Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Can MPs really be trusted on Lords reform?

Imagine that you work for a medium sized organisation. Imagine that you like your job, it gives you status and respect and that there was a real battle for you to get the position in the first place. Also, every few years there is a big reorganisation and you have to reapply for your role.

Now imagine that there is another sister organisation just over the road from your one. The pay isn't as good but it provides similar status and respect within society. And even better you don't actually need to apply for a job or go through a grueling selection process to get in there. Once you leave employment with your current organisation there is a roughly 50/50 chance that your boss will simply give you a job for life in the sister organisation.

Now, finally imagine that you and all your colleagues are given the chance to change the way the sister organisation works. Instead of having an evens chance of being given a sinecure in that place, you can instead vote for the selection process to be thrown open to everyone and for it to be as grueling to get in there are it was to get into your current organisation.

That is pretty much exactly the dilemma faced by most MPs as they consider the Lords reform bill which is being published this week. There are noises off from Labour and Tory MPs that they are going to give this bill a rough ride. Indeed it is not at all clear that a Commons majority can be mustered to pass it despite a commitment for reform being present in all three of the main parties manifestos.

I'm sure that there are some MPs who have genuine concerns about the proposed reforms and really do fear the loss of a scrutinising chamber with expertise. I'm also sure that some of the arguments used against reform such as risk of constitutional deadlock are well meant. But the problem is you cannot separate these out from the massive conflict of interest faced by a huge swathe of MPs. If they vote for the bill they are kissing goodbye to a cushy semi-retirement.

For those of us observing politics there is a useful precedent here. MPs used to be in charge of deciding their own expenses regime. They came up with all sorts of arguments as to why this should be the case (primacy of parliament etc.) and many of them fought tooth and nail to prevent publication of the details for years. They wanted to remain in charge of one of the main conditions of their employment.

Of course when The Telegraph finally published the details of the expenses it precipitated the biggest political scandal in decades. It wasn't just a few MPs, but hundreds of them who had abused the privileges of their office at the expense of the tax payer. It became abundantly clear that MPs could not be trusted to decide their own expenses regime. It is now administered by an external body.

But in the end, MPs are only human. A sort of group think appears to have emerged whereby they collectively thought what they were doing was acceptable. Yes, we expect MPs to be held to a higher standard but I would however suggest that any group of people left in charge of their own conditions like this will consciously or subconsciously gravitate towards a solution that suits them.

We are in the same sort of situation again with Lords reform. I am far from convinced that we can trust MPs to come to an impartial decision about something that so directly affects the future political careers of so many of their number. Whatever arguments they use, there will always be the suspicion that self interest lies at the heart of their opposition whether that is conscious or otherwise.

There is no easy answer to this. The Commons is supreme and ultimately if MPs will not allow the reform it will not go ahead.

But they should tread very carefully. They have already seen the political explosion that can result when blatant self-interest against the public good takes hold within their institution.

If I was an MP I would want to avoid any risk of appearing to put my own personal desires above what we would expect from a fully functioning and accountable democracy.

An edited version of this post was first published on Liberal Conspiracy.


Anonymous said...

A related problem is that the proposed reforms are based on an unusual electoral system which in practice will probably operate much like a closed list system.

I'm sure it's no accident that this will maximise the opportunities for parties effectively to continue appointing many people to the second chamber.

Stephen Johnson said...

The antidote to party power inherent in the semi open list voting system is to allow voters an alternative short vote - ‘Independent’ for a raft of ‘official’ independent candidates sponsored by an independent peers appointments commission in addition to the 90 independents planned.

This addresses concerns about party v independent, and perhaps even those who argue Lib Dems will have permanent blocking power.