Saturday, 16 May 2009

A snap poll now is not the answer

In a typically elegant argument, Paul Walter sums up the current demand for a snap general election to sort out the current mess over MPs' expenses. It's a thoughtful and passionate piece, but I'm going to argue it's dead wrong.

Firstly, I don't see how a general election now would actually solve the problem, namely the lax system for MPs expenses. Would it not be better to get a new system in place and then allow the electorate to have their say? A poll now would run the risk of having a botched reform rushed into place simply for the sake of having something to put before the voters in order to claim that the problem had been 'solved'. That's no way to make policy on an issue as sensitive as MPs' expenses. It's better to take time to get the system right.

Even if reform to the system is delayed beyond such a poll, there is then the danger that with at least four years before the next election, reform could be shelved as the anger among the electorate dissipates.

And, although I understand the anger that many people feel, is the issue of MPs' expenses really one which merits a whole general election dedicated solely to it? In my adult lifetime, the two issues I've been most angry about have been the poll tax and the decision to invade Iraq, even though millions of people marched against it. I don't recall a general election being held on either of those issues, despite the public anger involved.

There's also the question about whether a general election should be dedicated to just one issue. At a time of such economic crisis, I want to hear what the various parties propose to do to sort out that mess. There is a very real danger that those issues could be completely drowned out by an electorate wanting to express their anger over the expenses scandal.

In addition, is a general election really the most appropriate way to ensure that those guilty in the expenses row are punished? Doesn't natural justice demand that parties or Parliament should be able to take appropriate disciplinary action against those who have abused the rules, including deselection and forced resignations to cause by-elections in the most serious cases?

A general election now would almost certainly result in a move to 'throw the bums out'. Unfortunately, such an anti-incumbency mood might well sweep up many people who've done nothing wrong and who may even have been advocates of reform.

I would ask people like Paul Walters who is more likely to lose their seats in a 'throw the bums out election' - proponents of reform like Sarah Teather and Adrian Sanders, with majorities of around 2,000, or someone like Hazel Blears, sitting on a majority of 8,000 in Salford or Elliot Morley who has a 9,000 majority in Scunthorpe? Maybe the electorate will be able to distinguish all the rogues from the honest MPs and vote accordingly, but I'm not confident that would necessarily be the case.

Indeed, as Mark Reckons points out that there does seem to be some sort of correlation between the safeness of an MP's seat and the likelihood of them being involved in the expenses scandal, it may be that the rogues would be more likely to be rewarded with an extra four years in Parliament which might be thoroughly undeserved in some cases.

No, in this case, revenge is definitely a dish best served cold. Give local parties a chance to deselect MPs where they think that appropriate and allow campaigns to be built up against MPs who have abused the system but who haven't been forced out by their parties. A general election now won't allow that to happen and would be completely wrong.

1 comment:

Paul Walter said...

Thank you for your kind words Bernard. Your points are very valid and I may be changing my mind after yesterday's rush of blood to the head - especially considering that the voters seem to be taking refuge in UKIP (BBC:"One of UKIP's former MEPs, Ashley Mote, was jailed over benefit fraud and another, Tom Wise, has denied charges of false accounting and money laundering.") It does seems that the full facts need to sink in. A couple of points though: candidates can be de-selected in a few days. It's amazing how the urgency of an impending election can concentrate minds. Also, "appropriate disciplinary action" sounds far too hollow for some voters I have spoken to. They are expecting some MPs to be "clapped in irons".

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