Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Abstractions of Democatic Reform - part 1: Fixed-term Parliaments

A lot has been spoken about electoral and political reform since the general election, following a fair bit of talk during it. Sadly, a lot of that talk has been disingenuous.

Is the introduction of fixed-term Parliaments a democratic reform? Yes it is. It was one of the demands of the Chartists. It is undemocratic, indeed absurd, that when a General Election is our only chance to replace the government, the government that does not want to be replaced chooses when it takes place, self-evidently picking the date on which it reckons we are least likely to vote to replace it!

However, setting that fixed term at the current maxiumum term of a Parliament minimises the democratic improvement it offers. Genuine democratic reform would mean setting the fixed term at, say, four years, three, or better still, adopting the Chartists' proposal of annual Parliaments.

Unpopular governments do not tend to call elections short of the five-year maximum, but to do the opposite - to struggle on for the longest possible time with their fingertips clinging to power. Look at New Labour in power, first elected in 1997. In its first term, its honeymoon period, it called a General Election after four years, in 2001. Its second term, still popular, also lasted for four years, with a general election in 2005. Only when its popularity crashed in its third term did it stagger on for five years. Its Tory predecessor did similar: calling its first two General Elections after four years (in 1983 and 1987), thereafter going for the full five years, somehow managing to win the 1992 General Election and going for the five years again. Yes, such a government still gains an advantage by choosing the exact date and giving only a month's notice, so yes, a fixed-term Parliament is a democratic reform, but now only a small one.

Now we have a further twist from the ConDem coalition government. Not only is the marginal advance of a fixed term nailed at a full five years, but Parliament itself can only get rid of a government if more than a majority of MPs vote to do so! The definition of "majority" - 50% +1 - is no longer good enough for the proud democrats who now run the country; it has to be redefined at 55%.

And, entirely coincidentally, the percentage of non-Tory MPs in the current Parliament is ... 53%! Aha - that's more than 50% but less than 55%! See what's going on here - eh? eh? It's the worst bloody stitch-up since my Caesarian.

The best way to dramatically improve political democracy is for the working-class movement to mobilise and reassert itself, to push itself back into the political arena. The impact of this would be far greater than any marginal improvement to the political process. But improvements, even marginal ones, should still be welcomed rather than dismissed. The ConDems' proposals, though, gut democratic reform of any positive content, even marginal.