Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Parliamentary arithmetic

Part of the new electoral deal being proposed is to reduce the size of Parliament - to have fewer MPs.

"And why not?" runs the argument. They don't do proper jobs, they cost a fortune (mostly in illicit expense claims), "snouts in the trough", we've got too many politicians anyway etc etc

There are various tactical reasons why cutting the number of MPs will not be a good move. The increasing volume of casework will accelerate exponentially as constituencies get larger (either reducing the quality of the casework done or costing more in constituency staffing). Party-driven squabbles over electorally sensitive boundaries will reduce everyone's appetite for the hard work of genuine political reform - and further turn people away from democratic politics.

But most critically our Parliamentary system means that the House of Commons is our primary source of executive talent (such as it is) to run the country. OK - the House of Lords acts as a top-up but when non-politicians have been brought in to Government they have tended to flounder - think of distinguished businessmen like Lord Simon under Tony Blair or Gordon Brown's GOATs.

And if we cut the number of Parliamentarians then we cut the talent pool for the Cabinet (and the various traineeship positions to get there in the form of junior Ministerial positions). And - potentially as importantly - we risk weakening the independence of Parliament if all the available talent ends up on the Government payroll. This will also mean less people are available for manning the Select Committees that should be holding Government to account.

If we go down this route then we'll risk needing to evolve a form of separation of powers - whereby members of the Executive (Government) can be brought in from outside the Legislative (House of Commons). This might be a good idea anyway but it would be a fundamental shift in how we run the country.

And that surely should be based on something more important than winning a few "we're all in this together" bash the politician headlines. I struggle to believe that the cost savings will be serious (or sustainable - the pressure to raise MPs salaries and expand their office staff will grow); and would anyway be counter-balanced by the cost of the new Boundary review.

We have a mixed track record in Britain of deploying brilliant Ministers to lead the country - cutting the Parliamentary base of the pyramid simply means (mathematically) that there will be less good Ministers at the top.

So why not cut the number of  Ministers? Well that's a far better question...

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