Sunday, 22 January 2012

Don’t let ‘Sir Humphrey’ scupper the right to recall dud MPs.

Perhaps the most difficult argument you will ever have is the one where you try to persuade people that politicians aren’t a pack of self serving crooks.

However earnestly you opine that for every Duck House fiddling shyster there are at least two hard working men and women who really did enter parliament to serve their country and community; a sort of conscientious yin balancing off the presence of the irredeemable yang it just doesn’t wash. Prejudice born of the expenses scandal and all too often the actions of parliament itself conspire to bring the reputation of the institution crashing down rather as the shifting sands upon which it is built could, allegedly, do for the Palace of Westminster itself.

All of which brings me rather neatly to the awful hash parliament is making of giving constituents the right to ‘recall’ MPs who prove to be corrupt or just not up to the job. During the 2010 general election all three parties backed ‘recall’ and it even made it into the coalition agreement; sadly the reality of the proposals put forward this week leave much to be desired.

As Zac Goldsmith, one of two Tory rebels who stood up against the proposals put it ‘recall’ could ‘electrify politics and end the concept of safe seats’, but, sadly, the version of offer at the moment is ‘deeply flawed.’ That’s putting it mildly; it’s a total travesty.

Under the proposals an MP will be subject to recall if 10% of his or her constituents sign a petition, however it will be up to a committee of ‘parliamentary grandees’ to decide which offences merit recall. If you believe members of parliament are able to police their own behaviour in such a manner you were obviously living in a tree during the scandal over expenses.

As Zac Goldsmith put it since the offences likely to be considered as meriting recall would mostly relate to financial matters you could be ‘the worst ever MP’ in other respects and survive. If, however you were considered to be an ‘unpleasant character and unpopular in the house’ then the smallest of misdemeanours could see you out on your ear. I don’t think there are enough mathematicians alive to work out the smallness of the gap between such a skewed version of ‘recall’ being accepted and the whips offices of the three main parties deciding it was a splendid tool to use for battering their respective awkward squads into submission.

This as Douglas Carswell, the other Tory rebel put it the sort of system that ‘Sir Humphrey would perhaps like,’ designed to ‘keep the people at bay.’ It would, he said do ‘what recall should do which is make us all more outwardly accountable to the people. I think it will make us inwardly accountable to Westminster grandees.’

It has to be said that both Douglas Carswell and Zac Goldsmith hold safe seats of the sort that ‘recall’ would make more rare and in Goldsmith’s case the sort of vast inherited wealth that make being a rebel easy; but on this issue they are very much on the side of the angels. Too many MPs are too safe in their seats, the system combined with public inertia encourage them to coast along when they should be rocking the boat.

The most disappointing thing though is the absence of any comment by the Labour leadership on the attempt to scupper an important and much needed reform of parliament. Standing up against a craven attempt to preserve a flawed status quo along with fighting against the government’s plans to allow people to ‘opt out’ to the franchise their ancestors fought and died to win through individual electoral registration and working to create a strong grassroots political movement could help the party to create a new and more inclusive political narrative.

Doing so has to be a more effective way of being in opposition than tying themselves in knots by saying they oppose the government’s spending cuts but would carry them out anyway if returned to office. A move that has alienated the unions and baffled everyone else, in the long term it might also form the foundation for a new and better way of doing the business of politics.

Still the greatest

Mohammed Ali turned seventy this week. Sporting legend, cultural icon and all round force of nature even though he has been laid low by illness in recent years Ali is still an inspirational, if controversial, figure.

How very unlike the current crop of heavyweight boxing champs, who seem to be nothing more than a mob of interchangeable preening non-entities scrabbling to make a fast buck out of a discredited and fragmented sport.

The chances of any of that crowd being remembered next year, let alone decades after they hang up their gloves are so small as to be invisible to the naked eye.

One small victory in a long, long fight

Well done to shop workers union USDAW for winning compensation totalling £67 million for former Woolworth’s staff thrown out of work in 2008.

It is though only a small victory in a long, long campaign to bring help and hope to the staff of retailers such as Peacocks, Blacks, Past Times and others who have been left floundering in the backwash of an economic tsunami.

Taxing times for Tommy Atkins

Members of the armed forces serving overseas face a fine of £100 if they file their self assessment tax return late, even though they might be dodging bullets in Afghanistan of crewing a sub under the polar ice cap.

Tax, like death, is an inevitable part of life and you would have to be one of the sillier Tory backwoodsmen not to believe we should all pay our fair share. That said does the Inland Revenue always have to be so stupidly inflexible?

Service personnel on active service are often stationed in locations where it is impossible to communicate easily with the outside world. There is also the small matter of treating the men and women who risk their lives for our country with an appropriate level of respect. Taxation, like policing, works best when it is done by consent.

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