Seeing the Wood for the Trees – before they’re flogged off

A recent article on the proposed sale of Forestry Commission land on LibCon seems to have revealed a far more far-reaching attack on Parliamentary democracy by the government. The amount to be sold in England over the next few years is about 100,000 acres, which is 15% of current holdings. However, they want to sell far more – potentially over 500,000 acres (leaving only about 10-20% not privatised). The reason that they cannot do that right now is down to existing law that restricts the sale or externalisation of the bulk of the public forestry estate.

To get around this, a series of extra powers on forestry have been added to a bill has that has been raised in the House of Lords by Baron Taylor of Holbeach, called the Public Bodies Bill (PBB). This Bill itself goes far beyond just forestry, and it gives Ministers at Westminster (or at the devolved assemblies/parliaments) powers to order abolition, merger or constitutional changes to huge swathe of organisations. Read the rest of this entry »

Dave’s authority wilts

A few weeks ago, David Cameron tried to look all tough and beefy. He said that he disagreed with two of his nutbar party colleagues, and then he threatened to cut Ministers’ salaries in a potential Tory cabinet by ‘up to 25%’.

Turns out that ‘up to 25%’ means ‘5%’, which is pretty much neither here-not-there – not enough to satisfy the politician-hating masses, and yet enough to annoy the senior Tory MPs who have a sense of entitlement (and who’ve been agitating for an increase in their salaries).

In fact, it seems to have been greeted as a bit of pointless populism. We should always remember that when Dave actually did have a job outside the Westminster village, it was in PR. If you thought Blair was a greasy shyster with a flair for the populist, Cameron will live up to his promise to ‘be the new Blair’. And then some.

At the same time, he’s suggested cutting ‘subsidies’ in the Parliamentary canteens. This will affect MPs not at all (they will get expenses, see), but will hit everyone else who works there. And the ‘subsidies’ don’t come from the public purse, as much as from the sale of goodies to tourists and visitors.

The other idea is to cut the number of MPs by 10%. This will apparently help cut the bill of running parliament by 10%. Not sure it will, not without affecting things to the detriment of constituents. If your MP takes a while to get back to you now, he’ll take longer because there are 10% more people on his patch. MPs will be slightly more remote from the public – not closer – and the ‘payroll vote’ (made up of MPs in the government from Cabinet Ministers down to junior ministers and PPSs) will be a greater proportion. It’s not actually a step forward for democracy.

At the same time as reducing the number of MPs, he wants to cut the Electoral Commission. What do the EC do? Well, amongst other things, they are the non-partisan body that sets electoral boundaries. So, just as he wants to give them more work – redraw practically every constituency boundary in the UK – he wants to cut the resources to do it. Genius.

Cameron is either a fool, or he’s trying to fool the public.

Oh, and after weeks of dithering about Alan ‘on rations’ Duncan and his grubby comments? He gets sacked? Not really. Just demoted to shadow prisons minister, a job that he apparently relishes, and replaced by Sir George Younger. Who was supposed to be chairing a fairly important committee on MPs salaries and expenses.

Primaries – a better form of democracy?

In Totnes, the Tories have selected their candidate to replace the embarrassed Anthony Steen (who is resigning over his expenses claims). Instead of the usual process of a ballot of Party members, they held an ‘open primary‘. Every voter in Totnes constituency was sent a ballot paper and there was an open hustings. In the end, 16,000 people (25%) voted. The ‘non political’ candidate won over an ex-mayor and a councillor.

A resounding success, it would seem – and if the Tories hold the constituency with a greater swing than in other Con/Libdem races, then it will be seen as one.

However, it cost £40,000 to run. That’s about 58p per registered voter, or £2.50 per primary vote. To do the same across all constituencies at that rate would cost a party millions. In the US, the primary system is run using state infrastructure, which reduces the cost to parties, but puts it onto the taxpayer (and parties cannot hold such primaries without achieving a relatively high position in elections, which means that it helps to entrench the US 2-party system). In most US states, people will register their party affiliation when they register to vote, and this determines which primaries they can vote in, but this seems to me to be a far too cosy relationship between the parties and the state.

One way to recoup costs would be to make every voter make a donation to the Party. This is what the Italian left did a few years ago – anyone could vote in the primary for candidate to the Prime Minister’s office, but people not members of the coalition had to pay about £1 to ‘join’ in order to vote. This would reduce turn out, but it would also reduce the likelihood of people who support opposing parties stacking the ballot box in a spoiling move. It could be used as a recruitment drive – people who vote and pay, say, £5, get a year’s membership. Current members get to vote for free. Donations readily accepted. That sort of thing.

One objection, particularly from those who form the ‘grassroots’ of parties is that it used to be them who chose the candidates, and they would be in a better position to know what sort of person they were (if they are actually competent local politicians, if they had skeletons in their closet etc), as well as being the people who were most likely to be doing the slog work of knocking on doors and delivering leaflets, who are more involved in local political debate. Certainly there is some discomfort among some Tories.

Another, and one I have more sympathy for, is that it would lead to a more personality-based decision than it currently is. Candidates would no longer have to demonstrate that they were the most able to a small group of people who have experience of politics. Instead, they would need to impress more ordinary people. This could lead to more populist politics, more conflict within parties, and more people with no experience getting in.

Sure, there’s a problem with politicians who are settled into a position and become complacent. I agree that there’s an issue of a growing class of professional politicians. But going too far the other way is not much better in terms of considered debate and decision making at Parliament.

It may yet prove to be a short-lived gimmick. Alternatively, we could end up paying for it.