Parliament: reform or revolution?

Saturday 31 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Student Union

‘Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep…’ Rosa Luxemburg

The forthcoming UK election is likely to focus attention once again on our parliamentary institutions and constitutional arrangements. This time the debate should perhaps go beyond the usual questions of whether we should make our voting system more proportional or further devolve power to the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament. Today the very legitimacy of the system is in question, with public respect for Parliament perhaps at an all-time low. 2009 has seen the traditional protection of parliamentarians undermined from within when the Serjeant at Arms allowed police to arrest Damian Green, and then the MPs’ expenses scandal, leading to reform of the role of the speaker. New speaker John Bercow promised a clean break, with various reforms to modernise the Commons while protecting the rights of backbenchers and restoring the integrity of Parliament. But is it too little too late?

While some observers worry the sovereignty of Parliament is being eroded, advocates of reform have called for further checks on MPs. The Lord Chief Justice recently criticised plans for an independent body to oversee MPs expenses, as it risks a dangerous conflict between judges and Parliament. But should the authority of Parliament be checked in the interests of accountability, transparency and sound modern governance? Are old institutions worth defending, or should we get rid of a system riddled with problems? As the election draws closer, should we even bother to exercise our right to vote, or is the really progressive thing to look elsewhere for democratic revival?

Indeed, to add to the parliamentary chaos, political parties look increasingly defunct, with membership at an all time low, while voter turnout was a mere 61% in 2005. Does the rise of independents and fringe groups signify a negative rejection of collective politics or a positive opportunity to move towards new collective ideals?


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Jessica Asato
acting director, Progress; editor, Progress Magazine

Martin Bell
former independent MP for Tatton; author, A Very British Revolution: the expenses scandal and how to save our democracy

Dr James Panton
head of politics, Magdalen College School, Oxford; associate lecturer in politics and philosophy, Open University; co-founder, Manifesto Club

Graham Smith
chief executive, Republic

Suzy Dean
freelance writer; blogger, Free Society

Produced by
Suzy Dean freelance writer; blogger, Free Society
Recommended readings
A book to set democratic alarm bells ringing

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Suzy Dean, spiked, 30 October 2009

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Martin Bell interviewed by Angus Kennedy, Independent Independent Minds, 27 October 2009

A Very British Revolution: The Expenses Scandal and How to Save Our Democracy

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The death of the citizen MP and why I'm quitting politics

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To suggest reform of a parliamentary system steeped in the anachronism of traditional class struggle is a retreat from reality

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Disaffected voters turn to 'none of the above'

Between them, the cash-for-honours affair and the questions raised about Lord Goldsmith's impartiality as Attorney General are casting a long shadow over the whole of British political life. The shadow besmirches not merely the Prime Minister's own reputation but that of all the major political parties and politicians in general.

Anthony King, Telegraph, 5 February 2007

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