26 May 2009

Look Ma - our democracy works!

Last year when the banks collapsed, various people went around saying it was the "end of capitalism" - the same people, no doubt, who thought house prices would always go up and the sun keep on shining all year round. More intelligent people pointed out, that crashing is what markets, particularly if poorly regulated, do from time to time.

The same is true of the current expenses scandal - Scamalot - which some, such as Alan Johnson MP, are hoping will act as the catalyst for the introduction of proportional representation as a cure for our "damaged" democracy.

Scamalot has been terrible for Parliament, political parties and various individual MPs, but it has been fantastic for democracy. Suddenly, all these MPs who have had questions asked of them in our free press are having to answer to their own constituents, and where their position is unsustainable, they are announcing their retirement at the next election. And where errant MPs are not going voluntarily, they are likely to face a strong challenge either from another party or from a "sleaze-busting" independent. "Safe" seats are suddenly not looking that safe after all. More importantly, the sense of national outrage will lead to reform and much more openness in the future.

Tom Harris MP has already taken issue with Johnson's article (and more humourously, here, with those using Scamalot as a chance to change other things), pointing out that PR does nothing to assist democracy, but he misses the major point that most forms of PR weaken the connection between the MP and the constituency - which has proved so important recently. Landslides not only produce strong (some would say, undemocratic) governments, but they also mean that no party is immune from almost complete wipe out, meaning that they have to reach out well beyond their hard core supporters if they are to win even a single seat.

David Cameron's response this morning in a speech to the Open University in Milton Keynes shows that he understands that it is openness and accountability (that openness brings with it) which will keep our democracy vibrant. Tom Harris can mock the fix term Parliament proposal all he likes but clearly he doesn't understand that where knowledge is power, governments need to be better at sharing their knowledge, starting with the date on which we all get the chance to boot them out of office.

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