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Favouring reform

Brian Taylor | 13:40 UK time, Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Aren't those intriguing little suggestions re parliamentary reform?

I refer to the thoughts of both the Conservative leader and a Labour cabinet minister.

Firstly, David Cameron has chosen the Guardian in which to advance his reform agenda.

He favours more free votes for MPs and will look at fixed term parliaments which means the date of General Elections would no longer be chosen by the incumbent government.

Mr Cameron describes his package as a "massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power".

Must say it sounds a rather more modest set of proposals to me - with a dual purpose.

Firstly, he genuinely favours reform. He is a moderniser, at least partly disdaining the permanent adherence to established tradition which has customarily characterised his party.

Expenses 'brouhaha'

Secondly, though, he wants to paint the prime minister as the problem - and himself as the solution.

At all points during the brouhaha over expenses, Mr Cameron has sought to suggest this is a problem caused or presided over or neglected by the government, as distinct from parliament.

He has rather cleverly contrived to give this impression - despite the fact that his own MPs are at least as closely involved in the controversy.

The latest suggestion attempts to elide the gap between dodgy expense sheets and wider parliamentary reform.

In simple terms, fixed term parliaments and curbed whips offices would do nothing of themselves to stop MPs claiming money illegitimately.

They are different issues. However, Mr Cameron - again cleverly - blends the two together: suggesting only a General Election and subsequent reform can tackle the present abuses.

Logically, that is not the case. Westminster could and should act now, regardless of whether an election and a new government is merited.

Intriguing thoughts

But Mr Cameron is again giving the impression, entirely understandably from his point of view, that what is required to effect change and placate the voters is the ejection of G. Brown and the election of D. Cameron.

Secondly, the intriguing thoughts of Mr Brown's cabinet colleague, Alan Johnson.

Mr Johnson favours a referendum on PR voting for Westminster, to be held on the same day as the next UK General Election.

Is that a runner? For now, no.

But is it possible that Westminster, having adopted the Holyrood expenses system, might be about to adopt the Scottish Parliament's approach to voting too?

Not, I think, the particular Holyrood method. The list system, with top-up MSPs derived from regional party lists, has even fewer friends these days than it did when it was insisted upon by Labour in the Convention talks.

But Mr Johnson is certainly talking PR. Why? Presumably because he supports it, intellectually.

However, also, as with Mr Cameron, it depicts himself as the engine of reform, by contrast with the stasis of the present set-up.

Holding out

It is perhaps not, therefore, a direct pitch for the Labour leadership. But, just as with the previously voiced thoughts of David Miliband, it will scarcely be welcome in Number Ten.

Mr Brown wants and needs support from his colleagues. Not novel - or novice - thinking.

By contrast, it would appear yet again that his cohorts are envisaging life outwith the boundaries of a Brown government.

Further, though, is Mr Johnson holding out the prospect of a tentative future deal with the Liberal Democrats? My guess is yes.

For the Lib Dems, PR is the standing objective, stated in all cross-party talks. They secured it for the Scottish Parliament.

Paddy Ashdown was regularly tempted by Tony Blair into thinking it might be a runner for Westminster.

It was always ruled out previously by Labour self-interest and the intrinsic resistance to reform in substantial sections of the party.

Could that be about to change, perhaps because Labour's interests in a future hung parliament may point in a different direction?

PS: Welcome your comments as ever. Would remind you, gently, that it is one of the house rules that responses should not stray from the particular topic on offer.

This is designed to ensure that, in the interests of all readers, there can be focused, substantive debate.

Over a prolonged period, it means that the broadest possible range of topics can be aired.


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