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The UK political crisis

The transformation from economic downturn to political crisis started slowly enough. At first the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown was a ‘hero’ in the way that he took action to secure the banking system and seek international agreement. But a strange little time bomb was ticking away inside Parliament, the question of MPs’ expenses, and when the details went public, the electorate turned nasty. This gave it a specific emotional focus for a whole set of issues. Gordon Brown has been on the back foot ever since, even although the expenses are a matter for the Speaker’s Office and not for the government. The Speaker has already paid the price and has gone. One blow after another has landed upon Brown: Ministerial resignations, defeat in the local government and European elections. The crisis has two elements: a lack of confidence in Parliament, in the House of Commons in particular, and a slow ebbing away of authority from the Government of the day. What has gone wrong?

Parliament has a number of problems and these problems interact. MPs are not paid enough and have tried to increase their remuneration by manipulation of the expenses system. Most of them have to maintain two homes, one in their constituencies and one in London where house prices and rentals are hugely inflated. Whilst some of the manipulations of the system have been culpable, few have been grossly venal. Nonetheless less, in a recession, the electorate has fixed on this as evidence of those in authority looking after number one. This is not the time to say out loud that MPs are not paid enough to do a good job in scrutinizing government.

There are too many MPs. This has come about in a number of ways. Devolution has reduced the volume of government business coming from Wales and, more especially, Scotland. Scotland is over-represented at Westminster. Even in England, constituencies are of varying sizes and fewer representatives would be appropriate. The fact of the EU has also changed the nature of business. Have fewer MPs, pay them more and give them the resources to undertake the sort of research that would make Parliamentary Committees a more effective means of scrutinizing the executive. These ideas are around but they are unlikely to be pushed until the present mood passes. Voters are simply angry and have expressed their anger at the polls.

Under normal circumstances, the Parliamentary whips are too strong. The Scottish Parliament is elected on a proportional basis, Westminster on a first-past-the –post. Scotland, once a Labour fiefdom, is learning to use the new system effectively. The Westminster system requires strong parties and party discipline is carried out by the whips. The Prime Minister controls a vast amount of patronage and can use this to guarantee support, even in a crisis such as Brown is facing. Power, under normal circumstances, has deserted the Commons and will only return if MPs count on a more independent basis. Giving them resources is one thing (this will help) but changing the underlying power-relations probably requires a change in the voting system. Under proportional representation the Commons would return to life.

The end of a government, and make no mistake, we are witnessing the dying throws of Labour in power, tends to come quickly as power unravels one strand at a time. Brown is in this position at the moment. He is faced with a very cross electorate, upset with the present performance of government and with the political institutions themselves. he is also faced with a restless Parliamentary party. This crisis is not just one of policies but of underlying problems requiring radical constitutional change. Brown is not capable of recovering. He can call an election quickly and put the government and country out of its misery or he can linger on till the bitter end. If this was the approaching end of a Tory government, he would already be gone and a new leader in place but the Parliamentary Labour party does not know which way to jump.