Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Indecent Proposal (Rebel Without a Cause)

Denis MacShane is, to the best of my slender knowledge, a good egg with a perfectly adequate number of brain cells to rub together. But in the Telegraph today, he makes an announcement almost as rum as Clare Short’s decision to resign the Labour whip in order to campaign for a hung parliament. He says:

“For the first time in my years as an MP I shall consciously vote against my Labour Government.”

The issue in question is House of Lords reform. He wants an elected upper chamber, and thinks the government’s ideas aren’t up to much. Well, that’s fair enough.

Actually, I tell a lie; this isn’t the issue he’s rebelling on. His beef is rarer:

“It is over the proposal to tear up more than seven centuries of history and require MPs to sit rather than stand to vote. The Government wants MPs to take a multiple-choice exam on its proposals to reform the House of Lords. Instead of MPs voting in lobbies for or against different proposals, scratch cards will be handed out, which we can take away to list in order of preference what the composition of the Lords might be.

“…Labour MPs are told they are on a three-line whip to destroy the way the Commons has always done business, but they are on a free vote on the question that will then follow which, because of the single transferable vote, will have to finish in a definite proposal.”

That’s right, folks: not only will a decision to use such a system for this one vote “destroy the way the Commons has always done business”, but the most horrific thing of all is that this constitutional grotesquerie will irrevocably result in nothing less than… a proposal.

Once this travesty has been perpetrated, the text of this proposal for Lords reform will be seared into the malnourished flesh of orphans before – oh, no, hang on – it’ll be looked over by the government and then (probably) put into a bill to be placed before parliament with a free vote in the usual way.

MacShane explains why this would be a travesty of everything we hold true and dear:

“For 700 years, the Commons has been a parliament - a place of talking. Presence and talking in the chamber, in the lobbies, in the tea and dining rooms is the sine qua non of British democracy. The votes are taken by men and women standing up and walking through lobbies, talking one to another as they move to vote. It is a physical act of propinquity that amazes politicians from other countries who do not have the intimate access to ministers and party bigwigs that lies at the heart of our parliamentary system.”

Kudos for “propinquity”, but is it perhaps just a tad melodramatic to say that 700 years of parliamentary democracy (most of which was pretty undemocratic) would be wrecked by members losing this single opportunity for a chinwag in order that they might produce an indicative, non-binding preference to form the basis of further discussion?

He adds:

“It is wrong to remove from the Commons its right to vote in the way it has always done.”

Hands up if you know what body alone has the power to remove this right.

And if his view is that ordinary whipping removes the rights of the Commons, it’s hard to see why he so rates the place.

‘Denis, we’ve got the Being Tough On Crime (And Tough On The Causes Of Crime) Bill coming up next week. Naturally, there’s a three-line whip.’
‘No, I must resist. It is wrong to remove from the Commons its right to reject the government’s bills.’
‘But this is just run-of-the-mill party whipping – it happens all the time! If you felt that way you’d have to constantly rebel, and as you said in your article, you’ve never voted against the government.’
‘No, I said I’d never “consciously” voted against.’
‘I see. And are you entirely conscious now?’

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