HC Deb 11 May 2004 vol 421 cc157-60 12.35 pm
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the direct election of the Prime Minister; to require such elections to be held on the same day as a General Election; to make consequential provision in relation to the office and powers of the Prime Minister; to make consequential amendments to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000; and for connected purposes. This Bill—the last great extension of the franchise—would symbolise our democratic maturity, convert our Parliament from an electoral college into a legislature and legalise an Executive currently built on smoke and mirrors. Stop me if you have heard this before, Mr. Speaker, but the prime ministership aver many decades has evolved into an accidental presidency. The result is a dysfunctional democracy, in which power is over-concentrated, over-centralized and under-controlled. Our democracy is out of balance and dangerously short on popular consent and participation.

More than two years ago, I introduced a Bill to codify and legalise the massive, unwritten powers of the prime ministership. The Bill I introduce today goes one step further: it seeks to make the Prime Minister directly elected by the British people. I base the Bill on the simple principle that in a democracy anyone who exercises serious political power should be elected by the people.

The Bill represents a reality check for the British constitution—the emperor has no election. That realisation ends the laughable self deception and the comforting myths of parliamentary sovereignty—that, somehow, the Prime Minister exercises power only by consent of Parliament, and that the Executive is under the control of the legislature. While my proposal seems revolutionary in this place, it is commonplace in most other democracies. Indeed, were, for example, the US or French chief executives to seek power without direct elections, it would be not only risible but illegal. Only in Britain—the last country in the empire—are the natives still not trusted to make this, the most important of political choices.

Even from Labour Members, I have been surprised to hear that the electorate cannot be trusted with a direct election. It is argued that they might elect some television celebrity—arguments that once found a voice in this Chamber from those who argued against votes for women and the working classes. They were not to be trusted to make the key decisions in their political lives.

Such a settlement is not directed at the current incumbent. Were we allowed to elect a Prime Minister, I would work to ensure, as I have done before, that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would be our candidate. He is by a mile the best unelected President we have, and would be by a mile the best directly elected Prime Minister we could have. The Bill is not about personality—it is about power. It recognises that the power of the key office in the British state has grown inexorably, without the design or intention of its occupant, in response to the demands and pressures on the British Government. That power does not need to be weakened, but it needs to be held properly to account. Self-evidently, that cannot be done through a Parliament that is controlled by the Executive, as was demonstrated last year when we were unable even to recall ourselves to debate the Iraq war. That power was held by the very office that we sought to discuss and to influence. It must, therefore, be made accountable to the British people by direct election, and that is what the Bill will do.

The Bill recognises that the British prime ministership has turned into a colossus; it is the only game in town. There is no office like it in the western world. No other democracy has one person at the head of Government, and in control of the party and the legislature. All political jobs, patronage, policy and image come from the same source—all are without effective democratic scrutiny or ratification. No other Head of Government in a western democracy has so much control and so many rewards and honours to give out.

Almost everything in British politics and the state now happens by the will of the prime ministership. A small and diminishing band believes fondly that we control that power when we elect a Parliament, yet in reality, barring the occasional electoral fluke, Parliament is rarely able to scrutinise the use of prime ministerial power, let alone temper or modify it. Such is the power of the institution that those parliamentarians who tried to influence policy on Iraq were told that we could do so only by threatening to end the prime ministership itself. As in 1640, Parliament was told, "Raise your standard and kill the king if you dare". The same was true of the rebellions over the poll tax and, more recently, over foundation hospitals and tuition fees.

Power is now so concentrated in No. 10 that Parliament cannot challenge policy without challenging the prime ministership itself. That is playground politics. We all know that there has to be a better way—a way that ends monopoly politics and does not fear, but revels in, other political institutions as partners and equals, adding value to the legitimate concerns and responsibilities of the prime ministership.

We are heading towards record low turnout for the European and local elections, and no doubt afterwards we shall come to this place and sagely talk about "disengagement from politics", "voter apathy" and, perhaps, about a new set of tricks: voting at 16, voting by text message, all-postal ballots, voting at weekends or voting in supermarkets. The cure for voter apathy is not to make voting easier, but to make it more worth while—above all by voting for the most important office in British politics.

The Bill would automatically double the worth and value of voting—it is a two-for-one offer. Instead of voting for an MP simply as a proxy for a Prime Minister—a member of a prime ministerial electoral college whose useful political life is extinguished within 24 hours, once their nominee goes to the palace—voters would choose an MP to represent them or their community and, separately, elect the best person to be our country's Prime Minister. With an independent mandate from their electors, MPs will regain the authority and confidence to do the job they cannot do now, which is, as Gladstone said,

not to run the country but to hold to account those who do". Parliament would cease to be the world's most sophisticated political prison and would become an independent legislature, with its own life separate from Government. There would be two valid independent viewpoints in politics: a separation of Executive and legislature, maturely cohabiting, debating and reconciling, even if the prime ministership and Parliament happened to be held by different parties. People will participate and people will vote if politics is repatriated to them and to their directly elected representatives and no longer confined to the incestuous relationship between No. 10 and its media courtiers.

We cannot go on asking people to vote for a myth. That is what we do now, when we ask people to pretend that they are voting for a sovereign Parliament, in control of the Executive, the arbiter of our nation's fate. This Bill, or something like it, will appear in some party's manifesto some time, just as inevitably as allowing the people to vote for a constitution has done in recent weeks. It would do many things: it would make an honest man or woman out of every future Prime Minister; it would create a free, independent Parliament; and it would revive political interest and make voting meaningful again—but, above all, it would be the last great extension of the franchise, standing in the long, proud history of my party—a democratic coming of age, enabling the British people directly to elect, for the first time, their own political leader.

12.45 pm
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con)

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) is to be congratulated on introducing this thought-provoking, but ultimately terrifying Bill—for if it were to become law, the last current Prime Minister will have achieved his final objective: to become President Blair in reality. With that, we should no doubt see Blair Force 1 replacing the Queen's Flight and a presidential coat of arms flying over No. 10 Downing street, or perhaps even Buckingham palace—who knows? Presidential decree would replace Cabinet government—but then what is new?

We already know that the decision to hold a referendum on the European constitution was made without any reference at all to the Cabinet, but the hon. Gentleman knows all that. Back in November 2001, he published "The Last Prime Minister: Being Honest about the UK Presidency", in which he says, as he said today, that a presidency has arrived in our nation in all but name. However, I oppose the principle of an elected Prime Minister. It would give additional legitimacy to the confused state of affairs that we already suffer under today, and it would sit uneasily and uncomfortably with the parliamentary democracy that we enjoy and which, in itself, forms part of a constitutional monarchy.

Our parliamentary system is not compatible with a nationally elected Head of Government. First, with the principle of primus inter pares, the Prime Minister—any Prime Minister—must enjoy the confidence of his or her party. Without that, no British political leader in government—and, yes, in opposition too—can or should survive. The appointment of a leader who does not enjoy the overwhelming support of his or her parliamentary party is doomed to failure. In that connection, I would dearly love to be a fly on the wall at meetings of the parliamentary Labour party—particularly so after 10 June.

So, do we wish to change the nature of our parliamentary democracy to become some sort of hybrid between a parliamentary and presidential system? I would argue no. Such a change, like the botched half-changes in the Lords, would simply be for change's sake. The Lords, now packed with cronies, is a less effective and less democratic place than ever before.

Would powers be vested in such a new Prime Minister to veto legislation of which he did not approve, as can be done in France and the United States—two examples given by the hon. Gentleman? The Prime Minister, under this scheme, would have an authority all his own. Where would that sit with the primacy of Parliament? What if a charismatic Prime Minister were elected from a party different from the majority party in Parliament?

Could cohabitation, as the French call it, work here? The Assemble Nationale in Paris has no powers except those that the President is pleased to grant it. The President of the United States enjoys powers of veto similar to those enjoyed by British monarchs until the mid-17th century, but there is a clear difference, which the hon. Gentleman ignored in his speech. Both the French and US Presidents are not only Heads of Government, but Heads of State. Our Head of State, however, is Her Majesty the Queen, and long may she continue to reign over us.

The Bill would weaken parliamentary institutions already weakened by this Government as power continues to ebb towards Downing street. It would weaken the role of the monarch as the ultimate protector of our people. Worst of all, until recently it would have meant, if the polls are to be believed, that all that power would be vested in the present Prime Minister. How comfortable would the Labour party, let alone the rest of the nation, be with that? An elected Prime Minister would weaken democracy, not strengthen it. The proposal would weaken the Commons Chamber, not strengthen it. The beneficiaries will be not our people and their legislature, but the Executive in Whitehall and its chief executive and Head of State, the newly elected Prime Minister—our own President Blair. Just think, it might even have been President Alastair Campbell. Either way, I oppose the motion.

Question put and negatived.