Parliament and the Public — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:14 pm on 16th June 2009.

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Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 8:14 pm, 16th June 2009

My Lords, Winston Churchill got it about right when he said:

"Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried".

As we cast our eyes towards Tehran, Burma and North Korea, we can understand why Churchill believed that our imperfect system of government was worth fighting for and dying for. This theme of an imperfect but cherished democracy was captured well by EM Forster in Two Cheers for Democracy. Forster said:

"I believe in the Private Member who makes himself a nuisance. He gets snubbed and told he is cranky or ill-informed, but he does expose abuses which would otherwise never have been mentioned, and very often an abuse gets put right just by being mentioned ... So two cheers for Democracy ... Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three".

During the 30 years since I first came to Westminster, the disappearance of too many of these dogged constituency MPs and their belief in public service has weakened Parliament. If Parliament has become detached from the people, it is because of the culture of politics itself. Too much time is spent worrying about image, in honing rent-a-quote soundbites and learning the dark arts of spinning. More time should be spent by Members of Parliament in their constituencies and they should live there. They should be chosen after a process like the American primaries. By contrast, the frenzied taint of the Westminster village too often produces a self-serving form of politics. Parties come to resemble cults and sects, rather than broad churches. For example, making party policy of issues that were traditionally conscience questions, such as abortion, euthanasia, embryo experimentation and human cloning, makes it impossible for many people who have conscientious objections to such policies to join or vote for such parties.

When mainstream parties become narrow cliques, they drive away supporters. When they disappear from the day-to-day lives of neighbourhoods and communities, it opens the way for such groups as the British National Party, the heirs of Oswald Mosley and the Brown Shirts. The success of the BNP in such regions as the north-west—where I live—is also, in part, because of a voting system that concentrates power in the hands of small political elites. I spoke and voted against the introduction of the closed party list form of proportional representation for European elections precisely because it was bound to open the way to groups like the BNP and because it offends a fundamental principle of our parliamentary democracy: the right to vote for an individual candidate, rather than a party or list.

If there is to be a change in our voting system, let it have as its first requirement that an MP will represent a defined geographical area and that votes will be cast for people, not parties. A move to a single transferable vote—which I have always supported—or the alternative vote would need to command widespread support and should not, under any circumstances, be steamrollered through as a last-gasp political fix, or as part of a political deal.

Despite its manifest imperfections, the immediate crisis of confidence in our political system and the political classes has been the expenses debacle. It is not a crisis of faith and democracy. If we wish to renew Britain's political life, we need to address the disconnect between politicians and the people whom they are supposed to serve.