Richard North, 09/05/2019  

"If MPs can't be interviewed on College Green, that's bad for our democracy", said Harriet Harman yesterday during a session of the House of Commons human rights committee.

And there we see that familiar lack of self-awareness that besets our political masters. For most people, a significant reduction in the number of MPs being interviewed would represent a welcome improvement in the quality of television news.

More to the point, given the shanty town that has sprung up on the Green (pictured), with free passage obstructed by self-important media personalities babbling to politicians, a total prohibition of MP interviews would be in order. This would allow the area to be returned to its former state as a public green space.

On a more serious note, the committee was hearing evidence from Metropolitan police chief, Cressida Dick, that criminal abuse and harassment of MPs were running at unprecedented levels, reflecting "polarised opinions" in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. According to official statistics, the number of crimes committed against MPs had more than doubled to 342 in 2018 from 151 the year before.

That is the Guardian's take on the session, but there are several ways of looking at these data. A more objective – i.e., less self-centred – view might be that MPs have so disgraced themselves by their actions on Brexit that they have lost the respect of the public they supposedly serve.

That is not to say that threats against MPs are in any way to be condoned, but our elected representatives surely have no good cause for being surprised. It would be naïve to expect that there would be no consequences arising from their misdeeds.

Clearly, though, the political classes are incapable of recognising or understanding how far their standing has fallen with the public. But, if they needed another measure, the opinion polls on Farage's plaything party tell a similar story. Had they truly appreciated the significance, they might even now be pressing Mrs May and Mr Corbyn to reach a deal, so that they could get the Withdrawal Agreement ratified.

The odd thing, though, is that MPs don't seem to be able to connect the dots. But if they hide themselves behind increased layers of security, the situation can only get worse. They will get more and more detached from ordinary people. As it is, the Houses of Parliament have become such a fortress that it is tiresome visiting people there.

It would be a great shame, therefore, if we stood by passively and allowed the situation to deteriorate or, at best, were content with the status quo. The loss of public confidence in our political classes creates a good opportunity to promote fundamental political reforms, establishing real change to the political system.

Here, I note with some wry amusement the aggressive defence sometimes offered for Farage in terms of "at least he's doing something" – as opposed to us lowly mortals who spend our time at our keyboards, devoting endless time to the excruciating task of defining possible solutions to our predicament.

This strikes at one of the particularly unwholesome characteristics of this country – a general lack of respect for intellectual effort. Thus, a vacuous demagogue can tour the country delivering meaningless speeches which offer no solutions to anything, yet be applauded for "doing something", while those who are constructively seeking to provide answers are ignored – that is when the sneering classes are not simply trashing our work.

Long before the likes of Farage got in on the act, on 14 July 2012, a group of 33 of us assembled at the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate, the same hotel in which Agatha Christie re-appeared after she had gone missing in December 1926, with a view to addressing what we regarded then as a failing political system.

The object of our conference was to frame six demands in the manner of the "People's Charter" produced by the Chartists in 1838. We noted that the original aim of the Chartists had been to reform the political system to make it more democratic, something which we also sought to do.

And, although five of the Chartists' six demands were eventually conceded, their work was not done: the system, we felt, was still very far from being democratic. Thus, following in their footsteps, we eventually conceived another six demands, which we then intended (and still do) to be the focus of a new political movement.

The fact that this is a slow burn does not dismay us. It took more than 60 years for just five of the six of the original Chartist demands to be fulfilled. When looking at political reform, everything has its own momentum and the pace cannot be forced. We have settled for a slow, steady process of introducing people to what we call The Harrogate Agenda (THA), in the expectation that our ideas will eventually prevail.

On the other side of the coin, if people can't be bothered to pursue a genuine grassroots movement, and take no interest in the products of a number of keen and experienced minds, they have only themselves to blame. Let them chase after the demagogues and see how far that gets them.

With that, we see a very real prospect of one of our six demands taking root in the relatively near future, our third demand where we call for the executive to be separated from the legislature, allowing the latter to perform its tasks that much better than it does at the moment.

The other half of this demand is that we end the obscenity of political parties treating the leadership of the government as their own personal plaything, to do with what they please. After Blair handed over the premiership to Brown, and then Cameron walked away from the job, for the Tories then to give it to Mrs May, we are again facing a situation where we get another prime minister imposed on us, with absolutely no say in his or her appointment.

To that effect, we argue that prime ministers should be elected by popular vote. Thus, if a prime minister resigns or otherwise vacates their post, we have to have a new election so that the people can decide who they want as prime minister.

When confronting this, however, an awful lot of people get rather confused. We are not talking about electing a head of state, but a head of government. Electing a head of government does not turn them into a head of state, or create a president. Powers, and the title, remain the same.

Furthermore, as head of state, the monarch stays in place with unchanged powers, including the right to appoint the prime minister. But, after our reforms, the monarch would do so on the basis of the people's chosen one being willing and able to form a government.

In that context, we do borrow from the US system, and have our prime ministers appoint their own cabinet, and their other ministers. All appointments, however, have to be approved by parliament, and can be dismissed if they lose the confidence of parliament. On the other hand, no prime ministers or their ministers are allowed to be members of parliament or any devolved legislative assembly.

At the time I did the evaluation for THA, there were, typically, around 140 ministers, whips and other office-holders in the Commons. Collectively, they are known as the "payroll vote", people who may be assumed to vote with the government, and to defend its policies and actions.

But the problem is far worse than this basic arithmetic would suggest. Add the Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPS) and the "greasy pole climbers" who have hopes of preferment but have not yet been promoted, and the number climbs to 200 or so on the government benches. When it comes to holding the government to account, all these people are compromised.

Even then, this is by no means the full extent of the distortion. The fact that the Commons is the main pool for recruiting ministers - and the only prime ministerial pool – also changes the dynamics of the institution.

A goodly number of people who enter parliament have no intention of remaining MPs for their entire careers. They want to join the government. For them, parliament is not an end in itself, but a means to a different end, the first step on a career path which ends up in ministerial office. This should not be the case.

It is no part of parliament's function to provide the gene pool for governments, and nor do we want people becoming MPs just or mainly because it affords a route to power. We want MPs to do the job for which parliament was created – to scrutinise the government and to act as a constraint on its power, all in the name of the people.

And in that role, there develops an alliance between parliament and the people. MPs are specifically excluded from being part of the government so, if any are appointed as ministers or other office holders, they must leave the Commons.

Such changes are real changes, presaging a different way of doing politics – not the ersatz changes being proposed by Farage and his motley crew, much less Change UK which firmly stands for maintaining the status quo. Since we are going through the trauma of Brexit, we might as well get something useful out of it.

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