Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Is an Unrepresentative Parliament a necessary EVEL?

The Scots (specifically the Scottish Nationalists at Westminster) look to be about to “save the fox“. That raises yet more questions about Cameron’s piecemeal approach to a new “constitutional settlement”.

This arises from the unanswered question about what the UK Parliament at Westminster should be. Whilst I have often complained that I am unrepresented in Parliament, I none-the-less subscribe to the belief that a Parliament should be a representative body rather than merely a body of representatives.

The difference is important and possibly holds the key to the current “Westminster Question”.

The difference is important because decisions made by the UK parliament should be in the best interests of the UK – which is not necessarily the best interests of a temporary majority of the people of the Kingdom. Hence we have MPs to take such decisions – in the National Interest.

A body of representatives where each MP is primarily a representative of their constituency fails for a number of reasons.

  • Each MP (other than rare independents) has been selected by their party – and therefore represents a subset of opinion within that party.
  • The electorate in each constituency then has to choose between a number of candidates representing single sub-set of each party.
  • The current electoral system then means that in an election with more than two candidates, the candidate (representing a subset of their party) with the biggest minority wins.

The “representative” is therefore unlikely to be that representative of their constituency. The body of representatives idea also invites salami slicing approaches to voting – such as EVEL (English Votes for English Laws).

Traditionally we have tried to overcome this problem by saying that MPs, once elected become part of a representative body in that – in total – all opinions are adequately represented.

In the old two-party days this may have worked in that different shades of opinion in the Conservative and Labour parties would gain representatives somewhere. So a south coast Labour voter might not have a “Socialist MP”, but none-the-less the chances were that somewhere a true “Socialist” would be elected (possibly in Glasgow or the North of England). Likewise Glaswegian Labour voters wanting a “Democratic Socialist MP” could be confident that somewhere in the country an MP to their liking would be elected. Thus the national balance was broadly representative and Parliament was a representative body.

But in a multi-party system this fudge no longer really works. In addition the South Coast Socialist writing to a Socialist MP “representing” a Glasgow constituency seeking support for a socialist standpoint would be politely referred to his own MP (irrespective of whether that MP was even a Labour MP!)

If the “representative body” argument really applies, an MP should be able to vote on any issue within the United Kingdom because their voice would be aggregated with all others to “create” a representative view of opinion within the United Kingdom.  Thus a London MP should feel free to vote on matters concerning policing in Yorkshire, or a Scottish MP should feel free to vote on matters concerning, say fox-hunting, in England.

To challenge the ability to vote on any issue (because say Policing in London is devolved to the London Assembly, or fox-killing in Scotland is devolved to the Scottish Parliament) challenges the idea that the Westminster Parliament is a representative body.

This problem cannot be totally solved where we have asymmetric devolution. Asymmetric devolution is not unknown:

  • In the United States those areas that did not have “statehood” would be  governed from the federal capital of Washington – with congressmen and senators from all parts of the USA voting.
  • In Canada, those territories that were not recognised as Provinces would be governed by Ottawa – again by all federal representatives.
  • In Australia, those territories that were not recognised as states would be  governed by Canberra – again by all federal representatives.
United States - colour coded by date of statehood © Wikimedia Commons

United States – colour coded by date of statehood © Wikimedia Commons

Provinces and Territories of Canada © Wikimedia Commons

Provinces and Territories of Canada © Wikimedia Commons

Mainland States and Territories of Australia © Wikimedia Commons

Mainland States and Territories of Australia © Wikimedia Commons

Offshore Territories of Australia © Wikimedia Commons

Offshore Territories of Australia © Wikimedia Commons

In all the above cases, those parts of the nation that were centrally governed were were too small in population for feasible self-government and possibly “less democratically developed”. In the UK it is different! It is a majority of the nation that does not have the equivalent of “Statehood” – and most people in that majority area (i.e. the regions of England outside London) would, at first thought, be reluctant to view themselves as “less democratically developed”.

So, if a parliament is discussing a matter that is not symmetrically devolved surely all members should be entitled to take part and vote.

  • In the US Congress when discussing a matter concerning say District Columbia, all members will take part.
  • In the Federal Canadian Parliament when discussing a matter concerning say The North West Territories, all members will take part.
  • In the Federal Australian Parliament when discussing a matter concerning say The Northern Territory, all members will take part.

It is quite likely that when such discussions are taking place, representatives from outside the area concerned will act with sensitivity towards the non-state area – for fear of the Federal Parliament being seen to be bullying the non-state area – but they will take part, they will not temporarily abdicate the Federal Parliament to the control of representatives from the area that does not have “statehood”.

For the Scottish Nationalists to seek to take part in and vote on Fox-hunting (in England and Wales) is entirely consistent – in fact I suspect that they will (in this case) represent my views far better than my MP (a Conservative elected with a minority of votes).

They form part of the representative body that is the United Kingdom Parliament. If the Conservatives do not like that they need to address the issue of achieving if not full devolution a more symmetrical devolution to all parts of the United Kingdom.

EVEL (English Votes for English laws) is a fudge and will only cause more problems.

  • Even apparently “English” matters – such as the English Health Service – have Scottish ramifications due to the way that changes to funding the English NHS affect funding of the Scottish Parliament (which does not have full fiscal devolution).
  • Some matters might be all UK, others “purely” English (EVEL), others English and Welsh (E&WVE&WL)
  • It is proposed that the Speaker should rule on the applicability of individual measures – opening up the dangers of the speaker being accused of being partial and acting for or against the interests of part of the Kingdom.
  • No account is taken of excluding London MPs from matters that are devolved to the London Assembly (Non-London, English Votes for Non-London English Laws – NLEVNLEL, NLE&WVNLE&WL etc.)
  • No account is planned to be taken of excluding Manchester MPs from matters that are devolved to the shrunken “Northern Power House” – now more properly recognised as Greater Manchester. (Non-London & Non-Manchester English Votes for … it gets stupid!)

Until we have full devolution, we have to accept that the full UK Parliament will discuss and vote on all matters that are not devolved.

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7 thoughts on “Is an Unrepresentative Parliament a necessary EVEL?

  1. Peter on said:

    It all makes sense until you have a situation where there is a conflict of interest as opposed to just simply not being represented properly.

    The best example was raising university fees. Scottish MPs were able to vote for an increase in fees for English students in England, which was not going to happen in Scotland. However by doing this, they were automatically giving all Scottish students who elected to be educated in Scotland a massive advantage in life over their English counterparts who would start working life with a large debt.

    English MPs could not even have a say on English students being educated in Scotland, who were doubly disadvantaged, having the knowledge that some absurd law also allowed any EU students (Except English, Welsh and N Irish) to also receive free tuition. This was not so much an issue for the Welsh and Irish as they had their own assembly ‘perks’ which though not as generous as Scotland, were not too bad.

    Going back to the original issue, there is always going to be a problem with representation when career politicians, especially female Labour ones, are handed a free seat in a safe constituency, knowing that many of the electorate there have little comprehension of politics, and will vote for somebody whose policies are at odds with their own ideals, but they can’t help themselves in perennially voting Labour.

    • It all makes sense until you have a situation where there is a conflict of interest as opposed to just simply not being represented properly.

      The conflict of interest point is an interesting one and indicates that one of two approaches should be taken:

      • Either, you (UK Parliament) decides that it is acceptable that different parts of the country can and should take different attitudes to an issue – in which case you should fully devolve that issue
      • Or, you decide that different attitudes are unacceptable (because for instance it leads to anomalies) – in which case you do not devolve it!
    • … there is always going to be a problem with representation when career politicians, especially female Labour ones, are handed a free seat in a safe constituency, knowing that many of the electorate there have little comprehension of politics, and will vote for somebody whose policies are at odds with their own ideals, but they can’t help themselves in perennially voting Labour.

      It’s not just female politicians – in past years it has often been male politicians who lost their seat but would then find that someone “decided to retire” to create a vacancy into which they would be parachuted.

      There is currently a fallacy that a Parliament that “looks like us” will be representative. I may be “male, pale and stale”, but it is quite possible that say Diane Abbot may be more representative of me than say Malcolm Rifkin.

      And it’s not just a case of “red rosettes on a monkey”, it’s also “blue rosettes on a donkey”! Our current voting system means that we have the modern equivalent of rotten boroughs where the Parliamentary Seat is in the gift of a single party’s selection committee. With four/five party politics a seat can be “rotten” if one party can corner as little as 30% of the vote.

      Multi-seat constituencies with transferable voting does two things:

      1. Introduces greater diversity of representation in terms of parties – in a four seat constituency, if you have a little over a fifth of the support, you can get elected. (4 @ 20%+ leaves the best runner up with less than 20%) A four seat constituency exclusively represented by one party will be rare. This means Parliament will be more representative.
      2. Breaks the stranglehold of the selection committee. If a candidate falls out with their party, they can still put themselves before the electorate – and the transferability of votes means that the party will not suffer from “split votes”. This also means that you can get diversity within party representation. So for instance within a deeply conservative area you may get some representatives who are Europhobic, some merely Eurosceptic, and even some Europhile! This means Parliament will be more representative.
  2. Peter on said:

    While I agree that you can also have blue rosettes on a monkey, I feel that statistically the people in those constituencies are more likely to have a grasp of politics than the red rosette monkey voters, and also, Labour seems far more into the (very sexist) female only shortlists.

    In my constituency in Wigan, a straw poll of a number of your typical Wiganers will tell me that they don’t like immigration, and don’t have as much respect for younger politicians, yet they unanimously voted in a young female career MP based in London who is slightly foreign and is very proactive in encouraging immigration, as well as originally getting the nod on an all female shortlist.

    • While I agree that you can also have blue rosettes on a monkey, I feel that statistically the people in those constituencies are more likely to have a grasp of politics than the red rosette monkey voters,

      I’m not so sure, I suspect that the majority of voters “vote their wallet” – even if their perceptions of what parties actually stand for is often way out! I also suspect that Conservative self-interest tends to be more subtle than Labour self-interest due to the comparative lack of poverty.

      … and also, Labour seems far more into the (very sexist) female only shortlists.

      Totally and indisputably! I have never liked quotas and similar mechanisms. Labour, however, can point towards all women shortlists bringing about a larger percentage of women MPs. The “success” of this policy contrasts with other parties’ approaches – I believe that the Lib Dems (and their predecessor parties) used to insist on “at least on man” and “at least one women” on shortlists – which often meant that you got an embarrassingly bad candidate for selection just to make up numbers in the less winnable seats.

      But there are two issues:

      • Does someone have to “look like you” to adequately represent you? (See previous comments) Surely what is between a candidate’s ears is more important than what is between another part of their anatomy.
      • Is it better to ask “what is it about Politics” that discourages capable women from wanting to be MPs?” – and then addressing the underlying disfunctionalities. Too often we see “one term” women MPs. They get there sometimes through their own efforts, sometimes through being “A listed” or “All Women Shortlisted”, and then find that they don’t like it and either resign or decide not to defend their seats. But it is a mistake to see this as a gender-specific issue; I suspect that many male MPs don’t like Parliament either.

      I accept the danger of sounding like a cracked record (playing the same tune over and over again), but overcoming the power of selection committees could make a massive difference. If you can attract more people who feel a genuine sense of public service rather than a willingness to ingratiate themselves with local party big-wigs, you would get a different type of parliament.

      Whilst it looks bad if our parliament looks grossly different from the population an indirect approach – trying to attract “better people” – may be an effective way to a parliament which the vast majority of the population recognise as “representative”.

      • Peter on said:

        I truly believe that the main reason certain groups of people don’t do certain things, is not because there is any discrimination against them but simply that this particular activity is just something that people in that particular group just don’t want to do, or there are not enough of them to do it.

        Being a former civil servant, and thus being used to meddling by politicians to get what they feel is the right balance, I have witnessed some real sillies. As an example, in the days of YTS, our masters were obsessed with the concept of ‘equal opportunities’ even though they ended up confusing equality with social engineering.

        I was told by my masters (as a YTS advisor) to tell the local training organisations that they must recruit more trainees from ethnic minorities. Now despite me doing some research on local populations and concluding that in 1987, there was statistically not likely to be more than 40 school leavers from ethnic minorities in the whole of Wigan Borough, that the adult population of ethnic minorities contained a disproportionate number of doctors who would have higher ambitions for their male offspring than a YTS course and that a disproportionate number of female children would be expected to contribute to the housework and not have a career at all. My findings were dismissed as rubbish (i.e. my masters could not grasp statistics) and I was to continue to be forced to harass the training organisations.

        Similarly, few girls had much desire to be bricklayers, and few boys had any desire to be care assistants, but did this stop the political meddling? Of course not.

        In short, it is most likely that more women do not become MPs simply because statistically, fewer women desire to be MPs, so when politicians try to artificially change the natural course of things, they end up with the wrong sort of people getting an easy run, namely lots of Oxbridge educated female (and male for that matter) Labour MPs who wouldn’t understand working class, left of centre ideals if it hit them in the face, but by being a Labour MP, offers them an easy route into a lucrative career as a politician with purely self interest at heart.

      • it is most likely that more women do not become MPs simply because statistically, fewer women desire to be MPs

        Agreed, but is our Parliament better because it is the sort of place where “fewer women desire to be MPs”?

        Force fitting people into roles they don’t want (as brickies or politicians or care assistants) is counter productive and arguably cruel. But sometimes intelligent questions should be asked.

        Carers

        Is there a good reason why there are more female care assistants than male care assistants? The easy answer is to fall back on the “biological nature” argument – that women are “naturally” more nurturing and therefore more suited to caring roles. (It is “just unfortunate” that good carers are valued less than good brickies.)

        There may be supply issues – but we should be careful that we are not stereotyping. Do schools career advisers encourage or discourage boys who fancy the idea of being a carer? On what grounds do they discourage?

        But there are also demand issues – that are more intractable. Women tend to live longer and therefore tend to make up a greater proportion of those in care homes (I don’t know about hospitals). It is quite possible that elderly ladies living in care homes express a preference for a female carer. It is also very possible that many elderly men would not want another man (“a mere boy”) assisting with the more intimate functions.

        Brickies

        Is there a good reason why there are more male bricklayers than female bricklayers? Again the easy answer is the “biological nature” argument – that men are naturally more suited to heavy manual work. Yet we see men injured by heavy manual work; a more enlightened view might be to address the nature of this work to make it “less heavy” and likely to cause injury – which as a side effect would make it open to less “physical people” (male or female). The job criteria might change from issues of physical ability to quality of bricklaying.

        We saw during the Second World War that women could manage heavy outdoor work. A few adaptions were made and many were surprised by the level of output achieved.

        Parliamentarians

        Why should being an MP appear to be gender biased? Sitting hours used to be late afternoon through into the night – to accommodate men who wanted to do their first job in the morning. These were family unfriendly – deemed not to be a problem to men. Hours have changed and I don’t think it has made Parliament worse. Yet Parliament (as in the Westminster Parliament) still seems to be more attractive as a career to certain types of people – resulting in a very obvious gender imbalance (~30%) – particularly when compared to others internationally (See IPU “Women In Politics” Map 2014). What is so “special” about Westminster?

        I’m not in favour of “the wrong sort of people getting an easy run”, but I do wonder whether we also have “the right sort of people getting a difficult run” because of the way that the UK Westminster Parliament is set up. Are we well served (as in good representation, good legislation, good scrutiny of the executive and good government) by the current set up?

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