Warming Up the Rubber Chickens

I don’t often agree with Tom Harris, the Labour MP for Glasgow South and Twtter ‘attack dog’. Lovely chap, probably, and a Doctor Who fan like me, so there should be some level of understanding between us; (I’ll check by way of these stock answers;

1) Patrick Troughton
2) Chiwetel Ejiofor
3) The sonic screwdriver
4) Still nowhere near as bad as RTD
5) I don’t think anyone, from producer downwards, actually knows what was blowing up the TARDIS in Series 5, so let’s just leave it as that)

Harris recently wrote against the leaders debate, those moments of “groundbreaking”/”useless” televisual delights from 2010, around which the general election of that year appeared to orbit. And like Harris, I would rather they never happened again.

I’ve written against the debates before and indeed hindsight suggests that even when writing about them at the time, there was an underlying sense of their uselessness. Looking back three years as we stand approximately two years away from the next general election and it all looks clear; repeating the leaders debates would be a huge mistake.

As a Liberal Democrat – and a small l liberal, no less – my default setting is “reform”.  There’s no cog or wheel of the British democratic system, which doesn’t need fixing. Our voting system is broken, our unwritten constitution needs writing, our Parliament needs reducing in size (and one part of it needs scrapping completely), the relationship between local government and local electors requires serious repair, and so on, etc, forever. Of course “leaders debates” seemed part of the solution back in 2010, within the context of the expenses scandal and total collapse in respect for politicians. They could even help decide the result, mixing in the “West Wing at Westminster” attitude Tom Harris writes about.

The debates had been part of the “reform” process, though as we look back, they’ve enacted more damage than repair.

Harris is not the first MP to bemoan the presidential manner of our elections. Shirley Williams and Anne Widdecombe used their allotted time with Jeremy Paxman during the 2005 general election programme on BBC One to do just that; and the then Ms Williams did much the same on the 1987 equivalent [yes, I’m the kind of person who watches general election reruns on YouTube. Judge me, go on.]  The British system has always been in danger of turning presidential, and it wasn’t specifically Tony Blair in 1997 who accelerated the process. By 1979 the media had already chosen to focus on the suitability of individuals as Prime Ministerial material in the context of that decade’s political and social unrest, with little in the way of opposition for them doing so. Margaret Thatcher’s handbagging of all and any opponents (usually within her own party), increased the importance of figureheads in the British system, despite that very system not being built to suit such a system.

By 1997, the PR driven “New Labour” campaign took advantage of the accelerated media let attitude towards presidential style politics. Forget the 650-ish individual fights across the country, many of which are interesting, complex, charged contests, it’s all about the money shots; three British party leaders getting on open-topped bus…(no, no, no, they get on helicopters and get cheered on arrival by hundreds of specially invited/vetted guests).

The good old days election campaigns which Harris invokes – men dressed as rubber chickens following candidates down the road being one of the great British traditions – are increasingly rare. That’s something to mourn. Like most people I want – expect even – a proper and thorough election campaign, something the leaders debate actively destroyed. They weigh down the efforts of all other candidates, blocking their efforts like the school bully standing guard at the top of the stairs or the toilet doors. Everything which the British system used to focus upon – the local contests in marginal seats, the make do and mend campaigns with cash-strapped associations – have been gradually pushed off camera. Little wonder that some people with whom I used to work assumed that the role of Prime Minister was directly elected.

Maybe this is nostalgia. Or senility. Nobody wants to become the old men huddled around pub tables moaning how music doesn’t quite sound like it did, and the last thing any political nerd wants to do is turn into an auto-anecdote robot; (“Oh, when Guildford declared first in 1974 you just KNEW things were going to change.”). But there’s a lot to be said for the low-rent, small change, and yes, honest way British elections used to be run. Let’s try to tempt one or two genies back into the bottle. The media must be persuaded to stop treating elections as Prime Ministerial bunfights, though political parties will also need to disable most of their machinery too. There are hundreds of MPs whose fights against placard waving, chicken suit wearing, leaflet waving protesters are ignored because of the bright lights of three (plus one) party leaders and their choreographed routines.

I can’t bring back cheesy 90s dance, or decent storylines to Neighbours (or Doctor Who for that matter), but sure as damnit I can try to move British elections back to Britain….Even if it means aligning myself to Tom Harris…

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all trigger, no bullets

What we know in Britain as democracy is a clumsy and chaotic compromise position, moulded through centuries of give, take and establishment necessity. Without the structure from a written constitution, it’s been possible to grow electoral administration only as successfully as it is possible to call “gardening” the act of throwing seeds onto a pavement. Every element of our electoral and constitutional machinery is broken – from the way in which legislation is timetabled to the voting system for Town Halls. Nothing works as it should, or indeed could, and for all the talk of necessary “repair work” on that machinery, not one party leader seems willing to break out the WD40.

It’s only a few years ago that David Cameron appeared on television with his sleeves rolled up and a screwdriver in his hand. Politics was broken, and he was the emergency call-out man who could help fix it. With the formation of the Coalition, it seemed even more likely that something would be done, as after all there’s no group on these islands more obsessed with improving the democratic ills than the Liberal Democrats. Maybe, just maybe, something would actually be achieved.

And then they had to spoil it all by saying something stupid like, “It’s being considered very carefully”. This is establishment speak for “We’re not interested, go away”.

The cases of Eric Joyce, Patrick Mercer and to an extent Nadine Dorries in the jungle have brought into stark focus one of many problems which keep the 21st century United Kingdom anchored in the 19th century. The good voters of Falkirk, Newark, and Mid-Bedfordshire did not vote for their MPs to leave their parties (or for that matter the country to appear on reality television), nor did they vote for an MP to confirm he won’t stand at the next election after being arrested though would stay on as an MP, on full pay, away from his party. The people of Falkirk voted for a Labour MP, not an independent, and under our broken system they can’t do a thing about this. They can’t even protest at the next election, because Eric Joyce won’t be there to face their decision.

This situation is one amongst many cuckoo-banana realities of British democracy.

When Cameron and Clegg spoke of the “right to recall”, one of the ways these situations could be resolved, there was a sense that lessons had actually been learned. Maybe, just perhaps, “right to recall” was on its way, and Britain would be able to boot out errant MPs in-between elections.

And then, the proposals came out, and the chance collapsed like a flan in a cupboard. What the Coalition proposed was not “right to recall”, as wanted by Douglas Carswell, Zac Goldsmith and others, but a form of State-approved confirmation hearings. Rather than allowing members of the electorate to decide if an MP should be subject to a recall by-election, Nick Clegg and Tom Brake put their names to a process by which electors would have to wait for the establishment to make its own decision. Policing the police, and all that, and nothing close to how Cameron had initially voiced his determination to clean up politics.

“Right to recall” would deal with examples like Joyce, Mercer and Dennis McShane if there was a genuine will within their constituencies. There’s little to no danger of opposition supporters trying to “rig” referenda; who other than political obsessives would attempt to oust all 650 MPs? There’s plenty of clear and obvious safeguards against “rigging” – including only permitting the process to start after a resignation or under-12 month prison sentence – that fears expressed about all MPs being under constant threat sound nothing more than willing the long grass to grow.

The Clegg/Cameron approach to the “trigger” element of the process lacks exactly the power which voters need to keep their MPs in check. It’s exactly the same fault which killed off the AV referendum, boundary reviews and House of Lords reform – a lot of talk about weaponary, very little evidence of firepower.

There are so many faulty and failing elements of the British electoral system that’s it difficult to know where to start. I’d love to see a fully proportional system for electing local government, I’d love to see an end to the stubby pencil, I’d love to see votes at 16, but with every passing year it seems the UK is happy to slide back another decade into a dusty, irrelevant past. “Right to recall” is a sidestep into responsibility, maturity, and the present day. Or at least the 20th century. Let’s see it introduced properly.

16 going on 2015

Way back in the mists of time – November 2009, to be almost precise – I recorded in a blog I now want to proof-read within an inch of its life how Gordon Brown spoke of his support for giving 16 and 17 year olds the vote.  That was prior to the 2010 election, and now here we are closer to the local elections of 2013 than we are to that polling day as far away from the change being made than ever.

Today the SNP has won an important concession from the Government; young people aged sixteen and seventeen will now be allowed to vote in the forthcoming Scottish Independence referendum. This is another widening of the democratic deficit between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Whilst Scottish councils are elected by a representative voting system, in England and Wales voters are lumbered with the old-fashioned, out of date, unfair and unjust First Past the Post. There are still, in 2012, parts of the country where councils publish election results prior to polling day because of ‘uncontested wards’. This scandal doesn’t exist in Scotland; it only exists in England because of First Past the Post.

I’ve supported Votes At 16 from the first moment I realised that our current democratic systems dissuade young people from taking an active role in politics. Whilst party machines may hold no interest to teenagers – they hardly attract older people, let’s be honest – arguing and demonstrating for or against  specific policies has not been this prevalent amongst the young for generations. With more teenagers likely to be taking part-time jobs, or elbow deep in worry about higher education, or earning a bit of cash here and there through App designs and other computer programming endeavours, it’s no longer logical to deny them the vote. It’s hardly worth unravelling the old ‘no taxation without representation’ line, however true it is, because the logic is undefeatable. All those years ago I pointed out that 16 year olds in the 21st century are the 21 year olds of the 1960s, eager to participate in the democratic process whilst denied by the establishment. If the denial seems ‘typical’ from the Tories today, it was merely unfathomable under Labour. Why deny over a million votes out of some outdated view of who ‘gets’ politics in the round? I’ve been a party activist, I can tell you there’s a fair amount of older people who don’t ‘get’ politics either.

Let’s return to another of my obsessions – local government. There needs to be a big reset button pressed at some point in the not so distant future. We need local government elected by proportional representation, what I called ‘a coalition compromise’ , and we need the abolition of Council Tax. Added to that is the need to bring more young people into the political processes, not just as candidates or leaflet droppers or hand-shakers but as voters too. As another ‘compromise’ to act as a stepping stone between no reform and real reform, let’s lower the age at which a person can vote at local elections to 16, just as Scotland will allow younger people to vote in the referendum, to show how minded we are towards longer lasting, real reform.

It’s not because I’m a zealot that I support lowering the voting age, or because I’m a geek or idealistic or a soppy liberal. It’s because the alternative looks, sounds and feels like an establishment stitch-up, and nobody should go along with them whatever your character.

can’t, won’t but probably will, pay

Some months ago, BBC Radio 4 broadcast an episode of The Reunion which brought together people associated with the Community Charge, aka Poll Tax, aka Thatcher’s Final Legacy Project. Guests included Geoffrey (now Lord) Howe, who proclaimed his continuing belief that by the end of the affair the system was fairer and more popular than at its launch, a former council worker who recalled receiving payment cheques scrawled on the back of used underwear, and an anti-Poll Tax campaigner who confirmed she was still paying back monthly sums to a Council which didn’t exist at the time over twenty years since the scheme ended.

Of all the problems with the Poll Tax, the most galling was its ‘one price suits all’ core, which meant a struggling family bringing home all they could to fill a cupboard paid the exact same sum as the husband and wife barrister superteam two streets away with more money than they could stuff in every cupboard in their house and its comfortable extension. By having little regard to ‘ability to pay’, the Poll Tax soon struck an iron-tipped arrow through the heart of families, their communities, and to an extent entire towns. And as ever with the dying days of Thatcher’s time of office, those towns were invariably Northern English.

Council Tax replaced the Community Charge in 1993, with each repayment band based on the 1991 valuation of properties (very Conservative). These bands have not been touched in England since, so where you live today continues to be based on the early-90s housing prices. As many people moving into new build housing estates have discovered, a very well priced house in rabbit warren suburbia can be ‘bracketed’ with not so nice properties over the road, producing an unintended saving of hundreds of pounds every month. Similarly local authorities that require of developers affordable housing can inadvertently include these properties in higher than intended bands. Unfair and uneven problems at both extremes.

For the record, Band D in England is for properties valued at up to £88,000 in 1991. What chance this price today? In Scotland, Band D is for properties up to £58,000. Meanwhile in Wales, where a revaluation eventually happened (of sorts), there is something nearing a “mansion tax” in the newly introduced Band I for properties over £424,001 [that quid is important, and clearly mansions are much cheaper in Wales].

At the rotten core of Council Tax – as with the Poll Tax – is the ‘ability to pay’ argument. Wealth does not equal income. A very well to do leafy home does not mean its occupier has a well to do salary to match. The inequality at the heart of the Poll Tax has festered for 20-odd years, families unable to keep up with payments as their salaries stall and local authorities feel pressure to continually plug their financial gaps with further and further, higher and higher council tax bills. As the push-me/pull-me battle goes on between central Government and local councils over what exactly one can do for the other, and at what cost, the ‘consumer’ pouring over bills at the action end is left with an increasingly unfair, unjust, uneven funding scheme. Banding by each local authority can be at the whim of whoever is in charge – almost always  the Conservatives, or Labour, or the Liberal Democrats, or a combination thereof. Invariably whoever is in charge at the time may find it necessary to raise council taxes as the most ‘palatable’ electorally. There is almost no link between the ‘central pot’ of local government funding and the local associations spending them. In 2003, Devon County Council increased its element  of the overall bill by 18%.

So why does Council Tax still exist? It is an unfair, unjust tax, punishing people on the whims of the housing valuations, the bands, and the political parties in Town Halls. The current push from Eric Pickles to persuade local councils to freeze Council Tax has left some local authorities unable to move in fear of being labelled as the council which dared to increase the costs to families and older people in times of economic hardship.

The most popular alternatives are some form of local income tax or local land tax. Both would be a jolt to the current ‘affordability’ argument initially representing a change in attitude towards a more locally relevant scheme. Local authorities could be given greater autonomy to react to changes in average wages or work with regional partners to provide a local(ist/ism) VAT claim-back scheme. Local authority funding has always been a complex multifaceted machine, money pouring into and out of local government at a pace of knots, leaving some councils with barely enough time to notice how little overall spend they have for the year ahead. There’s no good in central or local government being lumbered with a scheme which actively encourages councils to struggle in the short-term with no chance to plan genuinely long-term programmes of investment or employment (and most leisure activities can go to Hell in a provincial theatre.) The Tories love localism – it says here – so let us see some respect to the Councils. Give them the right to set their own local income or local land taxes, rejig the business rate rules, look for genuinely local solutions for a genuinely local(ist) problem.

Extending out of the authority funding arguments are the issues of two-tier government in some parts of the country and whether we need it (short answer; no: long answer; nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnoooooooooooooooo), and whether existing local authority boundaries reflect accurately the live/work/play realities of a population much expanded and redistributed from that which existed when the lines were last redrawn in the 1970s. Another reason for the UK to consider a great big fat constitutional and administrative reset button, reshaping the map to provide  more responsive and autonomous local government across the whole country. The experiment with Council Tax must now be dragging itself to the very end, with enough evidence to show it’s become as unrepresentative as Poll Tax was at its launch. Any tinkering with the scheme has been put off each time due to the party political implications, and with its 20th anniversary next year, I’d suggest Eric takes some time out from bullying some authorities into submission and starts facing the considerably loud music.

see-saw

In the “Saw” series of horror films, two men are often pitched against each other in contrived set-ups in which one must achieve a certain target to guarantee freedom, often causing the other to lose a limb or his mind or have his jaw knocked into the next post-code. In any case, “Saw” is popcorn nothingness with a central premise which is supposed to remind its audience that in extreme circumstances, people would do anything to survive.

Armed with a hacksaw and good intentions, if the media reports are accurate, is Liberal Democrat President Tim Farron, ready to sabotage, blackmail, stride into the Coalition agreement with an angrier voice than usual.

Now I like Farron, not least because he is Prestonian, and at the next leadership election he would get my first preference. On House of Lords reform, however, there’s the scent of a situation which could be a lot worse than he, or any of us, would really like to walk into. The saying “be careful what you wish for” is overused and trite but it still holds true. If a situation looks contrived, it usually is. When a good man goes to war, if I can coin a phrase, he rarely comes out unscathed.

Of all the issues which usually cause wobbles within governments, constitutional reform is somewhere near the bottom of the list. In fact some lists have it chopped off the bottom through bad photocopying and nobody notices. Education, employment, financial fiddling – these are the usual causes of turmoil around the Cabinet table, not taking hammers to the machinery of governance. Only with the  LibDems in Government would it become likely that electoral administration becomes headline news.

In an ideal world, Nick Clegg and the LibDems would achieve their constitutional reforming aims: give the United Kingdom a fairer, representative voting system; reform the House of Lords; reduce the size and cost of Parliament; reform local government including proportional representation at council level: and so on, and on, and on. The reality of the Coalition government means this wish list has to be put into the great big compromise machine, and “getting what we wish for” becomes laced with more danger. Clegg and Farron must know that the long term health of the Coalition is far more important than the rush to reform the second chamber? We should be known as the Party which helped improve the economy and take millions out of income tax, not the Party which broke off the Coalition agreement over constitutional tinkering.

Were I within the Coalition heart right now, I’d accept that David Cameron’s battle with his backbenchers is not a fight worth joining. Getting a smaller House of Commons with the associated boundary changes is a great achievement. House of Lords reform is over 100 years old, we can wait. Indeed, we can go into the next election saying “We wanted reform and still do, only the dinosaurs within the Tories and the current anti-everything Labour Party stopped us. The big two want things to stay the same, only we press on for greater reform.”

Make no mistake about this. The House of Lords needs reform. It is obscene that a developed, 21st century democracy has an appointed second chamber filled with people whose great-great-somebody won a title through a relationship with a well connected chambermaid. There is no place for a second chamber in which Bishops can rule on matters of law. But Coalition government means difficult decisions must be made. Compromise must be sought – and achieved.

We need to allow the Commons reduction to go through, paying the price of Lords reform. Because Labour won’t help us – it was solely the fault of the anti-everything Labour party that AV was defeated. Only the LibDems will continue to fight for constitutional reform, meaningful and relevant. But we need to realise what cannot be achieved in this parliament. Tim Farron is a fine man and one of our best parliamentarians. He would be best advised to stop the blackmail attempts for the good of the Coalition, our Party, and the country.

AV Q & A

Right, I’ve got my polling card through the post and I’m somewhat confused

By the new proviso they’ve tacked on the bottom about not getting ballot papers after 10pm?

No, the thing at the top. “Voting System Referendum”. What the merry Hell is that, I thought only backward countries in the depths of beyond held referedums. Like Switzerland and California…

Well both those parts of the world do hold referenda…Referendums…And now we’ve got one. It’s got the Internet in a right old tizz of excitement. We’re hoping members of the public will get involved around about 24 hours before.

I’m fairly certain it’s referenda…Anyway, what are we voting on exactly?

The voting system used to elect Members of Parliament.

Heavens above, what’s next, tarrif reforms relating to processed meat products outside the EEA?

Look, these things are rare and beautiful gifts given to us by our elected representatives and they must be cherished for what they are.

Fine, it just seems a bit ‘policy wonk’ to me.

You wait until I start explaining how the AV system works…

So, anyway, how did we get a referendum in the first place?

At the last election, the Liberal Democrats and Labour both agreed that the UK should change the way it elects MPs. Labour wanted AV, the Liberal Democrats a different system called STV…

Pff, another broken promise from the LibDems, then, that damn Clegg…

No, no, wait…

Where’s my gold unicorn, eh? WHERE IS IT?

Back in the room, back in the room, focus now…It is not a broken promise, it’s compromise…

Oh yeah, compromise, Coalition rules, all of that…What do you mean?

The Conservatives wanted to keep the current system, with a cut in the number of MPs to 585, whilst Clegg wanted it cut to 500. So the compromise between “same system, 585” and “STV, 500”, is “AV, 600”.

And are both parties happy with this middle ground?

Pretty much. The traditionist wing of the Tories are against AV to their very finger-nails, and I suspect most LibDems wouldn’t have asked for a referendum on the Christmas List but here we are…

And Labour?

Split. Ed Mil….Edward Miliband, forgive me, is all for it, and hopes to take most of his Party with him. There are dissentors amongst the Labour benches, though, and many local council groups are against it out of an automatic knee-jerk anti-LibDem bitterness…

Citation needed?

Yeah, well, it seems Edward is having a hard time persuading the grassroots to follow him on this one.

So what system to we currently use then?

MPs are elected using “First Past The Post”, or “Winner Takes All”. You just have to win by one vote over your opponents, regardless of vote share. If you top the ballot, you’re an MP.

And this is unfair?

In short, yes.

And long?

Many MPs sit on the green benches without a majority in their constituencies. And this isn’t a partisan point, there are MPs from almost every Party where this is the case. Phil Woolas (remember him….) “won” Oldham East and Saddleworth with 31.9% of the vote, only 0.3 ahead of the LibDems. John Pugh, the LibDem MP for Southport, was elected with 49.6%, still less than an outright majority.

The FPTP system was at its best when there was much more polarised support for the two main political parties. That era died many moons ago, but our voting system hasn’t caught up.

And how does this AV thing work?

Rather than forcing voters into choosing one candidate, even if it’s not one they really prefer…

…Like, ooh, forcing people into making a grubby little compromise?

Yes, thank you, I’ll choose the labels. As I was saying, rather than forcing people into making a choice they might not prefer – holding their nose to vote Labour in a ‘marginal’ seat – AV allows people to make as many choices as they see fit. It empowers, whilst FPTP anchors.

But “winner takes all” is quite easy to understand, isn’t it?

Oh it is, and in many circumstances it is the better system. Politics is not about “black and white”, though, it thrives on the grey areas, the compromise, the give-and-take, which AV promotes.

How do you count votes under AV then?

Voters rank candidates in order of preference – as easy as 1,2,3…All the first preferences are tallied up, and if a candidate reaches 50% of the vote, they’re an MP, easy.

What if they don’t reach this magic 50%?

The second preferences of the least popular candidates are redistributed until somebody does.

Isn’t there a worry that second votes from fringe candidates could swing results?

That’s the current line from the “NO” campaign, who are paranoid about the BNP somehow having a big say in British elections. It’s not as though the presence of extremists over 50-odd years hasn’t had an implied influence over policies, candidates and indeed results as it is, or anything…

Would I be forced into voting BNP? Because I sure as heck don’t want to do that…

Nope. Unlike the Australian system, there’s no compulsion. You can vote just for one candidate, as now, or all of them. Or just some.

But rank, not with a big “X”

Aye, that’s the one. Rank in preference order, and let the counters do the maths…

Don’t you mean multi-million pound counting machines which would deny a hospital of life-saving equipment?

No, no I don’t.

Is this new fangled system proportional? The LibDems liked to talk about proportional representation once…

Indeed so, and it’s a notable uncomfortable truth that AV is not exactly proportional…It was said that Blair’s 1997 victory would have been even more immense under AV….

I don’t like the sound of that…

It’s one of the ghost stories LibDems tell each other over the campfire…

I hear AV will end ‘safe seats’ stone dead? Is that true?

It is not exactly true – I doubt Birkenhead (Labour Majority 15,195) is about to turn into a knife-edge marginal constituency anytime soon…However for much more seats than at present, the contest will become much tighter – no more “tactical” voting, more votes than ever will actually be counted, rather than simply dismissed.

Why are people saying AV is complicated?

Because the NO camp seem to think that an ordinary person can carry around in their heads minute details about football results, soap opera story lines and national flags without any issue, whilst the concept of counting to 5 is beyond them…

Will AV mean more Coalition governments?

Maybe so, maybe not. The current system has had its moments – the 1970s was awash with minority governments and hung parliaments, and last year you may recall there being no single party with the right amount of seats to form a government on their own…

What would happen if the country voted no? End of the Coalition? Cameron angry, Cameron SMASH?

Er…No….Well, I say no, both men are dismissing talk of the Coalition falling if the country says “no”.

Well you’ve made that clear…

It is a tough cookie, and one which many LibDem members see as the only true prize for making such a hard choice last year…The Tory grassroots are hoping for a big fat NO so they can start tugging on the loose threads of the whole Government in the hope it all falls apart.

In summary then, the current system is not very good, proposed system is better if not perfect, and no baby monitors will be harmed either way?

That’ll do for me.

So you could provide a link to the Yes campaign website round about here, shouldn’t you?

Why of course..http://www.yestofairervotes.org

Protest votes

Just when you thought it safe to put away the Relentless and return to normal sleeping patterns, the next Constitutional reform package makes its way to the House of Lords. When the “Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill” passed from Commons to Lords, the brakes were slammed for a very, very long time.

Learned Peers are timetabled to begin their toothcomb treatment this week and all signs are pointing to more marathon sittings and strained relationships between Lords and Peers, Labour and the LibDems, and doubtlessly LibDems and Conservatives. In this regard, the Lords are very much like your boss, whose eager expectation of your Report is acknowledged with the assumption that it will be stuck on his desk with questions posed on every full-stop and comma. Copy one VLOOKUP incorrectly and you may as well clear your desk…

A principle shared between both Coalition partners, fixed-term parliaments are long overdue in the UK. The historic situation, during which the Prime Minister of the day can fire the shooting pistol at will, is a postcard from an ancient time. It’s a power which no longer has relevance, not just in the 21st century but specifically post-expenses scandal Britain. Prime Ministers have always used their power to call an election as a bargaining tool, explicit and implied, and as a result political discourse is carried on within the context of clock-watching. Fixed-term parliaments would allow governments – and importantly opposition parties – to prepare for the long-term.

When the Parliamentary Voting Syst….”PVSaC” was going through its slow, slow, backstep, slow stages in the Lords, matters of concern were small but significant. The reduction in number of MPs didn’t particularly matter, it was the detail which caused the consternation. Should the electoral quota be fixed at 5% either way of the average? When should submissions be accepted and how should they be treated? In matters of constitutional reform, it is always the specifics that count. “PVSaC” foreshadows the Fixed-Term Parliament Bill, which I suspect will slow the already considerably glacial Lords on one very specific point of argument. Should parliamentary terms last 4 years, or five?

British parliamentary terms last, on average, between 3 and 4 years. The 5 years proposed in the Bill is drawn from recent history – John Major and Gordon Brown held on as long as the could to the very end, Tony Blair’s attitude ensured all policy announcements were fed into a pre-determined polling day. There is a crucial difference between choosing a date and having one chosen for you.

Five-year terms would allow for grown-up debate, would promote reason, would allow for greater consideration of proposed laws. There is too much broken with the quick-fix demands of the political system today. Maybe – just perhaps – five year terms will iron out the fast-forward attitude of the political establishment.

What I was not expecting from the inevitable swathe of amendments to the Fixed Parl…FPB is former Labour MP Alan Howarth, now Baron Howarth of Newport, coming up with quite the radical alternative take on polling day. Let’s chinstroke for a moment about not just fixed parliamentary terms – which every developed state bar the UK seems to function with – but also weekend-long polling periods (see the first amendment and consequential changes here)

Essentially Lord Howarth is trying to modernise by taking Britain back to the 19th Century…and I certainly welcome exploring the suggestion. Having the stubby pencils and school halls ready for one Thursday in May is one tradition which works, though more people than ever are requesting postal votes for no greater reason than wanting the whole darn democratic hoohah done and dusted quick-smart. Opening up the opportunities to vote over a longer period fits into the changing social realities of peoples lives. Weekend long polling periods would introduce the flexibility with which most voters live today – and with it removes the cost and complexity of hiring out halls for a mid-week interruption. Lord Grocott, another former Labour MP, has clearly got the referendum bug: he suggests Britain is asked to choose a polling day. How would that go down amongst the bar-flies at the Cricketer’s Arms?

I am bemused at the attitude amongst the “anti” brigade. Fixed-terms are a part and parcel of everyday life. Every democratic institution runs on the basis of fixed-terms, from the smallest parish council to the European Parliament. Every European democracy runs on fixed-terms, with differing ‘get out clauses’ for votes of no-confidence based on national traditions. Every elected official in the USA, from county level to Congressman, run on the basis of one fixed-date to another in a regular cycle. Britain stands out, and not as a radical twenty-first century model of excellence. We are a nation whose political machinery has been tolerated rather than repaired, and as a consequence almost every aspect of British life is backwards, stubbornly conservative and afraid.

Fixed-term parliaments will, in isolation, fix only limited parts of the great wheels and cogs of the democratic machine. As each aspect of the repair job slots into place, from binding local referendums to alternative voting systems and greater freedom for local authorities from central State control, we should be looking at a much fairer, freer democratic system, responsible and pro-active.

What’s that? This won’t work whilst we are subjects of a Monarch and not citizens of a state? Well, quite, but maybe that’s for another post…