Not Saussure

December 17, 2006

Henry Porter’s ‘radical manifesto to revitalise Britain’ (and a couple of proposals of my own)

Filed under: Politics, press, UK — notsaussure @ 4:40 pm

Henry Porter was stuck for an idea for his column

hopes by means of a modestly radical agenda to show that too many important issues have been locked away from the electorate by this consensus.

It’s phenomenally ill-thought-out. For example, he suggests a means-tested NHS, free at the point of delivery unless you earn over a certain amount, in which case you have to pay. As Tim Worstall succinctly points out, this is a pretty good way of increasing the poverty trap. It also, as far as I can see, demonstrates Mr Porter’s inability to keep an idea in his head from one paragraph to the next; what else can one make of the transition from this:

That some would be required to pay for the treatment through various insurance schemes or directly does not necessitate a two-tier system There is no reason for medical staff to know a patient’s financial position because the same treatment would be available to all.

to this:

It must also be said that NHS staff can be slapdash, rude and disdainful of people’s need for personal dignity and privacy. Paying customers would soon put an end to that.

if the staff don’t know who’s a ‘paying customer’ and who isn’t? Personally, I was always under the impression that I’m a paying customer of the NHS, anyway, since I pay taxes and NI, but clearly Mr Porter has other views.

It would also, it occurs to me, be an interesting experiment to apply Mr Porter’s logic to state education. One of the objections sometimes raised to independent schools is that their existence means that wealthy and influential people, who’re in a position to get something done about poor standards in state education, tend not to be that interested because their children aren’t affected by poor standards at the local comp. Force them to send their children there, it is argued, and we’ll soon see something done to improve matters.

Now, if we apply Mr Porter’s principles to state education, what do we have? You can pay fees to send your child to an independent school of your choice or you can send him to the local comprehensive, for which we’ll also charge you fees if you earn over a certain amount. Well, I think I would take the view, were I in that position, that since I’d got to pay my money anyway, I’ d might as well pay a bit more and take my choice, and I’m not sure that Polly Toynbee would approve of my choice, either.

There are plenty more idiocies in Mr Porter’s manifesto, notably his proposal that

Prison procedures and the conditions inside should be examined. A greater effort should be applied to rehabilitation. Money must be found for a new diet that is proven to cut aggression

I doubt he means bread and water, which might well serve to cut down recidivism for all manner of reasons, since that’s an old diet (and one for which you don’t need to find much money), so I can assume he’s had his ear bent by some nutrition faddist who’s convinced him that all social problems are down to too much protein or something.

However, I’ll concentrate on his main idea, the reform of Parliament. He tell us,

There are far too many MPs. For long stretches of a Parliament they have almost nothing to do. Yet when there is an important debate they can’t all fit in the chamber

He suggests getting rid of 145, leaving us with 501; why 501 rather than 511 or 499 or any other number he does not say. Possibly he was hurriedly trying to think of a figure, recalled his jeans and hey presto — don’t knock it; Levi Straus presumably paid good money to their marketing people to be told why 501’s a good number.

Anyway, he proposes to use the money thus saved to provide

a really good salary (£140,000) and proper severance pay when a seat is lost. More money would be available for research staff at Westminster and at constituency level. Naturally, members would not be allowed to earn from jobs outside.

This is because

These men and women are law makers and we need them to concentrate on the business in hand, to be more able to think for themselves, to be better briefed, to act in the interests of their constituents more decisively, and to defy the party whipping system that is crushing the life out of Parliament and the spirit of MPs. I want them to have more power and more ability to scrutinise the actions of an ambitious executive, and I believe reducing their number is one way of achieving this. Enhancing the power of Parliamentary committees is another.

Not sure where to start with this. Quite how turning politics into a highly paid, full-time, professional occupation is going to help remedy the problem identified by Mr Porter that

Those not linked by tribal ties to one of the three parties have come to see MPs as essentially a club of men and women in suits, who are all somehow on the make

is going to remedy the problem, I do not know. Nor do I see how excluding MPs from having outside interests — that is, retaining some connection with the world most of us inhabit — is going to achieve anything very much. As Chris Dillow so wisely pointed out recently,

The problem with politicians not having experience outside of wonk-tanks is that it entrenches particular biases.
Anyone who’s worked in business or the City, however successfully, knows that lots of ideas just don’t work; the product you launched failed, the stock you bought fell. They therefore learn that judgment alone is flawed.
But policy-wonkers don’t regularly test their ideas against the cruel world of hard knocks. So they don’t learn the limitations of their own mind.

Furthermore, it seems utterly bizarre to suggest that the best way to enhance the independence of MPs is to make their terms and conditions such that, should they upset the whips sufficiently to get themselves thrown out of the parliamentary party — and thus ineligible to stand as the official candidate for their party in the next election — they stand to lose even more than they do at the moment and won’t have any relevant employment or business experience from the last five or ten years, or more, upon which to fall back.

Nor does he address the question of what MPs actually do with their time. He mentions ‘acting in the interests of their constituents’ and serving on parliamentary committees, both of which activities, of course, keep them away from the Chamber.

To my mind, MPs are generally far more usefully thus employed than by sitting around in the Chamber waiting to deliver speeches on matters that won’t, except on very rare occasions, actually achieve anything other than providing copy for journalists. I mean, how frequently does a minister stand up and say, ‘Having listened to the arguments of the honourable members opposite, I now realise I got this wrong and I’ll go away and think again’ ? How frequently does an MP say, ‘I came here today intending to vote against the budget but the speech by the Honourable Member for Old Sarum has convinced me to support it?’

No, they do their real work in parliamentary committees, where they argue not about the principle of the bill but seek, through detailed and boring line-by-line scrutiny, to examine how the measures they’re enacting will actually work in practice and to try to ensure that the detailed provisions don’t contain anything with unwanted side-effects. They do their real work in other committees, calling witnesses and seeking to hold the government to account in a way they can’t, or at least can’t wholly, through written and oral questions.

They do their real work, as Mr Porter suggests, when they act in the interests of their constituents, be it by involving themselves in issues of great importance to their locality — my MP, along with his various colleagues from different parties in neighbouring constituencies, did a great deal of useful work on an issue — extending the nearby regional airport — that’s got huge implications, both good and bad, for those of us who live and work in the locality but hardly showed up their parliamentary performance. They were certainly very busy on this, liaising and negotiating with government ministers and departments, along with the local councils, and achieved a great deal. But that doesn’t take place in the Chamber.

Nor more, of course, does the work MPs do on behalf of their individual constituents, taking up specific problems individuals bring to them. You can argue, of course — Ken Livingston certainly did when he was an MP — that most of this is stuff that MPs can’t do much about other than to refer their constituents to the relevant council or government department.

That’s a mistake, however; for one thing, it certainly helps to have an MP batting for you if you can persuade him to take an interest in your case. I speak from experience here; during my late wife’s long illness I obviously used every means at my disposal, including the MP when necessary, to make sure the local hospitals gave her every possible help. This didn’t just benefit her; one of the problems, we discovered, was that her condition (not that uncommon a one) was not one for which there was a government target in cutting waiting times and so forth. Consequently, when the local NHS Trusts came to advertise for consultants, people with the particular specialisms she needed weren’t high on the list. The MP took the point — which affected many more people, of course, than just us — that this was an unlooked-for side effect of his government’s attempts to improve the NHS and, by dint of knocking some heads together at the Department of Health and the local Trusts, was able to get an extra relevant consultant hired and, from the correspondence he showed me with the D of H, to get this general problem of improving priority services at the expense of others taken on board rather more.

Quite how his efforts in this field, or in representing local interests vis-à-vis the airport, would have been enhanced by giving him more constituents to worry about is by no means clear. Doubtless the extra researchers and aides for whom Mr Porter wants us to pay would have been able to take over some of his workload, but I don’t want to deal with the monkey, thank you very much; I want to speak to the organ grinder. Seems to me that if you want to stop people thinking their MPs are members, however well- or badly-dressed, of a club of highly paid people on the make, surrounding them with an army of assistants and other gate-keepers isn’t the best way to do it.

He’s not, unfortunately, now able to do this sort of thing quite so effectively, having become a junior minister. This brings me to yet another problem with Mr Porter’s manifesto. One of the many things MPs — about 100 of them at present — do when they’re not in the Chamber is be government ministers, junior ministers and PPSs. By definition, they have calls on their time — helping run departments — that detract from their parliamentary duties. They can also be relied upon not to rebel against the government, which is why they’re called the payroll vote.

Now, let’s think this through. At present a party needs 323 MPs — at least — to have a majority. At present, getting on for a third of them comprise the payroll vote and a fair number of the remaining two thirds doubtless wish to join it, both to further their careers and better to influence policy in the way they think it should go. Cut down the number of MPs available to 251, which is what you’ll need to form a government with 501 MPs, and I reckon that whatever way you slice it, you end up with a larger proportion of the majority party MPs on the payroll. You’ve cut the total number of MPs by almost a quarter so, since the payroll vote has to be drawn from the majority party, that means cutting the number of ministers and junior ministers by anything up to half, near enough, depending on the size of their majority, in order even to retain the present proportion of nominally independent MPs in the ruling party.

I’m sure there’s great scope for reductions, but I’m willing to bet that you’ll never achieve that that sort of reduction in the payroll vote. Quite apart from anything else, I take it as a given that no cabinet of any party will ever willingly agree to any measure that reduces their power and patronage.

Since we’re in the realm of the totally fantastic, here’s my modest proposal to reform parliament (my plan is not wholly original, I must confess).

First; alter MPs’ rights to vote in Parliament. They may still attend, go about their other business like sitting on committees, intervening on behalf of constituents and so forth. However, they may only actually vote on a bill if the managed to obtain more than 50% of the votes cast in their constituency; the votes of those MPs who were not elected by an absolute majority to be counted as votes against the measure under consideration.

Second; no new law to be enacted without another two being first repealed. No new Statutory Instruments to be introduced until at least half of the 32,000 passed under this government have been revoked, and then no more to be introduced without another two being revoked. This to continue until we’re back to where we were in 1997, and then they can start passing laws and statutory instruments again so long as they don’t increase the number.

Third; since, as Mr Porter recognises, we need strong scrutiny of the government immune from the whips’ pressure, immediately restore full voting rights to the hereditary peers.

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1 Comment »

  1. “However, they may only actually vote on a bill if the managed to obtain more than 50% of the votes cast in their constituency; the votes of those MPs who were not elected by an absolute majority to be counted as votes against the measure under consideration.”

    That would leave only 219 ‘voting’ MPs in the current Parliament, with 419 automatically voting against. Which certainly sounds superficially appealing after nine years of legislative diarrhoea. The breakdown would be as follows (approx, I may have made slight errors):

    140 Lab, 54 Cons, 16LD, 8 others

    [Figures here.]

    But note that many of those with huge percentages of the poll, particularly amongst the Labour MPs, represent percentages of the total electorate no larger than many who achieved less than 50%. Look at Bootle, where the Labour candidate received over 75%, which represented only 36% of the electorate. Yet he will have a vote, while the Tory MPs for Newbury and Rushcliffe (48.97% and 49.54% of the poll, representing 35.54% and 34.96% of the electorate respectively) won’t. The MP for Dagenham, meanwhile, representing a mere 25% of the electorate, will be a voting MP through his 50.08% of the votes cast.

    Comment by Pete in Dunbar — December 17, 2006 @ 11:26 pm

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