we all have three choices: first, to regard it as one of those whirlwind media crises that will blow over, second, to see it a single serious blight on our otherwise fine democracy or, third, to see it as a manifestation of a wider endemic failure in our system of government.

We can dismiss the first option. The degree of voter anger is unprecedented, and it comes right in the middle of a UK-wide election campaign for the European Parliament and for local government in England. Voters will have an early opportunity to express their anger in the still glowing heat of the moment on June 4th. They will do it either by massive abstention or by voting for parties that they would never normally support.

The result will almost certainly exaggerate the true support for the BNP and UKIP, and could give those two deeply negative parties a platform that will distort debate for the next four years.

Over the rest of this year many constituency parties are going to be embroiled in anguished debate about whether or not to de-select sitting MPs. This will fill pages and airtime in national and local media, and will also create a very different climate for the next Labour leadership election whenever that comes. Expect the issue to raise its head, too, during the election for a successor to Rhodri Morgan in Welsh Labour in the latter half of this year.

This autumn all parties will have to respond to proposals from Sir Christopher Kelly’s Committee on Standards in Public Life. In Wales there may even be implications for the National Assembly, already awaiting an independent report from Sir Roger Jones on the financial support available to Assembly Members. Indeed, it would be surprising if Sir Roger’s conclusions had not hardened up as a result of the Westminster revelations.

The parties will also have to grapple with the impact on party funding, already facing the challenge of low levels of party membership and recession effects on private giving.

In short, this will not blow over. We are at the beginning of a long saga for parties and public. In this case the media will not move on. There is just too much grist for their mill.

Is it then an isolated problem or a symptom of a more chronic disease? Surely, only the wilfully blind, such as the Speaker of the House, could argue that this is a stand-alone issue. Judging by the reactions of the public in phone-ins, television programmes, letters, e-mails and blogs, people are already making the connections: to the long remarked public disengagement from party politics, to the collapse of values that has also been at the heart of the international banking crisis, to the lack of transparency in our governmental systems, to Parliament’s persistent failure to reform itself.

If we are to wish for any silver lining to this very dark cloud, it must be that Government and Parliament is shaken out of its historical complacency about our system of government. The public does not share the misplaced belief in the superiority of the workings of the Mother of Parliaments that is so prevalent at Westminster.

You do not have to be a student of the constitution to be aware of the gross imbalance between the power of the executive and the legislature, or of the decades of failure to reform the House of Lords. If Parliament cannot deal rationally and rigorously with the simple matter of its own house-keeping, it is no wonder that it cannot grapple with even more fundamental issues about its own operation.

It has long been fashionable to dismiss constitutional debate as a matter for the chattering classes. That was always a short-sighted and self-interested argument. Just how short-sighted that was is now becoming clear.

Movements like Charter 88 or the more recent Power Commission under Helena Kennedy have only ever been allowed limited purchase. Governments have usually seen constitutional change as a distraction, to be avoided if at all possible, but if not, then to be minimised and boxed in, with wider linkages ignored or denied. Even devolution has conformed to some of this pattern. The European Union has been a more effective driver of reform on human rights than Parliament. In England proponents of more local democracy, for a long time accorded the same respect as train-spotters, even now are to be indulged before elections but probably ignored after them.

The appropriate response to the current crisis by Government, Parliament and the political parties should be: first, the immediate appointment of a new Speaker with a mandate to lead a process of reform; second, to rid Parliament of those who have seriously abused the expenses system; and then, following he next general election, to establish a cross-party constitutional convention to consider an all-embracing agenda of constitutional reform that would take in both Houses of Parliament, devolved administrations, and local government.

At the same time the political parties will need to look at their own structures, and particularly at the way in which they can reach out to a public – perhaps through American style primaries – beyond the shell organisations that exist in too many constituencies.

Only in these ways can our political system regain the moral authority desperately needed to re-introduce, with some semblance of credibility, a fresh moral dimension into the way this country is run and financed.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

Also within Uncategorized @cy