A blog by Luke Akehurst about politics, elections, and the Labour Party - With subtitles for the Hard of Left. Just for the record: all the views expressed here are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of any organisations I am a member of.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Against Term Limits

Trevor Phillips has called for term limits for MPs, with each MP having to retire after 4 terms or 20 years in order to create vacancies so that diversification of the Commons to include more women and ethnic minority MPs can happen faster.

This suggestion is profoundly undemocratic. If voters want more than the current 20% turnover of MPs they can do it at general elections by voting out incumbents. Inside the political parties you can get a faster turnover of MPs by deselecting them. But the evidence is - given the boost that incumbent MPs seem to get compared to candidates from the same party in comparable "open" seats and the tiny number of deselections in recent years - that voters and party members prefer experienced incumbent MPs to newbies. Which makes sense - you'd prefer to see a doctor with a few decades experience, or hire a lawyer with hundreds of cases behind them, so why would you want to swap your MP any faster than you swapped government?

The trouble is that Trevor has put one objective that might influence how you want the Commons composed - representativeness by gender and ethnicity - above other objectives that might also be valid considerations and need to be balanced with that, such as ensuring there are enough people in there experienced enough to do the different roles.

The Commons is the main reservoir of potential Ministers. Whilst there have been some notable exceptions who have achieved high office after just a few years in Parliament, most people need a couple of terms working their apprenticeship as backbenchers, and then a series of periods as a PPS, a PUS and a Minister of State before being ready to join the Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet. Under Phillips' rule it would be virtually impossible to gain this experience so almost everyone in Cabinet would have less prior experience of office than they do now. This would be bound to reduce the quality of Cabinet - experience brings improved judgement and ability to react to major events based on lessons learnt at a lower level of responsibility. There's a case for a few fast-trackers but most politicians need to reach high office slower, learning the job and growing as they go.

For parties in opposition for a long period it would virtually guarantee that there would be no continuity of personnel at all from their previous period in government - increasing the power of the civil service mandarins - for whom no such term limit is proposed by Trevor - over inexperienced Ministers.

Within Parliament the scrutiny function exercised by select committees is strengthened by having MPs of great tenure and experience chairing them, who can stand up to Ministers who often don't know a policy area in as great depth as an MP who has followed it for decades. Under Trevor's rule Gwyneth Dunwoody would have left the Commons in 1990 and never been available for her period as Chair of the Transport Committee.

Other casualties of the Phillips term limits would have been:

Churchill - out of the Commons in 1920
Thatcher - out of the Commons in 1979 just at the point she became PM (not such a bad thing?)
Attlee - out of the Commons in 1942
Foot - out of the Commons in 1970
Benn - out of the Commons in 1973 (maybe not so bad either?)
Disraeli - out of the Commons in 1857, 11 years before he became PM
Gladstone - out of the Commons in 1852, just at the start of his first term as Chancellor and 42 years before he finally stood down as PM

His proposal is also self defeating, as amongst the MPs forced to step down after 4 terms in 2005 or after 20 years in 2007 would have been two of Britain's first four ethnic minority MPs, Keith Vaz and Diane Abbott.

Greater BME representation in parliament is happening - Labour has new BME candidates in place in Labour-held seats including Shabana Mahmood, Yasmin Qureshi, Anas Sarwar and Chuka Umunna. It's not happening fast enough but it would be better if Trevor was looking at ways of spreading best practice in fighting selections, or ensuring more BME candidates arrived at point of selection with enough experience as party office-holders, activists or councillors to make them credible parliamentary candidates, or even for all-BME shortlists inside political parties, rather than calling for the culling of all the MPs who have been there long enough to be at the top of their game.


Anonymous John said...

"This suggestion is profoundly undemocratic. If voters want more than the current 20% turnover of MPs they can do it at general elections by voting out incumbents"

One could equally say that if they want more women they can do it by voting for them, though.

As it happens, I'm unconvinced of the merits of the argument, though as to the point about Ministers, I think it's time to take the Government out of Parliament. They are different jobs.

4:06 pm, February 23, 2009

Anonymous James said...

I agree term limits are stupid, but why not have compulsory open re-selections for Labour MPs - deselecting is too difficult, and it would be far better if remarkable people could 'show up' the current MP - if only to make them get their act together. Surely that'd be the best way of getting rid of the many mediocre, uninspiring, lazy MPs we do have? And profoundly democratic too...

4:10 pm, February 23, 2009

Blogger Luke Akehurst said...

Stephen Twigg proved by getting rid of Bob Wareing that it is possible to deselect.

But there aren't many (any?) MPs as poor as Wareing, or many prospective candidates as good as Stephen.

I don't share your view that we have " many mediocre, uninspiring, lazy MPs". Judged by national profile there are some quiet ones but I've met quite a few of them and learnt over the years that they are often the ones who are quietly doing a really good job for their constituencies, or on a specialist committee or All Party Group, rather than hogging the limelight.

4:22 pm, February 23, 2009

OpenID warelane said...

Without fixed termed Parliaments the idea is a nonsense. Someone elected in 1964 would have had to retire in October 1974.

4:34 pm, February 23, 2009

Blogger Miller 2.0 said...

Luke, you're absolutely right.

People should be able to vote for whatever candidate they want to without silly bits of paper telling them they can't.

5:19 pm, February 23, 2009

Blogger Bill said...

If it was an 8 out of ten rule, or a rule against yay many consecutive parliaments, then it wouldn't be so bad (maybe a spell in the lords?). Anyway, Annual Parliaments would do a much better job of increasing the turn over, so lets argue for that isntead...

5:28 pm, February 23, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's a balance to be had to allow MPs an opportunity to "learn on the job" (though picking ones who were up to the job in the first place might not be such a bad idea...) and having a turnover in personnel and ideas for Government and opposition alike. I think Labour would be in a better position if we had been a little more ruthless in weeding out the deadwood over the past 11 or so years, but I'm not sure term limits is the way for MPs. Interestingly, I would argue that there's a stronger argument for term limits for Mayoral authorities; there's something wrong when local government is losing people of the calibre of Jamie, and maybe we would have been in a better position last May with a different candidate.

5:55 pm, February 23, 2009

Blogger Merseymike said...

It doesn't fit a parliamentary system.

If there was a US style system, maybe

10:58 pm, February 23, 2009

Anonymous Observer's friend said...

Well said, Luke. Of course, if we took Trevor Phillips at his word, would we get some sort of commitment that the next few heads of the Commission for Equalities and Civil Rights would not be male/middle-class/heterosexual/non-disabled/Afro-Caribbean for a set number of terms?

Actually, I'd like to see the next equality chief's appointment based on the best person for the post (not "jobs for the boys" as was the case with Trevor Phillips' appointment).

12:20 am, February 24, 2009

Blogger Robert said...

Brown out without being elected.

8:46 am, February 24, 2009

Blogger Letters From A Tory said...

Trevor Phillips and the Equality brigade should all be thrown out, not MPs. Trevor's interview with the Guardian was disgraceful as he advocated overtly punishing any white person with an education by legislating against them.

How about a meritocracy in Parliament and society, Trevor?

9:42 am, February 24, 2009

Anonymous Dyanne Costello said...

There are a few Cabinet members to whom I would like to give a 20 year term ... preferably with hard labour and no chance of parole!

10:06 am, February 24, 2009

Anonymous tim f said...

Yes, agree with this entire post, Luke. The Trevor Phillips model of success seems to be get as much publicity as you can by floating ideas that will cause controversy, the ideological content or practical application of which matters not an iota. He moves around the political spectrum in the manner of a mountain goat, but he's reliably wrong.

I disagree with compulsory reselections too. Deselection is usually a messy process that divides local parties and destroys their capacity for campaigning, leaving them vulnerable to the Tories. It should only be undergone in extreme circumstances.

11:17 am, February 24, 2009

Anonymous James said...

Luke - Is Twigg really that remarkable and inspiring?
It shouldn't just be about deselection - it'd be great if prospective candidates could challenge existing MPs every 4-5 years, so that we could be sure that we have the very best, most remarkable people in parliament, and so that people from underrepresented groups would at least get more opportunities to contest selections. I think this'd be far more effective than ABMES/AWS, and a lot fairer too. I'd like to see every shortlist containing (from 6) 3 men, 3 women, 1 BME person and 3 people who've not got a university education/work in front-line non-desk-based occupations. I'm sure that this, coupled with compulsory open selections, would hugely diversify the Commons without the need for discriminatory practices such as AWS. It's noteworthy that the Tories have thus far selected more women than us in winnable seats despite not using AWS...

PS. Why are they called PPCs? Surely once selected, they are no longer prospective candidates, they're prospective MPs??

11:26 am, February 24, 2009

Blogger Shamik said...

How about anyone who's on the Parliamentary panel being allowed to put their name forward in any seat - even one's with a current Labour MP - and the membership in that constituency choosing who they wish to have as their candidate.

And by anyone I mean anyone, regardless of their age, sex or colour.

An elderly gentleman has just as much to offer as a young woman and should not be discriminated against in selections.

1:45 pm, February 24, 2009

Anonymous tim f said...

That's a recipe for focussing on internal feuds rather than reaching out to the electorate. If there is a real problem with a sitting MP, there is a mechanism for deselection and recent events have shown that it can happen.

[This may not amuse anyone other than myself, but the word verification is currently "bling"]

3:05 pm, February 24, 2009

Blogger Quink said...

Yes, I'm broadly in agreement. Wouldn't open primaries be a better idea, though? And in council elections too?

7:56 pm, February 24, 2009

Anonymous Rich said...

PC rubbish, if you don't like your MP then we have elections. Rather than waste time and money on such ideas Labour should concentrate of one of the election promises....transparency and honesty.

The cabinets decision to use their veto to delude the electorate is just one of the many things that show this government for what it really is.

9:13 pm, February 24, 2009

Anonymous Rich said...

Maybe rather than come up with other promises that you will never keep you should at least honour your election promise about creating a more transparent government.

Browns decision to veto the release of minutes regarding the invasion of Iraq is just one example of Labour creating a more secretive government.

9:17 pm, February 24, 2009

Blogger Duncan Hall said...

It's interesting to see people on the right essentially looking to rejuvenate mandatory reselection...

9:28 pm, February 24, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"His proposal is also self defeating, as amongst the MPs forced to step down after 4 terms in 2005 or after 20 years in 2007 would have been two of Britain's first four ethnic minority MPs, Keith Vaz and Diane Abbott"

And what a loss they would be!!
Perhaps we would have got another BME/ female hard working MP in Hackney who actually gives a toss about their poor constituents, rather than raking in fees from a media career!!
Likewise the appalling Vazeline.
I gather that after stepping down after 4 terms, they could always come back after a gap, once they've gone back into the real world?

12:21 pm, February 25, 2009

Blogger anonymous said...

I don't see the point of all women shortlists and the like that we have in the Labour party, and I'm a female and a feminist.

Women have almost always voted in greater numbers for the Conservatives rather than Labour, despite us being seen as more progressive on women's issues. Hence I don't see how having more female candidates will bring us more female votes.

I can remember being in a branch of Superdrug and I think it was 1991. An assistant in her fifties was blushing and gushing as if she had just fallen in love and was full of excitement about the fact. She was talking to the manager in his twenties or thirties about how wonderful John Major was and how absolutely lovely he was. The manager looked bemused and so was I as I knew how low wages were for shop assistants in those days and I couldn't see why she would want to support the Tories, but it looked like they had her vote.

I learnt that the women who are voting Tory can often just be in a trance at the site of a lovely, well-dressed and articulate man who would just be want you want as a husband or son etc. The exception to this was Thatcher when she did a great job of justifying people's prejudices and lots of women loved her for it.

It is very sad for me, but some women are very silly, as are some men, and it is not worth the party rejected the best candidate in the vain hope of gaining the votes of these women.

12:47 pm, February 25, 2009

Anonymous tim f said...

There are two, simple, answers to that.

One is that of course it isn't always true on an individual level, but statistically women are more likely to vote for a female Labour candidate than a male Labour candidate.

The second - and more important - is that AWS are there primarily to get more women into parliament, not to gain the votes of women.

3:24 pm, February 25, 2009

Blogger anonymous said...

Oh come off it, if we had any faith in our women candidates getting more votes than our male candidates then there would not be any need for all women shortlists at all because constituencies would be climbing all themselves trying to select women. And we would also be desperate to have a woman as leader to boost us in the polls. As it is, statisically women have been more likely to vote for the more male Conservative party.

It's ridiculous that we insist on so many of our officers for our branches and constituency parties etc being female, especially as we need the best people in the job if we are to win the next election.

I went to meeting some time ago to select a parliamentary candidate. We almost had an AWS. We had to have a number of females going forward and one of them was so dreadful that not one person voted for her. It was just embarrassing and a shame that she prevented some far better men from getting a chance. In the end we had one brilliant woman, but a man just beat her to it.

Why else does it matter about the demographics of parliament unless we want the approval of those demographics in the country?

We just need the best people in the job regardless of gender, race, religion, age and everything else.

5:09 pm, February 25, 2009

Anonymous anonymouse said...

anonymous said ... "We just need the best people in the job regardless of gender, race, religion, age and everything else."

... and everything else? A moral backbone might come in handy just once in a while!

2:42 pm, February 26, 2009

Blogger Jason Weakley said...

As a non-British citizen, I obviously have no say in this discussion, but would only like to point out that you are correct to say that term limits is not democratic. It is in fact republican, a side effect of the American Revolution, and the Federalist Papers. The idea of term limits is in response to the corruption of principles held by U.S. President George Washington, and his contemporaries who sincerely believed in the example of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. And so if you are not inclined to republican ideals, then very well, you are entitled to your government. I choose however to live in a country that is still fighting to keep its government in check from the abuses of power and loose financial promiscuity.

1:03 am, March 25, 2009


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