Parliamentary Standards (Constitutional Reform)

Part of Opposition Day — [3rd Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 8:47 pm on 2nd February 2009.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Secretary of State for Justice 8:47 pm, 2nd February 2009

This debate is really about a crisis of confidence in politics. If we do nothing about that crisis, it could turn into a crisis of confidence about democracy itself. We face a conjunction of crises. The crisis in the political system is happening at the same time as a crisis in the financial and economic system that threatens people's jobs and their confidence in the future. We should take very seriously what Kelvin Hopkins said: this is a dangerous situation. Just as with the financial and economic crisis, if we do nothing about the political crisis, or just simply try to get away with the minimum, it could be disastrous. In the case of the political crisis, it could be disastrous for our democracy.

Some of the things that will have to be done about the economic situation will be unpalatable, and what is done will amount to choosing among options all of which are bad. Similarly, some of the measures that are necessary for dealing with the political crisis will be uncomfortable for many Members of the House. Old certainties will have to be discarded. Politics as normal will not be enough. Many will have to let go of ideas from the past—and jibes from the past; I look particularly at Mr. Vara when I say that—if we are to avoid being swallowed by the future.

The essence of the political crisis is that millions of our fellow citizens do not feel like citizens any more. They no longer feel that they play any role in the government of the state in which they live. They think that the only people who have access to political power are people with very large sums of money—either their own money, or that of large corporations. They feel politically excluded. It is a feeling that one comes across everywhere, including on the picket lines of places such as the Lindsey oil refinery. Decent people should not have to resort to such measures. Whether or not we agree with what they are calling for, they should be heard here. That feeling of exclusion existed well before the recent revelations about what was going on in the House of Lords. What has happened there simply confirms, in the most dramatic way, what people already believe: that power lies with money and that the only part that ordinary people play in politics is as spectators—of either a tragedy or a farce.

The Government have simply taken on the role of holding the ring between the real players—the lobbyists, the media and big money. That is why the first imperative is to get big money out of politics. There should be a strict cap on how much money one person can donate to a political party. There should be strict limits on what parties can spend at both the national and local level. No one should be able to buy an election or be seen to be buying an election. Legislators who have been bought or who do not care whether they are seen to have been bought should just be thrown out.

Tackling political exclusion goes beyond dealing with the power of lobbyists. We have to look at ourselves and what we achieve in this place. The very idea of an appointed, non-elected second Chamber—a House of patronage and of networking—is an affront to the mass of people who will never have the connections to get there. That is why we should move now, not later—not in due course—to an elected second Chamber, regardless of what that means for the status and self-regard of Members of this House.

This place needs radical reform too, not least in the form of election and how we get here—the hon. Member for Luton, North mentioned that. A form of election that means that a tiny number of electors in a tiny number of seats decides the entire general election is part of the problem of political exclusion. The political system ignores the vast majority of voters nearly all the time. We have lost everything that we had in this place that made us a Parliament—a place to which people would look for their voices to be heard.

The most important aspect is the point raised by at least three Members—the hon. Members for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) and for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), and Mr. Meacher: we do not have the power even to set our own agenda. What we discuss here is what is served up to us every day, under Standing Order No. 14, by the Government. That must go. We must take the power back; we must talk about what the people in the country want us to talk about, and not what the Government want to talk about.

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