When Two Tiers Go To War

Gordon Brown

On the 14th October, former British Primeminister Gordon Brown did a very unusual thing. He spoke in Parliament. Since the last general election, the Member of Parliament for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath has only managed to attend 144 parliamentary votes out of 1108. This paltry 13% attendance rate is slightly higher than he accomplished whilst Primeminister. However, it compares unfavourably with most MPs. David Cameron participates in 17.2% of votes, though being the current PM is a very good excuse for sometimes being busy elsewhere. Brown’s participation is much lower than the 68% attendance of fellow Labour backbencher Diane Abbott. Perhaps she has an advantage, because she represents a London constituency. But then, 71.4% is the voting record of Menzies Campbell, who is in a similar situation to Brown, being a former party leader who represents a Scottish constituency. Michael Weir of the SNP finds himself voting in Westminster 51.2% of the time, despite his party’s enmity to the Westminister elite. And the burdens of travel do not stop the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long from leaving her Belfast East constituency to vote in 52% of parliamentary debates. Perhaps it is understandable that Gordon Brown hardly bothers with Westminster politics. Dejected after his defeat in the general election, Brown has described himself as an ‘ex-politician‘. He believes he adequately represents his Scottish constituency without engaging in the party-dominated votes that occur in Westminster. So what issue can be so serious that it prompted Brown to not only attend, but to speak in a parliamentary debate? The answer is rather funny. Brown was worried by the threat that he, and other Scots MPs, might not be allowed to vote on matters that only concern English constituencies.

At this point, I believe a rational and impartial person stops bothering with the arguments. Brown’s position is, on the face of it, absurd. When we dig deeper, Brown’s position remains just as absurd. Brown believes he adequately represents the interests of his Scots constituents even though he rarely votes in Westminister. But he feels there will be a ‘constitutional crisis’ if he no longer has the right to vote on matters that have no significance to his constituents. If this is true, the UK must have a very strange constitution. If MPs are lazy and cannot be bothered to vote, Brown sees no risk. If parliamentary votes are dominated by small cliques within parties who can whip hundreds of MPs to vote in opposition to their conscience – the Iraq War being a notable example – Brown sees no risk. If a declining number of voters keep electing whatever stooge is put up by their favoured party – irrespective of whether they fiddle their expenses or fiddle with their pyjamas – then Brown sees no risk. Disenchanted voters may want the right to throw out crooked, corrupt and criminal MPs, but Brown sees no reason to rush to appease them. If important powers, like the power to collect tax, are taken from Westminster, and given to the Scottish Parliament, Brown does see a need to rush through those changes, though he saw no need to do so when he was in power. He sees an urgent need for that constitutional change, even though it was only proposed as a last-gasp attempt to sway Scotland’s independence vote. But when English MPs propose that only English MPs should vote on policies that exclusively affect the inhabitants of England, then, and only then, Brown worries about the health of our fragile constitution.

Brown has always been a political calculator. It is his greatest skill, and worst flaw. The fact that this ‘ex-politician’ has stirred himself is not evidence of a sudden concern for the constitution. He was one of the most powerful politicians in the country whilst the House of Lords was trashed by half-arsed reforms that concentrated more power in the hands of party bosses, whilst granting no compensating change in the powers exercised by the British people. Though he never supported electoral reform, Brown would have implemented the Alternative Vote without a referendum, and held a referendum on Proportional Representation, if it meant remaining in power at the head of a coalition government. His calculations always concern power, not principles. He does not speak because he is worried about rushing change to Britain’s time-tested constitution. He speaks because he fears that the power of men like him would be eroded by a more equitable constitutional settlement.

The vogue argument from the Labour Party is that they oppose the formation of two tiers of MPs. This is nonsense. We already have multiple tiers of MPs. Some have more influence, some less. Some are on the backbench, some on the front. Some sit with the party in government, some sit with the loyal opposition, some sit outside of the so-called ‘main’ parties. Some of their constituents are better represented, others are poorly represented. This has long been true. More recent changes have created yet more tiers of MPs.

Whenever the UK Parliament devolves power to some regions but not others, it creates tiers of MPs with different degrees of influence over the lives of their constituents. An English MP can vote about how the English National Health Service is run, and so they can change things for the people who live in an English constituency. A Scottish MP cannot do the same thing for his or her constituents, because the power to run the Scots NHS has been devolved. So when Brown and the Labour Party say they oppose a ‘reduction in the rights’ of Scottish MPs, what they really mean is that they are happy to reduce the rights of Scottish MPs to represent their own constituents. They just do not want to see a reduction in the influence of Scottish MPs over the lives of people who live in English constituencies. This has nothing to do with being a Scot, or being English, or where people choose to live, or how to align policy with the wishes of voters. It has everything to do with a future Labour government wanting to maximize its power over English affairs, whilst depending on a First-Past-The-Post electoral system that delivers them a disproportionate number of MPs in Scotland.

I can go on listing all the tiers of MPs we have under the British constitution, so I will. MPs in marginal constituencies are more likely to get concessions from the leaders of their parties, because their seat is hotly contested. The voters of Brighton Pavilion may have chosen Caroline Lucas to be their MP, but by choosing the only MP from the Green Party, they have selected someone with much less effective influence than if they had restricted their selection to the so-called ‘main’ parties. Some voters in Buckingham might have liked to have had a choice between the main parties when choosing their MP, but they are represented by the Speaker of the House, who by convention stands without opposition from any of the main parties. The Speaker does not vote in Parliament, either. Voters who support Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland are choosing representatives who promise not to participate in Westminster votes. As a consequence, there are some MPs who vote even less than Gordon Brown. The wide differences in constituency size and turnout mean that the 2010 General Election saw the sitting MP in Na h-Eileanan an Iar, the SNP’s Angus MacNeil, retain his seat despite polling only 6,723 votes. Meanwhile, Conservative candidate Annunziata Rees-Mogg received 26,976 votes but only finished second in Somerton and Frome. MPs in London speak with less authority about London’s issues than the Mayor of London does, making them less potent than MPs in other cities which chose not to have a directly-elected mayor. And the UKIPpers appear to have some popular support when they argue that the power of British MPs is continuously eroded by a transfer of sovereignty to the EU.

Furthermore, we already accept implicit tiers in the UK Parliamentary system, designed to give disproportionate power and influence to certain regions. 46,107,200 people were eligible to vote in the 2010 general election. Comparing the numbers of electors to the number of MPs shows obvious trends in how power is shared out. The Office of National Statistics explained:

The average size of constituencies varies between the constituent countries of the UK with a median total parliamentary electorate across constituencies of approximately 72,600 in England, 67,500 in Scotland, 66,200 in Northern Ireland and 58,000 in Wales

Put simply, if the English ratio of population to MPs was applied elsewhere, Scotland would have 54 MPs, instead of the 59 it currently elects. Wales would have 32 MPs, instead of 40. Northern Ireland would have one fewer than its current 18 MPs.

Why is the Labour Party not concerned about these national tiers? Why do they believe that Scottish MPs must not only vote on matters that only affect English constituencies, but they must also have an exaggerated number of MPs, relative to the size of the population?

We all know the answer to that. The parties of power are engaged in a cold war over rigging our democracy, to suit their own selfish ends. Whilst the Tory motivation for change is obvious, at least they can honestly state that the current system is rigged against them and their supporters. The Labour Party can make no such argument, so resorts to spinning any line which might help them consolidate power in Labour hands.

Constitutionally, it would have been better for Scotland to have won its independence – which is why Labour’s big beasts pulled out every stop to prevent it. A clean and simple break would have left Scotland’s people free to vote for the best policies for Scotland, and unable to vote on anything else. Instead, we are heading toward an ever more biased morass. Scots voters will be able to exercise increased influence over the policies that affect them, and disproportionate influence over policies that do not affect them. Meanwhile, the Labour party wants to make the devolution of further powers as murky and confused as possible. They only want the Scots Parliament to be able to vary tax rates according to some Westminster-bound formula, instead of permitting the Scots more freedom to set taxes, and the fiscal responsibility that comes with that freedom.

Gordon Brown craved power for a long time. When he finally got the top job, it was through a back door. That door led to 10 Downing Street, but it was unlocked by his bullying control of the Labour Party, not via an election. The ultimate power consumed Brown, who was so absorbed in the fight for power that he had no idea why he wanted it. His preference for calculation over principles most memorably resulted in Brown hiking taxes on the poorest childless people in our society, so he could finance tax breaks for families and the middle class. In 2010, the electorate took their first opportunity, ejecting Brown from office, though he attempted to wrangle a coalition deal that would have allowed him to desperately hold on to power. Brown is a hollow man, an ex-politician who only takes an interest when there is an opportunity to stand centre stage. He is not an example of the virtues of the existing constitution. Instead, he is proof that it survives despite its many corruptions. That Brown has appointed himself as foremost critic of English Votes for English Laws tells us much about where the opposition comes from, and what motivates it.

The arguments made by Brown and the Labour Party, from the fear-mongering that dogged the debate about Scotland’s independence, via the ‘vow’ to devolve more powers to Scotland, to the latest protestations about English Votes for English Laws, all point toward a single coherent objective. That objective is to increase the power of the Labour Party, and of individuals like Brown, relative to everyone else. There is no real interest in listening to the wishes of ordinary Scots, English, Welsh or Northern Irish. Every argument they make reaches a similar conclusion: the ‘right’ people will exercise power, by hook or by crook, and those people mostly belong to the Labour Party. These arguments are transparent. They come from the mouths of self-serving, power-hungry men. It is hard to believe that anyone, other than someone blinded by an irrational devotion to the Labour Party, can fail to see through them. As a result, it will create two tiers within the public: those who do not care how the system works so long as Labour are victorious, and the rest of us.

Reasonable people cannot ignore this cold war, even if they support many Labour policies. Good, impartial people will oppose the creation of more and more tiers within government, when designed to undermine our democracy. They will oppose the growing and shameless tendency to rig the system to ensure that no matter what reform is contemplated – of the voting system, electoral finance, constituency boundaries, or devolution – the Labour Party is always guaranteed an oversized share of power. Labour’s arguments are designed to entrench power in the hands of an established elite – their established elite. When Gordon Brown speaks on that topic, he speaks from many years of experience.

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