From rotten parliament to reform parliament?
– Tony Samphier is a campaigns consultant and organiser of the election policy comparison web initiative DEMREF 2010. The opinions expressed are his won.-
The start of the general election campaign has, thankfully, seen the party leaders fighting over the political reform territory, particularly Gordon Brown and David Cameron, with the Liberal Democrats, traditionally full of reform ideas, slightly overshadowed.
This should be no surprise. The party leaders have clearly sensed the public mood following the scandal over politicians’ expenses and more recent revelations over party funding, overseas jaunts and “cash for influence”.
“Plague on all your houses”, vast sections of the voting public are thinking, with some justification. Brown and Cameron, and Nick Clegg when he gets a look in, are competing to prove to us that their party is less diseased than the other.
What does surprise is the substance of the proposals. Here Labour has stolen the show a little with calls for changing the voting system and creating a fully elected second legislative chamber (or at least a referendum on them).
Brown also embraced fixed term-parliaments – at least showing that he has learned a lesson from the disastrous “election that never was” in 2007.
But let’s not get too carried away. Labour has promised these things in previous manifestos, only to disappoint when reaching power.
It is also still far from clear whether Labour is wedded to the Alternative Vote system, which many inside and outside the party criticise for not being nearly proportional enough.
But Labour’s bold pledges – dare I say it – on reform are causing a real problem for the Cameron camp.
As much as the Conservatives try to offer us “people power”, the slogan seems no more than a slogan when the party steadfastly opposes electoral reform. Irrespective of the merits of more proportional voting, without it, the Conservatives come across as traditional defenders of the political system that got us into this mess in the first place.
Perhaps this is why only four Conservative candidates, compared with large numbers from all other significant parties, have contributed to the non-partisan general election web initiative DEMREF 2010, which allows voters to scrutinize and compare the reform policies of their parliamentary hopefuls.
Sorry Mr Cameron and co, it would be absurd for a project like DEMREF 2010, which is devoted to democratic reform following the expenses scandal, not to ask candidates for their view on the electoral system.
Conservatives should have little complaint as other questions asked by DEMREF 2010 are on open primaries, free voting and recalling MPs – all issues championed by the party leadership.
Nevertheless, holding aspiring elected representatives to account by asking them to openly state their position to voters using the internet is new to this election, so candidates from all parties can be excused for being a little slow on the take up.
The “e-election”, as the May general election has been billed, must be two-way traffic between politicians and voters. Otherwise parties will continue to give a little and take too much, mobilising the new digital forces for their own direct marketing ends.
The power of the internet is an opportunity to increase people power, but it can also go the other way at the expense of democratic progress.
Voters concerned that their candidates have not taken part in DEMREF 2010 should simply text (standard charge) the name of their constituency (no other information required) to 07770 503610 and a reminder will be sent to the relevant candidates.
With millions of young, new voters at this election, all internet-savvy, Labour’s pledge to give a free vote on lowering the voting age to 16 is perhaps the canniest move of all.
Certainly, giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote has the backing of the majority of prospective parliamentary candidates taking part in DEMREF 2010 so far.
Whichever party wins the election, votes at 16 is almost guaranteed to be voted on during the next Parliament. It is inconceivable that the parties will whip this vote and, on a free vote, it stands a good chance of becoming law if this endorsement from candidates is anything to go by.
In my view, this would be proof that politicians have put the rotten parliament behind them. Wouldn’t it be great if, after May, we could genuinely start talking about the reform parliament?