Fewer MPs? We need more Politicians
Plans to cut the quantity of UK members of parliament will do nothing to improve the execrable quality of British political life today.
Exactly how many MPs does the UK need? Pick any number you like. What matters is not really the number of MPs sitting in Westminster, but what those men and women stand and fight for in the world; not the quantity of low-profile parliamentary hacks, but the quality of politicians pursuing Politics with a capital P.
In that respect there is nothing necessarily wrong in principle with the Lib-Con coalition government’s plan to reduce the number of UK members of parliament from 650 to 600 before the next General Election. But the arguments around it confirm that the quality of British political life today is lower than it has been in living memory. Regardless of how many members there might eventually be in parliament, it should be clear that we need more Politicians with principles beyond keeping a fingernail hold on some power.
The formal excuse for the Boundary Commission redrawing the electoral map is that the authorities want to save an estimated £12million a year of the money spent on MPs, and to even up the size of constituencies in terms of numbers of voters. In an age when it seems, as the old Monty Python song suggested, that accountancy really does make the world go round, the future of democracy is thus reduced to a purely technical matter and entrusted to the calculator-wielding bureaucrats. Power to the bean-counters!
And who is pushing for this reform? Despite the general anti-politician mood in the aftermath of the MPs’ expenses scandal, there is no popular movement in the country demanding these changes, chanting ‘What do we want? An eight per cent reduction in the total complement of Westminster MPs!’. Instead, like most allegedly democratic reforms today, it is a top-down exercise in cosmetic self-flagellation.
The governing elite is effectively trying to tell voters that it accepts politicians are rubbish and not worth the money or respect due to an MP today. So they are willing to sacrifice 50 of their own, to hurl even some leading MPs off the rock of oblivion, in order to save wear and tear on parliament’s leather benches, appease the gods of the media and hopefully win over us simple folk. The fact that the coalition government could imagine that such a technical, out-of-thin-air reform could help to solve the crisis of legitimacy in UK politics shows how profound is the failure of political imagination at the top today.
Yet most of the criticisms aimed at these proposals from within the political and media class seem as low as the motivations for them. There have been complaints from the opposition Labour Party that the reforms will benefit the Tories, and grumbling from many MPs who fear that their own comfortable seats in the House of Commons will be at risk. All is petty party advantage and personal survival in the narrow worldview of those who stand for little more than their own re-election.
This is a snapshot of our age of politicians without politics, at least in terms of any leadership, principled convictions or wider vision for the future of society. Their flaccid response to the economic crisis remains the most telling indication of the ideological, intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the political class. How many of these invisible men and women would seriously be missed by the public if they and their parliamentary seats simply disappeared tomorrow?
There is a striking contrast between the current elite-led electoral reforms and those of other moments in British history, which were driven on by popular movements and struggles for political, not just statistical, change in the character of parliament.
As far back as the 1650s, the first redistribution of parliamentary seats in England and Wales followed the tumult of the English Revolution, when the forces of parliament defeated the king’s army and executed Charles I. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, supporters of Charles II sought to turn history back by reverting to pre-revolutionary constituency boundaries and numbers.
In the 350 years that followed, the big changes in the numbers of UK MPs were brought about by momentous political upheavals rather than a technical shuffling of numbers – most notably the union of England with Scotland in 1707, the incorporation of Ireland into the United Kingdom in 1801, and the partition of Ireland with the formation of the Free State in 1921.
In England, meanwhile, there was almost no change in the overall number of MPs after the seventeenth century. Yet what those MPs meant, the political content of parliament, was transformed over and again under popular pressure.
The great historic movements for reform were not demanding that there should be more or fewer MPs, but that the right to vote should be extended to more of the population – first working-class men and then women. Thus the Great Reform Act of 1832 made little change to the total number of MPs, but swept away the corrupt system of rotten boroughs, where a handful of rural electors could choose an MP, and gave parliamentary seats for the first time to the booming new cities such as Manchester. The subsequent reform acts of 1867 and 1884 created something approaching universal male suffrage, while women finally gained the vote through the reform acts of 1918 and 1928. As the working classes encroached further on the elitist world of Westminster politics after the formation of the Labour Party in the early twentieth century, another key reform won was the introduction of salaries for MPs to allow the non-privileged to serve – a far cry from the atmosphere today when it seems many people would happily see MPs’ pay cut, if not abolished outright.
These reforms affecting parliament and the status of MPs reflected and facilitated wider political and social changes that were moving British society forwards. People wanted the vote in order to elect politicians who stood for something they believed in. By contrast today there is little enthusiasm for electing soulless party placemen. Against that background, the latest proposed reforms reflect little more than retrenchment by an isolated and discredited ruling class and can only reinforce an anti-political bums-on-seats, counting-the-pennies attitude towards democracy.
There are some straightforward parliamentary and electoral reforms that might help to breathe a little life back into our democratic process. The government could, for example, abolish the House of Lords rather than appointing more and more unaccountable peers to rule over us. It could remove the Crown from parliament – a revolutionary step forward that was achieved more than 350 years ago – and introduce an elected head of state. And if David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Co. are so keen on fixed-term parliaments, perhaps they could dump their anti-democratic five-year parliament and introduce annual elections instead, as the Chartist reformers of old demanded.
If they want to reduce the number of MPs while they are at it, that in itself will be no big deal to many people. It is easy to sympathise with a proposal for getting rid of pointless MPs when so many of them appear to achieve nothing, not because they are lazy or greedy but because they are politically lost and morally gutless.
In any case we are going to need more Politicians with a capital P and fewer jobsworths of whatever party stripe to debate and shape the future. If there is to be a cut in the number of MPs, perhaps we might revive old Lenin’s slogan in response to the rise of Stalinist bureaucrats after the Russian Revolution: ‘Better Fewer, But Better.’
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.