Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Gerrymandering Parliament

The power of political parties has consistently compromised clear recommendations from Royal Commissions on political reform. Tactical ignorance of commissioned research has seemingly become a means to the main parties’ ends, resulting in the abandonment of reforms fundamental to political progress.

After Labour’s 1997 landslide victory in the general election, The Independent Commission on the Voting System, popularly known as the Jenkins Commission, was set up. Employed to investigate alternatives to the ‘first past the post’ electoral system still being used today, the Commission offered the Alternative top-up vote system as a satisfactory substitute.

Otherwise known as AV+, the voting system was suggested for four central reasons: to maintain a geographical link between MP and constituency, to fulfill the need for stable government, to satisfy the desire for broad proportionality and to give an extension of voter choice.

Based on a two vote system, AV+ was designed to make tactical voting unnecessary, create a fairness that means no wasted votes and to end the distorted representation of the electorate that ‘first past the post’ offers. The professional opinion of the Committee was that ‘the majority of MPs (80 to 85%) would continue to be elected on an individual constituency basis which would significantly reduce the disproportionality and the geographic divisiveness which are inherent in FPTP.’ The parties fully ignored the commission in favour of their own interests and no action has yet been taken on the committee’s findings.

Although the Labour government issued a statement saying that the report “makes a well-argued and powerful case for the system it recommends,” the referendum on the electoral system never came and the Alternative Vote Plus has for now, been abandoned in favour of systems that promote political party dominance. Shunned and dismissed, the chair of the Independent Commission on the Voting System, Roy Jenkins’ disillusions grew and before his death he dismissed Blair as a “second-class mind.”

Another reform central to Labour’s 1997 General Election manifesto that has been confined to the Parliamentary archives is the reform of the House of Lords. The establishment of a Royal Commission of both Houses of Parliament to allow for debate and consideration in developing plans for the reform of the House of Lords was announced in 1998. The Commission would undertake research and present recommendations. The reform bill was shelved in 2004.

The House of Lord’s Joint Committee’s January 2000 report (otherwise known as The Wakeham Commission Recommendations) proposed that a reformed House of Lords would have 550 members, of which 65, 87 or 195 would be elected. The report’s conclusion on new members was that an independent appointments commission of eight people should choose new members. Five qualities were identified as desirable for the makeup of a reformed second chamber – legitimacy, representativeness, no domination by any one party, independence and expertise.

The Committee also recommended that the House of Lords should include people who are not politicians and who are likely to be experts in a particular field. These people would attend on a part-time basis and provide independent, alternative insight to issues. Subsequently, philosophical, moral, and expert opinions would be introduced into debates, enabling more informed debate.

In November 2001, the Labour government launched a white paper stating that it ‘strongly endorsed’ the Royal Commission’s views. However, it listed its own proposals, leaving the highly researched paper somewhat dismissed.

May 2004 saw the Labour Government drop plans to reform the House of Lords. Jack Cunningham, chairman of the Joint Committee on Lords Reform said it had been “clear for some time that things were going wrong.” He added that “there was a “lot of party politicking going on.” Still an implement of party political warfare, the debate on House of Lords reform consistently ignores the considered evidence and hard work of the original Royal Commission.

The current debates about political reform precipitated by the hung parliament look set to ignore the expert advice of the Royal Commissions still. As the Lib Dems seek a promise for electoral reform in return for an alliance, the Conservatives have offered the ‘Alternative Vote’ system. This lacks the highly researched and democratic advantages of the AV+ system and clearly illustrates a dangerous corruption of the political system for their own means.

It has become clear that the strength given to the main political parties is overriding detailed research conducted by leading experts. It is essential for a democratic system that party powers are weakened so that recommendations from inquiries into such issues as House of Lords and electoral reform are considered appropriately.

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