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.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Proud Independents turn cynical media

After the dust settled from the press launch, the Independent Network can be proud of putting independent candidates in the national spotlight.

There was a significant presence of national media at the launch in April with the Press Association and BBC on hand with camera crews as well as most quality national newspapers like the Times, Independent, Telegraph, Guardian, Daily Mail, and the Financial Times. BBC World Service were also present to interview to various independents as well as Martin Bell OBE and Brian Ahearne from the Independent Network.

Political websites like politics.co.uk and epolitix also attended to cover the event showing a shift towards better representation of independent candidates. This was further emphasized by the presence of thee of the major national political sketch writers including Ann Treneman, Brian Wheeler, Simon Hoggart and Simon Carr.

The Telegraph drew attention to the challenge to high profile MPs disgraced in the expenses scandal with the Daily Mail, Metro, and Reuters highlighting the increasing chance of independents causing an upset on May 6th.

The spiky sketch writers did their best to be satirical; the BBC’s Brian Wheeler, Simon Hoggart for the Guardian and Treneman for the Times all picking up on Bell’s metaphor of the Independent Network being a “contraption” and not a political machine. While the BBC used the comment as a humorous starting block before explaining the no policy system of the Independent Network and emphasizing that all candidates share an “earnest sense of public duty”, Hoggart took a personal swipe at the organizers of the Independent Network without offering any real comment into the state of British politics and what the independent candidates stood for.

Independent Network candidate Gordon Kennedy said he had to read Simon Hoggart’s piece twice in disbelief because the picture painted was nothing like the actual event that he attended. “The group of Independent Network candidates could hardly fit in the room comfortably given the number of attending media types. It is true that the Independent Network had no huge budget to supply a flunky to wait on Mr. Hoggart. I am sure if he attended a big political party event there would be more deference and PR smooze, however on this occasion he had to content himself with being just another writer.”

The venue for the launch was the Frontline Club, a favourite of war correspondents and hotbed of independent journalism. The seats filled up so quickly that many reporters found that there was standing room only.

“I was there to support the Independent Network,” continued Kennedy. “I admire their aims and was ambivalent about the journalists as I have to place my trust in the voters of Dagenham and Rainham rather than the editorial policy of national newspapers and whom they decide to support or attack.”

Treneman for the Times seemed to find the launch amusing enough as she likened it to “political speed-dating” but managed to portray the candidates’ enthusiasm for their campaign with a half a page dedicated to the launch.

Matthew West at politics.co.uk seemed to be at an entirely different event where “journalists didn’t appear to care”. However his pessimistic sketch was counteracted by Sam Dale’s informative piece on the same site which emphasized the message that independents had an opportunity like no other on 6 May.

Apart from some inaccurate reporting, which included the number of candidates ranging from 40 to 49 depending on which report you read, the launch received a good amount of coverage emphasizing the growing demand for an alternative to party politicians. Most articles, in print and online, recognised the limited resources available to independents and portrayed the launch as a refreshing alternative to the PR and spin events hosted by the political parties.

The press also gave good publicity to many of the endorsed candidates including Sarah Flannery of Tatton and John Swallows of Peterborough who received a substantial amount of mentions. Gordon Kennedy also got his interview aired on BBC World Service and Alice Sakura Dartnell’s picture by the Press Association appeared in the Metro and the Times which is bound to enhance their campaigns.

Bell proudly said at the launch, “There is not a professional politician on this platform!” Indeed, the platform showed probably one of the most diverse set of views in any political organisation. Issues and policies they may disagree or agree on but the unanimous sentiment on the stage of the Frontline Club was that independent candidates are the only alternative to party politics.

The independent candidates were given a fair voice and a space in many political papers, websites and radio stations showing the media are accepting that independents are becoming a force to be reckoned with.